Roller-Skating Notes by Nina Zivancevic — Jessica Slote

Splendor is never simple.
It comes to light
When the 1000 things
Grate against the soul….
Splendor only occurs
When each of the 1000 things
Is precisely in place.
—Judith Malina

If this be true, then splendor fills the pages of Roller-Skating Notes, the new book of poems by Nina Zivancevich (or Nina Zee, as she is affectionately known). The 1000 things and more that grate her soul—past and present, lost and remembered, excoriated and eulogized—from a peripatetic life lived in many cities, through war and exile, are present and accounted for, and transformed through the eyes of a poet.

The title poem, “Roller-Skating Notes” sets the tone:

It is so much better to get a pair of roller skates
and set a poem free.
it is so much more interesting to see some friends once a year,
it is so much mucho painful to see some people every day….
it is certainly much more useful to lie down, not
move, touch the earth, kiss the floor, embrace the door and
much more
perhaps just howl or hold someone dear to you
it is certainly much more practical to fumble through invoices….
….more satisfying to sit on a Kandahar
patting an Afghani hound in a lazy crystalline afternoon dusk,
…evidently it takes much more effort to sign petitions
to set prisoners free…..

But the clincher is:

IF YOU wanna skate,…

Nina Zee has perpetual attitude. Born in the former Yugoslavia, she left in 1980 after the death of Tito and the dissolution of the country. Arriving in the USA, she did a stint as personal assistant/secretary to poet Allen Ginsberg, spent some time on the West Coast, then settled for several years on New York City’s Lower East Side in the heyday of its storefront galleries, poetry venues, and performance spaces. There, she worked with and for legendary avant-garde groups such as The Living Theatre and the Wooster Group, the East Village Eye, and Tribes Magazine (where—full disclosure—we worked together). In 1992, she returned to Europe and settled in Paris where she lives to this day, and teaches English language and literature, and the History of Avant-garde Theatre at different branches of the Sorbonne.

Her journeys and adventures abound with partners-in-crime, so it’s no surprise that her poems are filled with snapshots, tributes, and eulogies to friends and lovers.

Her journeys and adventures abound with partners-in-crime, so it’s no surprise that her poems are filled with snapshots, tributes, and eulogies to friends and lovers. With impassioned imagery (and a sly touch of irony), she can illuminate the inner sanctum of friendship and love. From “Instead of a Photo or a Drawing, on Christmas Evening”:

The light of reason is flooding my room now,
Then the ante-chamber and the entire church
Of my goodwill where the secret altar burns,
The innermost chapel of my heart,
You are in it too, shiny with that light
Brighter than the flames,
Dangerous to reach and lost to my touch

You dwelled in it for quite a while,
Not paying the rent…..

At other times, there’s ambiguity or perhaps simply a touch of roman à clef. Take, for example, “Elysian Fields of Power”:

So, Tiny Tom and Speedy Gonzalez
Have had a Lab
It was pretty much a physical thing,
They tried to outdo the topology of a body in space
From person A to person B ran the ‘power-field of
a person’, so how would we envelope them
into our power-circle, if we were to say
‘I’m taking over a situation’?

Friends are the lifeblood of her life and work. In “A Limine”—

…and I was
Always there, absent-minded,
Trying to bring several friends back to life…
You say you miss him a lot, I say: it’s fabulous
That we’ve ever met, appeared and then disappeared
On the sunny side of the street….

Humor and irony are always lurking between the lines, under the covers, or around the corner. From “Immaculate Osmosis”—

Whenever I look at you
You look at me
Whenever you start to cough
I sneeze…
You talk history of ideas
I talk the ideas in history….
You carry my weight after midnight
I carry your weight before dawn….
And this immense love of freedom
I’m giving to you, Hypocrite!

Lovers are always part of her balancing act. In “A So-Called Love Poem”—

I’ll always keep a stunt in yr circus
Thanks for keeping that trapeze net for me
That’s why I love you
as only you allow me to perform
without that net.
And when I’m just about to break my neck
You place the palm of your hand
above the ground.

Yet all too often, the world and its crises crash down upon her head:

Samsara is killing us….too much talk and
Worry, too. much fear,
The essential slips away
The existential crawls in
We will survive
And then—what else—die.

In a poem called “War Drums or Le Contre-Ataque d’Empire,” she recalls,

Bloody soldiers and corpses enter everyone’s room
I was so crushed when NATO bombed my home town
I barely got my own mother out of that place
And I believed! Fool that I was, that
I would never speak a word of English again.

And on an island holiday, “The Island (Korkyra Negra),” as civil war and campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” rage in her homeland,

I cannot open my mouth without sounding like a
Murderer of children’s dreams here
In this region my accent stinks and is foul like a corpse
In summer so what do we do
My friend B. and I? We speak English and Swedish and
So that the local population would not spit at us
Saying like: OOOOHH—these two are two
Full-blooded SERBS! Now they will eat our cats and/devour our dogs,
They will slash our throats and drink our blood for breakfast with toasted
Civil war is a son of a bitch….

Within the same poem, she telescopes out to take a longer view of history, naming (say their names) three sites of infamy that, for younger generations, may already be obscure references: Srebrenica, a town today located in Bosnia-Herzegovina where, in 1995 during the Bosnian War, 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were rounded up and genocided; Jasenovac, a World War II concentration camp in occupied Yugoslavia where Serbs, Jews, Roma as well as Croatian and Bosnian Muslim political dissidents were genocided; Auschwitz (likely the “best known”), the World War II concentration camp in occupied Poland where over 6 million Jews as well as Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war were genocided.

It took us so long to write these poems
About Srebrenica,
Jasenonvac and Auschwitz…
And it took us so much strength and courage to listen to the poetry
about Srebrenica,
Jasenovac and Auschwitz
It took us so much courage to live poetry
after Srebrenica…Jasenovac and…

As an expat/immigrant/emigrée herself (“what is a girl/without her home country?”),
she is keenly attuned to the immediate and existential crisis of the refugee and the migrant.

Cedric Herrou
Is my hero
he led 123 migrants
To find shelter and food near Marseille and then he was
8 months of prison
As it is against the 2012 law to help
Migrants in distress….

In a prose report on the Syrian refugee crisis, she notes: “life jackets strewn across the beaches of Lesbos and Kos….” and the numbers of refugees taken in by various countries: “The number depends on which government official you listen to.”

In “We Are Pushing This N-Teenth Exile”

…I am 100 percent sure
That exile is a chained melody, babble in chains
Transformational grammar in pain
Weak thought in labor
Laughter in distress
Smile in despair….
Exile is 100 percent torture, mixed with the powder of Oblivion….

And in a moving poem to her son, “Drop of Spanish Blood (a migrant’s story),” she recalls her own journey into exile:

I see your rage
You poor migrant’s son
Your resplendent beauty as you
Defend my honor
In front of that large bureaucratic stupidity….
You were about to leave my stomach and I couldn’t ask
For water
I was changing your diapers on a bus to Hungary
When they wanted to throw us out
From the bus….
No one has ever seen my tears but you
At night when I was reading and rereading the French dictionary
I thought I was going insane
And today flashing all these beautiful
Polite and polished idioms in your father-tongue…

In a poem entitled “Active Activist Performing Action,” she tells us: “The entire cities of Paris, London or Belgrade are my daily stage/where I pound the streets and fill out the refugees’ cups with money.”

In other poems, she offers sound advice for poets as well as for the rest of humanity. Here’s an excerpt from “Posted for Eternity”:

Stay well
Be happy
Don’t be sacrificial
Eat no ideology…
Love this world.
Don’t be pompous….
Forget about the form
Tend to the content…
Always swim upward against the tide
Forget about art…
Stay warm-hearted
Forget about regrets,
You’re lucky,
You’ll never die!

And in “Chopin (body without organs)”: “There’s no need to leave any corporal trace,/whatever we do in life, we are doing it/while we are doing it.”

Finally, there is an inevitable reckoning with time and age and the cruel irony of outliving one’s dearest companions. In a prose poem, “Abject/Debris Art 1,” towards the end of the book, she writes,

One day I stopped loving it…. I was the only replica of my own insane creation…a dated caricature of my old powerful but generated self, a piece of Debris art admired by the connoisseurs of the Abject a long ago… now that I had almost 75 to 80 percent of my friends’ names and references crossed out in my telephone book.

On a bus “rushing from Beograd to Paris,” she remembers,

the place…of laughter, soft evenings, sweet gatherings with the like-minded friends, where we, armed with gin and absinthe, shared our latest verses, news, gossip. No point of return there. With a certain geometrical progression in their mad speed of disappearance—my buddies left the battlefield and in Paris I dwelled all alone…. one thing for sure, among all imitative qualities in life, real affection and camaraderie cannot be invoked and faked easily on a daily basis. You call people and you see one another, but you both know that it’s a fake. Like a fake fur or a plastic cake, you have a taste of the real thing, you still remember its original shape and size but sadly enough you attest to the fact that this encounter between you two IS NOT IT, not the real thing you treasured so much and remembered. So that’s how I found myself in the utmost loneliness….

In conversation with this reviewer, Nina Zee calls this volume of poetry her “most socio-political book, as it contains that heavier representation of reality than my earlier work.” She adds, “but this is certainly due to the heavy, heavy times we live in.”

Nonetheless, roller-skating with Nina Zee through her poems and “notes” is an invigorating ride through the irreverent and engaged life of a poet with a contagious joie de vivre, a sharp eye for the joy and sorrow—the splendor!—of being human.

In her words, “There is a day tender as saffron: TODAY.”

Nina Zivancevic is the winner of the 2021 Centre National du Livre grant for creative writing (poetry domain) for a project titled, “The Source of Light,” after the Syrian poet Nouri Al-Jarrah who exclaimed: poetry is the only source of Light! Roller-Skating Notes is published by Coolgrove Books.

Jessica Slote is a poet, performer, and co-founder of Loretta Auditorium, a cooperative of theatre artists: Her book of plays, Loretta Auditorium Presents The Body of Loretta (2019), published by Fly By Night Press, NYC, is available through