An exile’s new voice

Goran Simic´. Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman (Biblioasis 2010).

Goran Simic´, this year’s Writer-in-Exile in Edmonton, came to Canada from Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1996. Although he has published a number of books in translation, Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman is his first collection written in English, & it certainly demonstrates that he has achieved some mastery of this new, for him, language. I don’t know his earlier work, but in a recent reading launching this new book, he admitted that of course many of his concerns & certainly much of the tone of his earlier work have carried over into his writing in English.

Generally speaking, he practices what I would call lyric-narrative, often of a slightly surreal, fantastical nature. Although a number of poems, especially in the third section, ‘Circle,’ seem to ask us to identify the speaker with the writer, many of the others practice personae poetry with great relish. The title poem does so slyly & comically, but many of the others achieve a much darker vision of their invented protagonists, such as the illiterate warrior prince of ‘What I Was Told,’ who returns triumphant from a war his father sent him on to find an empty kingdom, & sits ‘in a tower with a crown on my head’ & listens ‘to the wind riffling the sheets of my empty bed, / leafing through the pages of my father’s notebook.’ All he can conclude is:

In this very moment I would happily exchange
my glory and my golden crown,
for someone who would teach me to read.

And on some level there the poet speaks for the pen over the sword, an attitude repeated in various patterns throughout.

The various stories many of these poems peek in on are odd, indeed, but always carry a whiff of dark history, of memories as a burden almost too heavy to bear. One of his narrative tropes involves an almost capricious contradiction, a construction of inherently unbalanced dichotomies. Yet, as the poems in that final section, which look most directly at the war genocide he escaped, imply, such blatant & scarred psychic division necessarily results from such trauma. ‘New Telephone Number’ catches this divided consciousness well:

Goodbye, old address book, my little bible,
my silent country of fingerprints.
Don’t forget me, give me a call.

Ignoring the book’s binding of rotten crosses,
I counted all those numbers in the dying pages.
Simple mathematics taught me
that if I divided the total by two,
I would find that I lived for ages just a few metres
away from my friends
who never picked up the phone.

And that is why I have lived all my life
in an address book.

It also subtly represents the losses, & the memories of such losses, & the ways a mind deals with all that. As do many of the poems in the personae of gypsies, ordinary men, a hotel, or a pimp’s cat.

In that final section, Simic´ appears to approach the darkest reason for his exile more directly, yet even here he writes the truth slant. While in the section’s title poem, ‘Circle,’ he seems to speak straight – ‘The photos of me as a baby are a lie. / I was born long ago. Already old.’ – in most of these poems, the speaker straddles reality & some fantastic site of disaster. Even the title of ‘The Poet and His Brother the General on a Hill After the War’ suggests how it swings away from simple description. The final poem, ‘Before the New War Comes,’ acts as a kind of summation, as ‘Every Sunday we play war games’ even if ‘We know it’s a fake’ where the ‘it’ might be the games or the new war. By the end of the poem, end of the book, nothing remains safe:

Then we go home to tell bedtime battle stories to our kids
about how free and happy cattle attack them,
before Monday knocks on our guarded doors.

Clearly Simic´ brings a sensibility most Canadians can thank their stars they will never know to his writing. In the gnarled sentences that build up these poems, both free verse & rhyming quatrains, he offers us a vision based on real memories that yet achieves an imaginative range far beyond mere remembered description.

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