I’m often underwhelmed by the fiction published in the New Yorker. But a recent story by Aleksandar Hemon called “The Conductor” has continued to stick in my mind. It’s about a (fictional, I think) Bosnian poet known as Muhamed D. Here’s a selection from somewhere midway through the story.
Finally, I selected, reluctantly, some of my poems to show to Dedo. I met him at the Table early one afternoon, before everyone else arrived. I gave him the poems, and he read them, while I smoked and watched slush splatter against the windows, then slide slowly down. “You should stick to conducting,” he said eventually, and lit a cigarette. His eyebrows looked like hirsute little comets. The clarity of his gaze was what hurt me. These poems were told in the voice of postmodern Old Testament prophets; they were the cries of tormented individuals whose very souls were being depleted by the plague of relentless modernity. Was it possible, my poems asked, to maintain the reality of a person’s self in this cruelly unreal world? The very inadequacy of poetry was a testimony to the disintegration of humanity, etc. But, of course, I explained none of that. I stared at Dedo with watery eyes, pleading for compassion, while he berated my sloppy prosody and my cold self-centeredness, which was exactly the opposite of soul. “A poet is one with everything,” he said. “He is everywhere, so he is never alone.” Everywhere, my ass—the tears dried in my eyes, and with an air of triumphant rationalism I tore my poetry out of his hands and left him in the dust of his neo-romantic ontology. But outside—outside I dumped those prophetic poems, the founding documents of my life, into a gaping garbage container. I never went back to the Table, I never wrote poetry again, and a few days later I left Sarajevo for good.
Hemon wrote a book a few years ago called The Question of Bruno that is worth a read. It is part of what I hope will be an ever increasing body of work coming from the Bosnian experience.
PS Being a work of fiction, I suppose that the fragments of Muhamed D.’s poetry in the story were actually written by Hemon himself. If so, what a delightfully surreptitious way for the prose writer to get a few knocks over on the poets (take that Joseph Brodsky). The great thing is that the poetry aint half bad.
Nobody is old anymore—either dead or young.
Your wrinkles straighten up, the feet no longer flat.
Cowering behind garbage containers, flying away
from the snipers, everybody is a gorgeous body
stepping over the dead ones, knowing:
We are never as beautiful as now.