Zero Readership, an Epic by Filip Marinovich
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, NY, 2008)
A book-length poem in two parts which visits and revisits Belgrade in the decade following the political conflicts encountered by the former Yugoslav states throughout the 1990’s, Zero Readership presents an unsentimental journey through the trials of the Yugoslavian people throughout the 20th century’s bloody final chapter, a journey made all the more compelling when told through the perspective of the speaker’s own family.
Among the book’s haunting figures is “Gramma Nada,” introduced to the reader early on with the stark description: “four black suitcases against the china cupboard/ ORIGIN in white lettering down their sides.” “Ancestor ancestor,” asks the speaker, “What is an ancestor?” This poem, entitled “Extended Family Voices,” also houses the elliptical couplet “elephant/welcome,” embracing the time-honored symbol for ancestral memory—and the importance to species survival thereof.
As if a global abduction has occurred, the need to know where we are going, individually and collectively, permeates, as does a world-weary, often childlike tone: “I use these crayons without naming the colors they give./ What crayons? If I’d named them I would now remember where I placed them/ for safekeeping. Crayon safety is important in this cave.” “Grampa Mercy” as well as Gramma Nada give birth to contradiction—lines such as “Mercy will kill me” arrive unexpectedly, as do meditations on infinite space: “ . . . rhythm is a distant planet beyond Jupiter it sometimes flickers/ in my science fair telescope. I will orbit it only if I can/ whirl my way off this balcony and find water in space to baptize/ myself Zero Gravity Trombone . . .” The speaker sometimes adopts Nada’s voice, to return the narrative closer to the actual scene of Eastern Europe: “You are not my husband Mercy you are my father Joy and I am your daughter/ Nada Seadweller. We escaped civil war by dumb luck, a fluke when Freedom/ could have ordered his men to shoot. Our people were ready in the national/ bank with Kalashnikovs loaded . . . Let’s pack and reminisce how/ my brother Dear Owleye worked Alexanderplatz blackmarket after the war.”
The devastation of Belgrade is the book’s thematic center, yet historical references are traced back further, to the “liberation” of Belgrade in 1944. Alongside decades of flying artillery shells and a profound trauma and literal dislocation beyond what most American-born citizens (and poets) could ever imagine, the simplicity of the speaker’s invocations remain adamantine: “I wish to praise her. She’s sick and I’m using her for my muse./ Is this sick of me? True Muse, please DO sing in me/ that I may stop using other people for their language/ their strange Belgrade speech.” Stanzas of truly startling beauty arise from the ashes of decimation: “I am thy father’s lyric/ doomed for a certain time to feed you lines/ when you dry and corpse and fly on wires/ above my white prompter robe.”
Zero Readership does not avoid the horrific subject of radioactive warfare, particularly the depleted uranium bombing by NATO in ‘99—a “fatal souvenir/ you may find blooming in you/ tomorrow or in 2 or 20 years,” in a “once/ ecological paradise” turned “birthing place[s] for/ two-headed children.” Here, the speaker abandons verse altogether, not an issue for readers who appreciate splices of documentary poetics in collections otherwise lyrical in conception: “The Serbs made tanks out of wood and the Americans/ bombed the hell out of the wooden tanks but the uranium went/ into the ground it will leave in 7,000 years don’t worry/ nobody reports about that but history and statistics will show/ what happened. The planes bombed funerals in progress,/ hospitals full of civillains, cornfields in Vojvodina/ where farmers had to go in groups to pick the harvest/ or starve.”
Readers whose defense mechanisms against criticism of American culture or public policy are reflexive should skip whole sections of Zero Readership, such as the excerpt “Student Interlude 2” from “Extended Family Voices 2” (an excerpt): “Despite the uranium/ in our food and water/ we are happier here/ in Belgrade/ than all of you in America/ dying a death by surplus—/ A HEAP OF/ SURPLUS GOODS/ BURYING YOU/ and your senses—” Painful indeed, to contrast the relative ease of a privileged American upbringing with that of Zorana, who “stayed up doing her math homework . . . by tomahawk green light/ flashes/ in her window and learned algebra in dust swinging up from Belgrade concrete . . a curious mixture of blood, bombs,/ and human feet.”
Regardless of this book’s readership (zero, or the world), it’s difficult not to stand in awe of a poet who marries a line such as “corpses/ killed for nafta, black market oil diluted brown in soda liter bottles,/ filling our cars/ lined up for/ for miles in May fuel shortage blaze,” with this one: “I am the poem doctor when I tap your poem’s knee with my rubber hammer/ you scream/ and jerk it till we’re ready for ecstasy.”
Zero Readership relates the unification of language to the cessation of war, and the glossolaliac contortions of language to hope, by suggesting that cannibalistic and eucharistic ceremonies are non-oppositional sides of the same desire for consummation:
and where you can dine on my body
the blood speaks complete sentences in my ears.
here blood speaks complete sentences in my ears.”
Virginia Konchan's poetry and critical writings have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as The New Republic, The Believer, Notre Dame Review, Rain Taxi, and American Poetry Journal. She is also a contributing reviewer for ForeWord Magazine.