Online Edition: Spring 2004

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Immigrant Blues

Goran Simic

translated by Amela Simic

Brick Books ($15)

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

On a continent where so much seems assured, the threat of devastation is exotic, shot through with a drama which can hardly be imagined. Consequently, we have long found our more compelling writers in translation and from regions at the edge of the industrialized western world: South America, Eastern Europe, the Indian sub-continent, the Balkans.

This is not to say that exoticism is necessarily all that is involved. One need only consider a few of the names: Milosz, Neruda, Borges. There is something about the telluric experience that is fertile soil for poetry. Ironically, war, oppression and cobbled-together smokestack economies laid over centuries of agglomerate history somehow come together to produce such uniquely human figures.

Goran Simic is a Bosnian poet. His blunt poems about living in war-torn Sarajevo have gained him considerable reputation in Europe. His present volume—Immigrant Blues—promises to extend that reputation. Now seven years a Canadian immigrant, his work has gained an ease and a wider range of tone.

The war poems are clearly the best in the volume. "The Book of the Rebellion" bears comparison to Borges:

A man shoved it into my hands
warning me to forget his face that very instant
and making me swear that the book
would never get into the hands of the police.
I didn't even manage to tell him
how proud I was at joining.
He disappeared the same way
I disappeared the following week
after handing the book to somebody else.

To be more exact, these are poems about the aftermath of war. There are no longer bloated corpses everywhere along the way to buy a loaf of bread. "The Book of the Rebellion" is a poem with the advantage of distance, a stylized version of an absurdity the poet has intimately lived.

While "The Book of the Rebellion" suggests a level that Immigrant Blues does not achieve again, poems such as "The War is Over, My Love" are deeply human:

I enter an old clothing shop
and on the hangers I recognize my neighbors:
There,

Ivan's coat. We used the lining for bandages.
Look,
Hasan's shoes. Shoelaces are missing.
And Jovan's pants. The belt is gone.

The sympathetic identification of a person with her or his clothing is surely as old as clothing itself; in mall-less regions the identification remains particularly vivid. The effect on us, at the desensitizing distance of excess, remains strangely affecting.

The immigrant experience is also sufficiently foreign to our own to be promising as subject matter. Poems such as "My Accent" and "An Immigrant Poem" introduce us, with uncommon success, to that world where everything is out of place. Yet there is a final category of poems in Immigrant Blues, those written (some even in English) by a surprisingly acculturated ex-Bosnian. These poems are neither about war nor the immigrant experience, and tend to have less to distinguish them from the vast number of poems written out of recognizable landscapes. They are predictably the least effective poems in the volume, and may imply the challenge Goran Simic faces in the work that lies ahead.

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Spring 2004 Table of Contents