Charles Simic

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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.

“Brooms”

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...

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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.

Charon’s Cosmology

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.”

White

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

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.

Unending Blues

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 Heidegger) that the world is made of objects people intend through their attention. That is, the human act of attention reveals and creates their significance. This attention operates in the book’s other poem addressed to Helen, this time in praise of a sea cucumber. He has never seen one but likes the “cold and salty” sound of its name, so he proposes diving into a dark, treacherous ocean to harvest some of these “lovely green vegetables” for a salad. Like many Simic poems, this one exhibits a childlike spirit that takes delight in creating a vivid world and then imagining an adventure in it.

The World Doesn’t End

The World Doesn’t End, a volume of prose poems, received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1990. Simic found this hybrid form congenial because of its versatility. Whereas the lyric poem is essentially static, focusing on only one moment, the prose poem is mobile. “You write in sentences, and tell a story, but the piece is like a poem because it circles back on itself.”

In contrast to the finite, boxlike forms of Simic’s lyrics, these poems seem to speak out of an unseen, infinite story, the spaces between them no more than pauses for breath. Titles appear at the tops of pages only for the four tiny lyrics the book includes, which function as resting places amid the striding prose. The table of contents features the first phrase of each poem, followed by an ellipsis, the notation for silence. Indeed, these prose poems create their context directly from silence. “Where ignorance is bliss . . .” creates a world from a proverb:Where ignorance is bliss, where one lies at night on the bed of stupidity, where one prays on one’s knees to a foolish angel . . . Where one follows a numbskull to war in an army of beatific dunces . . . Where the roosters crow all day. . . .

The Book of Gods and Devils

In The Book of Gods and Devils, Simic returns to the lyric, writing poems that hark back to his years as a young man in New York, reading and wandering Fourteenth Street, Hell’s Kitchen, and the old Fourth Avenue booksellers’ row. As he wrote the book, he has said, he was aware of an impulse to follow the custom of pagans: to create gods or demons for places where he had had particularly intense experiences. He marvels at the many “gods” that populate a large city such as New York: objects of worship, objects of fear.

In “Shelley,” he remembers reading the poet’s verses first on a rainy New York evening, having bought a tattered volume at a secondhand bookstore. Though he still speaks English with an “atrocious Slavic accent,” he is captivated by the Romantic poet’s flowing language. Flush with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sense of the phantasmagorical, he begins to see the people around him as portentous and archetypal. In a rundown coffee shop, the owner, a retired sailor, gladly refills Simic’s cup “with a liquid dark as river Styx”; he has dinner in his accustomed Chinese restaurant, with its silent “three-fingered waiter.” The poem captures the deep sense of the world’s strangeness experienced by the intense youth who reads Shelley’s “Splendors and Glooms” by the light of city storefronts. Even Simic’s rented room, to which he contemplates returning, has become strange and fearful, “cold as a tomb of an infant emperor.”

With this volume, Simic discovers how to use this archetypal method to illuminate lived experience. These poems are anecdotal, but not slack. Their luminous details enrich the world. As always, Simic dwells on the inconsequential detail that means the world: a “pale little girl with glasses” who appears in the door of a Chinese restaurant, a “little white dog” that “ran into the street/ And got entangled with the soldiers’ feet,” and a woman who runs by shrieking, “hugging a blood-stained shirt.”

The early impulses are all here, but amplified and extended—made more accessible. Speaking of this volume, Simic has described himself as both a realist and a Surrealist, pulled between two ways of seeing. Never before in Simic’s work have the real and surreal had such equal voices. The world is here, attended by its mysteries—a strange union of time and timelessness. Increasingly, the poet’s attitude is one of astonishment and awe before the world. As in all of his work, there is between and behind the lines the pressure of the unspeakable, that which belongs to silence. Simic’s poems do not lift silence, but tantalizingly part its ineffable curtains. “We are always at the beginning,” he says, “eternal apprentices, thrown back again and again into that condition.”

Walking the Black Cat

Through the 1990’s, Simic continued to write almost nonstop, publishing a new collection every two or three years. Walking the Black Cat consists of highly visual, brief narratives. It is almost as if Simic were writing scenarios for tiny films in the manner of Jean Cocteau. The poems here are mostly quick flashes, mysterious, oddly humorous scenes in which perceptions are adjusted by verbal feints and dodges. There are almost as many poems as pages.

Many of them conjure up nightmarish situations. In “Cameo Appearance,” the speaker finds himself having a “nonspeaking part/ in a bloody epic” of military carnage. He replays the footage hundreds of times, trying to convince viewers that he’s really there (though who would want to be?), pointing out just where he is—or is supposed to be. The speaker’s need to prove his existence in the film, which would make him a victim among victims, transforms into a desperate and frustrated insistence on his participation in life itself. Has he, has everyone, been playing his or her part when the camera has been turned off or pointing elsewhere?

Throughout the collection, Simic’s understated delivery forces acceptance of the absurd, the outlandish, and the undesirable circumstances that people would prefer to shun. His strange mixture of the mundane and the surreal captures people’s harshest anxieties about their unpreparedness for what their lives might, at any moment, become.

Jackstraws

The randomness of the childhood game jackstraws points to Simic’s preoccupation in Jackstraws: the arbitrariness and precariousness of everyday life. Here he mystifies the quotidian (as in “Vacant Rooms”: “Emptied and swept clean,/ Their windows like eyeglasses/ Raised to the light/ With no one squinting behind them”), becomes darkly involved in the bug world (as in “Bug Doctor,” in which he considers humans in the role of torturers: “Night visitor, do you know about fear?/ Are you astounded to be in pain/ When they crucify you with pins,/ Or when I squeeze you tight/ Between a thumb and a forefinger?”), and sharply unites haunting memories of and fresh concern about the horrors of Eastern Europe with affectionately sardonic impressions of his second home, the United States. In Jackstraws, he offers consolation to those who are disconsolate, a solace that does not erase the discomfort but uses humor to assist in finding the promise of its own redemption.

Night Picnic

Simic draws his attention to the mundane in Night Picnic: objects on a dresser, unmade beds, a gas station. His dark outlook and affinity for foreboding themes abates slightly here, ushering in a new strain of sardonic humor and a keen sense of the entanglement of the erotic and the doomed. Unexpected juxtapositions focus on mixed messages: a thread of opera set against “the city boiling in its bloody stew,” a couple French kissing while the homeless lie in “dark doorways,” unlikely Christ figures, including a “Jesus lookalike/ who won a pie-eating contest in Texas.” The final section of the book’s three parts departs from Simic’s usual pattern, offering sad epigrams followed by powerful meditations on death and old age, considered as a raindrop, as a kitchen, or as a restaurant (“The check is being added in the back/ As we speak”).

My Noiseless Entourage

If the neighborhood of Simic’s My Noiseless Entourage is the familiar terrain of his previous works, it remains nonetheless a disconcerting place of shadows, darkness and unrelenting cold. There are leafless trees, a vacant train platform, a dreary road, a ghost town, a shuttered home, a dark stairway, an abandoned slipper, and an undertaker’s grim basement. In “The Absentee Landlord,” this locale is described as a deity-neglected slum “Where nothing works/ And everything needs fixing.”

Simic’s narrator, who believes that some mystifying fate orchestrates the drama of human tragedy, is a reluctant traveler in this bleak place (his life, his past), inhabited by people he “. . . had met before/ And had since largely forgotten” (“My Noiseless Entourage”). They are like strangers speaking in muffled voices and are out of focus, while the narrator is like a hapless translator trying to interpret “”. . . a language he knows well enough,/ Without knowing any words in it” (“Snowy Morning Blues”). In other words, comforting, precise life-definitions elude him.

Given his disorientation, it is not surprising that the narrator cannot think clearly and resorts to dreamlike surreal images to represent his distressing situation. His memories amount to a montage of odd images, like torn photographs “Whose pieces do not fit—” (“The World Runs on Futility”). It is no wonder, then, that in “The Tragic Sense of Life,” he observes, “As for me, I don’t know where I am—/ And here I’m already leaving in a hurry.”

Life may be short in duration, but even so, the narrator is ready to cede his miserable portion. He explains why in “Graveyard on a Hill,” which describes a “. . . January wind, so mean/ It permits no other thought/ Than the one that acknowledges its presence.” He would prefer to escape from the coldness of such a meaningless universe. He complains that the afflicting frigidity of existence inhibits any higher philosophical thought as well as any experience of beauty and hope.

With this January state of mind, the narrator finds no solace in the beautiful natural scenes that once inspired the nineteenth century Transcendentalists, who believed in a hope-bestowing life force. For Simic’s narrator, such a belief amounts to “The foolish adoration of every skimpy ray of sunlight” (“Leaves at Night”) despite nature’s harsh and cold indifference. “Every time I went to the sea and sky/ To seek advice . . . ,” he laments in “The World Runs on Futility,” nature only “stammer[ed] excuses” or shouted meaningless “wild oratory.”

Sixty Poems

Sixty Poems, a collection of verse reprinted from earlier books, celebrates Simic’s voluntarily abbreviated one-year term as the fifteenth U.S. poet laureate. Although it is a less satisfying retrospective of the poet’s prolific career than The Voice at 3:00 A.M., this collection might serve as an index to Simic’s favorites among his later writings. However, like The Voice at 3:00 A.M., this new book includes none of the prose poems in The World Doesn’t End, which (Simic has said) is too unified as a whole to be excerpted.

Sixty Poems reflects the poet’s view that all forms of life are inherently destined for a grim outcome. “Country Fair,” for example, creates an image of the universe as an inscrutable, cold, and dark vastness, randomly and indifferently generating absurd aberrations, including a six-legged dog. Sometimes, Simic highlights contemporary misfortunes, particularly the impact of terrorism on the world. “Late September” presents a remote “bored” universe with “. . . menace in the air/ Of tragedies in the making.” This is the cosmic background of the horrors being reported on a television, and it is the metaphysical landscape of a lone mail carrier delivering a “single letter,” apparently bad news.

That Little Something

That Little Something continues the themes of My Noiseless Entourage. “Walking,” for instance, describes life as an inevitable return to the neighborhood of one’s past, where somehow the narrator finds “nothing remotely familiar.” Haunted by a vague absence of purpose and ample signs of decay (run-down and vacant stairwells, hotels, restaurants, museums, movie theaters, stores, and churches), the narrator seems bizarrely alienated from himself. In “That Little Something,” it is as if he experiences his life as an anxious rush to keep some unspecified appointment for which he is certainly going to be late. Unfortunately, he surmises, there may be no actual appointment or purpose impelling his compulsive hustle through time.

As in Simic’s earlier verse, the narrator’s desire for ultimate meaning remains unfulfilled in these later poems. Typically, too, his will remains virtually powerless in the course of time’s relentless rush. It is as if, as “Dramatic Evenings” suggests, he unwittingly participates in some mysterious, tragic-comic stage show lacking a narrative arch, a revelatory finale, and maybe even an author. “You take turns being yourself,/ Being someone else,” but life’s theatrics only amounts to “Addressing mirrors,” an unrevealing self-reflection that lacks authentic identity and only leaves one “speechless” and helpless.

In “Listen,” an example of Simic at his best, the narrator theatrically addresses his powerless self-reflection: “Everything about you,/ My life, is both/ Make-believe and real.” From the rooftop of a bomb factory, the narrator overlooks a city, faintly hears a fire engine, and suddenly witnesses a burning child leaping from a window. These images suggest no hope for a better future. Humanity is always fated by an irremediable and inexplicable mortality. There is no chance for a human destiny in which hopes and desires escape the blight of time.

The bomb factory in “Listen” highlights the recurring theme of life-destroying war that haunts the second and poetically weakest section of That Little Something. “Flying Horses” recounts a past instance of bombs falling among fleeing people in pajamas, while “Dance of the Macabre Mice” critiques a present-day instance of U.S. warfare. Throughout Simic’s early and late verse, the repetitive cycles of war defining history exemplify the pervasive dark underside of existence that undermines all life. It is as if “Madmen Are Running the World,” and people are like helpless, condemned “. . . caged chickens/ Squawking about their fate.”

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Simic, Charles (Vol. 130)