May 22, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

On Aleksandar Ristovi??

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 Ristovi??.

In his introduction to his translation of Ristovi??’s poems, Devil’s Lunch (published by Faber in 1999), Simic writes that “though Ristovi?? 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, Ristovi?? later moved to Belgrade, where he was an editor of children’s books.

Ristovi??’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 Ristovi??, 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 “Privy,” even (perhaps especially) mortality strikes Ristovi?? at a humorous angle, which is lucky, considering that he died in 1994. In “Whores,” a sequence of monologues cataloguing a series of peculiar johns (customers, this time, not toilets), Ristovi?? recounts what it’s like to please a skeleton, “At times he loses / some small bone, / so we look for it / among the bedding” and a horse, “With me is a long-legged, / long-eared stallion. / His other horsy virtues / I won’t even mention.”

Along with this comic darkness, Ristovi?? possesses an enormous capacity for tenderness. His poems are full of apostrophes to a much-cared-for “you.” In my favorite piece, “Day-Dreaming in the midst of spring labors,” Ristovi?? momentarily subsumes all his art to the desire to speak to that unknown beloved, of whom I cannot help but feel a part when I read this:

Don’t touch these flowers! Not you who are here,
but you who are over there. Like them,
you are a brainchild of my memory and my hope.
Let the devil himself help you come to me
growing smaller and smaller. I don’t care
about the flowers, which I merely invented
to give myself another reason to address you.

It seems impossible this man could be dead at all, when he calls us to him with such urgency. So let’s say then that he is not, that he merely invented death so he’d have a reason to go on speaking to us, something to write about.

The Kenyon Review was founded in 1939. The resources for the new literary journal were provided by Gordon Keith Chalmers, President of Kenyon College, while the inspiration to establish the journal and raise the national stature of the institution had come from his wife Roberta Teale Swartz, herself a poet and a friend and protege of Robert Frost. Frost encouraged the idea and visited Kenyon more than once. The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom was recruited to Kenyon by Chalmers with the express purpose in mind of his launching a distinguished magazine. During his 21-year tenure, Ransom published such internationally known writers as Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Mark Van Doren, Kenneth Burke, and Delmore Schwartz, as well as younger writers: Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor, to name a few. It was perhaps the best known and most influential literary magazine in the English-speaking world during the 1940s and '50s. In 1969, discouraged by the quarterly's financial burdens and sagging reputation, Kenyon College ceased publication of The Kenyon Review. The journal was revived in 1979, and in June 1990, internationally acclaimed poet and editor Marilyn Hacker was hired as the Review's first full-time (and first female) editor. She quickly broadened the quarterly's scope to include more minority and marginalized viewpoints. In April 1994, the trustees directed that The Kenyon Review be continued, but with significant cost-reducing and revenue-enhancing initiatives. Hacker left and David Lynn (acting editor in 1989-90), Kenyon English professor, was named editor on a two-thirds time basis. The magazine's financial picture has since stabilized and improved dramatically. The creation of a Kenyon Review Board of Trustees and a renewed commitment by Kenyon College combined to guarantee the financial health of the Review and to free its editors to pursue increased excellence. Such is the status of The Kenyon Review today.