In his autobiographical essay “In the Beginning . . . ,” Charles Simic describes one of the first great influences on him, the family radio:The nights of my childhood were spent in the company of that radio. . . . Once I heard beeps in Morse code. Spies, I thought. Often I’d catch a distant station so faint I’d have to turn the sound all the way up and press my ear against the rough burlap that covered the speaker. Somewhere dance music was playing or the language was so attractive I’d listen to it for a long time, as if on the verge of understanding.
This solitary attentiveness, this fascination with the barely intelligible, with speech so far away that it seems transmitted from silence, has characterized Simic’s poetry from the beginning. In attentive silence, he says, he can come closer to “the way things are.”
Simic’s poetic sensibility combines a Surrealistic fascination with recurring archetypes and an Imagist concern for precise observation of things. His first influences were poets with a gift for the primitive and a knack for using language to evoke origins: Vachel Lindsay, Hart Crane, Carl Sandburg, Theodore Roethke (in particular his poem “The Lost Son”), and the Yugoslav Vasko Popa (whose work Simic has translated). He has also been influenced by the blues, with its verbal inventiveness, eroticism, and tragic sense of life.
“Butcher Shop” (from Dismantling the Silence), like many of Simic’s poems, ushers the reader into a mysterious world: late night, after hours. Here the implements of butchery take on their own dark lives. The blood on the butcher’s apron becomes a map “of the great continents of blood,” while glittering knives are reminiscent of altars in some ominously dark church where “the cripple and the imbecile” are brought “to be healed.”
Simic’s love for ordinary objects enables him again and again to rebuild the universe with them at the center. When he describes a butcher’s bloody apron, nothing but it exists. It emerges anew from its mysterious origins, part of a myth of nourishment—a river where the reader, with Simic, can be fed.
Simic’s object poems are justly among his most celebrated works. In “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand” (from Dismantling the Silence), the thumb becomes a “fat worm/ They have attached to my flesh”; the middle finger is stiff, a querulous, questing old man; the fourth, with its occasional inexplicable twitches, “is mystery.” The hand’s transformation is nothing so simple as mere personification. Rather than being made human simulacra, the fingers are animated—that is, they assume their own vibrant lives, the equal of any animal or human.
The imagination animates all Simic sees. Why should people, Simic’s poems assert, have a monopoly on lives? His poems turn the pecking order upside down, reserving special reverence for the ugly, the ignominious. “Brooms” (from Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk) is a lavish celebration of brooms, a compendium beginning with their knowledge (including self-knowledge): They know of the devil’s existence, and they are aware of their own mysterious life, which Simic suggests in images of trees in an orchard. Section 2 moves to broom lore, explaining that in dream analysis, they are interpreted as “omens of approaching death.” In public, they resemble “flat-chested old maids”—a comparison both wildly imaginative and devilishly accurate.
One secret of this poem’s liveliness is that while the subject remains constant, the context veers wildly, from dream books to jails to tenements. In section 3, the lives of saints and astronomers are shown to contain the origins of brooms. To make “the first ancestral broom,” arrows were harvested from Saint Sebastian’s back and bound together with the rope that Judas Iscariot used to hang himself. The broom’s handle was one of the stilts which Nicolaus Copernicus mounted to touch the morning star.
Section 4 presents the teachings of brooms, ending with advice on levitation: “I suggest remembering:/ There is only one God/ And his prophet is Mohammed.” This reference seems at first a hilarious red herring—but then the reader remembers that Muhammad is said to have levitated. Simic is interested, first and last, in the sense of nonsense, the wedding of the ordinary with the sweepingly important. Here, as so often in his poems, the holy and the silly are intertwined. Simic loves to create worlds, then dismantle them to silence and invisibility. In the end, the Brooms disappear into their origins in mythic time: “Once, long ago.”
Simic’s fascination with combining the intricate and the simple has a connection with philosophy. He reads philosophy—particularly Martin Heidegger, for he admires that thinker’s determination to reexamine what is simple and taken for granted. Simic sees the poet’s task as similar.
In Charon’s Cosmology, Simic keeps his mythic tone but reveals a growing sense of history. The menace and destruction he witnessed as a boy make their way into his work. “Eyes Fastened with Pins” has Death as its main character—personified, with unsettling humor, as an ordinary working stiff, having to prowl unfamiliar parts of town in the rain while his neighbors relax on the backyard steps drinking beer. In “Charon’s Cosmology,” Death’s boatman gets confused about which side of the river is which—each side has an identical pile of corpses.
Classic Ballroom Dances
Classic Ballroom Dances contains even more history. A poem called “Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators” marvels quietly at history’s constant odd juxtapositions, its strange plots and casting: carnival freaks, Thomas Alva Edison inventing the lightbulb, a famine that rages in India. The infant dictators pose in their sailor suits, lovable and innocent as any other babies; yet the photographer’s black hood, trembling in the breeze, is silently ominous.
For Simic, history is made of small moments, inconsequential but resonant. “Classic Ballroom Dances” shows grandmothers wringing chickens’ necks and nun schoolteachers pulling boys’ ears. The poem is, in fact, a dance, a box step of four-line stanzas that lead the reader through a list of ordinary rituals, ancient patterns of habit, from pickpockets’ crafty steps as they work a crowd that has gathered at the scene of an accident to “the ancient lovers, cheek to cheek,/ On the dancefloor of the Union Hall.” To see all these gestures in the same light changes them, makes the reader reconsider their identities.
Simic calls the list poem “the poetic equivalent of quilt-making. One cuts the patches into signs and symbols of one’s own cosmology, then one covers oneself with it on a cold winter night.” He remembers his elders as they reverently learned dances from foot patterns traced on the floor with chalk, so they could repeat time-hallowed movements. “The world,” Simic says, “is a ballroom full of mirrors and we are the inspired or awkward dancers.”
In 1980, Simic published the revised version of his long poem White, which explores and dramatizes the source of his poetic impulse, personified as White—“his muse,” Peter Schmidt has written, “of strangeness and new selfhood.” The poem’s task is set in its first lines: “Out of Poverty/ To begin again”—the implicit task of every poem. In the first two parts of White, the poet speaks; the third and last belong to White herself. She is identified with what Simic has called “a state that precedes verbalization,” which embraces all possibilities. White will always remain beyond him: “I thought of you long before you thought of me,” she reminds the poet. However, her elusiveness is not to be mourned: “the most beautiful riddle has no answer.”
Austerities intensifies an Imagist impulse central to Simic’s work: the desire to use the fewest possible words to produce the largest possible effect. He exercises once again his gift for combining the archetypal with the everyday, as in “Drawn to Perspective,” a painterly poem that renders one hushed moment on a summer evening with pared-down images of a parent calling a child, a boy on skates, and a couple poised to embrace.
In Unending Blues, Simic adopts a more personal, relaxed voice than ever before. In “To Helen,” he announces in blues style,
Tomorrow early I’m going to the doctorIn the blue suit and shirt you ironed.Tomorrow I’m having my bones photographedWith my heart in its spiked branches.
He fashions a setting for the heart—it will resemble an old nest in a bare crabapple tree in autumn—that spins out farther and farther until a new world is complete. A poetic phenomenologist, Simic writes poems that demonstrate the notion (derived from Edmund Husserl and...
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