Lidija Cvetkovic was born in the former Yugoslavia in 1967 and came to Australia in 1980. Lidija’s poems have appeared in numerous journals and in New Music: An Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry (2001). A number of her poems were published as part of Vagabond Press’ Rare Objects Series in 2001. She was awarded first prizes both for her poem ‘My Grandparents’ and the video poem ‘Pain Cycle’ at the Sydney Poetry Festival. She is a recipient of Arts QLD grants, a Varuna Residency, and the Australian Society of Authors Mentorship. In 2003, Cvetkovic won the inaugural Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize for an unpublished manuscript of poetry. Once published by the University of Queensland Press, Cvetkovic’s first collection War Is Not The Season For Figs went on to win the Anne Elder Award for best first collection of poetry, and was short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Award for Poetry and the Community Relations Commission Award.
Underwriting Cvetokovic’s undeniable gifts as a lyric poet — her work can be favourably compared to that of Judith Beveridge or Emma Lew for its precision and clarity — is the force and reserve of testimony and witness. Her poetry engages family and personal history, neatly balancing an emotional openness without overinvesting in sentimentality or romanticising the self. With a close and recurring regard to twentieth century conflicts in the Balkans and the internalisation of such violence and disintegration within family history, Cvetkovic’s poetry is written from the perspective of the émigré. This distance allows her to bear witness to her history from a perspective doubled between the life before and the life after emigration, often by bearing witness to her family’s experience of dispossession and exile:
My father draws a blade
Along the wired frame
As we watch perfect rectangles
Of honeycomb topple into
A stainless steel bowl.
From a hard earned
78 centimetre TV screen
a voice fires…massacres mass graves
like bullets into our lounge room
shooting father. Blood
thick as honey runs along
his fragile frame.
On the antenna outside
Crows congregate for attack
On the raw liver and heart
He set out as bait.
Father waits by the shed,
Air rifle aimed, and fires
A bullet of revenge.
(‘A Portrait of my Father’)
Whereas this bifurcation between the past and present can lead to emotional displacement, elsewhere Cvetkovic examines such displacement to great effect, placing her speaking self at once within and without the testimony she bears. This affords her not simply an ironic detachment from the material but an almost sovereign position over her histories. This is most apparent in poems such as the title poem ‘War is not the season for figs’, ‘Operation Storm’ and ‘Severed’. The last of these ‘Severed’ is subtitled ‘Conversations with my great-grandmother’ and with the subsequent poem ‘Grandparents’, forms a powerful account of familial orgins and the force of family history to bind a sense of self. In ‘Severed’, the great-grand-daughter performs the role of interlocutor with her distant mother-figure, the two voices interweave across the gulfs of generations, time and death, and unfold what appears to be a primal or foundational narrative. Cvetkovic’s narrative traverses dialogue, fairy tale and affects a slightly surreal psychological drama, wherein the great-grandmother accounts for her betrothal and marriage, and the ensuing domestic violence and consequent murder of her husband. Cvetkovic switches between registers, where the great-grandmother speaks directly from a world of things (albeit things transformed by age), the great-grand-daughter nudges that world into metaphor:
What was it like to be a woman back then?
My lot could not afford a daughter,
though I washed and scrubbed and loved
them all I could. On my wedding day
when I clung and cried, my mother consoled,
‘You’ll wear a cotton skirt there
you’ll eat bread made of wheat, white as snow’.
As I rode off on the cart drawn by our cow
the accordion began to play, I turned to wave . . .
but the sky had collapsed behind you.
And on our wedding night . . .
First night and he found the frayed seam of you.
He pulled loose a thread to undo all you’d stitched up,
when in a tangled mess I fell at his feet,
‘Don’t waste your tears. The land is dry.
We’re out of salt. Cry me a barrel by morning!’
I faced the next day split as a fallen fruit, plum-blue.
You became an ice-crusted country
Your voice a fish that nudged in the deep.
The great-grand-daughter’s questions move from the plain and obvious (‘What was it like when you were young?’), to the pointed (‘What was it like to be a woman back then?’), to the teleological (‘Was there a God?’). Throughout the dialogue, the great-grand-daughter, queries and comments to the point where the two voices merge, and so in instances like the question regarding God, which follows on the great-grandmother’s account of violence at the hands of her husband, the question is as much identification as interrogation. Through this the act of testimony becomes not simply witness but communion.
Much of Cvetkovic’s work operates through memoir or remembrance but without an excess of nostalgia or sentimentality. The subject’s voice is often troubling, drawn into other voices as in ‘Severed’ or seemingly distanced from itself through trauma in ‘The Peewee’. While much of Cvetkovic’s work draws its energy from past trauma, her work is neither dark nor depressing book, but most often lends itself to a reaffirmation of the world—even for its brutality—and a celebration of the human spirit’s ability to survive. Along with another winner of the Thomas Shapcott Award, Sam Wagan Watson, Cvetkovic is creating a poetry that cleary depicts the ethnic and cultural heterogeneity of Australia, developing an understanding of Australian poetry, as much of as Australia itself, vested in the reality of its origins not governmental miasma. Cvetkovic sings of her homeland, which as for many Australians, is both the one she lives in and the one from which she came. Hers is a work to attend to, to watch and wait for, as judging by her first collection, hers is a major voice evolving, one that is vital to a true reading of Australia and Australian poetry.
A Portrait of my Father
The Body’s Innuendo
Return to Belgrade
A Seed, A Crutch, A Heart
Sour Cabbage, Roses & Lies
War Is Not The Season For Figs (chapbook), Sydney, Vagabond Press, Rare Objects Series, 2001.War Is Not The Season For Figs, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 2004.