The first weeks of the Balkans semester for the study of war and peace

For the first five weeks of the Fall 2015 cohort’s semester, they studied literature and history of the Balkans. Petra Taylor functioned as the professor for these classes, and for much of the course she had a guest lecturer present, Marko Pogačar. Marko is a poet, author, as well as an editor for two literary publications. He was born in Yugoslavia, like Petra, and now travels Europe, attending conferences, presenting, writing, and lecturing. His master’s degree is in history, and he was a fellow for a number of writing fellowships. The class appreciates having him, and he is glad to be with the students. He has brought a critical and unique perspective to the cohort’s dialogues, no matter whether they happen in the classroom, during travel, or at mealtime.

They’re talking about a poem? A brim?

A group of people with backpacks sit outside. There’s a warm summer breeze. They’re on the top level of a terrace up a few levels from the street, sitting on assorted chairs, next to a wall with vines tumbling down, and in the corner of the fourth terrace up, the top terrace, is a big tall tree, giving shade and the occasional falling leaves. White metal and green cushions for some, and for others, wood worked chairs. They’re stumbling with their new Croatian words as they put their coffee orders into the young English speaking waiter, the smell of coffee rising up the steps from the café to the sitting terraces. At one end of these full of people, few tables put together sits a tall, fair skinned, slender, black haired man. His short sleeve shirt is buttoned down a bit, and he has what look Ray Bans on. A question is directed at him:

            “Marko, looking at your poem, ‘What is a brim?’ caught me. The introductory phrase,

A brim is a category. an expression of tradition, an edge

that is not to be crossed. its word is never

rebutted: under the brim there is often a head,

a house, a rare and arrogant nothing. the head, if


gives me a frigid, stuck feel that stayed present throughout the three farm animals which were slaughtered in this poem. Would you talk a bit about what you intended for the reader in this poem?”

            Marko in turn, raising the pitch of his voice a bit at first, “Well, a big part of my creation of the literature is that it takes on a life of its own” his hands gesture out. “It begins to impact the readers in ways that I don’t always get to hear. I would very much appreciate getting to hear your responses.”

            A woman sitting next to him, switches her countenance from him towards the group, looking around from person to person. “ I just want to note the last line, which I think is an important part of the whole piece:

what is a brim and what is there under the brim?

The way we answer these questions will affect our understanding of this literature. Let’s hear some of what you guys thought about this poem.” Body leaned forward, her look turns to one of them who has a notebook and pen out in front of her.

             “Thanks Petra. I thought of these animals as people who are being influenced by the state with a heavy hand. See the excerpt:

a cow’s, is pierced with a steel bolt. the cow

is first chained to the damp walls of a barn, and then

struck fiercely. the blood gushing is the blood of

the homeland. homeland the cow had long claimed as its own.

I imagine a person experiencing the imposition of restrictions and laws onto them – that’s the chaining, and this is a way of life that they’ve been living for many years, and many times, which we see in that this cow has long claimed this place as its homeland. It is struck. It receives violence in a way that is meant to keep it in line, and keep it in the limits that the institution it’s now under wants to keep it in. …”

            Another student cuts in at a pause, “Okay. Remember what we talked about in chapter meeting, what JT suggested about the system of violence? And the regime of peace? Perhaps the cow is living in the regime of violence. Or, this person that the cow represents. It’s such a visceral scene, it looks dark, deep red, and wet hay yellow to me, and quiet. Which is a beautiful way of getting at the feel of darkness that there can be in this regime of violence. Violence has been chosen as a means of control by the leaders. And so if the cow is going to go against the homeland, he’ll be beaten for it in order for the leaders to maintain control.”

            The air hangs a bit, though still summer breezing. One of them leans forward after sipping his white coffee through a green straw, “But what about the steel bolt? I’m still perplexed by that. I like the image. But does it mean anything?”

            Marko opens up, “Very good. Thank you for your perspectives and what meanings you drew out of the text. When writing this poem I was thinking about religion. And the brim is the brim of a hat. Brim isn’t the best translation because it has more meanings than the word I used in Croatian. In Croatian the word is almost exclusively used to mean the brim of a hat, which is something that creates somewhat of a drape over you, or can be viewed as encompassing your space. You can visualize a cylinder coming down from the brim of the hat to form a circle around someone that they can’t come out of.

            “You can think of this like the way that in a religion, sometimes there can be restrictions put on people that are bad, and that keep them from moving out. The critical sensibility can be fearfully shut out of these people.”

            Petra responds, “I want to reinforce the importance of the author’s intention behind writing a piece. I agree with Marko that the text does take on a life of its own, but yet the writer behind it does also inform us.

            “Looking at this can get us to start thinking about some of the things we before may have taken for granted, or to imagine more widely. Text in literature can challenge us and help us step inside the view the other has.”

            The waiter comes up and starts to take dishes away. “Hvalah” some say, “Thank you.”

I went to the Balkans in the context of Gordon College’s core course, New Perspectives in Global Understanding. Here is the syllabus from the first part of that two part course (one section taken before and one taken after the global experience).