Reviewed by Mary Austin Speaker
Ana Bozicevic was born in Croatia and emigrated to New York City when she was 19. Although it is dangerous to make presumptions about the way one’s biography inflects their poetry, I think it’s helpful to consider the conditions of Ana Bozicevic’s native country when she left it. Croatia’s is a history of conflict in which voices speak over each other. Stars of the Night Commute, the author’s first collection of poems, suggests that since her emigration she has been learning how to write her own history while rejecting the very idea of writing history. Bozicevic’s poems offer a record of a mind continually working against an understandable past. They are non-narrative yet intimate. They are, at times, scenic, although the rooms she creates are not the actual rooms of the poem, but they may in fact be the rooms that you yourself have waited in. Say the room has a table with a white table cloth. This could be any room, but the way Ana Bozicevic directs our attention to the tablecloth suggests that this room exists for everyone. We are constantly going back to it and yet we never know exactly what we are waiting for. Everyone has one of these rooms. Ana writes, sometimes, from this room.
Fanny Howe has written of bewilderment as both poetics and ethics—a bewilderment born of “an irreconcilable set of imperatives. . . a double bind established in childhood” that results, inevitably, in uncertainty. If Fanny Howe has carved out a space for a poetics that is ultimately unquantifiable, and which offers a practice of living and writing as a way of revering the unexplainable, Ana Bozicevic’s poems certainly participate in this tradition. She achieves bewilderment through abrupt shifts in syntax and tone (this reader’s favorite being the excited address of a nostril, that humblest of body parts), as well as a stubborn refusal of the power of accepted beauty. Light, birds, each of these are teased, off-handedly rejected, just as they are reclaimed—but it is the poet’s attention—not the inherent characteristic of the thing itself— which defines the beautiful— how the thing itself is seen, and Ana Bozicevic’s book understands the fickleness of a bewildered attention.
Bewilderment is not lamented— it is celebrated in all its raw, staccato energy. The poems in Stars of the Night Commute disrupt, they bother, they tease, they nudge and cajole and apostrophe. We are not to be hypnotized (although some poems are inarguably gorgeous). We are not to fall lamely under a sonorous spell (although some poems use sound masterfully to prick our ears). We are supposed to pay attention, and if we don’t recognize what’s been placed in front of us, she’s betting on the fact that we have, regardless, understood a mood, a tone, a something, and that, without the architecture of more linear poetry, is exactly what makes her work an experience unto itself. Her poems laugh at themselves, and they laugh at you. They also weep at themselves and weep at you. And complain and instruct and adore and puzzle.
The poems of Stars of the Night Commute play with our notions of the utterable. How does one convey beauty without commodifying it, betraying it? How does one write about violence, even war, without betraying them? Perhaps one has to obliterate in order to build something new. Or perhaps one simply has to provide enough disruption along the way so as to offer meaning in discrete packages— like chapbooks.
M.L. Rosenthal’s Genius of the Poetic Sequence posited in 1986 that the sequence was ultimately poetry’s most lasting and vital form, and the steady growth in critical attention to the chapbook in recent years might very well confirm Rosenthal’s supposition. Ana Bozicevic’s work seems to grasp this notion implicitly—most of her book was presented first as a series of chapbooks, each with a discrete tone, endeavor, subject, and the poems themselves often operate this way as well. Why not try a poetics that allows for the outcome to be at turns musical, spastic, unpredictable, thrilling? The drama of how a tone offers its subject can be, it would appear, a shield against a subject’s perceived (tired) meaning. Ana Bozicevic’s poems are punctuated by exclamation points in unexpected places, wrinkled with asides from the poem’s recesses, and even deliberately broken up by words that have lost meaning due to overuse and overkill. This dance between the things of the obviously poetic— birds, light, small animals— and the things of the pedestrian life— VHS tapes, has-beens, commuters— serves the poet well to provide enough static for the reader to understand Stars of the Night Commute as a thing very much of the world in which we live. It acts out claim at the book’s outset, that the poem “can no longer be remote.”
So how is intimacy expressed amid this cacophony of things? It springs from the same place we find intimacy in our daily lives. Often over the course of this collection, the poems resemble scraps culled from a conversation between two people, each of whom expects something of the other and in this way the book itself is sort of like an eclogue— one voice perpetually interrogating the other— but the voices switch roles, obliterating a graspable sense of a speaker, yet never evading a sense of expectation— indeed, intimacy does not exist apart from expectation. Reading Stars of the Night Commute offers a paradoxical reading experience—a tone that suggests an uneasy, cajoling vulnerability is coupled with a syntax which at turns holds the reader at bay (like one who has only just approached an ongoing conversation) and invites her in with the sudden slowing of attention that provides the opportunity for a peculiar, personal music that is at once apart from and very much surrounded by the world:
(O traveler. Grey star.
From your hat, when you upend it,
your small family upturn their faces.)
What is expectation in a book of poems? Ana Bozicevic might deny that she sets up any expectation at all. Or she might view expectation as an opportunity for subversion, a kind of poetic bait-and-switch that diverts the reader’s attention with the spectacle of humor, ridiculousness, jokes, while sneaking in the things that are most difficult to say, or even opening up opportunities for us to discover them ourselves. This sidling up, this inadvertent conveyance of meaning allows us to participate in the author’s bewilderment, to experience the world the way we do when we have just grasped a joke— the moment of recognition, the psychological sense of inclusion, the bubble of laughter making its way to the surface.