In reviewing Charles Simic’s latest collection for the New York Times, Katha Pollitt briefly (and importantly) mentions his work as a translator of Serbo-Croatian poets, including Vasko Popa and Ivan Lalic. I adore Popa’s work, but am unfamiliar with Lalic’s, beyond the poems Simic included in his anthology of Serbian poets, The Horse Has Six Legs. Another star from this anthology, whose name I don’t often see mentioned (certainly not as frequently as Popa’s) is Aleksandar Ristovic.
In his introduction to his translation of Ristovic’s poems, Devil’s Lunch (published by Faber in 1999), Simic writes that “though Ristovic published many books of poetry and received three major literary prizes, he has continued to be undeservedly neglected in Yugoslavia. Writers and poets are pack animals, and he, so it appears, did not have the usual ovine instincts. He simply did not belong to any literary movement or clique.” Born in Cacak in 1933, Ristovic later moved to Belgrade, where he was an editor of children’s books.
Ristovic’s poems belong to the same family as Simic’s, often sounding like excerpts from a dark primer to a rustic childhood. (Pollitt also notes, in Simic’s poems, the striking number of chickens. Jonathan Tosch recently reminded me that they are sometimes headless.) “Earthiness” is an adjective often applied to both Simic and Ristovic, which in the latter’s case manifests partly as a sustained interest in the outhouse. Consider his “Privy,” part of a longer group of poems about lavatories in all their incarnations: Through a crack on the right
you can see the red rooster,
and through the one on the left,
with a bit of effort,
you can see the table,
the white cloth
and a bottle of wine.
Behind your back, if you turn,
you’ll make out the sheep
trying to fly with their woollen wings.
And through the heart-shaped
hole in the door,
someone’s cheerful face
watching you shit.
Death, too, is everywhere, though as with that cheerful face in...
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