From The Desk


Any ideology or belief that doesn't have hatred as spice has no chance of becoming popular. - Charles Simic

If poems were the expression of one's ethnicity they would remain local, but they are written by individuals in all cultures, which makes them universal. - Charles Simic

The sole function of the epic poet is to find excuses for the butcheries of the innocent. - Charles Simic

The eternal shrinks to the size of the present because only the present can be humanly grasped. - Charles Simic

Most of the books I've read with interest this fall have revolved around the conflict in the Balkans. My friend Chris Merrill, in his new book, Only the Nails Remain (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), has accomplished what I thought was impossible: on pages 161 & 162, he has reduced "the Serbian problem" to five succinct paragraphs, beginning in 441 AD & ending yesterday. "Under the banner of Pan-Slavism,"he writes, "Serbs fomented rebellion in Bosnia, fought Turkey and Bulgaria, started the first Balkan War, caused the second, and set off the Great War." Now they are at it again, having somehow provoked the most laissez-faire of all our Presidents into authorizing catastrophic air strikes on Belgrade & other Serbian sites, both military & civilian.

"Nationalism," writes the poet Charles Simic, "is a self-constructed cage in which family members can huddle in safety when they're not growling and barking at someone outside the cage." The only way to get people out of their cages, it seems, is to put a greener pasture across the street. Simic says that's why so many families like his came to America, to "escape their old identities." Of course this only works as long as the economy is going well. When the dream of modernism dies, all the tribe has to fall back on for solace is hatred.

Well, hatred plus literature, & as Simic suggests in many of his recent essays, we perhaps don't get one without the other. Even the beloved cookbooks of all modern poetry, the Iliad & Odyssey of Homer, have suspicious origins. The explanation that I like the best is that Homer's books are an attempt to explain away a disasterous Greek invasion of Egypt, in which all but a few of the invaders were slaughtered on the beach where they landed by the soldiers of the Pharoahs. Roberto Calasso quotes a scholar of antiquity who implies the first draft was actually written by Helen to explain away her infidelities, & that she hired a blind poet to flesh the narrative out. (Because, if I may interpolate, a blind poet would be immune to her earthly charms, & respect her just for what she wrote.) (It was a good story . . . )

Of course it is difficult or even impossible for us to imagine that the poem Homer was reciting was happening in his poetic present. "Cruelly and for a long time," writes a young poet from Sarajevo, Ferida Durakovic, "everything/ has been repeating and yet everything/ happens for the first time . . . " Durakovic is especially effective at invoking the icons & myths of her troubled city. If those myths have been passed down to her as fairy tales, they are also tinged with the dark inherent in a people who have been caught for most of their existence between the two dominant religions of Europe.

So if an epic poem or legend like the Odyssey or the Song of Roland exists for a tribe to return to again & again, whether or not it contains even an ounce of historical truth, it accrues political value that the author or any poet might find hard to accept. Witness Chris Merrill's astonishment that the epic poets of Serbia have gotten the Battle of Kosovo all wrong, & that it doesn't seem to make any difference. "Nor is it clear," he writes at one point in complete exasperation, "that the Serbs even lost the battle." He was going to toss up Ryszard Kapuscinski's theory that "[t]he acceleration of history proves that we have a very limited imaginary capacity . . . " to that most learned authority on history & memory, Garcia Marquez, but the world's most famous novelist wouldn't speak to Chris when he found out he was American.

This fear or dislike of the Other can lead to intense nationalism, which Danilo Kis described as "collective and individual paranoia." Into this fray stumbles the unsuspecting poet, especially one who, like Mandel'shtam, stands at the side of a road cluttered with abandoned dreams, & sees everyone else going the other way. Standing up & waving the arms will only get such a poet shot & stuffed into a ditch, like Radnoti, whose last poems were unearthed from the pocket of his overcoat when his widow found his mass grave in Yugoslavia at the end of World War II. ". . . in order to enter into relations with his fellow men," Czeslaw Milosz writes, "[a poet] must renounce truth and adopt any conventional lie." And that is why the Greeks appear to have won the Trojan War, the Serbs to have lost the Battle of Kosovo, etc.

So if we can't trust our epic poets, what good is literature? Well, as Semezdin Mehmedinovic suggests, "[e]xperience has shown that the most effective means of shelter is made of books. When a shell falls, books act like a net, trapping the shrapnel within them."

Chris Merrill's Slovenian friend, the poet Tomaz Salamun, once tried to make his living by selling how-to books door-to-door, "the worst possible occupation for someone as unassuming as Tomaz. He rarely managed even to show potential customers the books he despised. One day, though, he summoned the courage to ask a woman impatient with his pitch to tell him which writers she read. "Kafka, Proust, and Salamun," she replied. "I am Salamun,"he said, amazed . . ."

- Greg Simon


The Four Questions of Melancholy: New and Selected Poems By Tomaz
Salamun
, Edited by Christopher Merrill, White Pine, 1997

Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars By Christopher
Merrill, Rowman & Littlefield, 1999

Heart of Darkness By Ferida Durakovic,Translated by Amela Simic &
Zoran Mutic, White Pine, 1998

The Unemployed Fortune Teller: Essays and Memoirs, By Charles Simic,
Michigan, 1994

Orphan Factory Essays and Memoirs, By Charles Simic, Michigan, 1997

Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews, By Danilo Kis, Farrar, Straus &
Giroux, 1995

Road-side Dog By Czeslaw Milosz, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998

Sarajevo Blues By Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Translated by Ammiel Alcalay, City Lights, 1998