Ana Božičević, Stars of the Night Commute, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2009.
A tower is lifted by the crescents of two luminous moons. The tower hangs on them by two straps that are connected to its surface by wheels. In the background there are more moons, full, and with orbiting rings and even farther behind, the night sky is filled with stars. The tower appears to be a rook escaping from a chess-like chequered landscape below. And the tower’s own floor is chequered in the same way. It has a big opening in front and brightly lit windows in the top, emitting a warm glow, possibly by the stars of the night sky, for they are shining with a similar light. Birds that look like mythical swallows circle the tower. But the tower, more than just a rook being hijacked from its landscape below, also resembles some kind of contraption, a ‘pataphysical machine perhaps (a machine of the possible). There is one more wheel beneath it, with two propellers attached.
The scene is the painting ‘Icono’, a fantastical triptych by the female para-surrealist painter Remedios Varo (1908-1963), enclosed by two wooden panels. The painting’s frame is the same shape as the tower’s entrance, with which the viewer is confronted. And in the same way that the panels open up to the scene of the tower, the tower invites the reader in to a similar world of wonder and fragile irony.
The image invites you in not just because it is the book’s cover, but more importantly because both the painting and Ana Božičević’s poems capture similar sensations; that of the distant but imminent, blazingly luminous, yet nocturnal commute. Like the painting, the poems in this book, both in themselves and as a whole, form wondrous stories. In a sense they are failed stories, stories that tried to be, but are reshuffled by a secret that leaves them incomplete, for (to paraphrase Leonard Cohen) they are cracked open to let in a glowing light.
Ana Božičević has been writing and publishing prolifically for some time but Stars of the Night Commute is her first full-length book collecting many poems from four previously published chapbooks. It is divided into three main sections, ‘The Stars on the 7:18 to PENN’, ‘Night Passengers’, and ‘The Long Commute’. One distinctive feature of Božičević’s work is that her poems work well together, that is, not only telling stories individually, but also in the form of several series. This in turn means that the book as a whole is a very open yet coherent collection (reminiscent in this sense of Jack Spicer’s serial poems).
But while it is true that the book consists of several long serial poems, there are also certain series, sequences, that traverse the book as a whole as well as individual poems. These come in the form of recurring objects and characters (e.g. God, valises, and stars), but also in the form of different narrative layers and shifting perspectives. Because of these tropes and the coherent yet not quite linear structure, the book as a whole, as well as individual poems, clearly take place in the same poetic universe.
Poems as snowglobe / constellation
I would like to think of the whole book and its sections and its individual poems as a snowglobe that has been shaken up, and where not snow, but objects are floating around in varying connected but wondrous configurations.
The poems are no longer primarily linear, but are constellations of ideas that have body and dimensions as well as being open and porous. Like a cloud, or a fluffed-up ball of cotton, and indeed in ‘Ode to Cotton’ we read, ‘The catch in your breathing – / a white bit of cotton…Hope lives in the cotton: // and I could pray to cotton.’ (48). These lines are quite typical for Božičević. A gentle sincerity that invokes a sense of the holy in simple everyday objects and situations. Here is an example from the final section:
i. Rhode Island
From water and wood
you build on the jetty
a shrine, and place
1. an acorn
2. a button
on the salt-worn planks.
(O traveller. Grey star.
From your hat, when you upend it,
your small family upturn their faces.)
visit the shrine
(to view the film
of a coat, departing).
This in fact is one of the more straightforward, less open-ended poems, but it too hints at a surreal quality that returns in many of the other pieces. Since it is one of the recurring tropes, let’s take the example of the hat and see how it returns in ‘I write a letter in your handwriting’, in a similar, yet slightly weirder place:
Somewhere a pillowcase.
Somewhere I allow
out of the hat, & the oval mother
the incontinent father
Walk down the brim.
Their sorrowful valises
& tiny centurions march
down my collarbone
into one open palm.
If the above is a poem that seems surreal, the chain of events is nevertheless quite unambiguous (in a way sort of like a Magritte painting where absurd paradoxes are very clearly/starkly portrayed). But often in Božičević’s poetry there are several tangents that do not seem to come full circle. Not in the sense that these poems do not work, but rather the opposite, that they include precisely the broken and fragmentary that is simply part of the fabric of reality. Sometimes these poems trap within the constellations of their words, an elusiveness that the words themselves cannot express directly.
The ensnaring of vanishings
Eileen Myles in a blurb on the back cover writes, ‘I mean in poetry at some point you don’t know what the writer means. In Ana’s work I watch ‘it’ vanish (all the time) & I trust it.’ Now I wouldn’t say that in all poetry per se you at some point don’t know what the writer means; but I completely agree that reading Božičević’s poetry can feel like watching something vanish before your eyes. However, these fleeting moments are not allowed to slip out of the poem (letting the poem collapse), but rather, they remain caught inside of the poem, like flickering fireflies in a glass jar (or like ‘typestrokes of / fish’). The poem does not slip away from you as if in quicksand, but invites you in amid the vanishing. Here is a typical example that I find very beautiful. It is part one of the eight-part poem ‘Some Occurrences on the 7:18 to Penn’:
He showed me this book called ‘Discovering God.’ And guys?
I nearly did choke on the swanning spray of insufferable light –
‘Some people can only take seconds
of God’s voice’, he said. But for me
it was, like, the rubbery-awake I get after a slap,
or (not that I did that in a while) after I
write a poem, then open the window
to the naval dawn air.
I see a hawk being chased by sparrows.
And I won’t ever again write simply again
‘cause I won’t ever feel
the simplicity of an again bloodthirsty
Like the hat in the previous two poems, this poem too has some motives (birds and God) that return in different places in the book, somewhat like the scaffolding of these fragmented stories.
To consider some more of these recurring motives we can turn again to the book’s cover image and the title, both of which share ‘stars’, ‘the night’, and a ‘night commute’. I think these three elements can be read quite well to reflect the complex and delightfully contradictory experiences that Božičević’s poems can be. Stars are both guiding lights and cold indifferent witnesses of human life and death. The night is a place in which strange and wonderful things can happen, but it can also be an empty and cold darkness. And finally, it might seem redundant to emphasize this is a night commute (since don’t stars always come out at night?), but this to me seems the precisely the point; these are not stars of the fading dawn or imminent dusk, where the night and stars find each other’s middle ground. These travels take place where the night and the stars are each other’s most extreme negation. ‘So sorry, dear star that came before the night’ (12).
In one poem (incidentally, featuring a cameo by Anne Carson) the stars flash: ‘ITS NIGHT. THE ELEPHANT OF POETRY’. But that wonderful image which invites you to linger, is contrasted at the end of the poem by a line in which suddenly things seem very real, despite, or maybe because of the generic words (Europe, bomb), ‘WHAT PASSES FOR EUROPE // BOMBS. JUST LIKE US PASSING FOR LIGHT.’ But if ‘Europe / bombs’ remains quite general, the poems are also often characterized by a contemporaneity and specificity reminiscent of Frank O’Hara’s famous style of including names, times and dates in his poems (such as these beautifully intimate lines: ‘Amy / there is a swan in your breathing / there always is’, and in a next poem: ‘you and I are servants of birds’). Božičević might be personal and intimate but also is not averse to addressing socio-political issues even if they are interwoven with a kind of magical, surrealist tone. This combination often leads to a gentle irony that is however never cynical or gratuitous.
In this way these poems harbour contradictions without necessarily reconciling them. This is seen in the poem above where the book Discovering God spreads an insufferable light and yet somehow that poem like many of the other poems in this book, has a sense of the holy in it. God returns in later poems in the company of two emoticons 🙂 and 😦 . She is also gendered female with a tender insolence; ‘God Is President, She’s the Rose of the World’. (Of course, I don’t mean to imply that a female gendered God is a paradox, just that it contradicts the standard portrayal of God. This has been done before (think of Alanis Morissette in ‘Dogma’ for one), but it works well in this poem nonetheless because the tone is not pretentious, and attenion is somehow not drawn to it as some kind of feminist statement, but simply as the reality of that poem).
Godard is to film..
Some other pairs of contradictions that this book envelops are lightness and chaos; childlike innocence and violence. Farrah Field already poignantly compared Ana Božičević to filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. The apparent ease of movement through chaos. Sprezzatura (doing difficult things with apparent ease) minus the cocky Italian attitude. The childlike carefree, anything-can-happen is like Godard’s early films where young heavy French cigarette-smoking, and suit-wearing friends might be discussing Marx and revolution, the next moment they will be dancing, stealing a car and driving off into nowhere. A boy asks a stranger to go have a coffee with him and follows her until she gives in. Anything can happen. There is a sense of lightness, a quick step, a twirl of a dress, a world of possibility in each moment.
But of course, in Godard too, the lightness rarely just floats freely, but often flourishes precisely in situations of conflict or sadness. In one film (‘Une Femme et une Femme’) a young couple argues, then refuses to talk to each other, but the two continue the argument by insulting each other by pointing to words on books that they pull from the shelves. In his later films (like Le Mépris (Contempt) and Éloge de l’Amour) the drama has ripened, is fuller, and heavier, like a sweltering summer day; but always there is the mutual implication of lightness and weight.
One way in which this contradicion is found in Božičević’s poetry is in the figure of the child. On the one hand her writing has a child-like lightness and associative fascination for detail. Yet in no way in these poems is childlike innocence synonymous with ignorance. The figure of the child (and the childlike) functions here to address both innocence and also the darkness that is just as much part of youthful innocence. Or, to let Nietzsche put it in somewhat more blatant terms: ‘Youth itself is intrinsically falsifying and deceitful.’ One poem explicitally invokes children as both soldier and shepherd:
It was said that the child must sing again. I was the child. And inside the jaded
stars was a child. And the soldiers were all children, infinitely valuable.
The shepherds they killed were children.
Their poetry was infinitely valuable.
The poetry of steering by a star – (8)
‘And the soldiers were all children, infinitely valuable’. Are the children here infinitely valuable because they are also soldiers, or vice versa? The image is comic in an absurd way, and unsettelingly self-reflexive (children referring back to children), yet sadly true (child soldiers are no rare occurence in some parts of the world). Perhaps Elie Wiesel was right when he said that ‘the children of murderers are not murderers they are children’; but then again, Wordsworth was no less right when he penned his now famous line, ‘the child is father of the man.’
End / bloom
The epigraphs of one of the book’s parts is a line from Han Shan’s Cold Mountain poems (translated by Gary Snyder): ‘try and make it to cold mountain’, which already makes it sound as if it’s never going to happen, while at the same time you are already there as you read the line. The same is true for this last line of one of the poems in the book: ‘At the end of poetry the poem can no longer be remote’ (5).
Ana Božičević, we are informed, was born in Zagreb, 1977 and emigrated to America in 1997: short factual statements that hint at a much more complicated history. In any case, America is probably as good a candidate as any to take in the impact of these poems. For what is America for better or worse, if not – just like these poems – a blooming place of endless contradictions, constant becomings of ‘almost America’, just like out of these poems stars bloom and poetry is no longer remote, yet continually on the move. ‘The flower of the mouth. In language the earth blossoms toward the bloom of sky.’, writes Heidegger. And Ana Božičević replies:
Listen: stars are blooming.
Out of me. And I’ve become a blooming place. Almost