The Bright Lights of Sarajevo – a SCASI reading

Many readers will by now be familiar with the SCASI mnemonic as an approach to writing about literature. If not, take a look here.

I love Harrison’s poem, placed in the Edexcel IGCSE Anthology last year for the first time. Harrison was embedded in Sarajevo during the Balkan War in the 1990s and was in Sarajevo during the siege which lasted from 1992-1996 and saw acts of utter cruelty meated out to a population suffering immense hardship. The snipers which became a part of everyday life and the appalling mortar attack on a market bread-queue in  1992 appear in this poem which engages with a typical Harrison trope: the collision of life and death and/or the possibility of hope to be found in the least likely of places.


After the hours that Sarajevans pass

Queuing with empty canisters of gas

to get the refills they wheel home in prams,

or queuing for the precious meagre grams

of bread they’re rationed to each day,

and often dodging snipers on the way,

or struggling up sometimes eleven flights

of stairs with water, then you’d think the nights

of Sarajevo would be totally devoid

of people walking streets Serb shells destroyed,

but tonight in Sarajevo that’s just not the case–

The young go walking at a strollers pace,

black shapes impossible to mark

as Muslim, Serb or Croat in such dark,

in unlit streets you can’t distinguish who

calls bread hjleb or hleb or calls it kruh,

All takes the evening air with a strollers stride,

no torches guide them, but they don’t collide

except as one of the flirtatious ploys

when a girl’s dark shape is fancied by a boy’s.

Then the tender radar of the tone of voice

shows by its signals she approves his choice.

Then mach or lighter to a cigarette

to check in her eyes if he’s made progress yet.

And I see a pair who’ve certainly progressed

beyond the tone of voice and match-lit flare test

and he’s about, I think, to take her hand

and lead her away from where they stand

on two shells scars, where, in 1992

Serb mortars massacred the breadshop queue

and blood-dunked crusts of shredded bread

lay on this pavement with the broken dead.

And at their feet in holes made by the mortar

that caused the massacre, now full of water

from the rain that’s poured down half the day,

though now even the smallest clouds have cleared away,

leaving the Sarajevo star-filled evening sky

ideally bright and clear for the bombers eye,

in those two rain-full shell-holes the boy sees

fragments of the splintered Pleiades,

sprinkled on those death-deep, death-dark wells

splashed on the pavement by Serb mortar shells.

The dark boy-shape leads dark-girl shape away

to share one coffee in a candlelit café

until the curfew, and he holds her hand

behind AID flour-sacks refilled with sand.

Tony Harrison

This poem is full of juxtapositions of light and dark, war and peace, hatred and love and ultimately of death and love as embodied in the final tentative triumph of Eros found in the last lines.

It is set in a specific location: Sarajevo after 1992, during the summer months and at night. This allows Harrison to play with the juxtapositions outlined above. Night time is a time not of war but of peace – ‘the young go walking at a strollers pace’ suggesting a new relaxation following a day spent ‘dodging snipers’ yet as awe learn in stanza 2, the ‘clouds have cleared away’ leaving the contradiction of the beauty of a ‘star filled sky’ which allows bombing runs to take place and thus replace the small scale death of a sniper with the potential mass destruction of war from the air.

Harrison further uses the setting to explore the racial and sectarian tension at the heart of this most vicious civil war: darkness allows anonymity as the ‘black shapes’ can not be defined by their religion of nationality – ‘Muslim, Serb or Croat’ – and although the various languages calling out for food are still discernible, it is not possible to attach a voice to a shape. All this suggests that night is now a time of relative sanctuary. Into this world, another inversion is placed – lovers using the ‘tender radar of tone of voice’ to locate each other. Harrison suggests that in time the instruments of war will become part of the arsenal of love and therefore of peace, as long as the individuals, such as the pair in this poem, continue to thrive.

This ability to replace the war is shown in the second stanza as the lovers feet walk the scarred paving stones – the city personified to bear wounds itself from the attacks – and rainwater fills the shell holes acting as a natural purification rite for the dead and wounded in the ‘massacre’ which Harrison describes vividly, the ‘blood-dunked crusts of shredded bread’ acting as  a replacement for the dead and wounded by means of synecdoche.

As Harrison moves from the public face of the city to the ironically romantic setting of a ‘candlelit cafe’, we focus on the lovers – anonymous perhaps even to each other: a ‘boy-shape’ and a ‘girl-shape’-  given no names or identifiers in order to maintain the idea of anonymous safety already established. In the relative safety created by the re-use of AID sacks they hold hands in a version of normality which suggests hope for the future – the true bright lights of Sarajevo.

However the journey to find this pair begins at the start of the poem with Harrison referencing the hardship of the whole town – prams are re-used as shopping trolleys in a world with no power and little food. Bread is rationed in ‘meagre grams’ and even water has to be brought in from street stand pumps. The verbs suggest the hardship throughout the first lines of the poem: queuing (repeated), rationed, struggle, dodging (snipers) all suggest a life of hardship. At this point Harrison addresses his readers directly to introduce the unexpected revelation that night time brings relief: strollers, flirtatious,fancied, tender. Harrison is clear that ‘the young’ are the hope for the future. It is they who seek the hope of a night-time of possibility – even one in which Death still stands close at hand. The young meet and the simple act of lighting a cigarette becomes loaded with new significance for the boy-shape – the first chance to see the figure to whom he is speaking.

Harrison’s first person narrative places him in the poem as a voyeur of all which is happening and as a war-correspondent he reports what he sees with a poetic diction which does not cloud the clarity of his vision. He uses compound nouns  throughout, lending the poem an archaic tone like the kennings of Anglo-Saxon writing or the language of Aeschylus, possibly a subtle hint at the possible longevity of the society which might emerge from this dystopian vision of a city. It is he who notices the detail of the location – the market place and the detail of the emerging stars, surely symbols of hope and peace, although as ever in this poem, tainted with the ideas of death. As they move towards the cafe, Harrison’s language becomes ever more poetic: ‘fragments of the splintered Pleiades, sprinkled on those death-deep, death-dark wells’ as the boy sees the beauty of the sky ‘splintered’ in holes left by Serb shells – the war has had the power to damage the very cosmos, yet love will still manage to survive. The two kennings ‘death-deep’ and ‘death-dark’ -compound adjectives both, serve to suggest the enormity and the power of the forces ranged against love in this poem – shell holes become ‘wells’ suggesting an immense depth, as though descending into the grave, albeit with a solemn beauty which suggests a lack of fear.

We notice that it is the male who ‘leads’ the girl away to the cafe. This allows him to adopt the traditional male role of protector. She is now his property – he holds her hand -either a tender gesture or a gesture based on fear of losing her and thus losing hope for the future. In this war many hundreds of thousands of souls were led away to be slaughtered as part of the ethnic cleansing undertaken by both sides – how good to see the verb being used here positively.

The poem is written in a rhymed iambic pentameter – some lines are longer, some shorter, but the thread remains audible throughout a reading of the poem. This use of rhyming couplets in iambic form is a verse pattern called ‘heroic couplets’ – Harrison does not need to express his open admiration for the heroes at the centre of the poem, his form does it for him – the citizens of the city are the clear heroes of this tale. In addition, the iambic pentameter is often likened to a human heart beat and this also carries resonance for me in this poem. At times the heart races – 13 syllables in ‘but to night in Sarajevo that’s just not the case’ possibly suggesting the increase in excitement as night falls and a certain freedom is to be found – and at times the heart falters – ‘black shapes impossible to mark’ has only 8 syllables possibly allowing us a slight pause due to the gap in the meter at the end of the line as we peer closely to try to see more detail,in those around us. Harrison used enjambment here to link to the next line, but the pause is built in perhaps to show the hesitation demanded in such a dangerous environment. Sentences are long – the first alone covers 16 lines as Harrison establishes his setting and presents  his inversion – ‘After the hours… then you’d think…but tonight’. He addresses his readers directly and offers reportage with a difference.

In this poem the world of Duffy’s war photographer, Alagiah’s Passage to Africa and Harrison’s reporting merge. All are creating images of war for public consumption. The photographer is hostage to his editors who seek ever more lurid images from the disaster zone, Alagiah likens reporters to ghouls, literally feeding off the victims of famine – Harrison is able to move beyond this – he is a poet. He reports what he sees but can invest his poem with layers of subtext far beyond the photograph or the news report. He can present ‘ideas’. His central idea is that even here, in an earthly Hell, Eros can trump Thanatos and we can find hope for the future, lit by a candle and desperately fragile, but hope nonetheless.