Breathing Technique by Marija Knežević (Zephyr Press, 2021).
In a selection of excerpts from “The River’s Name,” the standout poem of Breathing Technique (Zephyr Press, 2021), Serbian writer Marija Knežević explores the protean nature of borders, agency and identity, longing and isolation—“the anguish of cartography.” Knežević has seen her nation face more than a few historical tragedies because of “the passion of enacting borders.” The country has been contested by empires, terrorized by dictators, liberated from a conglomerate state, and bled by inter-ethnic conflict, captured in her lines: “The river doesn’t ponder fate and justice. / She has seen too many things to compare them.”
This eponymous river of the poem is likely the waltzing Danube, which tracks a path through Knežević’s hometown of Belgrade. “Her course is full of consideration and therefore meandering,” she writes. “She has learned how to last in between.” This in-betweenness recalls the Non-Aligned Movement, a coalition of states that favored neither Cold War superpower. Yugoslavia joined in 1961, two years before Knežević was born, at a summit held in Belgrade. Perhaps this is also what Knežević herself has done—found a way to persist with her art in liminal spaces.
Throughout this collection, comprising poems from across the poet’s thirty-plus year career, Knežević examines the imaginary distinctions drawn by human beings, from those that create the boundaries of nation states—and, as a consequence, the dehumanizing experiences of stateless refugees—to the question of who belongs in which spaces, from the limits of scientific reason to the untraversable space between two people. These are, however, indiscreet themes. Within a given poem her images wander from one to the next, employing a certain irrational logic that resembles, but is not, surrealism.
The most important border may be the one between self and self-awareness. “Everything / that’s hers is in her,” Knežević writes. “She is her own border.” The space between experience and the awareness or recognition of experience is as self-created as both experience and awareness themselves. There may seem to be a wall between. On each side of the wall is the self, but the wall too is the self.
The exterior world, meanwhile, remains unbothered by all the drama: “The river knows that / her longing is in herself. / She yearns for the sea. / The sea has no idea about it.”
Some writers identify their particular style and stay with it, with each book offering a variation on their aesthetic. This seems not to be the case for Knežević. Translated from the Serbian by Sibelan Forrester with guidance from the author, Breathing Technique draws from several of Knežević’s eight volumes, plus unpublished work, and contains a remarkably diverse array of poetries. There are brief, aphoristic light-laughers like the three-line poem “Charlie”— “(my dog) / has his own dog / (that’s me).”—as well as beautiful images embedded in longer lyric poems, such as this image from “Soda Can”:
The poems loved one another
Weird like photographs
That don’t see each other.
In the summer background
White grapes and light clothing
Towards the sun of translucent hair.
“Not even the sadness stayed with me,” she writes in the same poem, “The way someone might save a bus ticket.” Such an evocative, perfect image for the banal sadness of lost love, the way we hold on to it even when we should throw it away.