Alen Bešić

Serbia

Alen Bešić (1975, Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina), received a B.A. and an M.A. in Serbian Literature and Language from the Faculty of Philosophy, Novi Sad University. Besides a poet, he is a literary critic, essayist, and translator from English. Since 2007 he has been the chief editor of the literary magazine Polja in Novi Sad where he lives.

 

PRINCIPAL WORKS:

Poetry
U filigranu rez (The Cut in Filigree, Knjizevna omladina Srbije, Beograd, 1999)
Nacin dima (The Manner of the Smoke, NB “Stefan Prvovencani”, Kraljevo, 2004)
Golo srce (A Naked Heart, NB “Stefan Prvovenčani”, Kraljevo, 2012)
Hronika sitnica (The Chronicle of Trifles, JU “Ratkoviceve veceri poezije”, Bijelo Polje, 2014)

Essays and literary criticism:
Lavirinti citanja (The Labyrinths of Reading, Agora, Zrenjanin, 2006)
Neponovljivi obrazac (The Unrepeatable Pattern, Sluzbeni glasnik, Beograd, 2012)


Translated books:
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (Siroko Sargasko more, Agora, 2006)
Jamaica Kincaid, At the Bottom of the River (Na dnu reke, Agora, 2008)
Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy (Lusi, Agora, 2008)
Bozidar Jezernik et al, Imagining ‘the Turk’ (with Igor Cvijanovic, Imaginarni Turcin, Biblioteka XX vek, 2010)
Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of my Mother (Autobiografija moje majke, Agora, 2010)
Annie E. Proulx, Fine Just the Way It Is (Potaman, Agora, 2010)
Joyce Carol Oats, A Fair Maiden (Lepotica, Agora, 2010)
Catherine Baker, Sounds of the Borderland (with Igor Cvijanovic, Zvuci granice, Biblioteka XX vek, 2011)
John Ralston Saul, Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World (with Igor Cvijanovic, Propast globalizma i preoblikovanje sveta, Arhipelag, 2011)
John Fowles, Mantissa (Mantisa, Agora, 2011)
Bruce Chatwin, On the Black Hill (Na crnom bregu, Agora, 2013)
Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then (Gle Sad Onda, Agora, 2014)
Tony Hoagland, Don’t Tell Anybody: Selected Poetry (Nemoj reci nikome: Izabrane pesme, NB “Stefan Prvovencani”, 2015)
Teju Cole, Open City (Otvoreni grad, Dereta, 2016)
Derek Wallcot, Map of the New World: selected poetry (with Marija Bergam, Mapa Novog sveta: Izabrane pesme, KCNS, 2017)
Anne Carson, Short Talks (Kratka slova, NB “Stefan Prvovencani”, 2018)
Max Porter, Grief is a Thing with Feather (Tuga je pernato stvorenje, Dereta, 2018)
Claudia Rankine, Citizen (Gradjanin, Sluzbeni glasnik, 2018)

Awards:
Association of Writers of Vojvodina Award for translation of the year (2011)
"Branko Miljkovic" Award for the best poetry book published in Serbia in 2012.
"Risto Ratkovic" Regional Award for the best poetry book published in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro in 2012.
“Miloš N. Djuric” Award for the best poetry book translated in Serbia in 2015


A HEART OF GOLD

The world of poetry created by Alen Bešić can also be accessed via a virtual side entrance provided by Facebook. Namely, on this social platform, the poet has a profile under the name of “Alen Emigrant”, which can by no means be a mere linguistic exercise in identity mystification common in virtual spaces, but actually a more accurate existential code for an  understanding of the world and life which has been designated nomadic. Therefore, it is a precarious and fluid identity (or identities) caused by fin the siècle epochal changes which do not so much entail an increased mobility, though it undoubtedly plays a part, but actually ideological and political, as much as cultural, disintegration and demise of civilisations and values which shaped the socio-political reality of the twentieth century. Thus, it was not only a network of wars and atrocities that an individual cannot disentangle themselves from wherever on the planet they may be, but it was also the (ab)use of culture and ideals which precedes and prepares the terrain for those wars – all of this together has led to the contemporary poet and the subject of contemporary poetry being distanced from any idea of collectivism. So, the point is not to escape, even if it was possible to make an escape from language, and consequently from poetry; the point is to constantly be on the run – from one poem to another – but to continue looking back at what is left behind. And on the other side of the emotional and psychological line there is the modern Romanticist yearning for cities scattered over space and time, cities where we are not and where we will never be.

            Thus, the subject of this poetry is permanently suspended in the existential in-between space, and, in a sense, the in-between time, in an eternal inherent discrepancy characterised by melancholy (sorrow for something that cannot be named), doubting, self-questioning, as well as a longing for an ideal unity of self and language, words and things (“you never side with either words or things”).

            The quoted verse is – perhaps subconsciously, perhaps unwittingly – one of the key insights of this poetry. Three books of poetry by this author, all of them comparably thin, published cautiously, widely spaced – The Cut in Filigree (1997), The Manner of the Smoke (2004), and A Naked Heart (2012) – display a patient, strict, careful and linguistically economic progress towards this verse, this realisation. However, a series of questions arise: what could this verse mean; which movement of spirit precedes it; and what is new and essential about it, what is the irreplaceable contribution that this verse and this poet have made to the contemporary appreciation of poetry and, by extension, of us today?

            A precise answer to these questions requires a brief contextual appraisal of contemporary poetry and its thematic preoccupations. Turning to the context and themes inevitably leads to a consideration of the radical ontological change in literature and poetry occasioned by postmodernism at the end of the last and beginning of this century as well as to the questions and issues which are thematised by almost all contemporary poets and can be summed up in a few textbook and seemingly simple themes such as the meaning and reason of poetry, the problem of language in general and language of poetry in particular, or the relation of linguistic and non-linguistic realities. In other words, it seems that the most important theme of poetry today is – poetry itself! It is virtually impossible to find a distinguished poet today whose poetry is not also a justification, defence even, of poetry before the world. However, this is not a defence in the sense of apology but a defence which is another name for the abovementioned gap between the self and language, words and things; it is about the awareness of the impossibility of bridging that gap, it is about the awareness of the unbridgeable gap. If the postmodern era in the field of humanities was distinctly marked by French poststructuralism, which, put simply, deconstructed and ideologized everything that could be ideologized, and which elevated to too high a plane the awareness of political dimension of every word in every language, then poetry today, as a voice of powerlessness, entirely human powerlessness – has to stand in opposition to that voice of power, the language of deconstruction and ideologization, and it has to protect the awareness and the possibility of that powerlessness. And that powerlessness implies, amongst other things, naïve faith in the oneness of word and thing, and in innocence and purity of words, which of course is not possible nor attainable: “(…) Even though / in your capillaries you are taming the terror and reining in the mad gallop / of your heart, you know that what you write will not even make the flame on the candle / flicker. Unmoved the gold thread will remain. / As if before a dead man’s lip.”

            The ending of the long poem titled A Naked Heart, one of the new century’s most significant books of Serbian poetry, but also of that written in the entire former Serbo-Croatian speaking region, thus, confronts the reader, the poet and poetry with an image in which the poetry and the pursuit of poetry resemble applying make-up to a dead man’s face. The final section, and the poem as a whole, do not necessarily bespeak of the present moment; rather they are a sum of a poetic experience, thereby conferring on their attitudes and insights a more universal dimension. However, the poem’s contemporaneity and its rootedness in the here and now and existential experience of these destitute times must not be underestimated. For even though this is not the first time in the history of poetry that a poet questions the purpose of pursuing poetry, every time the question arises before him, it is rendered more dramatic and traumatic owing to the experience of his antecedents. At first it appears that there is no answering this question but only advancing towards or retreating before it: “(…) With the hesitant hand, down the margin / of the stanza, you place an invisible plumb line. At the right angle / the line of seriousness and the curve of passion want to meet, creating / a porous rampart along which ambiguity instead of the sea / will be drawing crenelles of salt. Hunched over the manuscript like over / the chessboard, from countless possibilities how can one choose / the spiralling, all-encompassing one which in a random gambit already / the tempestuous geometry of consequences till the final outcome / foresees?”

            This question is, thus, the centre towards which all thematic circles of this poetry gravitate. They are actually very few and all amount to the questions of (nomadic) identity, relationship to the other, entering the Mediterranean cultural circle with the subtopic of the summer, sea and the learned dialogue with a number of poets and artists from all eras and all quarters of the world (eyes of some of them even watch us as we read A Naked Heart). However, the dynamism of this oeuvre does not derive from its wide thematic scope but from its lexical, stylistic, and poetic merits. The first book, despite its occasional thematic narrowness, which might undoubtedly be partly attributed to the lack of life experience, already displays a remarkable and painstaking effort of crafting language. Mining for the right word, the poet reaches for the lexicon of the old poetry, which can also be interpreted as an escape into poetry and an attempt to find in it a sanctuary from the traumatic socio-political reality of the second half of the 1990s. Even though the traces of this lexicon can still be found in the next book, a considerably wider circle of cultural and historical themes of this book occasioned a more modern and richer lexicon, leading finally to the fully matured lexical expanse of A Naked Heart, completely free of superfluous layers of earlier eras and conspicuous erudition. The first two phases described in this language development cannot be easily distinguished in this selection because the poems are ordered differently in the first part of the book. What can be seen, though, from the first to the last poem, is the effort to endow individual poems with form and language particular to every one of them. In other words, whereas in the first two books his poetic effort is focused on individual poems, it is in A Naked Heart that the poet allows his poems to realise their full potential and to step out of their boundaries, resonating within a larger poetic whole. The same development can be observed at the level of meaning: there is no l'art pour l'art nor self-centred linguistic experimentation; every poem has to express something, it needs to be rounded off with a point. The semantic stress is always placed at the end of the poem, and it invariably takes the form of linguistic transformation of unmediated reality and life experience into a metaphysical insight. Examples abound: “It is only in the absence of the City that I comprehend the City. A shot in the thick of silence. April.” in the poem titled “A Treatise on Karst”; “A chronicle of fragments. / Enough to fill a lifetime.” in the poem “My Time is Fragmented, Capriccio“; or “Our houses built on sand, / our hope, like cuckoo’s egg, in poetry / is placed.” in the poem “Exiled into This Room.” Every closing stanza or passage involves a shift and a turning point, but also a rising movement: verses which carefully “analyse” the topic from various angles are followed by a “conclusion” which at once confirms the analysis and sometimes in a barely perceptible flash of language subverts it at least once or redirects it or opens it to yet another interpretative possibility. This is meticulously supported by the example of “My Time is Fragmented, Capriccio”, in which the poet admits that everything disappears with time, even words will be gone, and with them poetry, too. What remains, says the poet, like pollen on our fingers, is a handful of images from our life – some of them are, then, listed in the poem – which are actually personal experiences of the lyric subject and at first appear not to have any meaning beyond that. However, what follows in the closing line, quoted above, is the elevation of the emotional and psychological development onto the plane of expression of personal poetics which, contrary to the previously expressed doubt in the durability of words, not only “justifies” the poet’s own pursuit of poetry, but reminds of the way in which the coordinates of intimate microcosm are formed in each and every one of us. At that moment the Pag Island cheese and the pine needles on the young skin of edible boletes become everyone’s images, because everyone treasures such images within themselves.

            Regarding this poem, it is interesting to note the use of the first person singular, which is not that frequent in this oeuvre. A comparably even use of the first and second persons to address (himself) represents a distinctly dynamic thread which emphasises the instability of the lyric subject of this poetry, and finds its interesting and innovative solution in A Naked Heart. Rather than heading for the conclusion of the poem “At the Kanagawa Coast”: “Sometimes I think that / the whole point is this: while the sun / rises, more than one name / to have”, the second person seems to be about the poet addressing the Poet within himself. The dialogue and tension between the poet and the Poet, like the split between words and things, remains unresolved, but those “conflicts” are never resolved anyway.

            And the reason for that is in essence very simple: the poet does not want to renounce life – watered wine, rose petal jam or the girl who is stroking a sleeping cat on the island of Rhodes, while at the same time the poet knows that such a life would be incomplete, that it would not be fulfilled without poetry whose honey, or gold, or light occasionally ennoble him. Near the end of the poem “occasionally” from A Naked Heart, in the section just before the line “you never side with either words or things”, it is said: “(…) and again you will be forced / to learn how to speak gently to the world, and without irony / imagine that in the narrow space between two / people in love, two intertwined bodies, occasionally, / indeed God dwells.” This is an extremely important place, actually a sort of metaphysical-religious fortochka of both this poem and the whole oeuvre. In connection with that, it is necessary to bear in mind the following two observations: God in the poem does not precede life and the world, and therefore is not the starting point against which all subsequent forms of life are measured, but God rather comes after the experience of life and, more importantly, after the experience of love, love being the only force capable of linking incompatibles; God needs to be understood and “read” precisely as a metaphysical authority that through most mysterious ways unites that which has been separated, and should not be interpreted through any canonical or Orthodox Christian or any other key. Of equal importance is the title word – “occasionally” – indicating that God is not the only solution, the only conclusion of the line quoted early in the text: he appears only occasionally, and at all other times another name has to be found for that unnameable encounter. Poetry is precisely the quest rather than the conclusion, and Alen’s poetry, most of all the magisterial long poem A Naked Heart, demonstrates that point convincingly. The trace left by the poet on that track is the gold thread found at the end of this long poem. And that thread leads to the shiniest vein and the largest nugget or, as that great artist has put it – a heart of gold.

Written by Marjan Čakarević.