canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Immigrant Blues
by Goran Simic
Brick Books, 2003

There Are Many Ways
by Peter Trower
Ekstasis editions, 2003

Reviewed by Alex Boyd

It’s difficult to write a review of a book of completely solid and important poems, except to say that you loved it and why, so I hope you’ll forgive my naked enthusiasm here in saying that Immigrant Blues is something to be celebrated. This is the first full-length book of poems to be published in Canada by Goran Simic, born in Bosnia and living in Canada since 1996. Oxford University Press published Sprinting from the Graveyard, another very powerful book that takes its title from a poem about literally sprinting from a graveyard in Sarajevo under sniper fire. 

This time around, Simic speaks about the conflict, but also documents the move to another country and culture. This works extremely well, as Simic illustrates not only the massive adjustment of moving to a new country, but the baggage (he has “a burning suitcase in one hand / and an empty extinguisher in another”) that it’s impossible to leave behind. His style is clear with carefully chosen images, as in the first few lines of "My Accent":

I love my accent, I love that wild sea
which attacks my weak tongue.
It doesn’t reside in the morning radio news
as much as rustle in the job offer flyers
stapled to the street poles. 

A Simic poem is accessible and light on its feet, yet often delivers a knockout punch – he tends to wrap up his poems with just a few words, as carefully chosen as the rest of the poem. His book seamlessly blends seven poems written in English with those translated from Serbian. Many of the poems are easy to underestimate, given that he often chooses deceptively simple titles, and deceptively simple objects woven into poems with larger ideas. In "Goldfish" he trades his “grandfather’s gilded medals” for a goldfish to give to his children, so that he notices the fish “when the fire / from a nearby building would glow on its scales.” The book has symbolic images scattered throughout. After another mention of medals, Simic asks a striking question, in the closing lines of "Who’s that Waking Me Up":

To whom have you rented your son,
I ask you quietly so that mother won’t hear,
blind but ever wakeful for I know she will ask me:
What’s going on outside? As if I know.
Therefore, sleep, Goran, sleep
as sheep, butterflies,
tame people sleep. 

It’s a profoundly sad book, and yet I suggest it should be celebrated because the skill, talent and emotion bottled in these poems gives me hope. If messages this powerful can be communicated, then there is hope for our ability to reach each other after all. In a world that makes increasing amounts of shrill noise about summer blockbusters, chain store sales and obscure justifications for war, a book like this is like a life preserver floating in the ocean. It isn’t often I read poems that put me off balance with enough impact to force me to stop and put it down at regular intervals. But this is what it means to be hit with realisation – with meaning, or what Emily Dickinson called being “knocked sideways.” This is poetry at its best, and an example to other poets.

After reading Immigrant Blues, the Peter Trower book There are Many Ways had a tough act to follow, but Trower is an experienced poet who has produced nine books of poetry, and can base poems on such experience as twenty years of work as a logger in BC. Here his poems are accompanied by surreal pen and ink illustrations by Jack Wise. The images compliment the poetry well, given that Wise often melts images of people and landscapes together. Trower is another very accessible poet, who finds, in his best moments, very grounded images. The pulp mill “vomits smoke,” and is “grinding the trees into money.” The same poem, "Darkmountain Country," ends with a final line where he and his friends “traded our boyhoods for beer.” Trower is skilled at choosing the best moment for a portrait in poems like "Mohawk Jimmy," or "Little Red Schoolhouse," about a brutally strict teacher the class despised, and her abrupt departure:

So it must have been some sort of poetic justice when
while haranguing the class one morning,
the elastic in your knitted skirt broke
and it dropped to the floor
revealing skinny unshaved legs in lisle stockings
old-fashioned bloomers
to our incredulous eyes

You ran hysterically from the room, Gabriella
your authority destroyed –
tendered your resignation X left town on the next boat

I wish all my ogres
had thrown in the towel
as easily as you. 

On occasion, Trower stumbles with his images. His description of Mars as “a drop of blood,” hanging there is far better than his description of the moon as his “heart gone sick from the universe,” or the idea that lost girls have “danced their last home waltzes / to the stardust trombones of time.” It’s ironic that in seeking powerful, epic images, poets can easily end up with something either cliché, or so heavy as to be unmanageable to the reader and ironically vague as a result. His poems ultimately function better when he keeps things on a smaller scale, and that’s not meant as a suggestion that there are things Trower can’t handle. One only needs to look to Simic to see simple images used to say a great deal. 

Trower writes extremely successful poems when his images are small and precise, and his personality and experience shine through. In a poem like Prisons, he manages to get at something that’s beyond words, comparing birds, who “build no prisons,” with our constant state of detachment from the wisdom we’d like to have. We sit, listening to the dull noise coming through the wall, the “pure sound of the universe / going about its business sensibly beyond us.”

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