Where We Might Have Been

By Don Coles

On the subject of memory, and the poetry of Don Coles is rooted in memory, this is interesting (maybe even “blown-away interesting,” you decide):

Psychiatrists are currently saying that we take
near-permanent note of every sight and sound
our lives offer us, filing away not only casual
scenes and events (and lately, from abandoned
hangars and unsupervised outbuildings,
the shredded, corridor-strewn contents of
once-cloistered, now Googleable, libraries both
ancient and modern), but also fierce angers,
immense joys, summer TV re-runs and NFL
hi-lites, in short whatever’s now going or once went.
All this stacks up in our head-mass,
most of it seemingly lost in there but all,
apparently, retrievable if we can catch even fleeting
glimpses of it. Glimpses from which may come
limitless things.

One such limitless thing being the oceanic mind itself. This is your brain on Google, one’s “head mass” as a networked synaptic soup retrieving files by glimpses that may as well be clicks. Here they are again leading off another poem:

The body presses forward on its narrowing journey
but the mind, musing on loss, pauses, looks
back, among the queues of years glimpses, like campfires,
its secret scenes.

The glimpse isn’t just a metaphor for retrieving the past. It’s a kind of movement, a bit of mental indirection that doesn’t press grimly forward but strolls about like a flâneur, pauses, looks back, gets drawn off track, and constantly re-evaluates. The poems in Where We Might Have Been resist all sense of linear progress, tending to end up back where they started after wandering about through fields of memory. The lines are long, the language informal, the content anecdotal, the rhythm conversational and the voice direct (“Think about it!”, “You see?”). The tone is set in the first lines of the first poem:

I was eating my supper in a booth in the Copenhagen
Student Union’s café and reading Art Buchwald’s
column in the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune when . . .

The moment is Coles’ version of a spot of time, a campfire that lights up with its specificity canyons of the past. He was eating supper, we soon learn, “fifty-plus years ago.” That indistinct quality time has – evoked throughout the book in phrases like “a few years ago,” “six or seven years,” “I think it was about eight years ago,” and “ca. seventy years” – plays off against the exactness of a remembered moment, which in turn expands into the poem. Of course Marcel and his biscuit is the great literary archetype here, and Proust even makes an appearance in a poem whose title exemplifies the book’s digressive nature: “Proust and My Grandfather (and Eaton’s, God Rot Them).” In another poem that expands upon “a random but vivid memory” of a French author, “Memory, Camus, Beaches,” the same shuffling movement among glimpses is even more pronounced, the structure “a re-start and circling-back” that starts off with Camus, then inserts those thoughts on the head mass quoted earlier, then returns to Camus (“We left him a while ago but now we’re / back”), then slips into another pair of digressions (“Which reminds me . . .”), then comes back to something else about Camus (“just one more thing while we’re here . . .”), and finally concludes with an anecdote recalled when out “walking in my usual meaningless way.”

Though all of his poetry is of a piece, one never has the feeling that Coles is repeating himself. Memory, whatever its initial impulse, opens onto a limitless range. Certain techniques do recur, like the use of an aide-mémoire to make memory speak (“Here’s a WWII photo . . .”, “Here’s a green-jacketed hardback . . .”), or the worrying of individual words (“The word ‘plangency’ has tempted me / more than once but I’ve resisted it”, “I wanted to have ‘despairingly’ there, a deeper and / darker adverb for sure”, “Funny about that word ‘surprised’.”). But what ties everything together isn’t so much the voice, which is more expansive than usual, as the personality it reveals. Coles places his poetic line within the Hardy-Larkin tradition, but his tone is very different. Hardy and Larkin are bitter men, their grumpy reflections suggesting a disillusionment and even at times a disgust with life. Coles seems cheery and blessed in comparison.

Coles came to publishing poetry late, a fact that has probably contributed something to his abiding interest in the backward glimpse and his mining of “secret fastnesses” snagged from the “coasting-pass of time.” The result has been a body of poetry that is highly personal but that also keeps a distance from the self. Memory is a way of both preserving and observing one’s own life. And it is in fragments and glimpses, including those preserved in texts or files, that the past is contained and set free. As Coles has said elsewhere: “an hour’s immortal even if a life isn’t.”

Review first published online January 3, 2010.


For as Far as the Eye Can See

By Robert Melançon

Poetry evokes, through the music of its language or through imagery. Its particulars are like small stones dropped in large ponds of consciousness, the ripples spreading out as echoes of other things we’ve heard, or seen, or read.

A couple of poems in to Robert Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See I found myself imagining the cityscapes of the American painter Edward Hopper in the stark linearity of those “mounting tiers of brick houses” and telephone lines, with the “sky ruled off in glass and metal squares.” In Melançon’s lines we observe a “hardened” urban space, almost static, posed. A not-quite blank canvas, a “theatre reduced to almost nothing.” Cars inch ahead, and people trudge past the sightless gaze of shop window mannequins – in appearance, figures nearly as human as the ones outside the glass.

Or was I first aware not of Hopper’s art but of Robert Hughes’s response to it? “A great Hopper,” Hughes wrote, “always emits one moment of frozen time, literally a tableau, as though the curtain had just gone up but the narrative begun. It gives images of quite ordinary things – and everything, in Hopper, is on the face of it ordinary – their mystery and power.”

It is that sense of quiet anticipation within a “theatrically deserted” space that infuses these poems as much as it does Hopper’s paintings. We seem to be looking at an emptiness. Two words are repeated again and again: silence and nothing. Words that, in turn, only increase our feeling of anticipation, of what brushstrokes will fall upon this canvas, or what performance will take the stage.

suddenly this commonplace street resembles
a setting from Italian theatre, like


an infinite perspective in front of which
might be played out, in the failing light,
some tragedy in alexandrines.


All seems to be waiting, motionless –
the houses, people in the street, traffic –
all displays itself, even the shadows.

Shadows. We know what Hopper could do with shadows. And for Melançon too they have a special, almost spiritual significance. In one poem he explicitly likens the world of appearances that Plato held to be delusive shadow play to paradise. His moments of vision (and they are always ephemeral moments, witnessed in a blink and then gone forever) may not be “real” in a Platonic sense, but the real as Plato imagined it is only “a stale whiteness.” The shadows, on the other hand, though perhaps derivative, are magic. (The original French title of the book establishes this theme more directly: Le Paradis des apparences. Essai de poemes réalistes.)

What makes this particular, perhaps only personal, echo so remarkable is that Hopper is one of the few painters Melançon doesn’t include in his eclectic catalogue. The colours, forms, and textures of Friedrich, Breughel, Poussin, Seurat, Hals, O’Keefe, Caravaggio, Claude, Turner, and Mirò are invoked, but Hopper remains a spiritual shadow, his presence unattributed.

Of course the conceit of a poem, and especially a sonnet (the poems here are all twelve lines, “a lesser sonnet”), being a painting or objet d’art, is an old one. Painting, like language, is experienced through time. A canvas has an overall effect, but soon the eye has to start wandering over its surface, picking up details and engaging in interpretation. We can’t see a painting whole, at once, any more than we can experience a poem or a piece of music instantaneously. Melançon plays with this conceit throughout, tracking the movement of the eye as it moves from roofs to branches to telephone wires to snow.

We see chimneys outlined against


a pale sun and spills of undecided
shadow. We see the air’s transparency,
and the hazy dusting of light.

Or watch the eye fall from the sky, and down the page, with “nothing” (note the repetition) to hold on to until it comes to rest on the frame of buildings, and the end of the poem, in the following:

Nothing is happening in the expanse
of blue, so perfectly blue, that has
stretched its canvas above the streets,


nothing but the event of the light as it
fades toward the horizon, diffusing
into a hemisphere without contours,


built up out of nothing. No sooner does one try
to focus on one point than the eye, lacking
an object, seeking in vain for something


to fix on, at once shifts back down
towards the broken line of buildings,
as if to rest against a parapet.

Then remember – the realization comes as a surprise – that what’s being described isn’t a “canvas” at all, but a vision of the street. Such a vision of the street, to borrow a line, that the street itself can never understand, since it can’t perceive itself. It is the eye that transforms reality into vision, into art, into shadow. But only for a moment. Not because the moment itself is fleeting, but because our gaze is. Poetry, in Melançon’s hands, is a way of seeing.

Review first published online June 24, 2013.


By Amanda Jernigan

The word “groundwork” usually refers to a preliminary task, as in “laying the groundwork” for some further endeavour. It’s a good title then for Amanda Jernigan’s first book, as well as a signal of that book’s thematic concerns. In three sections dealing respectively with an archaeological dig in Tunisia, the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, and Homer’s Odyssey, Jernigan grounds her own work in classical beginnings while provocatively flipping traditional myths of origins on their head.

Taking a step back (and I apologize for how abstract this paragraph is going to sound), we can think of any myth of beginnings as having two axes: left-right temporal (something comes first and then something else happens later), and up-down hierarchical (something more advanced is built on a previous established foundation). In addition, myths come in two dimensions: personal and social. So, for example, Rousseau has man born free in a state of nature only to fall into chains, which describes both what happens to the individual and to civilizations. That the movement up the mythic ladder is experienced as a fall was the essence of the Romantic revolution in thought, which associated “lower” levels of nature and the unsocialized mind (Blake’s Orc, and later Freud’s Id) with creative genius while the upper reaches of the tower represented unnecessary and oppressive accretions.

Whether you want to privilege nature or culture, the Id or the Superego, the basic picture of the former being prior to the latter is pretty straightforward. Also obvious is the notion that, no matter how empty a tower may be at the top, it has to be built on something. The foul rag-and-bone shop is where the ladder starts, not where it ends up.

This is, however, exactly the mythic map that Groundwork undermines. The opening poem, “The Night Guard,” introduces us to the new terms of reference. An excavation of ancient ruins becomes a metaphor: nature is no longer the groundwork but rather the overgrowth. Cattle are cleared away and topsoil removed from the site in order to lay bare (moving from the social to the individual dimension) “the structure of your thinking.” In turn, what we find underneath is not some wild and uncultivated Eden, or the roiling lava of subconscious thought, but the detritus of earlier civilizations and the fragments of myth that nature itself has made a palimpsest of.

I find this a very contemporary way of thinking. Nature (at least as writers in the Romantic tradition like Rousseau or Wordsworth would have understood and experienced it) has largely disappeared from modern life on both the public and the personal level. How many of us have memories – memories that would have been shared by most of us just a couple of generations ago – of growing up on a farm? Such a prehistory is no longer part of our personal or collective unconscious. Instead, nature (in the form of “the environment”) is something to be reclaimed – more a vision of a sustainable green future than a past state of innocence we are trying to “get back” to. This is the sort of thing Jernigan finds among the ancient walls of Carthage, where the “living have quarried the bricks of the dead,” leaving bare-armed men planting tomatoes in the ruins. “Any why not?” one poem asks. “One can’t eat art,” another answers.

I wouldn’t want to lean on this reading too heavily, but it’s consistent with the imagery employed throughout much of the book. In the second and third sections we move from tesserae to more familiar cultural fragments, but the same language of a reverse movement from cultural base to natural overgrowth is used. After the dismissal of Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden is scarcely recognizable as a garden, the vineyards and orchards untended, the rivers left to pursue a natural course. In “The Birds of Paradise,” “the water in which we bathe / is less than pure” because it has been poisoned by a factory upstream, where Yeats’s singing bird is now being manufactured out of polyvinyl chloride. From a whale’s perspective, “fifty fathoms deep,” icebergs are “upside-down basilicas.” When Odysseus finds his men transformed into pigs he thinks them none the worse for that. Art isn’t about progress.

In his early novels Don DeLillo liked to make the point that the subconscious mind, the inner reptile brain, isn’t a natural structure any more but one colonized by advertising jingles and other ephemeral bits and pieces of pop culture. Jernigan’s fragments are more elevated – she’s deeply (at times almost too deeply) allusive, even within individual poems – but I think she’s making a similar point about our collective mental groundwork. The structure of our thinking has nothing left in it of nature.

All of this might make Groundwork sound like a bit too much of an intellectual exercise, but I’ve only offered one reading and in any event it doesn’t play as dry as I’ve made it sound. Jernigan is more into rhyme than rhetoric, and handles form skillfully and with a light touch throughout. The poem “Islands” is a good example, with stanzas that spread out as aural rings of puns and homophones. On such a foundation a rich “overground” is built, an airy garden over the horizon line waiting to be mined.

Review first published online May 14, 2012.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

By David Rakoff

There are a number of noteworthy things about Montreal-born David Rakoff’s debut novel Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. It is, for starters, both Rakoff’s first novel (he had written three previous volumes of essays) and his last book, as he died of cancer just after completing it. It is also illustrated by Guelph artist Seth, and his full-page portraits of the main characters, profiles in gray that makes them seem like so many carved busts in a gallery of antiquities as much as snapshots from a photo album, nicely complement Rakoff’s generation-spanning chronicle of twentieth-century America. Seth is a master of revealing depth of character through just the set of a mouth or an eyebrow. Even a baby seems both innocent of and alarmed at the trials she will have to face as an adult.

But what makes the book most remarkable is the fact that it is a novel in verse. The long poem has been on the endangered species list for decades now, and its close cousin the narrative poem is an even rarer bird. But Rakoff tells the entire story here in rambling, often run-on, couplets. The metrical flow is such that if you read it aloud (which is worth trying just for a page or two) you don’t get the sense of a rocking rhyme scheme at all. There is a frequent use of enjambment and feminine line endings, making the rhymes almost invisible on occasion. In fact, the times when you notice the couplets the most tend to be when Rakoff stretches for a particularly risky or striking combination, like matching “pubic lice” with “paradise,” or in scenes like the one describing an abortion: “She lay back and placed her feet in the cold stirrups / And faced toward the window, all birdsong and chirrups.”

Despite the lighthearted tone of the verse, Rakoff’s representative and loosely linked American lives make for a pretty grim, unhappy bunch. Victims and outsiders, they are swept along toward inevitable illness and death. The faces become ghost-like and haunted as they confront harder facts and a colder reality, their best days all behind them, like spots of time now existing only in memories and boxes of old photos. Optimism is exposed as a delusion, albeit a necessary one. In the end it’s best to live in the now, and understand that life is only passing through various stages, a journey and not a destination.

Review first published August 10, 2013.

Sub Divo

By Norm Sibum

You don’t have to be a student of Northrop Frye’s historical system of mythic modes to be aware that we live in an ironic age, one that invokes past glories mainly as a way of commenting on a degraded present. This has been the default setting for our literature at least since Joyce and Eliot sent Odysseus and Agamemnon on brothel crawls. By now we’ve come to expect such inversions, and so when Norm Sibum opens Sub Divo with Odysseus on Circe’s island, the wandering hero’s resistance to the witch’s temptation involves a familiar undercutting of the epic. Instead of enjoying a “pretty beastliness” on the enchanted island Odysseus would rather be home doing doggy things:

My pleasures? They are a swallow of my own vintage,
My cheese, the goodly scent of my wife’s armpit.
The sight of my old father, my hunting dog –
Yes, come to think of it, my hunting dog –

For the goodly scent of an armpit I think we might read snuffling his wife’s crotch, but really it comes to the same thing. Circe counts such a life mere “wretchedness,” but Odysseus is off with a wagging tail after a quick sniff and kiss of the witch’s cheek. We won’t find any scent here of Tennyson’s Ulysses launching himself into the great unknown, or Spenser’s disdain for Grille and his hoggish mind. Better to leave the realm of gods and heroes alone and revel in earthy humanity.

That earthy humanity is, as the Latin tag has it, sub divo, under the heavens or the sky. And there’s nothing to be ashamed of about it. “Let me say it again,” Sibum says (again):

either pitch your verse at the highest
Pitch, or, chaste as a child playing at jacks,
get down and dirty . . .

Either stay with Circe (and Tennyson, and Spenser, and Homer) or get down in the muck. And though Sibum has an eye for the female form, it is a chaste dirtiness: one that can be likened to a child playing but which is closer to the memories of a veteran re-living past loves, the women won and the women lost. You can hear Roth’s Zuckerman in some of these monologues, with Sibum as the professor of desire. It’s not as big a stretch as that may seem, as Roth’s art is grounded in voice and the poems in Sub Divo are conversation pieces both in style (recall that “Yes, come to think of it . . .”) and form.

The conversations orbit around passions recollected in tranquility. Recollections of lust are made in chaste detachment, and that detachment is also the dominant tone in the collection’s political musings. Here the nod to Horace takes on further relevance, as Sibum dives into the increasingly popular question “Are We Rome?” The analogy is inevitable, arriving “as if preordained.” The torch of empire has been passed and America is “the thing once again made new.” And yet America the New is looking old and worn, “down in the mouth, / Snake-bit, war-maddened, its parts / But jailbait for the banks, morally, spiritually, intellectually spent,”

Fortress America an open-air crypt
of crumbling infrastructure
and advanced weapons systems.

Sibum is censorious, but gives the impression that he is past anger. Again there is a feeling of tranquility, with the model here being Tacitus in his garden, “taking the shade” while chronicling the empire’s corruption, decline and fall. Or, closer yet, Horace, who in his Epistles and Satires provided the model for the later English “conversation poem.” That same model and the consistency of mood is what here holds the personal and political together, private words addressed in public. This glue is necessary as the conversation, especially when our poet is in his cups, is often chatty and indirect, making Sibum’s muse seem “addled”:

war, love, lust, Caesar,
the shenanigans of the financial sector.
Why, they’re all over the place – these verses,
As if I were some shorebird, long-legged bundle of nerves
and aversions
Who finds the shore unstable, the tide treacherous, too many
gawking tourists about
looking for spirituality in the flaming sunset
and I can’t settle anywhere on the beach.

Sub Divo is a book that’s set on that beach. The flaming sunset – of years, of empire – is a retirement destination for some, a violent spectacle for others (I think of a synthesis, the apocalyptic end of West’s Day of the Locust, as I read the lines). And while one appreciates Sibum’s nervous uneasiness, it’s hard not to picture him sitting at a bar and enjoying the show while offering his commentary on time’s treacherous tides.

Review first published online February 18, 2013.

Hand Luggage

By P. K. Page

When P. K. Page subtitles this book a “memoir in verse” it signals something a little less ambitious than Wordsworth’s Prelude. That noble brick of a work was autobiography, not memoir; poetry not verse. While Page’s “long colloquial memoir” covers more territory – it stretches over 80 years and is set in various Canadian locations and diplomatic posts around the world – she doesn’t build up any set-piece “spots of time” or make oracular pronouncements about the mind of the poet, or the nature of her art. Indeed she consciously shies away from such Voice of the Bard moments, preferring a self-deprecating and speculative stance. She confesses “What interests me most / is beyond me.” She has no intention of making things cohere or forcing the past into a pattern. Instead, the more she digs the more questions she turns up.

As an example, she describes her discovery of Virginia Woolf as a revelation, opening her eyes to gender in writing – feminine “negative space” vs. the masculine chalice. Looking back, she adds as a postscript that today she inclines to the chalice again. And then a question that deflates the whole debate without resolving anything: “Is it hormones or mind?”

Not all of her shrugs are so deftly handled. One philosophical inquiry ends in a complaint that it “opens a question too big for my mind” and ideas she is unable to clearly formulate. This seems a cop-out. If a poet can’t formulate or express something difficult, at least metaphorically or through the use of imagery, then they’re letting us down. This is what we read poetry for – a fact that Page later sees fit to recognize: “how come I can’t, / as a writer, find words? It is surely my job!” Surely it is!

In Page’s defense, memoir/memory might be trumping poetry here. Art is the representation of feeling, not the reconstruction of identity or personal history. And here the author does have a formulation handy:

     One’s memories stored,
stashed away, who knows where, have a system unique
as a thumbprint – one triggered by tastes,
by weathers, by vague indefinable wants
and other ineffables – ‘humours’, I think,
is the word I am wanting for moistness and warmth
and temperament, too – for that watery self,
that ox-bowing river that rushes, dries out,
and is quickened by freshets and freakish flash floods.

The alliteration we get at the end of this passage is something we hear a lot of in Hand Luggage, suggestive of the Old English line. Poetry back in the days before English was English didn’t rhyme but instead used alliteration as its organizing principle. A typical “line” of Old English poetry (and, like all such rules, this is a generalization that allowed for variation) consisted of four stresses, and was split in the middle with a heavy caesura. (I put “line” in quotation marks, by the way, because the line as a separate unit of text was a later development.) What linked the two half-lines was the alliteration, with at least one of the stressed words in the first half-line beginning with the same sound as the first stressed word of the second half-line. To illustrate, here is the young P. K. getting started in western Canada, among

Remittance men, ranchers – friends of my family –
public school failures, penniless outcasts,
bigoted bachelors with British accents.

The budding poet discovers herself to be a “tightrope talker” – someone capable of walking the “vocal chasm” between these strange tongues and the authentic Canadian voices she hears in her classroom.

I was deceptive, full of disguises
a poet in residence, a private person
masked as a malamute – mutable, moody –

Page goes lighter on this Anglo-Saxon line later, primarily, I think, because she isn’t much interested in the line anyway. Her main poetic unit in this book is not the line but the verse paragraph. That may sound like heresy to some poetry purists – and I have to admit I found it occasionally disturbing myself, especially when confronted with some of her weaker line endings – but it fits with the book’s anecdotal, colloquial temperament.

As memoir, Hand Luggage is free of sensational revelations or startling epiphanies. Page writes without bitterness or scores to settle, and the overall tone is bemused and questioning – not just in her attitude toward what cummings called “matters arty,” but in her effort to make sense of what happened, to take stock of lessons learned, re-learned, and all but forgotten.

Like anyone who has seriously tried to engage with their own past, Page has trouble reconciling the person she was with the person she has become, the ideal with the reality. Typically we don’t notice these changes because they occur unconsciously. Taking up her last diplomatic post in Mexico Page is shocked to find how little she resembles the woman of her youth. “I wasn’t the person who’d gone / abroad in the fifties,” she realizes. She is ashamed and horrified to discover that she has become less independent, “accustomed to privilege”:

     How it occurred
I couldn’t imagine. Seduced, is the word –
a gradual seduction – and I had succumbed.

The diplomat’s wife on the receiving line is now “this middle-aged woman whom I wouldn’t like / had we been introduced.” And then the piercing parenthesis: “Know thyself . . . ? Take the lumps. You are not who you think.”

And how does the critical impulse respond to this wise call for reserving judgment? Perhaps Hand Luggage is not the book you might think. It has some good poetry, but also quite a bit of uninspired leg-work. And the footnotes, I think, were a mistake. But like any successful memoir, it is also something unique – in this case an engaging and wryly observed re-examination, in tranquility, of the ox-bow twists taken by a watery, ceaselessly questioning self.

Review first published online May 3, 2006.

From Sarajevo, With Sorrow and Yesterday’s People

By Goran Simic
By Goran Simic

Both of these books – one a collection of poetry, the other of short stories – were inspired by the siege of Sarajevo. Bosnian-born author Goran Simic, who now lives in Toronto, is witness and survivor of the Bosnian war, and his writing is both “epitaph and testimony” to the experience.

It is not reportage. The poems in From Sarajevo, With Sorrow were written in the belief “that when compared with the cold newspaper reports which would be forgotten with the start of a new war elsewhere, only poetry could be a true and decent witness to war.” A true witness would not be cold but hot. Coolness suggests detachment, escape. It’s an attitude of instant forgetfulness that Simic admits to finding seductive. After days full of horror he would

like to write poems which
resemble newspaper reports, so bare and cold
that I could forget them the very moment a
stranger asks: Why do you write poems which
resemble newspaper reports?

But as a poet Simic doesn’t want to forget.

Aside from their disposability (newspapers wrap sandwiches in another poem), what makes the newspaper reports cold isn’t the style they’re written in – Simic’s poetry is frequently as direct and plainspoken as the daily news – but their generic, abstract, and impersonal quality. Plus the fact that they’ve been tidied up. In the poem “Love Story” Simic writes about a pair of lovers shot on a bridge leading out of Sarajevo. Their deaths became a “major media event” as “newspapers from around the world” took angles like “the Bosnian Romeo and Juliet” and “a romantic love which surpassed political boundaries.”

But then the papers got tired of it. The dead lovers became yesterday’s people, forgotten ghosts. After the major media event had run its course their corpses still remained by the bridge as each day “maggots, flies, and crows finished off their swollen bodies.” The stench got so bad soldiers guarding the bridge had to wear gas masks. Simic concludes: “No newspapers wrote about that.”

Simic’s poetry was tidied up as well in the first translation into English of some of these poems, a collection titled Sprinting from the Graveyard published in 1997. In addition to making Simic’s writing more “poetic” (heightening the language and making it less rough and offensive to “Western sensibilities”), this version became the copyright of the translator, turning the original into what Simic describes as a “ghost book.” From Sarajevo, With Sorrow is a re-translation by Simic’s ex-wife of the original work, with the addition of some unpublished pieces also written in Sarajevo during the siege.

It is a ghost book haunted by ghosts. Sarajevo is an unreal city populated by those forgotten by the newspapers, “last year’s story, people who really died last Fall but don’t know it yet.” Where there is no representation, there is no reality: “The TV’s off. There is no war.” This experience of being de-mediaed is given an odd twist by the fact that during the siege a Bosnian daily newspaper twice published Simic’s name among the list of those killed, effectively turning him into a kind of ghost. In the poem “A Short Lecture on Life” he even gets into an argument with his father over whether he is still alive. His father remains unconvinced.

The poetry in From Sarajevo, With Sorrow is at turns anecdotal, hectoring, and coolly visionary. It’s all written in the first person, sometimes in Simic’s own voice and sometimes as dramatic monologue, but there’s nothing introverted about it. Its voice is one of witness rather than confession.

The stories in Yesterday’s People, which are also concerned with the Bosnian war and its aftermath, share a similar interest in the people of Sarajevo. In “Minefield” and “The Game” we are introduced to small casts of characters, identified by nickname but fully imagined as real. Simic puts flesh on the ghosts. The stories are also obsessed with “before” and “after,” locations (Sarajevo and Toronto) that are associated with states of mind. “Before” is the past, the place of ghosts that still dominates the present and that none of the haunted narrators can ever escape, even, as the penultimate story suggests, in death.

It’s the same world as From Sarajevo, With Sorrow, but Simic’s stories are more dramatic, even theatrical constructions than his poems. And so while his handling of the short story form is skilful, the effect is less direct. One has the sense of emotion recollected, of a book less possessed by an immediate horror than controlled by invention.

But this is more a tribute to the unique power of the poetry than anything else. In both books Simic successfully composes epitaph and testimony to a people and a place that the newspapers indeed forgot with the start of a new war elsewhere. His writing is a living bridge negotiating the shadow between now and then, here and there, the experience of war and its expression.

Review first published March 25, 2006.