Charles Simic Essay - Simic, Charles (Vol. 6)

Simic, Charles (Vol. 6)

Simic, Charles 1938–

Simic, born in Yugoslavia and now living in the United States, writes poetry which, according to Charles Molesworth, resembles work by Mark Strand and W. S. Merwin. Molesworth adds that "reading Simic is sometimes like listening to a student of Jung discussing the survivor-complex, while illustrating his lecture with mediaeval wood-cuts." Simic is also a translator of poetry, including that of Boris Pasternak. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32.)

The reader who comes to Charles Simic's poems for the first time, as I have come to Dismantling the Silence, is likely to experience on page after page a chill of surprise. He will feel as if he had been looking long and vaguely for a thing and then discovered it right under his nose: if it had been a snake it would have bit him. At any rate, that is how these highly unusual poems affect me. Simic surrounds the most homely objects with halos of strangeness. Human beings figure in his work only indirectly, in relation to these odd totems: a knife, fork, or spoon, an ax, a stone, a needle…. His mordant focusing on common objects, of course, only leads him closer to the human essence. With a pitiless reductionism he strips away the artificialities of civilization, and often prophesies a return to a harsh natural existence…. If prizes still have any meaning, this book ought to win some. I have met with very few volumes as imaginatively fertile, in which so many of the poems are instantly memorable. (pp. 351-52)

Robert B. Shaw, "The Long and the Short of It," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1972, pp. 351-52.

Simic possesses the storyteller's gift of charm, combined with his comforting message: in the invisible geography, among the impenetrable noises and upheavals of nature, there is a place for man. Simic's poems [in Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk] are peopled with "spirits" which he has known how to make his accomplices, like the bird which calls "from the pink twig of daylight," inviting the poet on a strange journey….

Simic's poetic landscape is intensely cared for, as a peasant cares for meadows which have been coaxed and humanized by centuries of labor. It is not only a pun to say that Simic's poems are profoundly cultivated, if we define culture as an act of conciliation which turns the Furies into goddesses of harvest. Culture in this sense becomes a form of magic. (p. 33)

I don't mean to suggest that Simic is a "naive" poet. On the contrary, the choices implied by his style reflect a sophisticated mind. But he has chosen a folk model for his poetry, influenced, undoubtedly, by Vasco Poppa, the great Yugoslavian poet whose work Simic has translated. By choosing this folk model, Simic has brushed aside the arguments for and against "inwardness" as the proper domain for poetry. He has taken a step backward—there is no such thing as "progress" in cultural matters—bypassing T. S. Eliot's famous "dissociation of sensibility." In Simic's folk world, there is no inward or outward, but only a network of omens and images. Stylistically, this produces a delightful simplicity. Simic speaks, in his poems, with garrulous ease, charming us into complicity with the spirits which are at his beck and call. Too late, we discover that the poet's garrulous voice has taken us further than we knew; that Simic's humble mysteries have a sharp and hidden edge, as in this chilling recipe for "Soup":

       Take a little backache
       Melt some snow from the year of your birth
       Add the lump in your throat
       And the fear of the dark
 
       Instead of oil a pinch of chill
       But let it be northern
       Instead of parsley
       Swear loudly into it
       Then stir it with the night
       Until its fins and penny-nails
       Are blended.                            (pp.33-4)

Paul Zweig, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), April 4, 1974.

The initiation into pre-verbal, pre-conceptual consciousness is a common modern obsession, as are its Ways—childhood, folklore, eroticism, foods, animals, and plants. What is uncommon, in Charles Simic, is the level of imagination and gnarled wit brought to the quest. Fine lines are everywhere in these poems [in "Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk"]: the bird's "chirp, like a burning candle/On a windy threshold"; or, in a belle dame sans merci poem, "The migrant's fire of her long hair/Harm's way she comes and also the smile's round about way." And yet, one is often disappointed by hollow rhetoric ("Its ritual and secret life/Where I wish to be anointed") and by the fashionably automatic sanctification of the trivial ("The Garden of Earthly Delights"). This is clearly a book everyone should read; equally clearly, it falls short of the greatest irrationalist poetry in concentration and commitment. (p. lvi)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1975).