I look through lace curtains in the Swell hotel
with glass in its windows not panicking plastic
like the one I’d camped out in during the war,
and see morning mist in now sniperless hills.
Next door ’s the old hotel, the Shell not the Swell
with sunflower shell-bursts on its windowless sills,
some deep enough at least for sparrows to nest in,
and my shadow makes them fly up in a twitter,
filling the air between the Swell and the Shell.

The Swell desk says welcome in polyglot friendship.
The Shell’s bullet-riddled Bosnian half-reads Beware!
In the Swell EU businessmen nibble their muesli
in the Shell the dead crunch Kellogg’s-size glass shreds.
In the Swell they sleep under goose-feather duvets.
In the Shell beds are bespoke for odd limbs and corpses.
In the Swell no footsteps are heard on plush carpets.
In the Shell the corridors thump with mass crutches.

Outside a man’s selling what was scarce then, ice cream.
The word zmrzlina, from way back, pops into my mind,
its syllables all lickable like the treat they denoted,
a word flourished proudly to buy ices in Prague
for my kids, when we lived there pre-Russian invasion.
Zmrzlina, we’d say, Fairy Queen of all ices,
but her word wand won’t work here to fill up my cone.
So I look up and learn, from the lexicon defiantly
blazoned as ‘Bosnian’, I’d bought the day after
getting into Sarajevo that first time over Mount Igman,
the word I need: sladoled, so I don’t end up pointing.
Sladoled, sad lack in flak jacket days. Sladoled
the ‘lead’ at the end could collapse your crammed cornet!

The bakery next to the mosque ’s still doing business
as it did every night when its ovens were shaking.
Every morning I came here to buy myself pitta
made from flour Serb bombardment had floated
in motes that had danced in the light of one candle
boosted by fragrant fire when oven doors opened,
scoops glinting in the loosened necks of the sacks
emptied by midnight but soon filled up with sand
and piled and packed tight to protect pitta-bakers.

I’m drawn from the mosque to the market by sounds
like Kalashnikov staccatos kilometres distant.
Damasceners are punching brass cartridge cases –
fleur-de-lys, stamped acanthus, the name Sarajevo.
Then a blue biro refill goes through the drilled bullet
to make the pen I write this with, inscribed Sarajevo,
though it’s a bit bulky for my usual pen grip
and might work for this poem but not for an epic,
and, as for ink, frankly, I always buy black.

The sparrows take shelter in their windowsill shell-bursts.
My headless reflection stares out of the Shell,
no mouth to eat bread with, no tongue to speak
or to lick on a cornet of juice-sloshed sladoled.
He weighs, my reflection, on a fingerless palm
a cartridge he could, with some effort, scratch words with
on a floury surface where pitta dough ’s kneaded
till the next mortar thud turned his message to mote clouds.
His cartridge isn’t quite equipped for creation. Mine
needs constant bulling up to keep its brass shiny,
while it waits on my desk for the summons to action.

We both watch the sun set behind sniperless hills.

He’ll be sleepless for ever staring out of the Shell.
In the Swell I’ll ignore him. I’m going to sleep well.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences