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From Sarajevo, With Sorrow

by Goran Simic, translated by Amela Simic
80 pages,
ISBN: 0973597151


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Clear Vision
by Zach Wells

Deceptively simple: the shopworn phrase of the blurbing alchemist who would make gold a leaden text. When in the opening poem of From Sarajevo, With Sorrow Goran Simic announces that he "would like to write poems which resemble newspaper reports," the poetry connoisseur is apt to balk. Why would anyone want that? Shouldn't the rich language of poetry be opposed to the pinchpenny prose of journalism? Isn't this asking of poetry something that it cannot and should not be made to do?
Nine times out of ten, the connoisseur is probably right. But the majority of British or North American poetry readers bring to a book a set of assumptions forged in relative peace, security and prosperity¨isolated events such as the FLQ crisis, the Columbine shootings and the attack on the World Trade Center notwithstanding. For most Western poets, if they write about war and genocide, it cannot be in anything but an abstract manner. But for a poet who has witnessed a period of horrible violence¨and the florid rhetoric that invariably accompanies such tumult¨the exigencies of his craft are substantially different. As Theodor Adorno famously said, "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."
Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor, responded to this challenge by writing poems of extreme indirection. As a Bosnian Serb who lived through the siege of Sarajevo (he now resides in Toronto) and whose brother was killed by a sniper, Simic takes a radically different tack: "I simply wrote what I saw." Indeed "What I Saw" is the title of one poem and vision is one of several leitmotifs that give From Sarajevo its form. Twenty-nine of the forty-four poems in this new collection appeared in 1997 in very different English versions. These versions were written by David Harsent who worked from "cribs" prepared by Amela Simic. Reading Harsent's adaptations, published by Oxford University Press as Sprinting from the Graveyard, beside these new versions (as translated by Amela Simic alone), one quickly gets the sense that Harsent was uncomfortable staying true to what Goran Simic saw. He states in his foreword that he used Amela Simic's "literal texts . . . to get what I wanted. My purpose was to make new poems in English from this raw material. . . I made changes, some extravagant; excisions, some radical; and additions, some substantial. . . There's nothing particularly new about this technique, though I think I may have taken it further than most."
And there's nothing inherently wrong with such a technique either. Poets like Robert Lowell, Robert Bly and Peter Van Toorn have created wonderful poems in English by taking substantial liberties with a text in another language. But when the subject matter of a work to be translated is the very raw material of an actual war zone, as witnessed firsthand by the poet himself, it seems to me that a far greater degree of sensitivity to formal intention is required of a translator, lest he be guilty of the sort of lyrical barbarism of which Adorno is rightfully leery.
Looking at the differences between two translations of one poem is a good way to get a sense of how Harsent goes wrong and why the new version is superior. The first poem in From Sarajevo is "The Beginning, After Everything." In Sprinting, this is the thirteenth poem; Harsent renders its title "Beginning After Everything". The placement of this poem at the beginning of the book is crucial because it contains the programmatic statement of artistic intention I have quoted above; this is the beginning, not merely a beginning. Harsent ignores this by shifting the poem to the middle of the book, altering its form and spiking its diction.
Most of the poems that were published in Sprinting are typeset in From Sarajevo as columnar prose paragraphs "which resemble newspaper reports." Harsent breaks prose into verse lines and paragraphs into stanzas, so that the poems are now only "like newspaper reports" (emphasis added). In From Sarajevo, Simic wants his poems to be "so bare and cold that I could forget them the very moment a stranger asks: Why do you write poems which resemble newspaper reports?" Harsent has jazzed this up with emphatic repetitions to read "so heartless, so cold,/that I could forget them, forget them/in the same moment that someone might ask me,/ 'Why do you write poems like newspaper reports?'" Elsewhere, a "hungry dog licking the blood of a man lying at a crossing" becomes a "ravenous dog/feasting on blood/(just another corpse in snipers' alley)." This kind of melodramatic phrasing is so patently opposed to the chilled restraint Simic espouses that one feels embarrassed for Harsent's enthusiastic bungling.
It becomes evident from comparative reading that some of the "radical excisions" Harsent has permitted himself function to cleanse the poems of references that might be particularly offensive to outside observers. This is perhaps most evident in "Love Story", a poem about two lovers from opposite sides of a bridge who are killed trying to cross it. The new English version contains the following paragraph:

"Newspapers from around the world wrote about them. Italian dailies published stories about the Bosnian Romeo and Juliet. French journalists wrote about a romantic love which surpassed political boundaries. Americans saw in them the symbol of two nations on a divided bridge. And the British illustrated the absurdity of war with their bodies. Only the Russians were silent. Then the photographs of the dead lovers moved into peaceful Springs."
The poem ends with "Spring winds" carrying the "stench" of the lovers' bodies; "No newspapers wrote about that." In his adaptation, Harsent deliberately excludes Simic's damning critique of Western nations' (countries, Simic says in his Preface, which "compensated for their dirty consciences by feeding our walking dead, while they did nothing to stop the siege") aestheticization of a war story; no countries are named and the final sentence is dropped. This is nigh censorious editing, not translation, and Harsent is guilty of it on several occasions. In the unexpurgated translation, we see one very clear reason why Simic wants to write poems "which resemble newspaper reports": because newspaper reports too often indulge in the barbaric lyrical fancies of poetry.
But we should be careful of taking Simic's stated intention too literally. What and how a poet sees is substantially different from someone else's vision. The poet has "X-ray eyes"; he sees in metaphors, in images, in allegories. And he sees not so much in pictures as in words. No small wonder that there are references in these poems to a gremlinesque angel who "rewrote the prescription for my glasses" and "officers with gold buttons for eyes [who] enter my back door and look for my glasses." For Simic, keeping his vision clear is crucial and is constantly under threat from official propaganda and the psychological trauma of living in a combat zone. Besides the cold bare facts of war, Simic's poems, as the above-quoted lines illustrate, are full of the hallucinatory facts of paranoid nightmares bred by war.
Simic is by no means aloof or self-righteous in his role as witness. In his preface, he sounds like Joseph Conrad's Marlowe when he writes that, for all the "horror that I went through . . . as a poet, I would be deeply sorry if I hadn't stayed, in the middle of horror, a witness to how cheap life can be." There is inevitably something parasitically self-serving and self-consuming in the poet's transformation of life into art, regardless of how noble that art ends up being, an irony Simic captures with sangfroid in the very unjournalistic sonnet, "I Was a Fool":

I was a fool to guard my family house in vain
watching over the hill somebody else's house shine,
and, screaming, die in flames. I felt no sorrow and
no pain
until I saw the torches coming. The next house will
be mine.

If I wasn't somebody else, as all my life I've been,
I wouldn't say to my neighbour that I feel perfectly
fine
upon seeing his beaten body. I should offer my own
skin
as a tarp. Will the next beaten body be mine?

I was a fool. I love this sentence. Long live Goran
and his sin.
There is no house or beaten man. There is no poetry,
no line,
there is no war, there are no neighbours. There's no
tarp made of skin.
But there's a pain in my stomach as I write this. It's
only mine,

this sentence, the one I swallowed, whose every
word
is each of the flames I saw, every scream a sword.

Here, the poet looks back on the conflict¨both external and internal¨and manages to both damn and praise his role in it. It seems to me significant that he does this in a far more self-consciously artificial poetic form than the prose columns that predominate in From Sarajevo. This marks the poet's transition from a poetry of witness to a poetry of reflection and recollection. And it marks the move from one home and language to another, the Shakespearean sonnet being a quintessentially English form. Simic tells us in his acknowledgements that sixteen of the poems in this book he "either wrote in English or translated into English himself." Coyly, he doesn't specify which ones and I would have a very hard time trying to guess them all. If, as I suspect, "I Was a Fool" is an original English poem, then I would have to say that Canada and the English language are the recipients of a great blessing improbably born of a brutal war.

Zach Wells is the Halifax-based author of Unsettled, a collection of Arctic poems. A new chapbook of poems, Ludicrous Parole, is forthcoming from Mercutio Press.
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