I only know Goran Simic by reputation and by the power and beauty of his poems (which is to say that at a certain level I know him well). Since he came to Toronto from his native Bosnia in 1996, a year after the war ended, he has been a stalwart of the poetry scene, that rare thing in North America, a man-of-letters, an indefatigable promoter of other writers and their books, and a moral beacon. He has won numerous awards including a Helman/Hammet grant (for writers who have been victims of political persecution) and a PEN USA Freedom to Write award. His poems and stories about the war he lived through and the Siege of Sarajevo are incredibly stark and moving.
The river carries the corpse of a woman.
as I run across the bridge
with my canisters of water,
I notice her wristwatch, still in place.
Someone lobs a child’s shoe
into the furnace. Family photographs spill
from the back of a garbage truck;
they carry inscriptions:
Love from …love from…love …
It’s a great pleasure to display here seven poems from Goran’s new book Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman which will be published by Biblioasis in December.
(And for Goran’s poignant essay on coming to Canada, on being an immigrant and on becoming visible, click here.)
What I Was Told
When I was born everybody rejoiced.
This is what I was told.
I was also told that in his notes my father the King
described hundreds of tents in front of the castle
for the common people’s celebration of my birth.
For months wine flowed and roasted quail were eaten
until the wine started to sour
and quail started smelling of wine.
My father the King invited the best fortune tellers in the country
to read my kingdom’s fate from my baby palm.
Some of them were richly rewarded.
No trace of the unfortunate others was found in my father’s notes.
When I grew tall enough to touch my father’s shield,
he issued a state decree ordering
the people of our kingdom to build a castle for me
on the hill. I could smell the sweat
of those who pulled stone slabs up the slope
while I lolled on my throne.
Those who survived the ten years of work
are mentioned in my father’s notes. This is what I was told.
Those who didn’t were buried in the castle’s foundation
and were not recorded in my father’s notes.
I forgot the name of my bride.
The taste of matrimonial wine lasted no longer
than the wedding night
when I had to lead my army to war with our neighbours.
My father told me to follow the tradition
and that I will find reasons once I learn how to read.
Sitting on my black horse, watching graves being dug in our wake,
I wondered why people called my army the Virus of Death,
why the sunset scares me
even after the leaves under my horse’s hooves
changed colours ten times.
Once my sword acquired the scent of burnt homes and rotting flesh,
I returned to my kingdom in a golden carriage.
But when I arrived
nobody was there to decorate my exhausted soldiers with garlands.
Only wretched old men and witches were begging forgiveness
for failing to predict my return.
The plague had eaten my father the King,
and my darling whose name I lost in the roll call of my generals.
All I had left from my kingdom were neglected fields
and a notebook that I couldn’t read.
Now I sit in my tower with a crown on my head.
I watch storks leaving the cold chimneys of my kingdom,
while I listen to the wind riffling the sheets of my empty bed,
leafing through the pages of my father’s notebook.
In this very moment I would happily exchange
my glory and my golden crown,
for someone who would teach me to read.
I Am Just a Title
When my blood goes to sleep and my eyes turn to dust
When I feel the wind on my neck and catch fever,
I’ll let my iron hands embrace the Rust
and say I’m a drop in what once was a river.
Once my cane becomes my better half and my heart defers to the cane,
dried flowers smell like skin and old photos like fresh flowers,
I’ll curse my passport’s stamps: so many crossings in vain
seeking my faces buried deep in my lovers.
At the end of this road to the land I won’t reach
the angel will sing: “You’re too small to do something bigger.
Oh, Goran, why did you cheat me, drinking wine spiked with bleach?
I don’t know. Let me smile. He’s coming, my friend the gravedigger.
Be humble, I was told, when facing the history books.
Let the museums instruct you that crime can be fair.
Learn of lures that conceal a hundred golden hooks.
Feel guilty at crime scenes even if you weren’t there—
when soldiers were ordered not to reason why;
when truth was a victim and medals shone like swords;
when blood lived in poems and love turned to a cry
behind lines of barbed wire. I lived in a no-man’s world
where a rusted sun pretended to know the matter,
when mirrors reflected nothing but pictures of the dead.
Had condoms not been invented, would history look better
had a production-line for soldiers made mattresses instead?
Where do I go from now when now seems like my past,
toothlessly singing the anthem, that soil-indulgent song?
When I asked the old frames to embrace me freshly cast,
I was walking backwards. And I was dead wrong.
A Former School Beauty Cries in the Basement
you were never taught to knock on a door
behind which someone is crying.
A spider crawls across her nightgown,
The pencil she once offered to strangers, should they wish
to capture her beauty, lies idly on a stack of letters
from which the stamps have escaped.
The light coming from the eyes of mice,
twinkling behind the old clock,
seems to be the only light still shining.
It appears as if she is praying.
A former school beauty sobs in the basement
like some child crying at the base of a pyramid
and I can no longer bear the chameleons
that do not want to climb down from my forehead,
nor taste the opium on my lips when I get my pay cheque
so that a few days later I might spell like a pupil:
the dog adopts his master’s face
and the master adopts his dog’s.
I know that it’s her head that burns in the blaze,
that a pillow smolders in the empty crib.
All those books about great love affairs
I once loaned her
now resemble old coffins
because my love never settled in her stomach,
because the pages of those books flew off
with a flock of butterflies.
The only thing that remains is my sorrow,
a butterfly mesh.
They tell me I’ll be grown when I fit
grandpa’s shoes and can tellmy sister’s pubic hair from my own.
My grandpa was buried in his shoes long ago
and my sister locks the door to the bathroom.Through the keyhole
I have watched her take off her clothes
and caress her pointy breasts.
I read her diary and know for whom
she puts on lipstick. She will leave me soon.
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.
I know why my father grabs his gun
and runs up to the roof whenever the red
police light shines through my aquarium.
He never notices that I have taken out the bullets.
I know why my mother leaves at midnight,
picked up by a black limousine.
If I told her I pricked holes in her condoms
she still wouldn’t know how I need her at home.
Sometimes I sit in the bathroom for hours
and imagine having a shower.
They say it happens to everybody.
But it happens now only to me.
The Sleepwalker Talks to the Curtains
Who wakes me when the sun kisses the frost?
Who dares force my blind seagulls to skate on the frozen sea?
I fear someone may find the reading glasses I’ve lost,
and use them to read me.
Like a quince that smells of autumn,
my dark pillow smells of me.
Who dares to call the morning light if stars still fall
in my little Queendom in the corner of the sky?
I am still the Queen
who chews her own chocolate army.
Soldiers’ eyes are sugar cherries in my crown
that shines like a star.
Who dares open the curtains between newspaper headlines
and dream in my homeland in the shape of a balloon,
where untold questions bloom like mushrooms in the dark?
I meet millions of fugitive shoes
on my way to the night.
Hundreds of empty gloves become butterfly nets
chasing postage stamps
flown from the envelopes of those who read stars.
I ask only of curtains that they guard me from the light—
there is nothing here for those who live
where passers-by wish each other
sweet dreams and good night.
Happy Days in the Mental Institution
The nurse comes with of pills and a glass of water.
Her sharp collar cuts the air in half.
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.
The patients on neither side talk,
disgusted with each other;
they gnaw pillows, piss on the floor
and fart in front of the doctor.
Whenever the nurse loudly concludes that some patient
must be feeling better
they shout from the other side that his condition is even worse,
that the patient is closer to a flower pot
than a suicide bomber.
But after midnight
when the moonlight moves the barbed wire
up the wall
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.