Dear Chekhov

Do you remember in the Max Ophüls film “The Earrings of Madame de..”  how she tore up the letters her lover wrote to her and threw them out the window and then the little ripped up pieces of paper turned to snow? It reminded me of The Cherry Orchard, when the flower petals swirled in through the window. Did that really happen in the play we saw, or did I imagine it in the poem I wrote about it? I don’t remember. I was in love and it’s hard to remember what actually happened when you’re in love, though I think what is remembered is still the truth.


Two years later I was back in Sarajevo and it was winter, sitting in the National Theater all gilt and chandeliers and velvet red carpet and stage-curtains, watching the Seagull. It snowed three feet the night before, but everyone was out, carefully making their way through the drifts and along the icy sidewalks, down the mountains into the city, exchanging smiles in passing that meant, careful, and we are all in this together. That’s what Sarajevo means to me, that feeling of belonging and no matter what history brings, we will meet at the theater, even if it should be in ruins. We will take one another’s hands to help us find our balance if we should suddenly slip.

This is love to me and why I am in love with this city, every war wound, every bear-claw mark of shrapnel from more than twenty years ago, every bullet hole in the walls of my friend’s apartment which they refuse to fill, because they refuse to forget, every set of hands lifted in supplication at Friday prayers, every Linden tree blooming in spring or bent over with the heavy weight of ice, every Bogomil tombstone tipping sideways out of the mud, every church bell and call to prayer, every citizen, gingerly stepping on ice.


I heard Chekhov used to catch and sell goldfinches to pay for his tuition. I love this anecdote, that brilliant flash of yellow in summer after the long months of Russian-Ukrainian winters. Humor and longing, like birds you catch and release. I Imagine him snaring the little birds on a limed-twig, a stickiness to trap their small feet. He delicately scoops them with his hands into a basket-cage. Such small and intensive labor to make a living, to survive, to catch beauty out of thin air.

Chekhov was writing at the turn of history, revolution boiling, something dark rising up on the horizon. I remember the ending of The Cherry Orchard, sitting beside you and all of a sudden I felt like the floor was dropping out from under my feet. It still feels like that in Sarajevo, a city always at the turn of history, war again, just around the corner. For now, there aren’t enough young men for a fight, but there will be soon, the boys are growing up, being taught to hate and then the impossible will happen again, inevitably. I ask my friends, “Do you think there will be another war?” and they answer, “I know there will be.”


In the United States, we are all adjusting to this new way of living, the day to day anticipation of catastrophe. War is just around the corner (and yet in the United States one can also say, war is never-ending. We just have never had to live our own lives or sacrifice our own lives in it. It’s always someone else’s war, the professional soldier, the refugee, the unnamed, faceless target beneath the drone. This is our exceptionalism, and we fear the end of that myth.) Everyone can feel the violence rising up, getting closer to us, our own lives, but we reassure ourselves, every generation thinks it’s the end times, we say; the apocalypse is always unfolding in every century.  No need to worry unduly. Surely we will be all right. Then it’ll come like winter. You wake up and war like snow smothers the city.  Sarajevans will say, I told you and then they’ll invite us to the National Theater for Chekhov.

I loved it when we wrote letters every week. You’d tell me what you saw or some line of literature or a song you loved and I’d write you in return. We kept a record of our days and became a witness to one another. It’s so easy to fall in love this way and yet, not everyone wants to carry that much of another’s history. Our own is burden enough sometimes.

I like what Chekhov said about love: Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in love represent a normal state. Being in love shows a person who he should be.

Maybe that’s why I want to fall in love so much with people and places, out of some ethical imperative to be the best version of a human being I can be, alive and alert to you, and watch carefully, pay attention, be filled with wonder at you, bewildered by you.

I think that being in love is what it means to me to be a poet, and I want to bear it.

In the Death of the Dervish, by Meša Selimović, a Bosnian Sufi poet writes, But in the strokes of these letters at least some of what was in me will remain, no longer to perish in eddies of mist as if it had never been, or as if I had never happened. In this way I will come to see how I became what I am – this self that is a mystery even to me. 

This kind of love isn’t sentimentality. It’s fierce in fact, perhaps extreme–the kind of love that will draw a solider from his outpost in the mountains to hike down through the deep snow under shelling and sniper fire to gather with friends and strangers to watch a play together under the flickering candle light.  To me, this love is the deepest kind of resistance and defiance–  and poetry.