Nine Alexandrias

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the well-known Beat poet and founding publisher of City Lights Books, remarked that “The most interesting manuscripts we receive are from Third World writers,” adding that these poets are “the true conscience of the people, sounding off poetically on crimes against humanity, political inanities or disastrous wars where someone had blundered.” In accordance with this position, Ferlinghetti published Semezdin Mehmedinovic’s Sarajevo Blues in 1998, a collection of poems begun in Bosnia in 1992 where the author and his family lived as “internally displaced” persons under siege. Mehmedinovic arrived in the United States in 1996 as a political refuge and in Nine Alexandrias he recounts his experiences learning about life in America on a trip crossing the continent starting from his home in Alexandria, Virginia.

The poems have been very deftly translated by Ammiel Alcalay, who also provides a preface, “LIFE AFTER THE WAR: A Descent into the Underworld,” that locates Mehmedinovic in an American literary space that includes Charles Olson, James Baldwin, and William Carlos Williams. Alcalay, a poet, scholar, and critic, has become very familiar with the linguistic inclinations of Williams and the poets he influenced, and his translation gives Mehmedinovic a distinctive American voice that functions as a fine complement to the formative cultural experience of the poet’s life in Bosnia. Both fascinated and intrigued by life in the United States, the poet sees, in Alcalay’s description, “an America we haven’t yet known but must be prepared to recognize.” This recognition is appealing for its insight but also made quite inviting by the poet’s friendly demeanor, as in his characteristically genial comment in the title poem: “Maybe that isn’t all of them but the way I figure it/ There are at least nine cities in America called Alexandria.”

Mehmedinovic mingles appreciative responses to the vast variety of unique American cultural elements with reflective recollections of aspects of his European education. His “sorrow of exile” is ameliorated, to an extent, by the vitality of the American landscape, and by his contact with “Young American friends.” The imprint of the genocide that he witnessed in Bosnia has understandably influenced his perspective on everything, but in the concluding section, “8 Things About Cadillac,” the poet’s insistent inclination toward affirmation is expressed powerfully in terms of a surreal symbol of what he calls “American mysticism” which is projected as a vision of light against darkness.