Emma Lee examines Mario Susko’s compassionate approach to poems about conflict

End Phrase 
Mario Susko
The High Window, https://thehighwindowpress.com/the-press/
ISBN 9781326801656

Mario Susko survived the war in Bosnia and now teaches at SUNY in New York. The poems in End Phrase were written in the period 2006 – 2017 and dwell on Susko’s role as witness but with the benefit of the distance of time. The poems are not a didactic response to the war but a record of being caught up in a time when horrors become commonplace, e.g. in ‘The Time of Crows’,

i fire my gun into the sky,
though i know that will surely give
my position away, and the crows

dart off, only to loop back and land
on the same spot, as if to prove
to me i have missed again:

and the skeletal index finger moves
the big hand on the faceless clock,
goes back to drawing crows

on a dry stone wall standing guard
over a body, its arms stretched out,
hand clawing at or cupping the air:

Initially the crows seem to be just a nuisance to be chased off – albeit shooting at them seems extreme when the noise of the gun will draw attention to the narrator who wishes to remain hidden. It’s only in the last stanza that the narrator reveals the crows were gathering around a human body like vultures circling around a predator’s kill. Ending the poem on a colon rather than a full-stop invites the reader to speculate on what happened next. The reader is spared the gory details but has been given quite enough information to figure them out. This is a less obvious but more powerful way of conveying the message.

Many of the poems explore the theme of survivors having to find coping strategies to deal with the memories that won’t leave. Not all of them are able to do so. In ‘The Violin Case’, a violinist, who survived earlier wars by playing for the enemy, throws his violin into a river and follows it into the water. It’s not clear how the instrument case ends up in the narrator’s possession,

In the end I cleaned the case, tried
even some shoe polish on its mahogany
lid, and smuggled it one evening
under my second-hand coat to the bridge.
I pushed it off the frosted iron railing
and watched that small child's coffin
dance, turning left, turning right,
carried by the lazy moonlit waves,
until it got swallowed by the night.

Even amongst the horror, there are absurdities, as in ‘The Sniper and I’

In the morning I heard steps in the vestibule
and went to see, making sure my hands were
in full sight, but a man I'd never seen before
just glanced at me: It's over, he mumbled,
they signed the agreement two days ago;
anything of value in these apartments? I
scrambled out, blinded for a while by the sun,
and slowly managed to make out those three men
that again sat on the stoop, drinking beer.

Which one of you wanted to kill me I shouted,
my voice both deranged and comical, and one
of them looked at me grinning and waved me
off, though I could descry through a gaping hole
in the front door frosted glass the barrels
of three sniper rifles leaning like fish poles
against the snow-white tiled wall.

These are poems of witness. Their power lies not in their messages but in the depth of observation and record. They grapple with how an ordinary man can describe the extraordinary events he did not voluntarily take part in and then share that description with someone who only read the headlines and didn’t appreciate the stories behind them. However, Mario Susko acknowledges that communication isn’t a salve, in ‘Things that are (and are not)’

This is the ink that doesn't save words
This is the paper that makes words wilt
These are the words that heal nothing.

Whilst the words of End Phrase will not heal the witness’s wounds, they enable understanding and give the reader an appreciation of what survival means. These poems are quietly vital and demonstrate compassion and dignity.

Emma Lee‘s most recent publication is Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, 2015) and she was co-editor for Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves, 2015) and Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.