Zupan Uroš:
A Sarajevo Elegy

for Josip Osti

The word must be written and not just pronounced.

I teach Hamlet from Fortinbras’ elegy.

You wrote it and uncovered a curtain for me.

Once more I can hear clearly the voices

of the announcers coming through the walls,

now I can again become conscious of something

that has become a daily ritual, the set

game of the dead, now when I bury my

hands into my head, when I plunge through eyes

to touch the place where

the evil in us all has its origin.


I know that you did not imagine

that it would happen, that you would have to sing about it,

the task is hard, sometimes too hard,

for the human in the poet, for the poet in the human,

the feeling of guilt enormous,

but the word must be written, that is why we are here

despite the anger and powerlessness, despite the tears

and our nervous hands, because sentences feed on

pain and sadness, because words unmetaphorically

grow in blood.


Would you have become a poet if you had known

that one day you would have to write The Book of the Dead.

Would not you have rather given it all up?


But no, you know that there is no retreat.

Mythology must be reborn. Places accurately

described, because too few are still left

still remain - as such still unrecognizable.

That is why pictures from your memory.

which is now your only blood brother, must be stronger.

Pictures placed in stronger sentences,

crystal bright and clear, so that they don’t lose

a single outline. Smells more real than real smells.

Buildings more quiet and solemn than they were.

Less and less remains, and streets

will not be able to return memories to the eyes,

only your words can do that,

words borne from blood.


In the afternoon I read your testimony of the dead

and I remembered Polish poetry,

I remembered Adam Zagajewski, who writes

that when monkeys seized power

we didn’t notice them

because we had better things to do,

because we never notice anything that does not

affect us directly, that does not steal life

and memories from us, that does not wipe out the faces of our dearest.

This is my confession of guilt and the mistakes that I have made.


I could offer an excuse by saying that I have better things to do:

like falling in love, inhaling the fragrance

of blossoming lindens,

reading Stevens’ “Sunday Morning”

which speaks of distant ancient human sacrifice


not the ones you write about,

not about beasts who shove their jaws

out of your verses, who feed themselves with the plasma

of your dreams, not about people, who headless step

out of your poems, and wander through the street of your Sarajevo.


And there is no beauty in these deaths,

no mysticism, no cosmic sounds in tune,


just the crying and the prayer from the Imam in the mosque,

the crying and  prayer of the Rabbi from the synagogue,

the crying and  prayer of the Orthodox priest and the Catholic priest.

In death, fire, in blood we are all naked and powerless,

and every crying is the same, and every pain and loss,

no matter on which side the same.

Last year we made plans for me to come

see you in Sarajevo, the city of poetry,

armed with poetry, to read to angels,

angel protectors, not to angel destroyers.


This year we read in Ljubljana

so that our words might perhaps mean something more

than just the sounds of voices dissolving in the air,

so that they would extend the minutes of peace

and spread them across eternity.



And your return is also placed in that eternity,

and when it will come about, a part of me will go with you

to try to write among the ruins

a different poem of the city which I have never seen,

a different poem than this one, a poem in which I still search

for the place in the head of every human,

the place where the evil in us has its origin

and my hands from a great height

slowly fall into an endless abyss.

Translated by Nikolai Jeffs and Andrew Wachtel