Book Review

I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
—Czeslaw Milosz, “Dedication”

Mario Susko is a Croatian poet and translator living in the United States as a result of the Bosnian war. His displacement, however, has created new fortunes. Susko has written and published many collections in English along with volumes in Croatian, and in 2012 he was named the Long Island Poet of the Year by the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association as well as elected to the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts. The circumstances behind his prolific bilingual career and cosmopolitan accolades, though, derive from the fact that he is a survivor and a witness of a war that started in the early 1990s and, as his volumes of poems attest, has no end for those who survive it.

The Final Take is part of the Poetry Salzburg Pamphlet Series, an unassuming but appropriate vehicle for these poems. In this volume, there are three immediately discernible coordinates: memory, waiting, and time. Like many other trinities, these large abstractions are three aspects of one thing. They are recombinant coordinates that continually reconstellate around an invisible center. The center around which these poems wheel is the eye of the witness of a war that has been declared over and has since slunk from the light of experience and into the shadows of historical events.

Susko knows something about the machinations that turn events into history and concerns himself with what occurred “Before, they copied history, changing / They said, a word order here and there.” Where the historical record conforms to a narrative that can be easily understood, leaving out incidents that don’t make sense within its legible framework, Susko’s poems resist this sort of obfuscation in an attempt to preserve both what happened and how it is remembered by those who experienced the events. As a result, the story and the meaning, the cause, never become quite as clear in the poems as they do in history books, and the future is much harder to distinguish from the past. The poet’s desire “to turn / a new leaf” acknowledges that “whatever had been read out was / to be carried on.” Conversion is balanced by commemoration and, laboring under this paradox, the poet’s attempt to “improvise salvation” finds that “the sense of veracity [is] met with acts of voracity.” Truth is devoured by time. Tempus edax rerum. Tick tock.

The pulse and impulse in these poems is to remember. But what separates the compulsion to memorialize from the compulsion of severe trauma? Perhaps nothing. Susko knows too well that “to circumscribe a circle / is not to make a revolution dream // of evolution.” In “The Question of Repetition,” an intimate interlocutor complains to the poet, “You repeat yourself in your stories /And that brings back only the hurt.”  The alternative, though, as the poet points out apologetically, is the interlocutor’s casual silence, a disappearance before the disappearance of the interlocutor that triggers larger incidents of loss:

Well, I repeat myself, I tried to reason
In silence, waiting for you to appear,
Having washed off memory from your face,
But I do that not to forget my self.

In the echo of these lines is the memory of a mother’s prodding to get up out of bed: “It’s time to get up, up, / and don’t make me repeat that”; it becomes a command to transcend the war and its horrors in order to move on. But that impossibility only leaves the poet with eyes closed, “listening / to the clock’s minute plates flip the time.”

The poet cannot simply forget and move on, nor can he return to what has happened. The attempt to do so reveals how memory gets dislocated and replaced during war:

I could not
Have known that as I stood alone,
At the same spot, in what was once
My garden, a figure coming toward me,
Yelling: Hey you, are you blind or what,
Read the fucking sign: No Trespassing.

The poet’s recollection intrudes on what the place has since become. We realize along with the poet that to “repeat myself” so as “not to forget my self” may mean that “life in the end proves / to be the mind’s optical illusion.” The terrible solution then becomes “to push my children / out of the picture, / before the shutter / discharge[s] the flash.” The poet internalizes his mother’s warning—“don’t make me repeat that”—and tries to keep his children out of a cycle that he himself cannot escape.

But the book does not leave us trapped by these displaced circumlocutions. As an act of witness, the book exists in “the auxiliary time of being,” outside the temporal confines that the poems adroitly evoke. The poems are spoken from a place that is unmoored from time and its devastations yet purgatorial and dreamlike in its suspension: “You always wanted to dream / After you had woken up.” This dream that the poet hopes to wake into is the dream of an ending, of “having ended once for all.”

In The Final Take, Susko seeks to record something that puts to rest the aftereffects of having survived, making out of poetry a kind of prolepsis that fills the void of an apocalyptic delay. And so the poems trudge toward a horizon that rips across the skyline like a mass grave as the attempts at memorializing, at making things appear by keeping time, ultimately falter: “Then you disappeared, that is / what happens in wars.” Finally, it is disappearance itself that appears in the wake of these vanishings.


About the Reviewer

Tim Wood is the author of the book of poems Otherwise Known as Home (BlazeVOX, 2010) and coeditor of The Hip Hop Reader (Longman, 2008). An associate professor of English at Nassau Community College in New York, he will be a Fulbright scholar next year in Tuebingen, Germany.