- Purchase/rental options available:
Manoa 13.1 (2001) 209-211
[Access article in PDF]
Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars
Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars by Christopher Merrill. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. 401 pages, cloth $27.95.
In the prologue to Only the Nails Remain, Christopher Merrill writes that he did not anticipate war when, in 1991, he made arrangements to visit fellow poet Ales Debeljak in Slovenia. He planned to hike the countryside, meet the poets and artists of his friend's country, and drink wine in the wooded mountains of the Pohorje range and Julian Alps. When it came time to consummate those plans in August 1992, Slovenia had already fought for and won its independence, and the battlefront had moved south to Croatia and Bosnia. Merrill decided to go ahead with his excursion despite the nearness of the war. The trip went as planned, but Merrill fell victim to the unexpected. The dark beauty of the region drew him in, and he fell hopelessly in love with the Balkans. His passion led him to return to Central Europe ten times over the next four years, traveling through the former Yugoslavia, four other Balkan states, and three bordering countries. His obsession eventually led him to a Sarajevo cellar, where mortar rounds whistled overhead.
Only the Nails Remain is an account of Merrill's travels. It is a study uniquely sensitive to the rhythms and nuances of a place where writing poetry is sometimes considered a national profession and where art is valued in even its most outrageously experimental forms. Merrill captures the wild beauty and romance of the region and records its dangers and inconsistencies. He describes people given to violence, courage, generosity, and hatred--at times in quick succession--but rarely to cold-blooded indifference.
Slovenian Tomaz Salamun is the most renowned of the poets Merrill met. Adrift in a country where melancholics account for a disturbingly high percentage of the population--and poets are nearly as common--Salamun had grown so melancholic he had been unable to write since the war began. Too many people had complimented him on how his early works prophesied the bloodshed, and he worried that, in some magical way, his poems had caused the Balkan wars. "His was a mystical view; a single verse might unleash terrific forces," Merrill writes. The book opens with one of Salamun's prewar poems:
I will take the nails,
and hammer them into my body. [End Page 209]
Very very gently,
very very slowly
. . . . . . . .
Then I will set fire to everything.
It will burn for a long time.
It will burn for seven days.
Only the nails will remain,
all welded together and rusty.
So I will remain.
So I will survive everything.
As a metaphor for the nationalistic rhetoric that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia, the poem describes the destruction perpetrated in Bosnia and parts of Croatia and the effects of sustained brutality on the individual psyche. It also effectively demonstrates the darkness Merrill finds woven through the souls of many of the people he meets--sometimes expressed as poetry or humor and other times as hatred and violence.
In Belgrade, Merrill discovered a culture of paranoia and propaganda: the Serbs were persecuted by the Vatican, the Free Masons, the u.s. government, cnn, much of Western Europe, and Bosnian Muslims who deviously bombed their own people in order to turn international opinion against Serbians. The propaganda was intoxicating. Not even foreigners were immune to its twisting of reality. Upon arrival at his hotel, a British filmmaker introduced Merrill to Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic´. "He thinks the way we do," the filmmaker said to Karadzic´. Merrill was horrified. Karadzic´, a poet and Sarajevo psychologist before the war, was Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic´'s man behind the ethnic-cleansing campaign in Bosnia.
Karadzic´ was such a bad poet that some speculate he was made mean by the near universal disdain his countrymen showed for his work. At times Karadzic´'s prewar verses, like Salamun's, seem to predict the...