Clear Vision: Zachariah Wells on Goran Simic's From Sarajevo, with Sorrow

Deceptively simple: the shopworn phrase of the blurbing alchemist who would gild a leaden text with an effortless attribution of hidden complexity. Deceptive simplicity is often attempted and often diagnosed but rarely achieved. The world has many more Rod McKuens than Robert Frosts. Deceptively simple is deceptively hard. So when Goran Simić announces that he “would like to write poems which resemble newspaper reports,” the connoisseur of poetry is apt to balk. Why ever would anyone want that? Should not the rich, deliberate language of poetry oppose the rushed, plain, fact-obsessed 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 privileged set of assumptions forged in relative peace, security and prosperity. For most Western poets, writing about war and genocide is a voluntary act and can only be done abstractly. But for a poet who has witnessed a period of horrible violence—and the florid rhetoric that invariably accompanies such tumult—the exigencies of her craft are radically different. As Theodor Adorno famously said, “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor writing in the language of that atrocity’s perpetrators, responded by writing poems of hyper-­compressed indirection. As a Bosnian Serb who lived through the siege of Sarajevo and whose brother was killed by a sniper, Simić, now resident in Toronto as a PEN writer in exile,[1] 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, with Sorrow its form.

Twenty-nine of the forty-four poems in this new collection appeared in 1997 in very different English translations. These versions were written by David Harsent, who worked from “cribs” prepared by Amela Simić. Reading Harsent’s adaptations, published by Oxford University Press as Sprinting from the Graveyard, beside these new/old versions (as translated by Amela Simić alone), one quickly gets the sense that Harsent was uncomfortable staying true to what Goran Simić saw and to the poet’s own stated aims. Harsent writes in his foreword that he used Amela Simić’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.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a technique. The loose adaptation of extant texts is a literary staple and poets such as Robert Lowell, Robert Bly and Peter Van Toorn have created wonderful poems in English by taking liberties with a text in another language. But context matters. The spirit of the original poem matters. When the subject of a work to be translated is the very “raw material” of an actual war zone, as witnessed firsthand by the poet himself who is still living—pace a newspaper report to the contrary published during the siege—then greater 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. “Taking it further” in such a context is nothing to brag about; “extravagant” changes are unforgivable. What the translator wants must be secondary to what the source poem demands.

Looking at the differences between two translations of one poem is a good way to get a sense of how Harsent went wrong and why the “new” version, if less polished, is superior. The first poem in From Sarajevo is “The Beginning, After Everything.” In Sprinting, this is the thirteenth poem and Harsent has shorn the definite article from the title to accommodate the move. Opening with this poem is crucial because it contains the programmatic statement of artistic intention I quoted above; this is the beginning, not merely a beginning, setting the stage for what follows. 

Most of the poems that were published in Sprinting are typeset in From Sarajevo as columnar prose paragraphs “which resemble newspaper reports.” They look more like cribs than poems. 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, Simić 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, bareness be damned, 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).” The melodramatic phrasing—ravenous, feasting, corpse—and loaded place name are so patently opposed to the chilled restraint Simić espouses that one feels embarrassed for Harsent’s enthusiastic adornments. It’s regrettably ironic that Harsent changed Amela Simić’s “stranger” to “someone” because it reinforces the message of the poem that strangers can’t possibly understand the situation and the poet’s response to it. 

Comparative reading suggests 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 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.
But we should be careful of taking Simić’s stated intention too literally. A poet’s manner of seeing is not the same as 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. 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 Simić, keeping his vision clear is crucial and constantly threatened by partisan propaganda and the psychological trauma of life in a combat zone. Besides the cold bare facts of war, Simić’s poems, as the above-quoted lines illustrate, are full of hallucinatory, paranoid nightmares. Which are also facts of war.

Simić is never 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 to which Simić, ever clear-sighted, is not blind. He captures it 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 simultaneously to damn and praise his role in it. It is significant that he does this in a form more conspicuously poetic than the prose columns that predominate in From Sarajevo. This marks the poet’s transition from a poetry of immediate witness to a poetry of reflection and recollection, inhabiting traumatic spots of time. It also marks the migration from one home and language to another, the Shakespearean sonnet being a quintessentially English form. Simić tells us in his acknowledgments 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 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.

[1] Review originally published in 2005; republished in Career Limiting Moves, Biblioasis 2014. 

Zachariah Wells is the author of the poetry collections Unsettled and Track & Trace; co-author, with Rachel Lebowitz, of the children's book Anything but Hank!; and editor of Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets and The Essential Kenneth Leslie. Over the past decade, his critical reviews and essays have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies in Canada and the US and he has won Arc Poetry Magazine's Critic's Prize four times. Originally from Prince Edward Island, Wells now lives with his family in Halifax, where he works as a freelance Zach-of-all-trades. 


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