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Review: Andrea Jurjević Brings Us New Voices and Narratives in “In Another Country”

By Tomas Maldonado




 

“War made me another person.”

Anna Świrszczyńska

 



Photo: Andrea Jurjević

Andrea Jurjević’s In Another Country reflectively begins with an epigram and delightfully ends with ekphrasis. That epigram – written by Turkish writer, Emine Sevgi Özdamar – proclaims, “In my language, “tongue” means “language”. A tongue has no bones: twist it in any direction and it will turn that way.” What I find fascinating about this saying is the reference to the notion of a dialectic, the physicality of the tongue going against its function by providing meaning through utterance instead of merely being an organ that shoves food down the throat. Ironically, as in most languages, the word “tongue” is usually polysemous carrying more than one meaning. I like to think of it conveying “voice” that fuels “narrative”.

 

What I find even more fascinating about the epigram is the final poem Pillow Talk With Modigliani’s Kneeling Blue Caryatid. Written in ekphrasis style glossing over Amedeo Modigliani’s famous sketch Kneeling Blue Caryatid, the reader is treated to three stanzas narrated in a reflective third person that transitions into first person plural in the fourth stanza.

 

“In his mind’s eye there was no room for background, her dress on the floor, / or a dumb fruit bowl her hand dipped into, nothing / but Akhmatova’s geometry…”

 

Such imagery creates mental spaces encapsulating the all-seeing eye of the writer bringing us historical reference, mention of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, an introduction to the caryatid art form, and of god sleeping on a recliner, dreaming it all perhaps due to the aftereffects of late-night drinking.

 

Everything in between the epigram and final poem exudes the power of Jurjević’s voice and narrative. Each poem feels like a different mini-memoir, showcasing different voices of different times stuck in lines anxiously awaiting human communion while dangling in front of the reader’s face the plight of human commotion. As a collection, they celebrate what it means to be part of a bigger “another” unlike the polarizing and belittling “other” of the moiety.

 

Published earlier this year as the winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize for 2024, In Another Country consists of forty-nine poems divided into five sections with pauses of what appear to wedding-like diamonds. I like to think that they are symbolic, perhaps some sort of mysticism with some deeper meaning, but as I read each section I gave up on the notion and just continued enjoying the view of the poetry.


Photo: Sean Patrick

Andrea Jurjević is no stranger to the poetry community, known for her works in both translation (Mamasafari in 2018 and Dead Letter Office in 2020) and the written word (Small Crimes in 2017 and Nightcall in 2021). This is my first encounter with her work and after engaging the text and doing a little research on her webpage, I can proudly say that I’m a fan.

 

Going through the collection, the voice and narrative solidify each poem. There are tons of great examples of these two techniques of which Jurjević has mastered. I find it most evident in the poem In the Color-Grinding Years After C.D. Wright. Notice how Jurjević blurs aspect with white space to the point that first person plural moves from what appears to be the start of a wegotism:


“In the prewar and in the postwar         we made colors / usually in the school bathroom            between classes,” but quickly turns out to be a narrative into third person, “a swarm of girls crowding         graffiti-covered walls / some of us entered    the narrow stalls          / in pairs          one pulling jeans down to her knees / her shirt a wrinkled valance         over her snatch.” The lines then break the fourth wall into second person, abruptly switching to first person singular, “cigarette between her lips     added to the wall art / don’t pour fucking confidence into me          I’ll drown / others by the sink            bit waxy tips off colored pencils.”


This shift in grammatical aspect continues, a linguistic kaleidoscope detailing past memories with the color of everyday objects – chewing gum, a chestnut, coffee beans, soup pots, lilacs - until wonderfully ending in the first person singular.

 

My favorite example of voice and narrative occurs in About the Weather. Set on the island of Rab, "off the northern coast of Croatia", the speaker takes us back to her mother’s memories of being eighteen working as an intern at "an old concentration camp turned mental hospital." We hear the narrative via a secondary source from Mama, a retelling of events connected to the aftereffects of World War II and the PTSD associated with a group of survivors.

 

The events are vividly portrayed through metaphor that evokes disturbing imagery normal storytelling doesn’t convey. Using an appositive, the speaker tells us straightaway, “At times a truck would dart through a cloud of dust delivering / men and women suffering from duševne bolesti – illness of the soul, as / my people say.” A few lines down the speaker tells us, “Mama made their caged beds, watched their endless pacing and drool- / ing, shirtsleeves so long they could’ve hugged the underworld.” The likeness of beds being caged coupled with drooling shirtsleeves emphasizes the patients’ serious condition and the necessity for them to be consistently monitored.

 

The best instance of voice and narrative in the form of tension is found when Mama recounts an incident, “Once, at the sound of the delivery truck, a woman yelled, It’s the planes! / and everyone dove for the ground, covering their heads. Mama told / them the war had ended twenty years ago.” Hearing the patient’s diction and the confusion that follows is telling. When the speaker says, But like a memory, a war goes on living. Perhaps in perpetual exile. A / wandering existence. Or in a body,” the personification of something as abstract as war takes on human form beyond physical escape.  

 

These poems are not about war, per se, but about what happens to the human soul afterward. They are to postwar poetry what Anna Świrszczyńska’s Building the Barricade is to during-the-war poetry. It’s love. It’s reflection. It’s regret. It’s ekphrasis. It’s everything poetry never is but still sounds right rolling off the tongue as we try to figure it out for ourselves.

 

·      Visit Andrea Jurjević’s homepage at: https://andreajurjevic.com/ 

·      Follow Andrea Jurjević on X and Instagram at: @andrea_jurjevic  

·      Also, on Facebook, at: https://www.facebook.com/andrea.jurjevic9 

 

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About the Writer:

Thomas Maldonado is a Mexican American creative nonfiction writer and poet who teaches English for Academic Purposes, Intensive English and English Composition at his local community college and university in South Central Minnesota. He uniquely blends creative writing in his TESL courses while mentoring his multilingual students as they journal their writing experiences via poetry and creative nonfiction. When he’s not taking long walks through Kampala, he’s making snow angels in Mankato.

 

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