Cynthia Arrieu-King

Review of Document , by Ana Božicevic

(Octopus Books, 2007)


I have no idea now who said this, but I recall reading once that the best travelers cannot remember exactly where they've been, only where they are now. In the same vein, Ana Božicevic's chapbook Document opens with an epigraph from Tsvetaeva.

To her who travels – sleep.
To the wayfarer – the way.
Remember! – Forget.

And so the airy, ephemeral enormity of the world begins to be forgotten by the traveler from the first page of Božicevic's book. The assemblage of objects and sense within the poems recalls Joseph Cornell's shadow boxes – hinting at a narrative that has been cannibalized gently so that the artist can survive. Somehow, Božicevic has packed entire skies and atmospheres here, a mobius strip sense of being turned around perhaps never to find an actual home again. To the new reader, the physical, beautiful object of the chapbook is as elusive as stability is for the speaker of Božicevic's chapbook: Octopus will release the .pdf of Document text soon on its website but the 88 copies sold out in a few weeks. Printed on heavy pale gray cardstock, and stamped with an intricate scroll around the title and author's name, the chapbook opens after you untie a string closure and open four flaps. It's a passport, and its smallness reminds you how easy it would be to lose one's papers or one's way. Through apposition, a lack of conjunctions, and images of worlds within worlds, the poet emphasizes that a displaced person cobbles together an order, a sense of purpose that carries a sense of disorder and loss. Her poems attest that a constant re-conglomeration of origin, journey, and the precise present becomes a normal home in the mind for the person who has traveled.

Božicevic defines simple objects with long appositional phrases. The reader realizes over the course of the text that no thing can rest here in time and space – each appositional phrase reminds you that objects, too, travel, if only in meaning. For example, in “Jointed Dawn Epilogue II” near the end of the book, “Sleep, the long doubt of the body.” The phrase “long doubt of the body” adds tension and an implied narrative – that physical movement or migration might actually be wrong, though the many references in the book to war force the speaker and the books inhabitants to move quickly through imagery, the poems' scenery. Immediately, the sleep doesn't “survive the dawn” defined by its own appositional phrase, “a high silver sound.” Dawn, emptiness and blindness seem consistently associated in Document with a high unusual tone, implying that moving to an empty space, or the dawn of new beginnings has its own nature, and a built-in sound that might be a warning, or just silver proof that leaving home is happening/has happened. New spaces equal awe in this network of meanings.

At times this apposition is not so straightforward and blends with another habit – an absence of conjunctions in Document . The objects might be modified by the phrases after them, or the phrases after them might be objects standing on their own. Božicevic writes:

(Uneven, rained-on
spoked in the fence, him, the
underside of a leaf)—

“Locket-portrait at the Tavern”

Is he spoked in the fence? Is he the underside of a leaf? Are many people mashed together in a cameo-like portrait of an individual? The precise line-breaks here help the text's lack of conjunctions and small extra words feel orderly rather than overly abstract or telegraphic. The lack of “and” and “or” and so on helps the speaker address the world around her as well as add energy and vitality to balance out the sense that a place has been lost:

old sink, there’s

A robber in your house! But for girls, War

Was love in the waiting room.

“Air-raid on Washington Square”

The whimsy of addressing the sky and old sink together allows the reader to imagine the sky as an old sink and also imagine the speaker's mind darts from thing to thing. And jumping, Ashbery-like, from the second person to the third, Božicevic opens up even more possibilities. Does she note how girls misunderstood war, felt it only as quotidian or known in passing? Or is this war recollected in a new place, or by a new generation who only understand their past based on stories told to them? The immigrant's conundrums packed into nineteen words: Božicevic never sounds accidental in assembling the picture of an immigrant's experience of before and after.

Finally, Božicevic uses imagery built from a world within a world to emphasize the way one place can overtake another in the mind, either the past taking over the present moment, or vice versa. She writes:

“Somewhere a pillowcase.

Somethere I allow

My head

Out of the hat, & the oval mother

The incontinent father

Walk down the brim.

Their sorrowful valises

& tiny centurions march

down my collarbone

into one open palm.”

--“Then I write a letter in your handwriting.”

The sparely drawn scene allows us to focus on one person rather than a tumbling set of vistas as most of the rest of the book does. But this quiet and focus is a bit deceptive since suddenly the family-past comes marching out of the mind, right down the hat's brim. What's more, they bring not only their own trunks of meaning, but history's centurions, absurd and sad. The past surges out from the simplest present act and overwhelms. That the poet titles the poem “Then I write a letter in your handwriting” confirms that even trying to be one's self, an Other takes over. Attachments can't be overcome, so have to be observed.

Elsewhere in the book, the color blue reveals its world of charts within itself (“Legal Counsel”) and fully blooming roses reveal a game of chess played with their blossoms (“Air-Raid on Washington Square”).

Document sets itself apart in its refusal to hinge narrative and politics to the idea of diaspora or transit. The resulting lyrics chime meanings from one poem to another rather than explicating or making objects strict metaphors as does much of contemporary poetry. Removing these poems from identifiable history, though aesthetically hinting at Popa and the surrealists, Božicevic offers made objects that request a universal reading and shed a surprisingly terrifying light on the face that's looking at and looking away simultaneously from history. War is a subject here that lends itself significantly to any of its instances, not a particular one. Though such plain-spoken, sometimes whimsical and feminine surfaces could provoke suspicion or detachment in a reader, Document 's verve and its inherent, digested rages compel the reader to mull over the true content of each poem. Orienting the speaker by roses, stars, acorns, lockets, documents, Božicevic shows the traveler as a collage of the past, without direction or sign-post, coping with the awesome task of filling the paradoxically over-full and empty teeming and opulent present. It's easy to recommend the mysterious experience of these large, ominous journeys squeezed to miniature: The original copies are, appropriately, gone.