Nina Zivancevic
Spuyten Duyvil ($20)

by Jim Cohn

The title of Serbian-born poet Nina Zivancevic’s vivid travel memoir, SMRTi, comes from the Sanskrit—literally, “that which is remembered.” Historically, smrti refers to written Hindu texts composed by authors seeking an ever-evolving yet precise and compact prose form to capture the passing of essential facts, principles, instructions, and ideas from generation to generation. In Zivancevic’s hands, smrti is an ideal and flexible form to present memorable distillations from her sojourns to India, Egypt, Italy, Spain, England, Paris (her present-day home), Lima, and Peru over the period from 1990 to 2015.

Zivancevic is an intrepid, eclectic world navigator and chronicler. She applies her own extensive and unique knowledge of European intellectual and aesthetic movements as well as Beat Generation writers and poets in a style exemplary of the international post-beat avant-garde, alive and well today. Cornerstones to her sense of lineage and tradition include the Serbian poet Ljubomir Micić, founder of the avant-garde movement Zenitism; the raw and transgressive French writer and dramatist Antonin Artaud; the Belgium-born French writer and visual artist Henri Michaux; the Bulgarian-French philosopher, semiotician, and feminist Julia Kristeva; and two American poets associated with the Beat Generation, Ira Cohen and Allen Ginsberg.

As a writer who has lived an international life in the arts, Zivancevic describes how she approached the writing in SMRTi based on something Michaux said after his travels to India: “I was observing myself during my journey as if I would observe someone else who was observing the world with emotion, remembering an imaginary land.” But they have differing relationships to this “imaginary land”: Whereas Michaux believed that he did not “inhabit” the lands to which he traveled, that he “was not there” and “did not even visit it,” Zivancevic argues that she had “always lived there . . . I am a part of it, I was there even when I did not live in it.”

The writing in SMRTi is delightfully fresh as a result and gives space to unexpected scenes and commentaries. Steeped in the history and cultures of the places she visits, Zivancevic approaches the world as a multilingual surrealist poet or anthropologist might, with a distinct and inventive sense of detail and a mashup of intellectual and colloquial subject matter.

Zivancevic is also grounded in a Buddhist practitioner’s understanding of breath, which sustains the rhythm of her prose. The poems in SMRTi are sequenced from longest to shortest and give rise to a stylistically oblique autobiography, filled with slanted and implicit recounts of investigations into the memory of ex-lovers and the development of her own maternal sense.

Perhaps most importantly, Zivancevic’s travel writing is a welcome departure from the colonialist norm. Her travel-memoir language has little relation to any National Geographic documentary or hired tour mentality—the kind of habitual, dull bubble of travel where people never really leave their cultures behind while abroad. Citing the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, as the basis for her own way of being, she writes:

Italy, Serbia and India are not so different; at the same time they are just singular entities, as Deleuze would have explained when he was creating the notion of “singularity,” opposing the notion of “otherness” which purported the Euro-centrist theory. In other words, one should view the cultural differences not so much as the post-effect of “otherness” but as an act of exhibiting equal cultural entities. What follows is a possibility of observing all cultural singularities as equal participants in our mutual presence, rather than treating them as different relics of the past.

It is this egalitarian and transformative approach to otherness that contextualizes Zivancevic’s perspective throughout SMRTi as a series of memory-oriented and dream-connected aesthetic singularities. She writes about her travels to India: “I close my eyes . . . and for a second I fall asleep, float away, as if I am Sarasvati, the goddess of poetry, noise and music in person.” Such “invasive souvenirs” allow Zivancevic her the opportunity to notice “quick passing memories” or, in her words, “what’s the most important thing to remember while passing out.”

This line of thinking brings her back, while traveling to the south of India to attend a yoga retreat, to memories of Allen Ginsberg, with whom she studied at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, who also journaled about his travels to India. As she notes, “Ginsberg called this particular experience in poetry ‘the direct (subjective or objective) approach to an object,’” adding that Ginsberg got this notion from Ezra Pound, who decades earlier advocated this same poetics based not on the Western version of concept or “sentimentality of abstraction” but on “the direct observance of things, without a particular conceptualization.”

SMRTi thus not surprisingly operates with a vigorous dedication to William Carlos Williams’s poetics of “No ideas but in things.” Writing in this mode can lead to brilliant anthropological investigation; it can also work on an individual, psycho-emotional scale. Take this reflection about the deep south of India and its coconut trees:

In order to drink coconut milk you have to cut off almost half the coconut very fast. The movement has to be stable and rapid, and then only at that point you’d be able to get the sweetness of that milk. And so with our life, when we grow older and weary of it, we have to cut it off, throw the negative part out––so we can get deeper into something better.

Zivancevic’s chaotic coherence throughout SMRTi aligns masterfully with her own life changes, and her approach to change as the essence of travel is informative even in its most comic and distraught moments of revelry and remembrance. This philosophy is most apparent in her explorations of her dreams, especially her four major “karmic dreams.” In one of these dreams, Zivancevic describes an argument regarding the nature of feelings between German artist Joseph Beuys and “a French sociologist standing next to me” who responds to Beuys in this way:

“You probably imply here a certain anti-realism. Feeling defends itself by preventing itself from observing something which is unbearable, thus replacing it immediately by a certain illusion.“

“However, you must agree with me that the ‘feeling’ became immune from persuasion and the commercial propaganda imposed on it by that very man who creates perfect illusions but who does not accept the truth of a lie which reality feeds him.”

Dreams like these make Zivancevic question her reality as she travels in the south of India: “Am I dreaming all this, or am I really in a certain film, more precisely, am I in a film where I’m having a dream about cinematography”? Her cinematic dream continues, with scenes of the green fields of Lido changing into the “pavilion of ex-Yugoslavia,” land of her birth, where the subsequent history of civil wars “mingle with the stories of the killing of the population, torture and mutilation and all this repeated every ten minutes on the screen in an endless loop” like one may experience at any museum of fine art.

History as memory, as future, as travel, as illness, as dream, as museum installation—all these divagations allow the reader to realize that for Zivancevic, the ancient cults of the goddesses still exist, that they live in universes that thrive by a matriarchy we cannot apprehend. It is a universe in which parents and children appear in a story when their grandparents are still children themselves, or not yet born. In such a universe, it is possible to go, as Zivancevic did, “right back to the only landscape where I truly belonged, the country where any real family of mine lived––of poets, writers, philosophers and artists. And it is not important really where I live as long as these people are directly or indirectly in my company.”

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