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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ana Bozicevic’s Document reviewed by Chris Tonelli

by Ana Bozicevic

Poetry chapbook, 20 pages
Octopus Books, 2007

Reviewed by Chris Tonelli

With her second chapbook, Document, Ana Bozicevic provides us with a travel log of sorts. In the first poem, “Rhode island,” for example, we witness a departure: “From water and wood / you build on the jetty / a shrine.” It is from this shrine that someone or something embarks: “…red-throated / waterbirds, / typestrokes of fish // visit the shrine // (to view the film / of a coat, departing.).” It is not an actual departure, however, but a cinematic depiction of a departure, and it is unclear who is departing (Is it the speaker? The “you?” Just a coat?) or where he or she is going. Not to mention the fact that there is a movie playing in an ethereal shrine on what appears to be a beach in Rhode Island.

If the purpose of a collection’s first poem is to instruct the reader on how to approach the rest of the collection, “Rhode Island” does just that, laying the groundwork for a certain kind of fragmented narrative, while disarming the reader of other conventional narrative expectations, thus blurring the line between travel log and dream journal. By expertly combining the rhetoric of narrative with the agility of surrealism, Bozicevic creates a landscape, and a cast of characters within that landscape, for which flux is the only stable thing.

Within the confines of an individual poem, Bozicevic captivates the reader—each poem, although very athletic in its shifting from conversational to lyric diction, from image to idea, is also architecturally sound. But, while we are given hints of characters—a traveler, a messenger, a speaker, a “you”—we can never be sure who’s who from poem to poem. We are given glimpses of settings as well—a waterfront, a tavern, a town—but are constantly diverted from those settings, and therefore are frequently disoriented as we move through the book.

What makes something disorienting, at least in part, is its surprise. But, as in a dream, where disorientation is par for the course, we are ready for it as we set out into Document, because we become familiar with it even before we get to the first poem. The epigraph—a quote from Tsvetaeva—begins harmlessly enough: “To her who travels—sleep. / To the wayfarer—the way.” This certainly rings familiar, like one of any number of travel blessings that may be cross-stitched and framed and hung on a paneled wall. But the turns Bozicevic makes in Document are emblematic of the turn Tsvetaeva makes here. After a relatively tame beginning, the epigraph ends: “Remember!—Forget.” In doing so, Tsvetsaeva shifts from the concrete and even cliché to the metaphysical. So not only is the epigraph’s subject matter—travel, sleep, memory—reflected throughout Document, the way it shifts from the mundane and comfortable to the abstract and prophetic is reflected as well.

Even the dedication—This book is for its messenger—is slippery. Is the messenger a character in the book? And if so, does that character correspond to someone in Bozicevic’s life, as most dedications do? Is it for the publishers of the book—since they are the ones delivering the book, the document, to the world? Or is it the reader—the one carrying the book around in the world? After reading Document, the reader is no closer to an answer. But what this frontloading does, ultimately, is lower the reader’s narrative inhibitions, preparing them for the constant shifting and melding that follows, expanding their sense of what is possible.

In the collection’s second poem, “The Messenger,” the elusive anti-narrative which this frontloading prepares the reader for is confirmed. The title appears to be a tidy link to the aforementioned dedication, in that we expect to hear from or about The Messenger. And possibly we do. But it is just as possible that we don’t:

What are the passions replayd against you


Down the avenues of gulls in argument.

Blue forgets it’s color and takes the role of space.

O show! me the traveler, in tapdance down the waves.

Our bones may reverse.

Since we find ourselves in a similar setting—on or near a shore—it seems possible that the same speaker who addressed The Traveler in the first poem (“O traveler. Grey star.”) is now addressing The Messenger. But it is just as possible that The Messenger is the speaker of this poem and is addressing his or her own “heart-mollusk,” yearning to see The Traveler and to perhaps commune with him or her in some way. “Our bones may reverse,” the speaker of the poem speculates. Bozicevic’s language here seems to be that of someone recounting a dream. “I was addressing my heart, but my heart was a mollusk,” one might say, or, “I remember wanting to catch a glimpse of someone called The Traveler and thinking that if I did, our bones might reverse.”

The language of dreams is almost always untranslatable—generally it is the dreamer who gets the most out of his or her own retelling. Because the dreamer alone experiences the dream, he or she is able to bridge the gaps in his or her incomplete memory of the dream with its accompanying feeling or effect. We, on the other hand, have only the dreamer’s fragmented recollection, and whatever the sum of those parts, are unable to empathize.

In Document, however, Bozicevic masterfully immerses the reader not simply in a recollection of an ever-morphing travel dream (“We were on a beach…you were building a shrine, and then all of a sudden, a movie was playing at the shrine and the birds and fish were watching!”), but the dream itself, so that we find it completely natural when somewhere or someone becomes somewhere or someone else. To evoke such complete empathy in the reader takes poetry of they highest order, and Bozicevic’s is undoubtedly that. Instead of simply humoring the speakers of these poems as they recount their dreams, their travels, the reader gets the sense that these are dreams he or she has had, that these are places to which he or she has traveled, knowing full well that this is not the case.

Like most dreamscapes, the ones in Document are impassable. In the book’s title poem, for example, the “star-tall” roses “navigate / a tub of unease.” Even the speaker questions how this can happen: “Who stamped the passports of these hordes of spring?” Appropriately enough, in a poem called “Document,” in a book called Document, we come across a conventional document, albeit used unconventionally—the speaker can’t fathom how the powers that be have allowed the roses to travel from winter, or non-existence, into spring.

The poem then abruptly shifts, as dreams do, to The Traveler, “oarless, cresting on a promise,” and we find ourselves face to face with another traditional document—a contract. “Release the rudder,” the speaker urges the Traveler, “A little bit lower— / (You’ve almost forgotten—): There, we’ve both signed it.” It is a contract the validity of which is contingent upon the speaker and The Traveler forgetting. Bozicevic, bravely, neither avoids her subjects nor manipulates them. Here, as previewed in the Tsvetaeva epigraph, Bozicevic confronts travel and memory and the conventions of sleep (dreams), and while she certainly practices a kind of lucid dreaming, she in no way limits her subjects—a testament to Bozicevic’s organic and pristine construction of not only each poem, but the collection as a whole. Though only thirteen poems long, Document accomplishes what most full-length books only set out to.

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Chris Tonelli lives in the Boston area where he runs The So and So Series. He has work forthcoming in Saltgrass, Salt Hill, Absent, and Good Foot, and is the author of three chapbooks: For People Who Like Gravity and Other People (Rope-A-Dope Press, forthcoming), A Mule-Shaped Cloud (w/ Sarah Bartlett, horse less press, 2008), and WIDE TREE: Short Poems (Kitchen Press, 2006).