Where the Neighborhood Ends: Marija Knežević’s “Breathing Technique,” Translated from the Serbian by Sibelan Forrester

By Russell Scott Valentino

Marija Knežević is a prolific Serbian author based in Belgrade who has published some ten books of poetry since approximately 1994. She is also the author of several collections of short stories and essays, and the novels Auto (2017) and Ekaterini (2005), the latter translated by Will Firth into English and published, under the same title, by Istros Books in 2013. The 2020 book Breathing Technique is the first selection of her poetry to appear in English.

Poems from the volume were drawn from several of Knežević’s previously published collections and, the volume’s translator Sibelan Forrester notes in her brief introduction, one as yet unpublished collection as well. As the work of established poets from other cultures published in English for the first time is frequently selected, and thereby loses some of the thematic and compositional connections that books of poems published by authors in their home context generally afford, I found myself wanting to know a bit more about how these particular poems came to be in this book. Forrester notes that the author recommended some of them “that she felt were most representative” (xi) but also that the author “assembles her books as coherent wholes that each tell a particular story.” This is not at all a criticism of the book in question, just a general observation about how we, as a reading culture, tend to filter and, in my opinion, reduce the poetry from the rest of the world when bringing it into English, relying on poems’ representational qualities and necessarily removing them in the process from the “whole stories” in which they initially came into the world. I can only imagine if a US poet were congratulated with a contract for a new book of poems, only to be told that which poems were to be included and their sequence would be determined by someone else!

I suspect that some of the whole stories of these poems are still palpable in Forrester’s careful selection, emerging, for instance, in the poet’s deployment of contrasts and paradoxes, as in “Anatomy Moment”: “For only an endless story is a story, / Whereas one that admits its end is not” (23); or “Cargo”: “For only a heretic preaches closeness / Just as a root serves / For the purpose of uprooting” (27); or when she claims, in “The Season of Good People,” that “there are still those who would like to spare even God / from ugly confessions” (141).

Knežević is also quite skilled at the concise evocation of place, especially the local, as in these lines from “Streetwalkers”:

Guardians of dark and order

They are here to respect:

Which one, for whom, when, how much, what.

They’re serious.

It’s life in question.

The night shift. (169)

Imaginary travel also seems to be a frequent theme, but at the same time such poems as “Return” and “Surrender to the City,” which powerfully evoke times and places, are invariably rooted in the quotidian. The neighborhood often plays a fundamental role, as in the opening of “Silk Road”:

Little by little we grow fond of our neighborhood

The way dogs and others, favorites, get attached

Not knowing nor desiring to know

About the degree of belonging.

Then, suddenly, from the intimacy of the local—this crazy weather, the price of detergent—the poet announces “an equivalence of everydayness with unusual stories” and reports how she heard just yesterday, she knows “on just which corner,”

About China, its silk road toward ruling power in the world

Founded on the terra cotta warriors of Chin the emperor-uniter,

6000 of them with the order that each have his own face,

Thus, under the condition of distinctness, I learned about knowing

How to rule, having gone to get the daily paper, milk,

Cherries three times pricier than the Chinese ones… (133).

This rootedness in the quotidian, often feminine-coded, rituals of the local also serves to mark time and aging, as in such poems as “Fishing,” “Morning coffee,” and “View,” the last of which features the routines associated with taking care of an aging woman with whom the speaker shares a room:

I would go into our room

To change her diapers, feed her, give her a drink

Of coffee and water and help her have a smoke. (117)

And when the doctor “saw the ashtray, the unfiltered cigarettes, / The pack of cigarette holders” and “crashed down on [her] exhaustion,” by asking, “And where does this lead to?” she answers easily but with her own emphasis in turn, with a sharp fusing of aging, rootedness, and travel: “Where to?”

The volume features very brief endnotes for sixteen of the forty-eight poems included. These are not marked in the text, so one might not notice them until the end (though they are indicated in the table of contents). The notes discuss allusions and quotations for the most part, especially song titles. Each poem, moreover, is presented in en face format with the Serbian version on the left and the English on the right, a convention that might encourage some to search for places where the translation “deviates” from the source, as if the poems had some sort of glossary with the correct words listed for them. Much more interesting are the places where the translator took advantage of formal features to explore the source’s polysemy, as in the poem “Casa,” which has two lines that begin separate stanzas identically with the words “Tu smo pravili…,” but which Forrester has translated differently in each case, first as “Here we held…” and then as “Here we conceived…” (29). In effect, she takes smart advantage of the repetition to provide another of the verb’s possible meanings.

In the same vein, for the poem “Moj kraj” Forrester provides the following endnote: “‘Moj kraj’ means both ‘my neighborhood’ and ‘my end.’ There was no way to keep both meanings—perhaps ‘my end of the city’?” While I don’t have a solution for this challenge (and this disarmingly honest translator’s invitation into the process!) and certainly would not second guess the choice of the translator who has worked on all these poems together, this is one of those places where I wonder about the absent “whole books” of the poet’s original conception, especially when I arrive at the final lines of the book’s final poem, “Life and Health”:

In the steep valley, there where no one wants the bare rock

Of future heights nor aspires to better

Where it’s good already

Without a conquered end. (197)

For this “end” of the end is the same Serbian word as the one used for neighborhood earlier and the “conquered” that precedes it could be associated with much less heroic, more mundane actions, the sorts of little rituals one performs every day that help us control the spaces around us, like going out to get the daily paper, the milk, or caring for a loved one by changing her diaper and giving her a smoke. Indeed, having got to this line, I could not help but return to the first claim of Forrester’s introduction—“Marija Knežević’s poetry has a particularly important quality: it rewards repeated reading”—and agree.

Knežević, Marija. Breathing Technique. Translated from the Serbian by Sibelan Forrester. Brookline, Mass: Zephyr Press, 2020.

Russell Scott Valentino is an author, editor, and translator of fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry from Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Italian, and Russian. His work has appeared in numerous venues, including Harvard Review, The New York Times, The Iowa Review, Modern Fiction Studies, and Del Sol Review. His translation of Miljenko Jergović’s family saga Kin was published by Archipelago Books in June 2021.

One comment

  1. Brava, Sibelan!

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