"A Candle Loses Nothing By Lighting Another Candle" - Father James Keller

Monday, June 28, 2010

Erin O’Riordan Reviews “Each End of the World” By Heather Smith


Each End of the World By Heather Smith
Book Length: 52 pages
Publisher: Main Street Rag

Blurb: 

"Although Heather Smith's astonishing first book is located, mostly, in the conflagration of human meaning that was Bosnia in the1990's, it's a collection that, in an unforgettable way, examines the terrifying bitterness and danger of contemporary life, when There are flashes of light strobing from the windows/ of the Holiday Inn.../ They are shooting at us from the Holiday Inn. What does it mean, now, to give witness? The language of devastation courses through the book, and seems to course through the poet herself. Smith's sweeping current of voices is somehow both individual and a great collective outcry. Each End of the World is a devastating performance."

Review:

Each End of the World was written by Heather Derr-Smith (credited on this book as Heather Smith) and published by Main Street Rag in 2005. The poems in this anthology have appeared in literary magazines including The Chattahoochee Review, The New York Quarterly, and Pleiades.

This isn’t an easy book to read. Most of the poems (probably all of them except “Mt. Olivet Old Regular Baptist Church”) are about the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The civil war was ugly, but it’s an important thing to remember. Why? Because the city in the epicenter of the war, Sarajevo (now the capital of the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina), was a fully modern European metropolis, just like Paris, Berlin, Prague, London or Dublin. If you, as an American, had visited Sarajevo in 1990, you probably would have been shocked by how familiar it felt. Many of the people there did, and still do, speak English.

Sarajevo had been inhabited by a mixture of Croatians, Serbs, Muslims and Jews since the Middle Ages. The Muslims there are the cultural legacy of the former Yugoslavia’s being a part of the Ottoman Turkish empire, as was much of Eastern Europe. Croatians, Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks are all the same Slavic ethnic group, and their languages are so similar they are mutually intelligible (if you speak one, you understand the other ones). The differences have traditionally been largely religious ones: Croatians were Roman Catholic, Serbs were largely Eastern Orthodox Christians, and the Muslim Bosniaks were Sunni Muslims. Communism, which forbade the practice of all these religions, hid some of these differences, and they resurfaced after Communism collapsed.

In 1991, Croatia (which is separated from Italy only by the small country of Slovenia, and has many cultural similarities with Italy) declared its independence from Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian government was headed by Slobodan Milosevic, an ethnic Serb, who fought Croatia to keep his country together. However, a large part of Milosevic’s motivation was hatred toward Croatians and Muslims. His Serbian army carried out a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against ethnic groups it considered inferior. (Milosevic would eventually die in jail in the Netherlands while awaiting trial for war crimes.) The region of Bosnia and Herzegovina was in the unfortunate position of being sandwiched into between Croatia and Serbia.

The assault on Sarajevo was brutal. (Remember, this is a major, modern European city, and this was less than twenty years ago. If it can happen there, it can happen any time, any place.) The Serbs divided the city in half and cut off the electricity and water supplies to the non-Serbian half. They shelled the non-Serbian half of the city with mortar rounds, and snipers fired into the streets across the dividing line. The only access the people under siege had to food was through the black market. The United Nations was allowed to bring them food and water, but snipers would take shots at people as they stood in line for these things. People ate their cats and dogs or ate grass just to keep from starving to death. The war killed between 140,000 and 200,000 people (accounts vary) and created thousands more refugees. Thousands of women were sexually assaulted in “rape camps,” and after the war there were hundreds of babies given up to orphanages because their mothers had been raped.

Many Americans had, and still have, a hard time picturing the Bosnian people in human terms. I went to high school with Boris, a teenager from Sarajevo whose Serbian college professor father and Croatian-Muslim professor mother sent him to the U.S. to avoid the war. If you didn’t know Boris’s story, it was impossible to tell him from an American teenager. He spoke English flawlessly, without even an accent, and he loved The Beatles above all things. The Bosnian war was never nameless or faceless to me. If you’re an NBA basketball fan, you may also remember the L.A. Lakers’ Vlade Divac (from Serbia) or the Chicago Bulls’ Toni Kukoc (from Split, Croatia, on the Dalmatian coastline). Once teammates on Yugoslavia’s junior national basketball team and close friends, they were split apart by the war. Divac publicly spoke out against Milosevic and the violence, worked for humanitarian charities, and even went so far as to personally adopt two war orphans, but he and Kukoc couldn‘t reconcile their differences until after the war was over.

Even if you can’t put an individual face to the war, though, consider this: many Serbian people opposed the violence, and there were also atrocities on the side of the Muslim-Croatian coalition. However, the majority of the victims of the war were Muslims. In some Muslims villages, the men were all lined up and shot and then buried in mass graves. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have used the Bosnian war as an example of the West’s hostility to Muslims and as incitement to violence against the West. The Bosnian war was an unthinkable human tragedy, but it also made the world less safe for everyone.

For all these reasons and for its own poetic merits, Heather Smith’s Each End of the World deserves a place on your bookshelf. The title refers to the moments in time when each victim of the war had his and her world destroyed. That destruction may have come through death, living through trauma, or losing one’s soul by victimizing another. The speakers in these poems are young and old, male and female, and from all sides of the war. The poems are full of violence, but they also incorporate snatches of Bosnian folk songs. They juxtapose beauty and horror, the everyday and the nightmarish. The poems will be haunting, but don’t be tempted to look away. We all need to remember this like we remember the Holocaust, so nothing so evil can be allowed to happen again.

Reviewed By Erin O’Riordan

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In accordance with the new FTC Guidelines for blogging and endorsements, Kiki Howell of An Author's Musings, would like to advise that in addition to purchasing my own books to review, I also receive books, and/or promotional materials, free of charge in return for an honest review, as do any guest reviewers.