There are no ghosts in America
Who talks a lot either knows a lot or lies a lot.
I am congratulating myself all the time.
In the first place: it is no worse.
I come from a very wiry and long-lived race.
I was nearly drowned a dozen times. I was buried,
abandoned and frozen. I have had narrow escapes
from mad dogs, hogs and other wild animals.
I have passed through dreadful diseases—have been given up
by physicians three or four times in my life for good. I have met
with all sorts of odd accidents—I cannot think of anything
that did not happen to me.
Whether the pot hits the stone or the stone hits the pot, the pot is in trouble.
When I was six years old
I managed to have myself
imprisoned in a little chapel
and had the most dreadful night
I ever passed in my life. American boys
will not understand it, of course,
for there are no ghosts in America
but my country was full of them,
and every one from the small boy
to greatest hero, who was plastered
all over with medals for courage and bravery,
had a fear of ghosts. As by a wonder,
they rescued me. I am congratulating myself
all the time.
A man wants to be better than everyone, but worse than his son.
My coffin was ordered.
In one of the fainting spells
when they thought I was
dying, my father came to my bedside
and cheered me: ‘You are going
to get well.’ ‘Perhaps,’ I replied.
In my country the rites are but intensified
torture. They smother the dead
body with kisses, then they bathe it,
expose it for three days, and finally
one hears the dull thuds of the earth.
From childhood I was afflicted
in a singular way.
There is no such thing as a tree without a branch or a man without a fault.
I was born exactly at midnight,
I have no birthday. But something else
must have happened on that date. I have learned
that my heart beat on the right side
and did so for many years after. As I grew up
it beat on both sides, and finally settled
on the left. I remember that
I was surprised to find my heart
on the left side. I had two or three falls.
Something that was quite unusual
must have occurred at my birth.
You might think that I had hallucinations. That is impossible.
They are produced only in diseased and anguished brains.
My head was always clear as a bell, and I had no fear.
It's better for your foot to slip than your tongue.
I had two old aunts, I recall,
with wrinkled faces,
one of them with two great
protruding teeth which she used
to bury into my cheek
when she kissed me.
One day they asked me
which of the two was prettier.
After looking them over I answered: ‘This one
is not as ugly as the other one.’ That
was evidence of good sense.
Now as I told you, I had no fear.
It's better to have a bad year than a bad neighbour.
They used to ask me, ‘Are you afraid
of robbers?’ and I would reply ‘No.’
‘Of wolves?’ ‘No.’ Then they would ask,
‘Are you afraid of crazy Luka?’ (A fellow
who would tear through the village
and nothing could stop him) ‘No, I am not
afraid of Luka.’ ‘Are you afraid of the gander?’
‘Yes, I am,’ I would reply and cling to my mother.
That was because once they put me in the courtyard
with nothing on, and that beast ran up and grabbed me
by the soft part of the stomach tearing off
a piece of flesh. I still have the mark.
My mother, who came in time to prevent further injury,
said to me: ‘You must know that you cannot make peace
with a gander or a cock whom you have taunted.
They will fight you as long as they live.’
Birds of Clay (Victoria University Press, 2012) is Aleksandra Lane's first book in English, after two published in Serbian. Aleks moved to New Zealand in 1996, and completed her MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University's Institute of Modern Letters in 2010, receiving the Biggs Poetry Prize. Her poems have been published in Jacket2, Sport, Turbine, Takahē, Snorkel, Side Stream and Swamp. She is studying for a PhD in English at Massey University.
Lane comments: ‘The poem titles are Serbian proverbs. The body of each poem is made entirely of Nikola Tesla's words, sourced from his Edison Medal acceptance speech and his letter to Pola Fotitch.’