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Devil’s Lunch by Aleksandar Ristovic
Aleksandar Ristovic is a Serbian poet (1933-1994) with one book in English, Devil’s Lunch, translated by Charles Simic. Pasted below is the title poem, which is not the best poem in the collection, but it’s a good introduction to his work.
A thorn is enough for him.
An apple made of iron.
The nipple of a girl who paces her home
wearing only a cotton slip.
An ear of a pig is enough.
The bug crawling between two empty dishes.
The child puffing into a dandelion.
The withered limbs of an old woman
on her deathbed.
The limbs of a young woman
waiting for her lover
with one hand on her breast
and the other on her lips.
What he eats for lunch
he vomits for dinner
into a rose bush,
or under a Christmas tree.
The title grounds us in the world of the poem. The devil exists, and he doesn’t just eat—phe eats the way we humans do, he is on our schedule, having that most human of meals: lunch. The first line is sharp and piercing; what would cut our tongues (a thorn) is food to the devil, and frighteningly—he doesn’t need much food to subsist. The second line tugs us in a new direction: an apple, a food we can relate to—but it’s not any old apple, it’s an apple made of iron, making our teeth hurt at the thought. Ristovic has lured us into a trap; he has gotten us readers to open our mouths and anticipate the taste of an apple. As our jaws ache with phantom pain, Ristovic feeds us something soft, something that might actually feel enjoyable in the mouth: a nipple. Not just any old nipple, but the nipple of a girl pacing her house, wearing only a cotton slip; Ristovic serves us this image in two bites; the second line of the sentence reframes the nipple—suddenly we see it protruding through a thin layer of fabric, making it more alluring and yet disturbing, when we remember that the nipple is not for the reader, but for the devil, and not to nibble, but to eat. Ristovic is taking something that might be considered beautiful, or erotic, and making it grotesque because of the context.
At this point, we begin to realize that while the poem is an inventory of what the devil eats for lunch, the poem is also being served to us readers, one image at a time. In line five, Ristovic serves the fourth course: the ear of a pig—yum, something we could theoretically eat, (our teeth could chew through it), but would probably never want to. Of course, we can’t help but tasting it, like a scrap of leather, in our mouths, for just a second. Ristovic has become the devil feeding us things we don’t want to eat. In the next line, he serves us something that we might typically find disgusting: a bug, in this instance, scavenging for human food; we imagine the devil picking the bug up and devouring it like a vitamin of black magic. Next we are served the image of a child, which is much larger than anything we have seen thus far—the devil’s appetite has expanded. He’s not just eating any old child, but one who is puffing into a dandelion, (presumably having just made a wish), a child in the realm of the imagination.
The next two items on the menu are not as crisp. They resonate, not for the visual image they create in the reader’s mind, but for the light they shine on the devil’s math. The devil does not differentiate between an old woman about to die and a young woman about to have sex; they are equal to him. The four-lined second stanza ending the poem is less than satisfying; the images are less specific, less arresting, and probably could be cut. Still, this poem serves as nice introduction to Aleksandar Ristovic’s work, as in this list format we can clearly see his disturbing and leaping imagination at work.