canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

From Sarajevo with Sorrow
by Goran Simic
Biblioasis, 2005

Reviewed by Alex Boyd

In a 2003 PEN Canada chapbook called Open the Door, Goran Simic describes returning to Sarajevo: 

None of us is the same now. We have become a generation of broken identity poets. Over drinks we laughed and talked about life before the war. But if someone mentioned an old friend who had been killed or had disappeared, the laughter stopped. If you break a cup, you can glue it and use it, but nobody can pretend not to see the lines of the glue.

In the same year, Immigrant Blues was released, his first full-length book of poems to be published in Canada, where he’s lived since 1996. I felt quite strongly that Immigrant Blues communicated the war and the displacement and uncertainty of living in a new country with the typical precision and emotional weight of a highly skilled and talented poet. And all the while, I believed that the 1997 book Sprinting from the Graveyard (during his mother’s funeral, sniper fire was so heavy even the preacher lay on the ground) covered many more of the horrible Sarajevo experiences. But I failed to notice the poems in that book were not translations but “versions” by David Harsent, so it couldn’t have occured to me Simic might not be entirely happy with this. 

In publishing From Sarajevo with Sorrow, Biblioasis books not only allows for proper translations (or the ability to “re-translate” the poems, as Simic says in his introduction) but the addition of some new poems as well. And so strangely enough, the book I used to press into the hands of others – now out of print, anyway – is one that I’d tear out of their hands in order to give them this one. A few quick comparisons between poems in both books reveals they’ve now been slightly and appropriately fleshed out, though they remain trim. Simic is gifted at sifting through images and details to find the ones as accessible as they are precise and strong. Sarajevo is a city where “one must not whistle” because it resembles the sound of shells. A boy believes that “invisible bars on his eyelids / protect him from the mess / outside his window.” And there is something intensely and appropriately human about these poems, as in “What I Saw.”

I saw that human feet shrink two sizes when a
person dies. On the streets of Sarajevo you could
see so many shoes in pools of blood. Every time
I went out I tied my shoelaces so tight my feet
turned blue. God, how happy I was to return
home with shoes on my feet. What a pleasure to
untie the laces. What a pleasure not to lie on the
street without the shoes on my feet.

Before I left the house my mother would check
to see if I was wearing clean underwear. She
claimed that it would be a shame if they carried
me to a mortuary and found dirty underclothes
on me. Better to go to a blue sky with blue feet
than with no shoes.

What a shame for our family, she’d say. To be
killed without dignity. God forbid!

Simic does not allow his poems to get caught up in specifics and politics, which would make them a less universal expression and defeat the purpose. He also employs subtle but effective techniques, as in this first stanza from “Dream Nuance,” where he makes use of a number of periods to bring the reader to a full stop routinely, and stacks the short phrases like perfectly fitted bricks:

I am blind, I say. Then I am silent for a long time. I lie.
I look out the window: freezing children sing
under the Christmas tree and the snow is like a rainbow.
Frozen sparrows fall from the branches onto a butcher
dragging a slaughtered lamb. It is night.
A picture of a saint blazes in the stove. The airports drone
and I feel like crying. I am blind, I say, I am blind.
She is silent, absent-mindedly taps her fingers on the table.

There is some suggestion of guilt here (“Who am I to have survived?”) and certainly a search for peace and clarity, a way to make sense of the tumble of events that left some alive but not others: “I no longer care to hide in my pocket / fingers red with the pain / of turning the radio dial all night, / looking for a program that plays silence.” He’s searched for a way back only to be forced to admit what he needs is a way through. And the notion that things happen for a reason, while comforting and sometimes possibly true, is an idea that simply can’t apply to war. War can’t be said to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy, only the lucky and the unlucky. 

Simic found that his mother “decided not to survive another war.” A sniper killed his brother. His dog wandered into a minefield. The family house now looks “like an ashtray.” It’s clear from his introduction that he’s still understandably trying to resolve questions about the experience, but given what he’s been through I believe he’s done the best anyone can do, in refusing to participate in ugliness and creating a powerful book that stands as a testament. These poems penetrate the loss and illustrate it better than any news report, or as Simic says “only poetry could be a true and decent witness to war.” And just as you’d open an argument or essay with your most important statement, he opens the book with a poem about this, called “The Beginning, After Everything.”

After I buried my mother, running from the
shelling of the graveyard; after soldiers returned
my brother’s body wrapped in a tarp; after I saw
the fire reflected in the eyes of my children as
they ran to the cellar among the dreadful rats;
after I wiped with a dishtowel the blood from
the face of an old woman, fearing I would
recognize her; after I saw a hungry dog licking
the blood of a man lying at a crossing: after
everything, I would like to write poems which
resemble newspaper reports, so bare and cold
that I could forget them the very moment a
stranger asks: Why do you write poems which
resemble newspaper reports?

Orwell said, “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” No doubt the futility of war and bloodshed is the theme in many narratives, the point of many articles as we all politely nod and move on. But even among the more serious and articulate attempts not many succeed as well as Simic does. His poem “Love Story” tells of the media decision to create the “Bosnian Romeo and Juliet,” from a couple killed while crossing a bridge together, and brings the reader of the poem crashing back to earth and away from that fantasy in a way I wouldn’t want to ruin here. 

I encourage the reader to go buy such an important book of poems. It isn’t often a reviewer is humbled by a book, or feels there is so much to learn from it. It’s been said that all writing is optimistic, simply because it wants to whisper in the ear of a possible future. And Simic would agree, but might add that the future needs some help. Or as he says “Spring is coming. On crutches.” 







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