Oranges and Snow is a selection of Milan Djordjevic’s poems, translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic and published by Princeton University Press as part of the Facing Pages series. I was grateful to Simic’s pithy yet thorough introduction to Djordjevic as a writer and, just as importantly, as a person. Simic explains that Djordjevic grew up under a restrictive Communist government, saw his homeland ravaged by ethnic warfare, wrote for publications that opposed Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, and in 2007 sustained a personal tragedy that has confined him to his house—he was hit by a car while walking in a designated crosswalk in Belgrade. If Simic assesses that “The poet’s mission is not to save the world, but to save some human experience from oblivion,” I see Simic’s translation of Djordjevic’s work as an accomplishment of a similar gesture. Djordjevic’s house-bound eye and voice accentuate how much of a gift Simic’s translation and selection is for us who, otherwise, might never have met the voice of this fellow human survivor.
The history of war and personal tragedy that coalesce into a backdrop for Djodjevic’s poetry is relevant to any reading of his work. However, his poems rarely relate a distinct narrative of the past. I had to hold myself back from trying to read an autobiography into the poems because they did not offer themselves to me as such, and I decided after spending time in Djodjevic’s world that it was not fair to his imaginative dexterity nor to the strangeness of his vision to be disappointed that the poems did not meet my expectations. Djordjevic’s history of survival through political unrest and cruel accident made an impression on me before I read his work. But I had to learn to stand in each poem as if I were on an island.
Simic’s selection of Djordjevic’s poems spans a strikingly vast range from surreal pieces that alienate the reader (perhaps intentionally) to intimate, moving, and prophetic meditations on pain, mortality, and questions of fate.
A division among the poems became apparent to me as I spent time with Oranges and Snow—the surreal poems obscured an encounter with the speaker and the present moment by employing a kind of fan (embellished with garish, sexual, and at times even sadistic designs). But on the other side of the division I was moved and grateful to find intimate, personal poems that speak of what is at our fingertips and what is inevitable.
This is the range of his work—perhaps it would misrepresent Djordjevic’s work if Simic had filtered the poems that compare a potato to “a dark-hued pharaoh resting in peace” (“Spud”) from the poems that face the inevitability of our own death with an eerie simplicity (though not to the point of resignation), as in “The Dream”: “I know that all my dreams will die the day / death takes me to a place where streets / have no names. . .” However, I cannot hold back that at times I wished I was reading the filtered version. Give me the poet staring into the face of death, of utter human vulnerability.
I won’t deny that much comes down to taste. I admit my preferences usually dwell on the side of writing that vigilantly attends to capturing things as they are. Something Eliot Weinberger writes in his preface to George Oppen’s New Collected Poems seemed to sum up the kind of resistance I felt to some of Djordjevic’s poems. Weinberger writes that Oppen nurses “an obstinate blindness to all forms of surrealism, which he saw as an escape from, and not a way into, current realities.” But that intolerance for surrealism, Weinberger understands, came from “Oppen’s standard, his obsession, [which] was ‘honesty’ in the poem. . .”
Though I do not discriminate against surreal poetry to the extent that Oppen apparently did, I stand in awe of surreal work that, in its departure from the commonplace, never forgets that something is still at stake and actually brings me back (perhaps through contrast) into intimate contact with the real and current world around me.
Thus, to any vein of poetry—and to my life—like Oppen, I bring a standard of “honesty.” When I held Djordjevic’s poems to it, some were so honest that they struck me on a physical level (in Dickinson’s measure of poetry), while others seemed to hover in a non-place where honesty was beside the point (out of sight, out of mind). The poems that stand out to me as the strongest in the collection are those in which Djordjevic applies his penchant for surreal images to quotidian, personal, and, ultimately, honest meditations.
Fate is one of the paramount themes running amok like a banshee throughout Djordjevic’s poems. When, in “Two Pigeons,” Djordjevic remarks, “I see the wire is empty, / as if they both suddenly took off flapping their wings, / god knows where or why” (65), he touches on this theme of questionable causality, of inexplicability. Djordjevic seems to waver, like any thoughtful and sensitive person does, between acceptance of the idea that there is no reason for any of this, and, on the other hand, a wary sense that this is all happening for a reason (however inaccessible that reason may be to us). His poems span a range of understanding. He says at one point, “Long ago the gods left us leaving everything at the mercy / of history and our mortality” (“Clouds,” 47) and suggests a painful change of perspective later in the book when he says in the excellent poem “Regarding Fate,” “There was a time I didn’t believe in fate. / Today I’m drowning in it” (79). Djordjevic is able to address questions of metaphysics and causality, questions of god and of fate, through various focal points. A scene as common as two pigeons flying away, or an event as personally catastrophic as a maiming car accident—both occurrences are joined, Djordjevic seems to suggest, by their inexplicable accidence . . . “god knows where or why.”
Paradoxically, as soon as these poems attribute occurrence to accidence, they beg me to question, are there accidents? They stroke the idea of a predetermined fate. However, as a writer who lived through the ethnic violence in the Balkans and as an outspoken opponent of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, the danger of entertaining the idea that “everything happens for a reason” or “there are no accidents” is not lost on Djordjevic. His poems force us to consider how any god or fate could exist in a world where a large part of the human experience is war and suffering. In “The Game,” Djordjevic depicts a man who used to laugh but is now silenced by what has happened:
Now he plays without words, without laughter or anger,
shocked by human stupidity and cruelty.
He yearns for the ripeness of October afternoons
…at the conclusion of this tired century—our loathsome lair. (53)
I am grateful to any writer whose poems have the guts to bring to the surface the disquieting, unanswerable questions: Why were some people born into a time and place of war while others were born into peace? What tragedy might yet befall us, by accidence or fate? Does anything that happens to us and do our actions make a difference in something beyond our own life?
Djordjevic does not come to any solid answers for his endless questions about existence and fate (nor would I expect him to). Instead, he settles on an articulation of the way things are now; a portrait of what we have done to ourselves, to each other and to the world, and what we will do in the future. Listen to the haunting, dreadfully mournful premonition in his poem “Answers”:
You seek answers to your questions, since you don’t know who you are
where you come from and where you are going?…
…Blind man, the answers are to be found in things you will do!
…Or they are inside you, since in the next war you’ll kill a friend.
And it may be that one night after a lengthy storm
in a solitary house next to the wild Atlantic, you’ll discover
that the world is a story told by someone forgetful.
Someone who never repeats the story, someone who will never,
never come, though they call him, though they wait for him,
the way the parched Gobi desert waits for hot rain. (49)
Another prominent theme in Oranges and Snow is the personal narrative of feeling lost, searching for something that feels right and whole. Djordjevic reminds his readers that being lost is not an experience that only refugees of war feel—instead, we may not know when we started feeling this way, or precisely why we feel this way; it is a condition that we are born with, that some of us carry with us wherever we go.
Djordjevic is forthright in his expressions of loneliness. In the poem “Sea Voyage,” his self-portrayal to the sea wolves (wonderfully strange addressees) is uncomfortably acute and unbuffered. He reveals himself as a wandering orphan who is desperately seeking a new realm in which to exist,
Here I am, wise and experienced sea wolves,
I’m an orphan, no one needs me on land.
Let the choppy ocean adopt me as its own.
Take me, captain, you of the longest voyage,
I’m exchanging the dry boredom of land’s certainties
for the thrill and infinite uncertainty of the sea. . . (19)
The goal of his voyage is not to lose himself, but to find himself. It is a voyage fueled by alienation, hope, and courage. The speaker in these poems displays startling courage and the conviction of someone who is wholly ready for profound change. Here, he is ready to hurl himself toward “infinite uncertainty.” In my experience, the unknown, the uncertain, is something—no matter how drab, confined and monotonous our daily lives may be—that few people are willing to give themselves over to.
It is with this spirit of readiness for something new that Djordjevic actively sets out on a path, built by his imagination, toward transformation, toward a reality that makes him feel at home—with himself as much as with a place. In the dynamic poem, “A Path,” he mixes lyric and declarative tones when he describes his purpose,
I seek a path or a road between the fields
salted with black frost and fine snow, imprisoned
by barbed wire, I seek a reliable path
or a frozen road that will take me from here. (21)
As the poem develops, we see that what takes the reader away, the path, is the imagination. A delightful departure takes place. The speaker’s imagination leaps into the past, into visceral memories. Sensual, colorful details appear, “I’m thinking about a red orange from Greece. . . . / I’m thinking about a round breast in the dark / which saying goodbye years ago I didn’t kiss.” As soon as the poem lilts with a melancholy timbre, “I’m sad as a rusty cooking pot thrown in a ditch. . . ,” it picks up in tone, in hopefulness:
After much roaming around, I found a dependable path,
I found a road that leads into the center of a small town.
There I will have a beer, and will send you, distant friend
with the speed of a snowball rolling down a hill,
this elegiac message free of covert meanings.
This is a poetry and a poet that seeks to belong and connect. Djordjevic is at his best when he allows the reader to witness him stumbling on that path—because it is a path we all must wrangle with at one point or another in our lives—and the recognition of that common experience enables connection.
Part of Djordjevic’s experience of being lost involves feeling trapped. In the poem “Aquarium,” Djordjevic gives voice to the fish who plea with the boy watching them from the other side of the glass, “‘Save us, boy! Free us all, free us! / Break the walls of our narrow, transparent cage!'” (29). But we know that the plea of the fish could very well be our own human plea against the walls that hold us in. In this poem, however, the boy breaks the aquarium’s wall and the fish “spill on the black asphalt /. . . .Bleed, / . . . . gasp for air in the mild night and die.” Here, reality is not so inescapable by a flair of imagination. The walls are glass, the fish do not survive. Instead, what persists is the reality of “darkness and pale colors of the city.”
Perhaps an antidote to being lost, a salve for feeling wounded and imprisoned has something to do with uniting disparate parts—a thematic wish shining through the most of these poems, the wish to unify, to make whole again or for the first time. In the interesting poem, “Aachen,” the speaker declares with a mix of defiance and hope, “With [the help of German Telekom] I’ll reestablish ties between creatures / of the past and future, all distant and near things, / autumn’s colors of cinnabar, embers from a fire and winter ice” (39).
Despite the dour aspect of many of these poems, hope runs through them like a brook in spring after the snows melt. Hear Djordjevic’s uncomplicated and contagious confidence in “Little Joy,”
Yes, you, too will finally come.
A small, ordinary, daily joy.
You’ll be the slice of rye bread,
or a glass filled with cold milk. (27)
The poem moves toward the marvelously strange, even mythical, image when the speaker surrenders himself to the pleasure of imaginging he will carry that joy to bed, “and sleep the way the earth sleeps next to a spring.”
Thus, Djordjevic’s reality is wide and inclusive. It has room for the “ordinary, daily joy” and the wounded fish sprawled in front of a shattered aquarium; for the pallor of an empty German city on a Sunday and the precious excitement of finding “words the way one finds blackberries in the woods” (“Waking,” 43). In his poem “Reality,” he provides a litany of what might constitute it. The poem has an easy, pleasant tone and flow, like the mind floating from one idea to another, touching briefly on “The reality of a fruit, meat and earth’s dampness. / The reality of metal, concrete, dry and naked meadows, / white phosphorous. . . / the reality of stone, water and sand dunes” (57). This poem delivers to the reader the quiet peacefulness of considering things from afar—but it exhibits an intellectual relationship to reality that leaves me wanting something more raw, something that is real, instead of talking about the real.
Only in Part III of the book are we granted admission to the speaker’s reality as it is (not a distanced discussion of it). In the poem “Solitude,” Djordjevic admits us to his tenuous lair of recovery where desperation and hope replace each other like images coming in and out of focus. We are allowed to experience what it might feel like to live in a “thick midnight that won’t blow over.” We are allowed to see how much it hurts to live even one day in this speaker’s reality:
. . .I’m stripped of my abilities,
normal movement, speech, ability to swallow.
I’m reduced to watching things and other forms of life
around me while what is within me
is as blurred as a cloud of morning mist.
. . . everywhere midnight reigns. . . . (77)
The poem, “Regarding Fate,” also revealed only in Part III, occupies a higher level of consciousness, of honesty, and of writing, than most of the poems in this selection. The poems “Days” also exhibits these qualities. In “Regarding Fate,” Djordjevic accomplishes a spare, beautiful and painfully honest portrayal of where the speaker finds himself in the present moment. We are allowed to inhabit the space beside this fragile, frustrated, broken but surviving and searingly sensitive mind as he gathers twigs in the garden and is
curious about stones, grasses, rains,
snows, woods, fires and sea waves,
and hundreds of other small and large things,
while being chained securely to this wall
by a short iron chain. (79)
We feel the weight of the “hundreds of other small and large things” press on our chests with the limits they imply, all that is out of reach, beyond the speaker’s garden, inaccessible and seemingly infinite. It is an honor to feel that weight—when he lets us—to share, however briefly, the wonderful and terrible burden of being alive.