[Wave Books; 2023]

“Come find me it said/And other perfect things.” The heart of Ana Božičević’s fifth collection of poetry, New Life, keens from an internal world divided. A systematic longing, these poems form dialogues amid lives possible and lives lost. Within the inevitable splitting of the self that results from being constrained to exist physically in one place at a time while possessing what can feel like an almost infinite awareness of possibility, her speaker’s concept of self forms and reforms from thought to thought, line to line: “Pity me / No longer a woman / Pity me / No longer a body.” She is daedalesque, as much of the past, a time of war, as she is of the far future, a sempiternal time of consummate disembodiment. And in the present, a gravity is borne onto the physical body—the body, whose singular location on Earth quells her ability to be perceived as she would want, and therefore her ability to feel loved.

Not unfamiliar with displacement, Božičević was born in Zagreb, Croatia in 1977 and grew up in Zadar before coming to the States where she has been a New Yorker since 1997. With a speaker out of place in the land underfoot and the time overhead, New Life is a droll poetic treatise on that gnawing disquiet in the chest, the desire to move the body to some space that feels aligned with the heart. Sanguine images of party paraphernalia become fettered to the tragic—“A disco ball wearing a crown of thorns”—automatons assembled from ostensibly disparate edges of her speaker’s self-conception. “But even as a / Brokenhearted / Zombie I get // How special it is / That I am alive / With my brother // Eating ice cream.” She feels in between, “An old vampire / In the middle of / War / Still made to feel like / A child /By the snow.” Like the folkloric vampir, she broods between life and a kind of death, in a middle space of seemingly endless and solitary hunger. Still, as a child does, Božičević sees a wonder about the world that speaks the ache of alienation into another dimension, one from where she undertakes the search for the face, and in the face of, the brilliant but silent, often cold mystery of love. “To love is to lose everything / First to joy / Then to pain.”  

The near future exists as a nostalgic place where, “Buried in a field / Under miles of sod,” her speaker’s heart “Sen[ds] out signals / From an orchard / Across the ocean” and waits to be found. In this way, these poems are also a dialogue with the Other, the beloved who is the light that “Suddenly . . . fills the piazza,” “That green light / On the messenger,” “A tree / With the light / Left on.” In order to be known, to bridge the inside and outside, there must be another with whom to share her self. “Am I missing something, / The most important / Thing / Some / Key to healing, / Maybe her name. . . .” Božičević’s lineation is stark, like the bones of a skeleton disassembling without connective tissue. The lines in this final stanza from “Depression” suppose questions without answers. In place of a name an ellipsis blinks three times, a blank space repeating within her. While she can only pulse quiet signals from afar, she wants someone to learn her name so she might come together healed, recomposed.

Božičević begins with two epigraphs that form the first dialogue and a meditation on the potency of love. First, she quotes Dante’s La Vita Nuova (also “The New Life”): “Certainly the lordship of Love is good; seeing that it diverts the mind from all mean things. // Certainly the lordship of Love is evil; seeing . . . painful are the torments wherewith he torments them.” At the foundation of this world she is creating, love’s power is not to be understood as some singular, cleansing phenomenon. Love is good, with its gift of deliverance from enmity or estrangement, and its provisions like bulbs to plant in the name of the Other. But its rule is villainous and self-aware: Love may arrive without warning or consent. “Once I held love as a thing / And then it came / Alive in my hands, it / Bit, flowed like water.” Of course, the plant of love will not always flower. It must withstand the elements in order to remain vital, an outside beyond the self-who-loves. With Dante, Božičević presents Love first, and first as a lord to anyone who wakes with a bulb in their stomach as her speaker does. “I tell tiny jokes to myself / In front of love’s door— / I’m afraid I will find / No one there.”

In the point-counterpoint-point narrative that frames this collection, the poet interrogates Dante’s Love with a second epigraph before introducing her own piquant pronouncements. She undermines the binary sight of this good and evil lord with a quote from the Serbian poet Vladislav Petković Dis.

Maybe she sleeps with eyes beyond all evil,

Beyond things, illusions, beyond life,

And her beauty sleeps with her, unseen;

Maybe she lives and she will come after this dream.

Maybe she sleeps with eyes beyond all evil.

Dis’s verse suggests that Love, the temperamental lord, might not know her own dominion in this world, that she might be blind to the power of her beauty and so also to the “bite” she inflicts. Maybe it is only beyond this life of “things” and “illusions” that the ideal of love can be realized, somewhere the Other can “come and say [her] name”—somewhere in a new life.

Božičević’s speaker often seems to say, C’mon now, let us look more closely here. Sometimes her scrutiny is implied, as with the epigraphs. Just as often it is stated outright with an almost audible sigh: “Do you think / There’s / Just one wind?” Other times her queries crumple into a shrugging of the shoulders: “When you left I . . . reached into my throat and / Pulled out the moon / Threw it in the trash and walked away.” In every case the poet’s investigations are not a search for solutions to abstract curiosities, but questions lived in the flesh. “Yeah I’ve been keeping my / Heart open for you like an elevator / With my bare hands.” She does not take her own desire for granted.

Almost theatrically, the opening poem is titled “Birthday.” The day itself is just a thought in the mind of her inquisitive speaker, whose attention initially turns not to herself, nor to any celebration, but to the sky, the trees, the soul, and love. Set apart by their own distinct anaphora, two sections form—a kind of meta-couplet, a meta-picture of four elements so fundamental as to compose the place of her birthday.

If the sky is such a cliché

Why is it falling?

If the tree is such a cliché,

Why is it dying

If soul is such a cliché

Where is it hiding

If love is such a cliché

Why isn’t there enough to go around.

This first section sounds a kind of call and response with Božičević’s speaker playing both parts. These repetitive, sedimentary layers become a surreally bucolic scene depicting the relationship between the sky, the trees, the soul, and love. Seen as a picture, the sky is at sky level while the love is below the trees and even the soul. Love is deep underground with her speaker’s heart, begging the question: If the soul is hiding, how can there ever be enough love? As is often the case in love, a sense of anticipation lays away in these questions. Repeated throughout the collection, here at the beginning they feel so unanswerable to the poet that she ends the sentiment with a period instead of a question mark. Her anticipation does not read tender, but paradoxically relentless and aimless. Naïveté has long departed, and love’s anticipation is left to echo the downside of that expectancy in a venture with another—skepticism and the possibility of rejection. Why bother, the poet sometimes asks, “In how many hearts / Has this love burned / Why have I been passing it on / What did I want / To give them, and what / Get back / Not faith & touch?” Still, the Ifs from the first section are given a maybe for a partner in the second, while the ghost of depression is left to loiter.

For my part

I can’t get enough of the sky.

For my part, I can’t wait

For those leaves to come back.

For my party

I am inviting the clown Love

For my birthday I want a cake

Revealing the color of my soul.

In contrapuntal fashion, Božičević gets ahead of the ghost’s grim potential. By criticizing the critics who have lost their sense of wonder and see the world in clichés, or by addressing the parts of herself caught in war, she unblinkingly rejects cynicism and clears space for the central expression of the work: To become is not to know, but to experience want. Want is perhaps the only thing left after war, displacement, and heartbreak. Božičević does not seem to believe much in the power of sentimentality or hope, but by exchanging love and the soul’s positions, Love can be given an identity and the soul a chance to be revealed. Now we see where it is hiding. Only the structure of the earth itself needs to be recast in order for Love to arrive, her soul to be seen, and herself to be known. Perhaps then it is as Dis said, what we want from life is beyond it—and where does that leave us then but in a cliché of some kind? Are we living in a live, laugh, love mash-up nightmare? In a sense Božičević says, we are. More importantly, she believes we need not come up with more original wants. What can possibly replace the sky, the trees, the soul, and love? Love, “the clown”—and not the god—must finally be invited to the birthday, a party thrown to celebrate the unseeable soul.

Božičević’s speaker invites absurdity to her birthday outright on the envelope and gives love an identity that feels honest, honestly depressing but not despairing. “When I wake / From the coma / I want you to be there / Laughing in pajamas.” “I want to move to Buffalo / And live forever.” “I sleep and wait / To be delivered / From my pains of want / By what / I have no idea.” Despite not knowing what will become of Love and what meeting it might reveal about herself, the Other, or even of Love’s own clownish nature, she will invite it over, on the day of her birth no less. She can’t wait to “part . . . part . . . party.” Want delivers us into our humanity, reveals it to us, even if partially, even if painfully. While want still exists, she tells us, the possibility for new life remains. Though it may be somewhere beyond this life, after the dream of Dis. The dream of the speaker come true or the dream of the speaker meted out as an illusion standing in the way of love, we cannot be sure which is real. Her speaker does not step into this beyond and come out new on the other side just yet. Instead, as in the title poem, she matter-of-factly “think[s] about it / Every day / To just leave / And start life among some / Other people.” Her want is simple yet nearly impossible. A new identity would require collaboration with Other people, new and deep understandings that are hard to come by. Or it would require a new self, an even trickier endeavor but one she does not exclude from possibility. By “that other place / [she doesn’t] mean / Heaven,” but the place “For turning to stars / Where bones are / Milled into fire / And you are finally seen / The way you see // The world from inside / Your current body / And understood.”

Božičević speaks in terms of want more than hope because there is little indication she believes her speaker’s desires will be fulfilled in this life. She is often disappointed. Yet in a kind of wonder, depression “brings with her / Galactic winds” and so gives way again to a welcoming of the absurd energy that comes from being made of stardust. “And I do all the things / With the dread and joy / Of someone cursed hoping.” To hope is to be part of a curse, but the inevitable dread does not negate joy, the joy of possibility. Her metaphors of the self needing to be redefined, reshaped, relocated, and eventually obliterated back to outer space as starlight in order to be seen compound with the enigma of the present, misshapen, misplaced, all-too-singular self experiencing want, wanting continuity. These images suggest, as in the poem “Nikola Tesla Fell in Love,” that the light one creates might only be for others in another time altogether. The potential for a feedback loop or a domino effect of seeing exists, but there are no guarantees of unanimity in this life. How to be together?

While convolutions succeed certainty in this life, for Božičević this means everything: “And not even knowing / Whether u do [love] // Well that’s love too / Its own meaning / It’s what I’ve been meaning // To talk to u about.” Never fully slipping from sorrowful sarcasm into cynicism, New Life is a wry exhortation to love the sky even though it is falling and the trees even though they are dying. Love because there isn’t enough to go around. Risk inviting the “clown Love” to the party. If she arrives to make us laugh and cry, we can speak each other’s names and tell each other what we see.

Verena Raban is a Series-LXXXVII Replicant from the storm-swarmed planet Saturn-09. She writes & draws poems & punks & flowers. “A horse’s mane billows pale in the night’s open window tearing with stars,” she was overheard thinking once.

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