Sex and war. Drugs and blues. Beauty and atrocity. One of the most common adjectives in Andrea Jurjević’s first collection, Small Crimes, is “stained.” These poems “wear man’s smudge,” as Hopkins writes. Having come of age amid the dissolution of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars of independence, with a painter’s eye and a dense music almost restless within the confines of English, Jurjević evokes the beauty and desolation of her home, Croatia, and of her equally troubled love life. Stunningly rich and original descriptions abound in these landscapes and love-scapes.
At the heart of the collection, wedged in the middle of the middle section, the title poem, “Small Crimes,” is typical in its layering of textured sounds and images, of the present and the past—the personal layered over the historical.
Close attention is paid to scene and landscape, with an eye for blemish and subdued violence. The sounds are thick, the lines taut and heavy:
A fence angled like a broken jaw,
mildew on rocks otherwise porcelain-white.
Blackthorns squat and daisies sway . . .
. . . the dieseled patchworks in caramel and bile:
flattened wheat and hops vines, empty hayracks.
Later in the same poem, we have a segue into memory, making “here there” (as the speaker says in “Would It Surprise You I Don’t Like Mornings”):
I leave the door open, seats stained, worn smooth
like the ones in your car where last fall
I’d leaned toward you behind the wheel.
We have a second-person address to an absent lover, who, even when “had,” was out of reach:
You stirred, semi-vigilant as I snapped the white buttons
on your shirt, undid the equator of your belt,
ducked from the eyes of people pushing carts . . .
There is sex, darkness, and concealment:
And as the last sprays of sunlight slid down
the hood of the sky, you shielded my black hair,
your hands familiar with churned earth,
and what it takes in the tucked back of a parking lot
to absolve a peopled afternoon of a small crime
and keep it hidden, keep it safe.
Given that this is Croatia in the 1990s, there’s no way not to hear “war crimes” in “small crimes,” or “absolve a people” in “absolve a peopled afternoon.” (The subtext here is what the speaker in “Hotel Scandanavia,” the following poem, calls “our balkanized reality.”) As her lover makes an ironic gesture of absolution, the speaker does whatever she can to keep things going, even in their “fallen state.” In the background, a mountain’s . . .
bare peaks jabbing the shifting sky
are what’s left of its fallen state,
that, thick at its base, extends to the fields,
the lead-footed cattle.
In Small Crimes, dissipated lovers reflect the state’s instability. Though neither union can be salvaged, the speaker attends to them, and to their memory, while she can. That much she can help. Along with Lynda Hull, whose epigraph presides over the collection, one is reminded somewhat of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
The speaker’s remembering is a protest in itself. The law of this tumultuous land is to forget, to cover up what the twentieth century has visited upon the Balkans. The speaker’s grandmother, Nona, embodies the loss. From “Would It Surprise You I Don’t Like Mornings”:
No one spoke about the ruin, no one mentioned her two boys
found in the woods, slaughtered with partisans,
their oldest brother sniped while passing a window
in his room at the general hospital. No one remembered
her first husband’s name, or the name of the neighbor
who called him out at 5 a.m., then returned two hours later
for coffee and grappa she had to offer, her Italian husband
prostrate in a grove, executed with other suspected
Fascists. No one talked about how that was the house
Germans bombed and how that morning the shadows
must have been audible moments before the planes . . .
At the end of the poem, the speaker’s pulled away from Nona’s ruins, turning toward the crux of the personal, the sexual.
Then the silence. Like our secrecy. They say joy is a choice
but no one mentions victims. So, hushed it stays. Back home
you spread, almost asleep. I make here there, glide over
your forbidden back and lip the scar under your ear. We do this
each night, never let the daylight see it. Victims ruin it.
As some Americans have figured out during these first months of the Trump administration, an entrenched atmosphere of volatility and bleakness can drive the psyche inward, collecting itself around memory and desire. A safe space, a disobedience. This poem’s turn—to the present, to the lover-addressee—pivots on “secrecy”: the family’s like these adulterous lovers. The inescapable irony is how transgression gets internalized: the lovers carrying on a long tradition of complicity, of “small crimes,” neglectful of “victims.”
Jurjević’s Small Crimes gives voice and vent to female suffering even as it’s hung up in its causes. Before Nona, in the proem “For Yugoslavia’s More Fortunate Ones,” we meet a Roma girl whose “premenstrual pussy” her brother, “arms linked” with her, offers “to passersby.” That girls and women are equated with their “cunt” is presented here as a fact of life, with little to-do and with none of the fashionable dripping irony or sass. Some will find this crass. It’s a valuable challenge.
Still, the speaker’s in a gender trap. Her female subjects are just as much acted-upon objects— she defined by him. Nona, by her husbands and sons. The speaker’s “throat” is the Istanbul her foreign lover “comes through” in “You Came Here Through Istanbul”; her hair, going down on the lover in “Small Crimes,” is “churned earth” in his rustic fingers. This gendered symbolism might be more vexing if it weren’t also so tragic: “Inexcusable, really, the voltage in the mud-spatter of your eyes as you / dive down, away from reason, ram into the barren valley of my bones,” she says in “More Ferarum” (Latin for doggy style). This is not a fertile valley, but rather Ezekiel’s “valley of dry bones,” Eliot’s Wasteland.
The lover’s “[i]nexcusable” retreat into vice is one of several places where the speaker, despite her fatalistic attachments, condemns men. There’s an uncle’s “treachery” of disowning his “rolling Slavic tongue” (“Too Educated”), a demagogic rebel’s “mindless” misogyny and rape, UN peacekeepers who “hold drinks better than peace” (“In the Absence of Grass”).
All of this might help explain why our speaker is so invested in place. Consider this exquisitely “stained” description of her island home, from “In the Absence of Grass”:
Other than cypress columns, macchia and dried condoms
there isn’t much interesting. Papier-mâché cliffs
are flecked with gull scat, the sea tarp is still, and the sky
an apron sunk in dishwater. An odd tourist
sprawls on gravel like sourdough on a baker’s slab,
flies court figs, the cracked-nipple fruit leaks,
and the fallen, tar-black flesh stinks of cheap wine.
Like the land, the women in her world are ravished, annexed, deserted. In “Aubade with the Marking Scent of Tobacco, Sweat, Sores,” gardening old women “squat, the wings of their pelvises / low and wide as in childbirth.” They “understand, / embody, short-lived positions” and “never forget” . . .
. . . how the dogs yelped
while men’s diamond-shaped hands
pawed across their small, walnut-like breasts,
pressed their backs against farmhouses,
marked slim tulip signets.
As these landscapes are invested with damage and violence, so these women are impassively “marked.” The active, predatory, always-present “hands” of men, meanwhile, “paw,” hunt, and murder.
In the third and final section of the book, the speaker, having moved to America, falls for an earthy Southerner who introduces her to the Deep South and the blues. He’s artsy, shadowy, unavailable: familiar trouble. With its brutal backdrop, sexual frankness, and wariness of “ruthless tomorrows” (“Memphis Aubade”) in this “blunt unlife” (“Dissolution”), Small Crimes is a kind of blues. From “Bluesman Wept and Midnight Couldn’t Hide It”:
. . . We’re denned
in a borrowed one-bedroom, incognito, for a night
of wine-soggy Dixie cups and Meet Me in the City,
that, thick as condensed milk, drags along floorboards,
the morphine-white couch. And the blues—unpolished,
and sore—snags, like stockings, and stumbles like tongues
still new to each other. The backslide of the bass’s drone
charges like packs of mourning buffalo—that steady,
pitiless earth-sway, Junior Kimbrough tears into Please
don’t leave … and as he keeps repeating his small words,
and you clutch my neck pink, give way to wolf-panting,
midnight clasps us to itself, tightens the moon in its cold jaw.
Sometimes Jurjević’s descriptions get clotted: too many similes and adjectives, particularly compound adjectives. Sometimes the sense behind the detail gets away from the poet.
Another challenge to the daintier reader is that our “square / skeptic” (“Skeptic’s Prayer”) has no time for the “drama” of redemption. From “Early War Years”:
The soccer field gaped vacant and stubbly, the sea
tight-lipped. I’m not sure during which blackout
the old woman pulled the rosary out, but there it was,
on top of the folk music of patriotism, more drama.
Her lovers are zombie-like, their eyes “vacant” (“Crows’ Voices”) “opium holes” (“When At Moonlight You Knock on My Door”). Their dry bones might be assembled, but there’s no breath, no spirit in them—it’s only a trick of “side-casting moonlight” (“More Ferarum”). In this way, their eyes will always recall the “hollow-drum eyes” of mass-murdered Bosnians. The moving poem “Men in Camps” pays homage to two great poets of native landscapes, Seamus Heaney and Natasha Trethewey:
The world tried to find you on the map, maybe.
It’s as if you slipped through some fault line, except
you did—dropped into pits, after squads fired in shifts.
. . .
your thin rooted arms, the fingers parched veins
of juniper, beech, needles of Bosnian Pine. The tilt
of your dried-moss heads wedged low in collarbones,
your turtled backs under sashed wrists: rope,
torn cloth, copper wire now loose. The missing.
Your hollow-drum eyes glare from behind blindfolds,
don’t look up, or down . . .
What faith there is is in language. While this should be true for any poetry, Jurjević’s reliance on the colors, textures and patterns of the verbal medium is critical. From “Back When I Knew How to Speak”:
Every time I’d utter a syllable
. . .
[g]enerally in a low firm tone,
and regardless of the weather,
the World Cup Finals,
or barba Joška in the courtyard
ever-replacing rusted bolts
on his skinny bicycle
while Mrs. Tomić would preen violets,
petunias, smooth her varicose veins,
like a ten-ton truck
storming through a tunnel,
I’d rise above giant TV antennas,
white laundry clapping
like manic gloved hands,
over chipped terracotta roofs,
above the Kvarner Bay
and the Istrian peninsula.
Above the curfews, air raids, blackouts, sadistic ethnic and misogynistic violence, and the death of the speaker’s father, Jurjević’s lyric rises. For a moment, anyway. The poem comes to rest in a “dump”:
piles of unanswered and unsent notes--
stacked tall like stained toilet seats:
some playful couplets, horny invites,
a careful thank-you-but-no.
As the lawlessness of adolescence merges with the upheaval of the state, the speaker explores her island with new eyes, as it were. The island of Krk is now surreally empty of tourists. Curious, anxious of impending change, she spooks a “black snake / that, when disturbed, glides into the shrubs.” In a cove she finds a sea-bleached animal skull.
. . . The sea-drift has polished,
bleached nearly, her hornless elongated head
into the smoothness of a porcelain urn.
And in their sleekness, their bride-like whiteness,
there’s nothing to tell the grief of those bones.
Noble, like the world’s first ghost, she holds on
to no struggle, except her stained teeth protrude
into this blunt unlife, her last motionless bite
as the sea and the hollow karst go on with their needs,
the water’s constant back-and-forth, the dissolution.
Here lies innocence: female, long-gone, “like the world’s first ghost.” Only on the other side of this checkered life is anything truly “noble.” With “nothing to tell” its grief, this remnant of the feminized body echoes Nona and all that the land has endured. But the speaker can’t linger. Like Auden’s dogs going on “with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / [scratching] its innocent behind on a tree” (from “Musée des Beaux Arts”), “the sea and the hollow karst go on with their needs.” And so does she.
Originally from Alabama, AUSTIN SEGREST now lives and teaches in Wisconsin. His poems can be found in The Yale Review, The Threepenny Review, Image, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Blackbird, and New England Review.
Small Crimes. By Andrea Jurjević. Anhinga Press, 2017.