Book Reviews

Daria Melnyk (Georgetown University) – Multicultural Review 2003:

“Zivancevic’s poems burst with kernels of wisdom. Her words are tightly packed, brilliant jewels in which meaning has been distilled and crystallized, enveloping moments in time and possessing them, injecting words with her own serum of truth and creating a reality that transforms. Her insights are a pleasure to behold for their striking sincerity and melancholy clarity of vision. Her voice is that of an exile, and her poems are richly textured, a tapestry of distant lands and languages.

The Yugoslavia-born poet, now living in New York City, skilfully weaves together vestiges of the old world and the new, joining the past with the present in her words, from which emanate an aura that penetrates deeply into the soul. Her words stretch to encompass her thoughts, suggesting tensions, horizons with boundaries both contained and free.

Zivancevic describes a world that imprints itself on us as we leave traces of ourselves behind, a world in which nothing is gained and nothing is lost, where energy and matter are conserved. Her words are elegant and poised; her writing is crisp, confident, and unapologetic. She is both reverent and irreverent; her poems resist nostalgia and sing elegies. This collection breathes life into language.”

Jacqueline Gens, The Mirror – The International Magazine of the Dzogchen Community, 2003:

“In Death of New York City: Selected Poems, Nina Zivancevic lives up to her international reputation as one of the foremost living poets of her native Yugoslavia from which she has won numerous prestigious awards since an early age.

In his forward, Charles Simic an expatriate and major American poet wrote”The genius of her art lies in her ability to make surprising connections between diverse cultures and literatures giving her poetry richness and range that is truly rare.”

The key to her poetic genius is very simple. Just as the essence of Guru Yoga cannot be really taught but is a discovery of one’s inner nature, so too with syntax, the essence of poetic mind. Syntax–how words are used –is the indefinable perfect harmony of sound, (melopoeia), image (phanapoeia) and meaning (logopoeia), to use Pound’s classical definition. One can try conceptually to arrive at perfect syntax but there are some poets for whom this is as natural as breathing. Nina Zivancevic is such a one.

Nina’s poems in this diverse selection are a perfect bearing witness, a long love’s lament to the sorrows and joy of being alive. Tempered by a lack of the superfluous, her tone is as ample as a Neruda, an Akhmatova, a Ritsos. These are the emissaries of humanity beyond cultural boundaries who live up to the art and surpass the mere craft.

I last saw Nina in NYC some years ago. She was in the advanced stages of pregnancy giving a reading in an East Village bar. Louise was there, the late poet, Allen Ginsberg, friends, and the local scene. I remember Nina so well; her black velvet mini-dress about as high up her thighs as possible, beautiful and radiant as only pregnant woman can be, with a voice from heaven.

Steven Sher, American Book Review, 2003:

Following the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the continuing”war on terror,” readers might blanch at the title of Nina Zivancevic’s selected poems, Death of New York City. What a relief to learn that there is no new threat impending. Yet Belgrade-born Zivancevic, an exile living in New York, is an unsettling, world-tested conscience that reminds us (in almost 80 highly idiomatic and inventive English poems covering a twenty-year period) of what we stand to lose. We would do well to listen–if only to experience the range of cultures and poetic movements she embraces (from Byzantine to Renaissance art, from the French symbolists and surrealists to the New York School, from Black Mountain to the Beats, from performance poetry to popular music). Even when she lectures us–an occasional line of rhetoric or flat self-consciousness–we can’t dismiss her intellect or energy.

New York,take care. The storied legacy of a great city (any culture) may not be enough to fend off the forces that would destroy it. In”Royal Chase,” set amid the battle of Kosovo, a world of mutilated soldiers and rigid, senseless rule, Zivancevic decries the fate of a culture, hence a people, destroyed:

“Illuminated manuscripts smeared with blood, /Santours in flame;…/
…my house disappeared /in heavy bombing, the language
/of our children sprinkled with foreign accents, /
the angels on Christian frescoes/ in distant monasteries had lost their wings…”
Caught in this genocide, all survivors have are:
“…our exiled songs/and our daily worries that bear no
/official translator’s stamp.”

So Zivancevic sings (though not in her native Serbian now) for those who can no longer sing, and for those who censor themselves (“There are People Who Can Never Talk”), inhibited or afraid–so closed”they can never become poets”–and for those who speak too much and therefore aren’t taken seriously.

Some European cities have fared better, their rich heritage preserved, if no longer honoured: in Florence,”where Giotto who merciful/to leave his frescoes behind”; in Rome with its”petrified creatures,” fountains, and churches, Caravaggio’s St. Peter”like/an old man/evicted from his low income housing project,” where the music is”even more innocent than those angels above”; in Paris, where the”lights dwelled in my heart” and the poet breathed the same air as Apollinaire.

Wherever man tries to create something noble and immortal, there are consequences, Zivancevic knows. For one, the women in her striking portraits suffer under male-dominated cultures. In”Poem with a Tilde,” princess Doña Infanta is”entrapped/in a Velasquez painting.”
In”Sketches from Byzantium,” Ottoman concubines are living claustrophobic and”ghostly/desperate” lives: …”The first feminists/must have been born there where the feminine

/was denied with such brutality/and cruel disrespect for anything human
/but something pleasurable and shivering/like a Turkish delight, something awfully slow
/like rat’s poison, something alluring…”

Unafraid of the truth (she holds up ”stained and broken mirrors” that leave her trembling” before something hollow”), Zivancevic is driven by a pure aesthetic vision. If only she were”allowed one moment/Of silence once a day”; if only she could wake up smiling; if only a”divine” moment, smelling oranges and incense while hearing music in the 42nd Street subway station, could last–then she would be truly free. But she can’t, and her revelations–because she’s lived under a communist regime (Yugoslavia), because she’s seen Belgrade in ruins–are not surprising:”…the Almighty/ Seigneur of Oblivion covers with thick dust/us all, and especially us who believed…” In”Gilles Dies, So What,” she decries the fact that

“three million people are/Starving in my old homeland and you are still/
at ease bombing me/With international politics and De Sade’s/Theory/Of isolation…”

While she is nostalgic for places and people she cared for, she wants no part of that Europe”ridden by plagues and wars,” wants to be taken away from”[n]eo-classical order and dumbness, /away from the North Station where they/took 2,000, 000 Jews away to the camps…
In”Spirit of Renaissance,” which recalls how European explorers seduced the New World natives (“superior gondoliers slide past uncivilized shores”), Zivancevic demands atonement for past pomposity and foolishness:”and in everyone’s eyes, oh, if we dared/to look into each other’s eyes–/the spirit of the Renaissance.” Nor is America, which has inherited this same sense of superiority, spared a foreigner’s English accent judged in”Don’t They…”; a lover compared to a line-up of pigeons staring into New York harbour in”Lined Up”; the divide drawn wide in”East Side Blues Again” between those who have no food and money and those of privilege:”From the top of the World Trade Center–/now you want art?”
Zivancevic’s longest piece,”Death of New York City” is a both symbolist bashing of old male masters as well as a call for us to live by our emotions,framed as a failed-love poem:

“Is there such a thing as a”poet gracious,” as/A”poet audit,” or a”wild poet,”
/A soul to compare to an animal, to a totem, /To a domestic cat?”

With a nod to the surrealists (Zivancevic recalls how Gala left her husband, the poet Paul Eluard, for Salvador Dalí because she”observed poetry in Dalí’s eyes”) and a wink to Wallace Stevens (the young poet in one section”cuddling his blue guitar” while promising never to get involved again, having had enough of elders’“immortal advice/and cute comforts to compliment their misogyny”), Zivancevic admits the hold that the revered poet of her poem has over her as he”descends alone, /from his outer sanctum and his resplendent, distant sky.” Yet giving him up is not easy:

“No! He should be set free, /And allowed to untie and tie all these
/abstract ribbons of my invisible blouse/Patched with needles from murky philosophies
/–see these tracks and lines?”

The real enemy is loneliness, and Zivancevic’s poems wage war with it, a war that transcends time and borders, that is being fought in every major western city and in every soul, and that started long before September 11th. Only the creative impulse offers the possibility of something better, albeit briefly, some clarity and hope for those ”with crushed stars instead of eyes” and” the solitary posture/ of a warrior.” Seeing someone close to her sinking in such sadness and pain, she says,”sometimes I become quiet/ like a mute lizard resting beneath/the horrid beauty of your rising sun.”

Zivancevic knows that before we attend to the problems of the larger world and decide which justice applies to us all, we have to attend to our own less complex worlds first. To start, we might accept that we get angry, hurt, or blinded because some think in”spirals,” others in”squares.” This is much needed wisdom for our terror-troubled age, or any other.

Johny Brown, poet and playwright, Radio Resonance, London, Hampstead Road – 2005:

“THE DEATH OF NEW YORK CITY is a book of poetry that sits constant by the bed. It’s one of those great works that you find yourself dipping into in the early hours when the sleep won’t come. It is equal parts experience and imagination. An elegy for the beat life and an invitation to a new dance. Nina pushes her words way beyond Acker and Ginsberg to a place all her own. The punk metaphysicist! Other civilisations and their attendant cultures seep through the city walls of her poems. Faded brocade ruffles hang from under the sleeves of cracked black leather jackets. Cairo melts into Rome. Brooklyn drag queens stalk Elizabethan courtyards. Police sirens sound over the plaintive lute but always the chance of hope over sadness and the treasuring of memories of the souls we have lost.”

The Death of New York is available via Amazon

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