I spent my fourteenth birthday under grandmother’s kitchen table. Every light in the apartment was off, shades drawn and Xs taped over the windows. I huddled with my cousin beneath the checkered tablecloth, the red squares gray in the gloom, with a bottle of T’ga za jug -Longing for the South; in Croatian, red wine is called black, and the label perfumed it with a viscous poignancy. The name brought back flashes of Zadar – night sky, minute yellow flowers reflected in a clear bay – like candles at a long ago bash of a crush best forgotten, someone it was no longer wise to love.
Earlier that afternoon, Yugoslav army MIGs dropped missiles on the presidential residence in Zagreb where talks on Croatian independence had just taken place. The boom of the jets breaking the wall of sound brought me to my knees in the white tiled kitchen. Their brute sonic vigor exploded the illusion of safety spun by the family’s recent flight from Zadar to the capital. I felt awe at this strange new affliction: I never knew my body could just kneel like that before a sound. The sky opened with a trumpet crack as in a church ceiling fresco, and I stayed there for a while frozen in an attitude of prayer, without the sense or strength to run down to the basement to hide.
I can’t recall if my cousin was there at the time of the attack, or made her way over through the curfew blackout. Partners in crime, we drank a lot that fall, wine or vodka sloshing in juice bottles across intersecting rail yard tracks at the town’s margins. Now we cracked jokes and listened to The Velvet Underground, Flashdance soundtrack and the comedy s how Enfants Terribles on a tape deck under the table, the dark of threat pushing us to laugh loud and punk out. In between sips, in my diary I sketched a story about a giant invisible octopus terrorizing a mountain town. Silently, it would lift unsuspecting passersby up onto its back and hold them there in midair panicked and ineffectual, until such a time as it decided to set them down.
Twenty five years later, I’m standing in the graveled quad of The Watermill Center in Long Island, hanging on to a long black strap. Across the field I glimpse a writer and painter, a sculptor and photographer gripping other straps branching from the object we are erecting together: a twenty five foot tall inflatable MIG fighter jet suspended nose down, crashed en pointe. I flush with excitement to see the sculpture go up, black cloth limbs filling with air from the fan so that the plane appears to breathe and heave into life. I soak in the rush of the art collective putting our backs into a large work, an effort physically rigorous yet transcendent in contemplation of its object. Aerial drone and on-the-ground shots of the plane are taken by resident photographers, and in almost all the photos I’m smiling.
I love that MIG. Over the next few days I spend every free moment sitting at the jet’s base, beaming and looking up. Its soft towering comforts. Elsewhere on the grounds, I turn to catch glimpses of the sculpture from different angles, and when rain visits the exhibition I search for “lightning” and “aluminum frame,” praying the inflatable can withstand storm winds. There’s a rumour of Kanye for the upcoming gala, and I picture the MIG struck by a bolt and catching fire during his set. The evening of the gala we sing about the fighter jet to a low C# drone, the tonal vibration of the Earth, piped into and filling the performance space.
It’s not until we are back at the studio in Brooklyn after riding the BQE to The Velvet Underground that I remember my fourteenth birthday, the sonic boom, knees on kitchen tiles, and the ineffable octopus. Though the motifs of memory’s story cohere with the alacrity of patterned chaos, what supersedes them is the feeling of awe. The same awe that struck me down in the kitchen lifts me when I look up at the tall sculpture of the MIG, this time the threat resolving into joy.
I think of the folktale in which a child mistakes a charging bear for mother coming to smother him in hugs. The fervor of nationalism in the streets of Zagreb in 1991 and now filling American pre-election editorials. I flash back to the surveillance drones circling over the heads of protesters in Miami a few years ago, and wonder how people piloting planes and drones in the name of whatever transcendent value moves them to awe feel about the noise of machines whose power they borrow. What’s it like inside their bodies?
First comes thunder, then lightning; the jet flies before its boom, trauma floods in years after the event that set it off. If the movement of the Earth resonates, perhaps a country does too; how long until it’s heard? I try to imagine the sound joy would make and move towards it in my mind, ever the unwise child.
Ana Božičević, born in Croatia in 1977, is a poet, translator, teacher, and occasional singer. She is the author of Stars of the Night Commute (2009), the Lambda Award-winning Rise in the Fall (2013) and Joy of Missing Out, forthcoming with Birds, LLC. She is the recipient of the 40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism award from the Feminist Press, and the PEN American Center/NYSCA grant for translating It Was Easy to Set the Snow on Fire by Zvonko Karanović, forthcoming from Phoneme Media. At the PhD Program in English at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York she studied New American poetics and alternative art schools and communities, and edited lectures by Diane di Prima for Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. She works and teaches poetry at BHQFU, New York’s freest art school.' Photo Cred: "As We Lay Dying: A smack and then nothing." 2016 by The Bruce High Quality Foundation (c) Martyna Szczesna