Poetry by means of curation: Reviewing “Breathing Technique” by Marija Knežević3 min read
Marija Knežević is not just a poet, she’s a curator of language. A masterful steward of motifs and metaphors, Knežević draws from all genres of literature as she crafts her poetry. Her poems can be read like a conversation with the poetic traditions that came before her, all masterfully woven together.
Breathing Technique is the first selection of Knežević’s poetry to appear in English, translated from the original Serbian by Sibelan Forrester. I first heard of these two women at the height of the pandemic when an independent poetry bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts held a virtual reading. I was not the only one to be captivated by their presence and moved by their words. Breathing Technique was a finalist for the 2021 Derek Walcott Poetry Prize and a finalist for the 2020 Big Other Book Award in Translation.
Born in 1963, Knežević is a Belgrade native. She has a degree in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory from the University of Belgrade, and a Master’s in Comparative Literature from Michigan State University. Knežević has been a literature and creative writing professor, radio journalist, editor, translator, and a prolific writer of poetry and prose. Similarly, Forrester is a professor of Russian, Croatian, Serbian literature and culture at Swarthmore College. Both are giants in their academic fields, though relatively unrecognized in Serbia.
In the introduction, Forrester remarks that Knežević is just as likely to refer to Auden, Plath, or Shakespeare in her poetry as to invoke poets from the former Yugoslavia like Vesna Parun, Miodrag Pavlović, or Izet Sarajlić. The result is a dynamic intergenerational conversation, with delightful metaphors and anecdotes speaking to a variety of readers. While the everyday reader may not be able to draw from such a wide range of references as Knežević, they can still appreciate the craft that comes from layers of literary allusions in this highly personal poetry volume.
For example, in “The Spirit from the Gas Bottle,” Knežević mirrors the interpersonal conflict present in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
An empty bottle, honey! Nothing. He conveys truth to his startled daughter.
And that empty bottle of gas is indeed nothing more, sealed lastingly
By unknown drama. Stay: let her not learn what’s kept quiet. Or not till later. She has her whole life before her to get advice about desirably avoiding
The fruits of the Mediterranean fish shells crabs seaweed swaying
In a time when they too became swallowers of people.
Prazna boca, sine! Nije ništa. Istinu prenosi uplašenoj kćeri.
Ništa više i nije ta prazna boca plinska nesaznatom dramom
Trajno zaptivena. Prećutano neka ne sazna. Ili što kasnije.
Ceo život je pred njom za savete o poželjnom izbegavanju
Plodova Mediterana riba školjki rakova trava zanjihanih
Vremenom u kojem su i oni postali ljudožderi.
This allegorical epic-style poem compares the father-daughter dynamic in The Tempest to Knežević’s own experiences. Like Miranda, the daughter in Knežević’s poem is naive. The father in the poem willingly prolongs not telling her about the dangers of the world out of love, nostalgia, and wanting to freeze time to make a perfect summer last forever.
“The Spirit from the Glass Bottle” is representative of the artistry present in every work in this volume. “The Apocalypse According to the Orpheus” draws from Greek mythology; “Skadar” refers to a fourteenth century Serbian epic song; and “There Far Away” evokes a popular song sung by Serbian soldiers during World War I. These metaphors are used to discuss topics ranging from the poet’s family, Serbia’s complicated history with the Ottoman Empire, the ongoing refugee crisis, and more. Knežević’s work is an insightful read, the perfect digest for those who love literature and learning more about Serbia.
I have much respect for these two accomplished writers, and I hope this is the beginning of more Western audiences being able to interact with and enjoy writers from Southeastern Europe.
Book details: Knežević, Marija, Breathing Technique: poems by Marija Knežević / Translated from the Serbian by Sibelan Forrester, 2020, Zephyr Press. Buy it here.