To quicken the pulse: Lawrence Durrell’s “Sarajevo”

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The worst days for me as a reader are the ones when nothing hits the right note, when I feel dry and dull. Somehow it only gets worse when I redouble my efforts to find something to break the spell. I flit from one book to another and feel increasingly restless. On rare occasions, though, I’m lucky to come across something that does cut through the fog, does quicken my pulse. Today was one of those days, and I was fortunate to pick up Lawrence Durrell’s Collected Poems: 1931-1974 and take time to read “Sarajevo.” It’s immediately identifiable as Durrell in its lyricism, and over the span of four relatively brief stanzas, he, again true to form, establishes an unmistakable sense of place. On this occasion, though, he gives the impression he may do so on the strength of physical detail alone, a curious choice. At the start of the final stanza, he even writes, “No history much? Perhaps. Only this ominous/Dark beauty flowering under veils, Trapped in the spectrum of a dying style.” But read on and the payoff is there in the last line, sudden and definite as the act Durrell alludes to. We see him as more novelist than poet, Durrell, and that’s fair enough, but he has his moments in verse, and “Sarajevo” is one of them:

Sarajevo

Lawrence Durrell

Bosnia. November. And the mountain roads
Earthbound but matching perfectly these long
And passionate self-communings counter-march,
Balanced on scarps of trap, ramble or blunder
Over traverses of cloud: and here they move,
Mule-teams like insects harnessed by a bell
Upon the leaf-edge of a winter sky,

And down at last into this lap of stone
Between four cataracts of rock: a town
Peopled by sleepy eagles, whispering only
Of the sunburnt herdsman’s hopeless ploy:
A sterile earth quickened by shards of rock
Where nothing grows, not even in his sleep,

Where minarets have twisted up like sugar
And a river, curdled with blond ice, drives on
Tinkling among the mule-teams and the mountaineers,
Under the bridges and the wooden trellises
Which tame the air and promise us a peace
Harmless with nightingales. None are singing now.

No history much? Perhaps. Only this ominous
Dark beauty flowering under veils,
Trapped in the spectrum of a dying style:
A village like an instinct left to rust,
Composed around the echo of a pistol-shot.

From Faber and Faber’s 1985 edition of Lawrence Durrell’s Collected Poems: 1931-1974. 

— John McIntyre

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