Felix Cassiel on
New and Selected Sorrows
Smokestack Books, 2015
Fish, blood, guns, and constellations; in this collection of newer and older works, celebrated Bosnian Goran Simić endeavours to blueprint the inner world of the outsider; with recourse to his defining symbols of organic and celestial life he plots the career of the hunted - the romance of the passions, the destitution of the situation - to fabricate the tension of a permanent alien.
Of this book, from 2015, movement is a major theme. So much so that after the opening few lines one acquires the impression of having boarded a train; the destination is uncertain, yet for company there is a fidgety old man who, occupying the window-seat, wastes no time in regaling his neighbour. For our narrator is something of a vagabond, a travelling minstrel, singing his songs of sorrow in a reedy tenor, each verse dedicated to the goddess of ennui.
Indeed, Simić’s awareness of the divine, clothed in one mantle or another, constitutes the spine of this drifter’s skeleton. Or perhaps more accurately, its half-eaten flesh. The relationship with the Higher Power is largely antagonistic, and, occasionally, downright abusive. Yet in reading many of these works one feels that what is under review is not God’s presence, but his absence; or rather, the absence of what may be termed godliness in His comportment. God to the poet is one who
‘...sometimes knocks on my frozen window
and I don’t let him in because
he has the eyes of a prisoner and always asks: why?’
This reduction of the Almighty to the status of wretch is made in anger, disdain; yet a prisoner must at some point, for sanity’s sake, shake hands with his lot. Thus follows:
‘As if I knew.
I just half-breathe humbly and die the other half
Looking for the place where the door used to be.
Sleep, Goran, sleep.
Prisoners do not exist.’
Simić’s conversational, atonal method allows for unusual semantic structures, and in the above instance his direction of the reader’s attention away from the word ‘die’ to the word ‘looking’ is indicative of the desperate mind lurching at all costs from the growing likelihood of destruction; it is by utilising passages such as this that the poet reminds us that we function as automata, governed by little except the desire to survive.
And to maintain his own survival the poet appears to have deployed various tactics, primary among them anonymity; in ‘Passport borders’, for example, we are given the perspective of the immigrant confronted by his new nation’s apparatchiks, agents of security that cannot help but view him as a potential rogue element.
‘Perhaps he didn’t know that I travelled at night,
that my skin was full of odours
of continents unknown to him
and my room full of things meaningful only to me;
I brought an icicle from the North,
fire from the South,
a candle from the East,
wind from the West,
and I didn’t have to justify myself to anybody.’
The immigrant, bearing such a rich array of global accoutrements, must necessarily fall under the suspicion of a neurotic, individualised policing system. Yet there is an artfulness to his collecting; like the ghostly skin of a prisoner which we cannot make out beneath the tattoos, this international truant has rendered himself unidentifiable to blinkered homeland security.
‘My hands are as cold as the TV news, my skin as blue
As the stamp on a birth certificate.’
Thus in ‘Candle of the North’ Simić continues in this vein, and one begins to feel that the poet has spent many a night in unbearable reflection, perhaps atop Zarathustra’s mountain, or in some bombed-out garret in a Bosnian village. In ‘Adam’ however, we are treated to a slightly more youthful expression:
‘Outside my window sad people walk the street
and compare themselves with passers-by.
Outside people wear masks while walking dogs.
Even dogs wear masks. Outside is a mess’
And in ‘To the dining car’ Simić reinforces the hint of underlying innocence, a memory of the maudlin expectations of childhood.
‘Let’s go there.
We’ll press our noses to the carriage windows
trying to guess where we are
but all we’ll see will be our eyes wide open in the glass.
Like the eyes of dead fish belly-up on the water.
Where we’re headed or whether we’ll ever get off this train
will lessen in importance.’
This piece, which, in its sentimental treatment of the belief in action, and its refrain of ‘let’s go’, is almost an inversion of Eliot’s Prufrock and other early works, places us on a strange train, populated with strange people; and unlike his fellow passengers, the narrator is not quite the small soul curled up in the window-seat, reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, but rather one who seems to bound up and down the length of the train, this train we’ve no recollection of boarding, and which will stop at God knows where. Yet the focus of our attention, and the object of our immediate desire, is not the destination, but the dining car; nourishment, which is attainable, will usually succeed in taking our minds off of the darkness beyond the windows, or indeed, the darkness we see for a moment reflected in our own watery, amphibious eyes.
‘Dream Nuance’, however, returns us to the perspective of the anonymous; here, we sit across the table from a speechless woman, silent but for the drumming of her fingers,
‘Can you see me? I ask her. Can you see me at all?
She nods. But she is lying.’
She is beyond communication, existing not as a corporeal figure but rather a figment; a femme fatale, a murderess in the imagination of the poet, whose death-agony becomes palpable; this poem is less a critique of the mysterious Other, than it is a howl into a glass jar.
His inability to connect, and his attendant failure to identify the Other as a creature of volition, reflects his own nebulousness; his avenue of honest communication, between himself and the outside, is but rubble. Yet for having for so long evaded us, about a third of the way through the collection, the poet-as-poet finally reveals himself.
‘O tell me who I am.
For a long time I lived my literary imagination.
For a long time now I have hovered over a bookshelf,
an inkless page. Too many things remind me of death,
of this planet I dare not touch.’
A certain relief is encountered here, a certain gladness; for now the narrator appears to us in a more definable form; and while he still has no idea who or what he is, we feel secure in the belief that we know a little better, that perhaps finally, we have him pegged.
Yet sharply on the heels of this piece follows ‘My Shadow’, a more thoroughgoing and lyrical expression of the general tenor than all offered thus far; in this composition we find brevity, a refreshing pungency, and in its representation of the diaphanous spirit, this liquid scribe of the alien, it is emblematic of the entire volume. And while suitably energised, we find ourselves again on the back-foot.
‘Who will eat my breakfast tomorrow morning?
Who will tell my boss I will be late again?
Who will listen to my fellow workers make jokes?
A shadow is a poor excuse.
‘They know nothing about my shadow.
They know nothing about how day follows day
and I no longer recognise my face in the mirror.
They do not know my shadow shaves every morning
and how every morning I would cut my skin
if I wasn’t afraid I might see
Here we get a firmer sense of the man, a more visceral appreciation for his position; he begins to form before us as one who has worked, one who has probed the craggy plains of the motes in the eyes of the other, and who has, disgusted, turned inward, and, downing his tools in horror, laments bitterly that in the beam in his own eye there is nothing. By the point at which he picks up his pen, his fellow humans appear to him as he seems to appear to himself; organic machines, so many mini-abysses, uninteresting at a distance, and dangerous in close encounters.
The disconnect is born of necessity:
‘after I wiped with a dishtowel the blood from
the face of an old woman, fearing I would recognise her’
Only one who encountered early the dread of intimacy can use a mask of blood for a buffer. Following this is a series of war-poems, immediate in their effect but rather indistinguishable, with each piece an echo of the one before it; inevitably there arises a sense that our time as audience on this particular train is drawing to a close, and we begin counting the minutes until our stop is due. Yet it is precisely at this point that a wizened yet virile hand reaches over and slaps us; if Simić had not by now quite convinced us of the horrors innate in the warring mammal, he succeeds in ‘Lejla’s Secret’.
The violence of the imagery is enough to breed insomniacs, yet it is what is left unsaid that torments the faceless neighbours that make up the subject of this piece. Here Simić takes advantage of the idea that we suffer more in imagination than we do in reality, and he wields his power almost joyfully over the somnambulist reader.
‘What was it she saw in the mortuary that day?
Like contagion that question began to obsess her
neighbours, and the secret of Lejla’s madness
became our nightmare. Her ghost turned our
basement shelter into a workshop of horror.
Some believed that she’d recognised the face of
her late husband, others that she had seen a
corpse sewn from the bodies of different people.
The rest saw a baby in an open womb. Before
long, fear of our imagination surpassed our fear
of the shells.’
On page 79, however, the poet’s eyes turn away from the gory canvas of the physical war, and return to the noiseless power play; on another train, our narrator is assailed by a fellow passenger, this in the form of a statuesque Madonna, whose cold war policy does not leave a trail of eyeless heads and shorn ears, but chill in the soul of the desirer.
The collection ends on a rather drawn-out note, ‘Wind in the straight jacket’, which endeavours to tie up whatever ends may have been cut loose in the preceding works. Over the course of its 39 pages, this composition recovers the trod ground such as identity, family and religion in a reconciliatory manner, though not, it should be added, by softening its bite.
The poem lurches here and there, trying to accumulate assertions from every corner of its reality. As a result, the offerings are something in the nature of the pick-and-mix, producing a pebbledash effect; certain strong lines offer nourishment, but we are left wanting more. ‘How wonderful it is to be protected by the cage of words’ he avers, and we his co-conspirators, dipping into the bath of bitterness, cynicism, and alienation, which he has so politely draw for us, find ourselves agreeing, stiff-lipped and rosy-cheeked. Indeed, those nutritious lines are so individual, refreshing, that they strike us almost as life advice.
‘the safest way to go on a crocodile hunt
is to wear crocodile-skin boots’.
‘My first pair of glasses
my parents forced me to wear
to see people better...’
The ignominious spectacle of which was
‘too big for childish eyes,
seeing people as deer
or as hunters’.
By page 100 religion is less a framework of faith, or a cause for torment, than it is something more practical, a sorting-house for ritualistic human behaviour:
‘what will the confused door say,
that threshold you crossed only once in your wedding dress
but many times in black?’
‘I am afraid the children will wake up
too early for school,
only to find their teacher
in the classroom crucified.’
The latter third of the poem, however, is tighter, more concentrated, and, in essence, declarative. The notion of the sacred has left religion and has been deposited in the figure of a wife, whose body, living or lifeless, must be protected from the cold machinery of the modern campaign.
‘My darling, I am going to bury you
in our garden,
so I won’t have to look for you
where you’d get devoured and digested
in the bowels of military trucks.’
Yet the trucks are heartless, a product of men, and men a product of nature. Mother Nature is heartless, the Tao Te Ching tells us, and treats all things as straw dogs. Death, for Simić, resides in these trucks, the vehicles of war, yet his argument, we feel, is not with the machines, or the systems that produce them, but rather nature itself: the terror of the situation.
The poem, and perhaps the collection, reaches its thematic and emotional culmination in a single stanza, the impetus of which is a childish cry, an atavistic, helpless retaliation against the impersonal aggression of the Other. In this we find the rage, the desperation of the disempowered, yet we also find a hint of resignation, the solemnity of one, sadly but inevitably, exposed too early:
‘Where is the man? I shouted
Where is the man?
I shouted at the official in clinical attire
a nameless skeleton as if solving a mere problem.’
Felix Cassiel © 2020