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Immigrant Blues

by Goran Simic, Amela Simic , trans.

An unremitting, relentless nostalgia permeates Immigrant Blues, Bosnian poet Goran Simic’s first collection since his Sprinting from the Graveyard encapsulated the siege of Sarajevo in 1997. The new book records a more reflective struggle – that of life in exile – which Simic has known since he moved to Canada seven years ago. These poems talk of isolation in the adopted country, of brutality in the homeland, of “sorrow, memory and pain.”

Most of the poems are assembled from blocks of stark, rudimentary symbolism: describing his attitude to the 20th century, Simic writes: “I am a boy who was sitting alone for too long/in an empty classroom waiting for the teacher/who never came.” Often dramatically addressing one figure, such as his mother or a girl in a porn magazine or Jorge Luis Borges, the poems are buttressed with melancholy refrains that repeat from stanza to stanza, suggesting nothing much changes during the interminable wait for repatriation.

But this simplicity of imagery and language (not always translated with suppleness) also sheaths the book with something of an anachronistic, 1960s vibe. Leonard Cohen could have commissioned this work and then set it to music. Simic’s method is also analogous to that of another exile from Eastern Europe, Milan Kundera. Each poem explores an idea or mood in a way that seeks to absolutely define it, much as Kundera’s novels and sentences strive to offer the last word on a given concept. The danger, in Simic’s case, is that the poems become a little too pat, their endings always referring back to an image already presented, an effect already made.

At times Simic’s narrative details burn through the atmosphere of generic immigrant loss, achieving a high degree of poignancy. Describing his evenings with émigré friends, where he is free to speak Serbo-Croatian, Simic writes: “We drink and talk politics/and each of our words is as precise/as the bill that arrives after the drinks.”