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In December 1987, at the age of twenty-seven, I moved to Paris. My arrival coincided with the beginning of the momentous changes that would overtake Eastern Europe. My first years in Paris were caught up in these historical changes. Many of these experiences went into my first book of poetry, Cities of Memory , which was published in the Yale Series of Poetry.
A few years after my arrival, in 1990, my paternal grandmother, a retired professor of literature, was murdered. This event had a profound effect on my understanding of things, in particular the capacity of human beings to perpetrate extreme acts of violence against one another. In terms of my work, it led me to a profound rethinking of the purpose of poetry and the sources of my belief in the good and how the good can endure in a world also inhabited by force and terror.
My reflections following this period resulted in two volumes of poetry. The first, titled The White Fire of Time , is an investigation of the spiritual life, the vita contemplativa . This book draws on the mystical medieval tradition and is conceived of as a spiritual ladder that passes from the earthly realm to the challenges of the grief-journey and the renewal of the spirit. It was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2002 and Bloodaxe Books in 2003.
In 2002, to work on the second, forthcoming volume, titled Update on the Decent , I traveled to the Netherlands to attend witness sessions at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. This turned out to be the beginning of a number of years' research at the Tribunal. However, while the events described there were unimaginable, a postwar tragedy in the heart of Europe, one quickly came to understand that these stories could have happened—in fact were happening at that very moment—in many other parts of the world.
In this sense the poems published here in The Missouri Review are not about a specific place and time but are part of a larger investigation about how we conceive of and carry out extreme acts, what justifications we use, and about the nature of violence itself.