Saturday, March 6, 2010

What to Make of Such Beauty? Straight from THE ALCHEMIST'S KITCHEN

I fell in love with Sarajevo and by extension, Bosnia Herzegovina in 1996 and 1997 when I worked there as an electoral supervisor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In 2007, I returned to Sarajevo and Mostar to give a series of readings and learn first hand of the changes in the country in the ten years since the war. My belief in the people and culture of this small country continues. I very much hope to return again. Lejla, who is quoted in the poem, was my interpreter in 1996 and continues to live in Sarajevo today with her husband and daughter.

This poem takes as its subject the burning of the  National Library. Above is a photograph taken during the war. Below, an image of the building today.

What to Make of Such Beauty?

         The attack lasted less than half an hour. Approximately 1,200,000 books and 600 sets of periodicals were destroyed,
         ---- Kemal Bakarsic, Librarian

The next day along the streets of Sarajevo
scorched pieces of paper

fluttered like a strange snow.

Peel one scrap from the sky
call it hope and an urgent message

appears ---and for one moment ---

a new form of God pentimento.
Turkish, Hebrew, and Bosnian texts ... 

Desire lit in the arabesque of black, besotted alphabets ---

until the warmth of the lines
recede and the magic letters fall like trash ~

fingers chalked in the floating literatures of grief.

Yet, the hardest part Lejla says
is to not live within such burning,

not breathe in the pages of our indestructible history.


  1. The poem is exquisite. Thanks, Susan.

    A little off subject, but here is a poem I adore I'm sure you know.

    Walter Pavlich 1993


    The last animal

    in the Sarajevo Zoo

    a bear

    died of starvation

    because the leaves

    had fallen

    from the trees


    the air was

    getting colder

    so the snipers

    could more easily see

    the few remaining people

    who were trying to

    feed it.

    Walter Pavlich is the author of several books including Ongoing Portraits, a pushcart Writer's Choice Selection, and Running Near the End of the World, which won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award of the San Francisco Foundation and the Edwin Ford Piper Award of the University of Iowa Press. He's been Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Hawaii, and has taught in various settings, including three state prisons. Individual poems have appeared in this country and abroad--from The Atlantic Monthly to ZYZZYVA. His newest book of poetry is The Spirit of Blue Ink from Swan Scythe Press.

  2. Beautiful poem, Susan. Such a tragedy...

  3. Susan, I love that poem... I'm stretching this a bit but I think I can envision how you could fall in love with Sarajevo. Of all the Olympic games, I most enjoyed the Winter games in ‘84 in Sarajevo and a large part was because besides the coverage of the events, back then there was a lot more human interest stories about the people of the host city. They were fascinating stories and beautiful people. My wife and I recall those games well and have often found it hard to reconcile with all the pain and suffering that has come to the region since.

    Thank you for sharing the poem.

  4. Micheal,
    Thanks for this. The people of Sarajevo actually believed because the world had fallen in love with their city during the Olympic games, the world would not stand by and watch the city be destroyed. Unfortunately, they were wrong...Glad you like the poem -- I think I have four Bosnian poems in this collection...