Vol. 11, No. 3 (2011)
Reviewed by Anna Mioduchowska
I was a boy just yesterday.
I am the ghost of the house today,
growing up languid as a hothouse flower,
or a lizard daydreaming of becoming a dragon. (20)
Poet does not appear on Immigration Canada’s list of preferred occupations, and not surprisingly,
poets who have achieved some degree of success in their homelands rarely choose to emigrate in
times of peace. We have the civil war in former Yugoslavia, and PEN Canada, to thank for Goran
Simic's presence among us.
Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman
launched during Simić’s appointment as Edmonton’s Poet in-
Exile, is his fifth collection of poetry since his arrival in 1996 from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and his
first written in English. In the Acknowledgements he calls it “my private poetry donation to the
English language.” It is a worthy donation, as well as a moving testament to a poet’s struggle to cross
from the language that gave his poetry birth into a language that has become its proverbial shelter in
Struggle is the overall theme of the collection: to be reborn into his new language, that “wild
sea / which attacks my weak tongue” (33), into peace, where he wants to become “an ordinary man”
(35), struggle to remember even as he longs to forget the horrors of the siege of Sarajevo, to love. In
case this sounds heavy duty, the whimsical, finely wrought first poem in the book alerts us to the fact
that we are in the hands of an accomplished poet, which will make the risk of turning the next page
Simic writes with the urgency of someone who has packed a lot of living into the last two
decades and needs to transpose it with the help of imagination or suffocate. Rather than a spiritual or
philosophical enquiry into the effects of violence, his poetry is a visceral tug-of-war with its twisted
offspring. Memories of the siege of Sarajevo, 1992–96, haunt his sleep, so that nightmares weave their
way through the entire collection. Civil war is compared to a mental institution, where
On the left lie those who pretend to be ill
to avoid execution.
On the right lie those who pretend to be ill
because they were chosen to execute those
on the left.
But after midnight
all the patients
play chess so nobody wins
and punish those who feel better
with a double dose of pills.
Outside of the hospital it’s worse. (22)
There is also the familiar guilt of the survivor, guilt of the deserter, as emigrants are often viewed
in times of strife by those who stay behind, guilt of wanting to be washed clean of the past. Fable,
allegory, surrealistic images and scenarios help to bring into relief the experience of being a stranger
(“The Immigrant Talks to the Slot Machine,” “What I Was Told,” “My Accent”). As a displaced
person, an exile, he longs to become visible. “Please turn off that TV and listen to my silence /
howling atop the shining antenna”(30) he begs in “Facing the TV".
Simić is at his best when he controls – but does not subdue – feverish emotion and imagination
are controlled with his craft. With a few choice surrealistic images he can place the reader in an
unfamiliar landscape with senses wide awake. Some of my favourite poems are the poignant “Spring
is Coming,” in which hope crawls out of the ruins, shell-shocked, unprepared for peace; the
allegorical “Where Is My Brick” and “Confession of the Pimp’s Cat.” “Candle of the North,” even
with its few awkward moments such as “decomposed documents of long-dead blood donors” (46)
scattered on the beach, succeeded in moving me to tears.
Not all the poems are equally successful. I was quite baffled by the poet’s decision to include
rhyming quatrains in the book, for example. Those end-of-line rhymes disturb for all the wrong
reasons. My other complaint is the occasional lapse into lugubrious excess. “Making Love” positively
writhes with twisted erotic images of “an octopus grip[ping] its victim,” screaming rooster, screaming
swan, priest’s “underwear / on the door of the orphanage” (24), which belong in the poetry of a much
younger poet. “If I Told You” offers another example
The bloopers are minor, however, when weighed against the rest. Canada’s poetic community
has gained an interesting voice in Simic
and his determination and energy to continue writing in
spite of the many barriers in his way can only be emulated. A word of congratulations to the
publisher, on the elegant cover and general appearance of the book. Buy it – you won’t be
Anna Mioduchowska’s poems, translations, stories, essays and book reviews have appeared in
anthologies, journals, newspapers and on buses, and have aired on the radio.
In-Between Season, a
poetry collection, was published by Rowan Books.
Eyeing the Magpie, a collection of poetry and art,
was published in collaboration with four fellow poets.
Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman at McNally Robinson Booksellers (click on the line below):