A Review of: A Severe Elsewhere, Translated by Amela Simic
Reviewed by Ken Babstock (Books in Canada)
The analogy has surely been used before: the experience of seeing a reproduction of a painting is one thing; the composition, colour, and some of the resonance is there. But to see up close the actual brushstrokes that cumulatively account for a painting's visual force is another order of aesthetic engagement altogether. Even while being thankful for the gift of a poet from another language translated into our own, one still reads through a collection like this lamenting one's own limiting condition as a monoglot. How I wish I could read, or at least soon hear (though critical faculties would be useless), Simic in his native Serbian.
Goran Simic was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1952, lived through the siege of Sarajevo, and came to Canada as a landed immigrant in 1996. Before leaving, he'd been considered one of the former Yugoslavia's most prominent living poets, as well as being an accomplished story writer, essayist, and playwright. He came here under the auspices of PEN Canada and was writer in residence at Massey College for a year before being forced to work, as Toronto's eye magazine recently put it "slinging boxes for Holt-Renfrew." While some of these poems first appeared in a limited edition book by Simic and Fraser Sutherland called Peace and War, this is his first full-length collection published in Canada and includes a clutch of poems written in English. The majority included here were translated by Amela Simic (not without her own very impressive list of credentials: having translated the likes of Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Michael Ondaatje, and Bernard Malamud into Serbian).
In this review of the poems, I am going to make a distinction between the poems translated from the poet's native tongue and those he has written directly in English. Then I'm going to qualify my distinction. I'll most likely end up qualifying my qualifications. The tags (E) and (Tr.) I'll use to identify which language the poems were written in. "Open the Door" (E) opens Immigrant Blues with this stanza:
Open the door, the guests are coming
some of them burned by the sun, some of them pale
but every one with suitcases made of human skin.
If you look carefully at the handles, fragile as birds' spines,
you will find your own fingerprints, your mother's tears,
your grandpa's sweat.
The rain just started. The world is grey.
We're immediately greeted with the psychic baggage prolonged war forces into the laps of immigrant communities, delineating, in no uncertain terms, what will be the operational terrain of the rest of Immigrant Blues. We also recognize, in those last desultory, deadpan weather reports, conveyed in robotic iambs, the tradition of mordant wit and survivalist's humour found in Eastern and Central Europe's greatest contemporary poets. (Is it too far-fetched to read the poet taking his first ironic baby steps into the literary tradition of his adopted language?) The poem concludes with an image of severe ontological uncertainty:
And you are not certain if they are ghosts
or your own shadow which you left behind
long ago after you left your home
to knock on somebody's door
on some stormy night.
This is one of the few (along with "My Accent" and "On The Bike") very successful poems that were written in English. This doesn't damage the book, as only seven are scattered throughout the twenty poems that make up the first section called "Sorrow". And it's fitting that they're placed in this section, as losing one's cultural-linguistic milieu must be an especially crushing species of sorrow. My complaint is merely that they aren't isolated as a subset, clearly distinguishable to the reader, instead of attempting assimilation with the far stronger translated pieces they sit among. Until I'd paused, at around page 30, and gone to the endnotes, I had a dimmer view of the collection of poems. Having made allowances for the daunting, and possibly life-long, project of learning to write in a second language, though, the book really comes into its own as a document of imagination's survival and surviving memory.
Simic's best poems succeed by use of a deceptive sheen of civility and even-temperedness. One senses, just under the calm, declarative tone of factuality, emotions more searing and barely contained. Having lived through war, would any expression short of howls of grief seem sufficient? The claim on sanity, continuance, and level-headedness in the face of such inner strife is a common and commendable feature of these poems:
The war is over. I guess.
At least that's what the morning paper says.
"The War is Over, My Love"(Tr)
I had never been aware I was a nation
until they said they'd kill me,
my friend told me,
who'd escaped from a prison camp
only to be caught and raped by Gypsies
"A Scene, after the War"(Tr)
Hidden behind the curtain,
I learned everything I learned
by peeking through the window.
I grieved for every death,
I was happy about every birth
and I commiserated with street Revolutionaries
"At the End of the Century" (Tr)
The second section, "Hangover" contains some gems of deep feeling, the material reaching further back toward older family members, the poet's childhood, mythopoeic retellings of the origins of civic violence, and two poems honouring and arguing with Jorge Louis Borges. These are highly confident pieces whose constellations of symbols feel intentional and powerful. The syntax takes on an elevated complexity and loses none of the directness:
Did his finger sweat while reaching for the cold trigger
where the beauty of persuasion
was turning into noise?
I am trying to unravel this
in the bark of the oak
behind which begins the world
where I don't know how to belong.
"A Note on the Forest and You" (Tr)
Some of these poems are as moving as they are illuminating with regards to the psychological ramifications of war, not only on a single author, but on an entire community living in exile-forced, or otherwise. And the troubled peace Simic builds for himself in the last two poems of the third section, "Nightmares", can be held up as evidence of the worth of the inner life: "I talked to my shadows, chatted with the river god,/and many trivial details are now behind me."
I did recoil from some of the simpler sentiments expressed in Immigrant Blues - "I'm lonely", "I often drink too much", "I often admire women from afar"-but recently I became aware of a term used with all sincerity in Europe that I'm guessing only vaguely corresponds to what we in North America would call The Romantic Poet. At a poetry festival in Rotterdam, I heard four people from four different countries (Russia, Germany, Slovakia, and Estonia) describe contemporaries as Tragic Poets. This aesthetic stance has currency there, and I suspect if Canada's towns, cities, and countryside had witnessed the same century as Europe's, we'd be more willing to listen to the lonely and dejected. Goran Simic's voice comes to us from a severe elsewhere, and we're lucky to have him now in English.