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Charles Simic 1938-

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Yugoslavian-born American poet, translator, essayist, nonfiction writer, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Simic's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes, 6, 9, 22, 49, and 68.

Simic's work blends surrealist and imagist techniques and employs elements of East European folklore and mysticism as well as American jazz and blues music to explore the horrors of war in his homeland and to imbue commonplace objects with philosophical significance. His perception of the subjective and intuitive natures of language is revealed in works that display a variety of influences, including those of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Yugoslavian poet Vasko Popa, American poets from Walt Whitman to Theodore Roethke, and French surrealists such as André Bréton and Stéphane Mallarmé.

Biographical Information

Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, just before World War II, Simic experienced as a small child the Nazi occupation of his country and later the brutal tactics of Josef Stalin during the Soviet control of Eastern Europe. In 1954 Simic's family immigrated to the United States, where they lived in New York City before settling in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Simic attended the University of Chicago at night while working during the day at the Chicago Sun-Times and graduated from New York University in 1967. He has taught English literature at the University of New Hampshire, State University of California, Boston University, and Columbia University. In 1990 Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his book of prose poems The World Doesn't End (1989).

Major Works

Simic's work is strongly informed by his childhood experiences in Yugoslavia and by continuing violence among ethnic groups in the Balkans. In Dismantling the Silence (1971), which contains selections from his earlier publications What the Grass Says (1967) and Somewhere among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes (1969), Simic elevates ordinary objects to the level of horror by associating them with images of political violence. Particularly throughout the 1990s, Simic has evoked the images of war and its devastating effects on the individual. Many of the poems in Hotel Insomnia (1992) recall the historical ethnic hatred of the Balkans, continuing into the late-twentieth century with the fighting between Serbs and Croatians. Throughout his work, Simic displays an interest in the deeper meanings in ordinary objects; Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk (1974) contains many of these “object poems.” Another of Simic's poetic preoccupations is the complex and contradictory atmosphere of large American cities, especially New York and Chicago. Elements of beauty, horror, violence, and alienation all come together for Simic in the poems in Austerities (1982), Weather Forecast for Utopia and Vicinities (1983), Unending Blues (1986), The World Doesn't End, and The Book of Gods and Devils (1990). In Dime-Store Alchemy (1993) Simic temporarily left writing in the genre of poetry to examine in short poetic prose pieces the collage boxes of contemporary American artist Joseph Cornell, finding in Cornell a kindred spirit of surrealistic symbolism. In A Wedding in Hell (1994) and Walking the Black Cat (1997) Simic returned to writing poetry, most of it with an even more bleak and ironic outlook than his earlier work.

Critical Reception

Critics have widely praised Simic's deliberately simple structure and diction in his poems and his streamlined presentation of difficult subject matter. Some have detected little development in Simic's continued use of the conversational voice and sinister images, particularly in Walking the Black Cat, where many critics found that Simic was relying too much on his reputation and too little on poetic substance. Nevertheless, Simic's ability to explode the details of ordinary life into symbols of philosophical meaning has continued to earn him critical admiration.

Principal Works

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What the Grass Says (poems) 1967

Somewhere among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes (poems) 1969

Dismantling the Silence (poems) 1971

White (poems) 1972; revised edition, 1980

Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk (poems) 1974

Charon's Cosmology (poems) 1977

Classic Ballroom Dances (poems) 1980

Austerities (poems) 1982

Weather Forecast for Utopia and Vicinity (poems) 1983

Selected Poems, 1963-1983 (poems) 1985

The Uncertain Certainty: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry (nonfiction) 1985

Unending Blues (poems) 1986

The World Doesn't End (poems) 1989

The Book of Gods and Devils (poem) 1990

Wonderful Words, Silent Truth (essays) 1990

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (nonfiction) 1992

Hotel Insomnia (poems) 1992

The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs (nonfiction) 1994

A Wedding in Hell (poems) 1994

Walking the Black Cat (poems) 1997

Hayden Carruth (review date Summer 1971)

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SOURCE: “Here Today: A Poetry Chronicle,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Summer, 1971, pp. 320-27.

[In the following review, Carruth uses a poem by Simic to demonstrate what he considers to be wrong with contemporary poetry.]

Pound once wrote: “No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention and cliché, and not from life. …”

Again: “Poetry is a centaur. The thinking, word-arranging, clarifying faculty must move and leap with the energizing, sentient, musical faculties. It is precisely the difficulty of this amphibious existence that keeps down the census record of good poets.”

Further: “Don't imagine that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it's too dull to go in prose.”

Further still: “When you have words of a lament set to the rhythm and tempo of There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town To-night you have either an intentional burlesque or rotten art.”

And then: “Poets who are not interested in music are, or become, bad poets. I would almost say that poets should never be too long out of touch with musicians. … I do not mean that they need become virtuosi. … It is perhaps their value that they can be a little refractory and heretical, for all arts tend to decline into the stereotype; and at all times the mediocre tend or try, semi-consciously or unconsciously, to obscure the fact that the day's fashion is not the immutable.”

Finally, anent the types of verbal clarity: “There is the clarity of the request: Send me four pounds of ten-penny nails. And there is the syntactical simplicity of the request: Buy me the kind of Rembrandt I like. This last is an utter cryptogram. It presupposes a more complex and intimate understanding of the speaker than most of us ever acquire of anyone. It has as many meanings, almost, as there are persons who might speak it. To a stranger it conveys nothing at all.”

I am not sorry to quote Ezra Pound at such length. As far as I have served any master during my thirty years' apprenticeship in poetry, he has played the part, and I have never tired of returning to the best of his critical writing, so pointed and spirited, so deeply instinct with formative energy. Wherever I find it I always enjoy it. So do other readers, I know. But at present I have a separate reason for wishing to buttress myself with Pound's authority, for now I feel obliged, actually impelled against my natural desire, to say something that many people will think heretical and stupid, and in doing so to tread on a few toes. My strategy is to disarm these people by quoting to them from texts which they, too, acknowledge as originative, so that they may listen to me without offense. Yet isn't the truth simply that I think these people have paid scant heed to what Pound actually thought and wrote, and that offense is probably inescapable? So much the more reason to have no taste for it, then. The older I get the less I wish to tread on anyone's toes, certainly not for poetical reasons—politics being another matter. As Pound also remarked, “Beauty is difficult,” damned bloody difficult, and the one aspect of his critical method which I somewhat disparage is his hauteur toward other writers, especially from his own generation, who were working at it as hard as he was. Let me try to do what I must without hauteur.

If what I have suggested is true, namely, that some of Pound's present-day followers accord his teaching more hebetude and neglect than real understanding, this is not the first time. We know what became of Imagism in the years following the first Imagist anthology in 1912: hordes of unfavored vers-librists, mostly Americans, crashed the gate, many under the flowing standard of Amy Lowell, which caused Pound to say that the movement had degenerated into Amygism, and caused both him and his friend Eliot to revert to the corrective traditionalism of Mauberley and the Sweeney and Hippopotamus poems. Pound and Eliot are no longer able to apply the corrective; yet I am certain it is coming from someone, somewhere, somehow, because the condition of poetry today resembles closely the condition of poetry in 1915. The common American poetic style, descended lineally if deviously from what Pound proclaimed in his Imagist manifestoes, has become again so common that it is ridiculous; riddled with triteness, sameness, and dullness. It is being turned out virtually by rote at tens of thousands of writing tables all over North America, and given to us, thrown at us, in poems which are interchangeable, in books whose authors, relentless ego-tripping solipsists though they are, remain as indistinguishable as the obit-writers of the Times. The tricks, metaphors, cadences, topics, vocabularies: they are standard. “Procedures,” as Pound once complained, “are already erected into rules!” We have “syntactical simplicity” by the yard, conveying “nothing at all.” I do not mean that there are no good young poets. There are a fair number, and I have praised them, publicly and privately, whenever I could; there would even be enough to sustain this particular “heave,” as Pound would say, for years to come. The trouble is that in order for the good poets to sustain themselves, at least in the public or cultural sense, they must be able to offer their work clearly, freely, and with a certain distinctiveness and purity. Today the work of our good young poets is in danger of being swamped by the mass of similar but inferior writing. And the danger is heightened by the fact that many of the inferior writers have worked themselves into positions of power, since a sign of flatulence in any particular poetic movement is its concomitant institutionalization within the structures of academic and literary life.

We are accustomed to think of poetry as sustained by its leaders, because this is the case during periods of innovation when we are all caught up in the sociological dynamism of literary processes. But at other times, just as important in terms of art, when matters of principle are abeyant and each of us turns to the exploitation of his personal capacities, then we are all, leaders and followers alike, sustained by the health of poetry-at-large; or, conversely, let down by its weakness.

But my interest now is poetry itself, the lines that lie on the page and sound in the ear, and I hope my interest agrees with Pound's sense of the perennial needs: for craft, for understanding of technique, for honest serious work, and against carelessness and imprecision. Great poetry is another matter. We know little of its origins, and nothing at all of how to predict it. But poetry that can serve us, as farming and artisanship serve us, poetry that does not smudge its standards, poetry that by the very tension of its striving confutes the recurrent social philosophies of expedience and claptrap: this is what we are looking for. I remember a couple of years ago a good friend of mine, who is also one of our most prominent poets, showed me a new poem in manuscript. I read it, and then read aloud the first seven or eight lines, to show that their language was flat and prosaic. “Ah,” was the response, “but you don't understand my prosody.” Whereupon the same passage was reread aloud to me, with exaggerated pauses at the end of each line. “Prosody be damned,” I said. “Prosody alone doesn't make poetry. And language that is lifeless, syntax that is dead, cannot be vivified merely by typographical division: that's nothing but elocution. If the poetic line means anything, it must mean more than that!”

Here is a paragraph for general inspection:

“Summer Morning”

I love to stretch like this, naked on my bed in the morning; quiet, listening. Outside they are opening their primers in the little school of the cornfield. There is a smell of damp hay, of horses, of summer sky, of laziness, of eternal life. I know all the dark places where the sun hasn't reached yet, where the singing has just ceased in the hidden aviaries of the crickets—anthills where it goes on raining—slumbering spiders dreaming of wedding dresses. I pass over the farmhouses where the little mouths open to suck, barnyards where a man, naked to the waist, washes his face with a hose, where the dishes begin to rattle in the kitchen. The good tree with its voice of a mountain brook knows my steps. It hushes. I stop and listen. Somewhere close by a stone cracks a knuckle, another turns over in its sleep. I hear a butterfly stirring in the tiny soul of the caterpillar. I hear the dust dreaming of eyes and great winds. Further ahead, someone even more silent passes over the grass without bending it. And all of a sudden in the midst of that silence it seems possible to live simply on the earth.

And here is another:

“Moons”

There are moons like continents, diminishing to a white stone softly smoking in a fogbound ocean; equinoctial moons, immense rainbarrels spilling their yellow water; moons like eyes turned inward, hard and bulging on the blue cheek of eternity; and moons half-broken, eaten by eagle shadows. But the moon of the poet is soiled and scratched, its seas are flowing with dust. And other moons are rising, swollen like boils. In their bloodshot depths the warfare of planets silently drips and festers.

I don't know if it is still done—pray heaven it's not—but when I was in public school the poor old maids who taught English would often assign as a class exercise the writing on set themes of what were called “descriptions,” or sometimes “word-paintings.” Rarely did they turn up anything with the facile imagery of these two paragraphs, though this was what they wanted, what they forlornly strove for among their pubescent charges. Nothing could remind me more forcefully than these two paragraphs, with their complacent suggestiveness, passiveness, inertness, of the chalkdust sentimentality of my early education. It is Proust's madeleine exactly. Yet surely by now everyone recognizes what I have done, and what a sorry old trick it is. I have printed two poems as prose. And their authors are far from being schoolboys, or beginners in any sense; quite the contrary. They are poets who have published a good deal in the past half-decade or longer, and their names are known to everyone who follows contemporary poetry with more than passing attention. They are, respectively, Charles Simic and John Haines.1

Now let me restore their poems to the forms they gave them.

“Summer Morning”

I love to stretch
Like this, naked
On my bed in the morning;
Quiet, listening:
Outside they are opening
Their primers
In the little school
Of the cornfield.
There is a smell of damp hay,
Of horses, of summer sky,
Of laziness, of eternal life.
I know all the dark places
Where the sun hasn't reached yet,
Where the singing has just ceased
In the hidden aviaries of the crickets—
Anthills where it goes on raining—
Slumbering spiders dreaming of wedding dresses.
I pass over the farmhouses
Where the little mouths open to suck,
Barnyards where a man, naked to the waist,
Washes his face with a hose,
Where the dishes begin to rattle in the kitchen.
The good tree with its voice
Of a mountain brook
Knows my steps       [sic]
It hushes.
I stop and listen:
Somewhere close by
A stone cracks a knuckle,
Another turns over in its sleep.
I hear a butterfly stirring
In the tiny soul of the caterpillar.
I hear the dust dreaming
Of eyes and great winds.
Further ahead, someone
Even more silent
Passes over the grass
Without bending it.
—And all of a sudden
In the midst of that silence
It seems possible
To live simply
On the earth.

.....

“Moons”

There are moons like continents,
diminishing to a white stone
softly smoking
in a fogbound ocean.
Equinoctial moons,
 immense rainbarrels spilling
their yellow water.
Moons like eyes turned inward,
hard and bulging
on the blue cheek of eternity.
And moons half-broken,
eaten by eagle shadows …
But the moon of the poet
is soiled and scratched, its seas
are flowing with dust.
And other moons are rising,
swollen like boils—
in their bloodshot depths
the warfare of planets
silently drips and festers.

You see? I have changed nothing in my prose versions but typographical arrangement and punctuation (including the possible typographical error in the sixth stanza of Simic's poem). Yet the meaning of my little experiment is so plain that I am willing to risk four contentions upon it.

First, these two poems, taken as formal structures, are perfectly characteristic not only of the work of these two poets but of the great mass of other poems by poets under forty now writing in the U.S. This is crucial, all the rest depends on it. Of course anyone can deny what I say and find plenty of exceptional cases to “prove” the point, but I rely on the good sense and good will of poetry-readers to concede my argument: that in look, tone, movement, imagistic structure, and all other textural qualities, these two poems are fairly and widely representative. For I have no wish to attack Simic and Haines, and would not mention them if it weren't necessary to argue from examples. They are honest, devoted workers. Here I am interested only in what is happening to poetry. What is happening to poets is another—probably far more difficult—question.

Second, both these poems not only lose nothing by being printed as prose, they actually gain from it. This is not because the poems are badly written. I pass over substantial triteness and silliness (dreaming spiders, the caterpillar's tiny soul, moons like rainbarrels, etc.), because I believe that in terms of structural and verbal elements both poems would be passed in any writing seminar in the country. The life endings are reasonable, the diction is simple and expressive, the poets have avoided the amateurish anapestic rhythms of much free verse (caused by excessive dependence on prepositional phrases in standard English speech: to the end, in a nutshell, etc.), and really there seems nothing to criticize: except that the language, taken altogether, is slack, so devoid of formal tension and impetus, that the poems cease to function. What purpose do these lines serve, beyond making us read with unnatural emphasis and in a joggy cadence? It's all very well to say, as we did twenty-five years ago, that the language of prose cast against poetic measures will make good prosody. It wasn't true then and it isn't true now. These poems in free measure are just as flaccid as the limp iambics of the earlier period, and for the same reason. Let me say once and for all: not only must poetry be as well written as prose, it must be better written.2

Third, both these poems are part of the main evolution of modern American poetry, descended from Pound and especially from Williams, through Olson-Duncan-Creeley, with a very strong influence from Levertov, a certain influence from the Beats, and a reversionary influence from older poets like H. D., Zukofsky, Oppen, Ignatow, and many others. A few people perhaps even remember the part played by Byron Vazakas. No matter; the point is not to recapitulate a tired history but to recognize that the idea of the poetic line is central to it all. From first to last, whether conceived as a breath unit, an aural device, an inherent function of language, part of a culturally necessary tradition, or whatever—from first to last the line has been our functional key to poetry. I am not speaking of developments outside the main evolution, such as prose poetry, which has not progressed much beyond Fiona Macleod, or poetry based on arbitrary typographical designs, like James Laughlin's little poems that I greatly admire. I reject the feeble conundrum of what is poetry and what is prose, simply say that historically and at present the line is our basic unit of poetry, that for my part I would not have it otherwise, and that ninety-five per cent of the other working poets in America agree with me, whatever their particular allegiances may be.

Fourth, when poems gain in fluency and intelligibility, and hence in meaning, from being printed as prose, it is because the line has ceased to function, as I have already said, and when the line has ceased to function it is because the language has become too dull to sustain the measure. This, incidentally, is the right way to say it: language sustaining measure, not, as many have thought or hoped, the other way round. From this it is not hard to deduce the anterior reason for all language, which is simply the loss of formative energy in the current phase of American poetry. Whatever name we call it, the heave has subsided. If this has happened sooner than we would have expected, I believe the cause lies demonstrably in the proliferation of verse-writing classes at our universities during the past decade; we have been turning out poets by the tens of thousands. These are the poets who give us the evidence of collapse, evidence that smothers us and stultifies our sensibilities as the wave of poetry mounts. The masters, the leaders, are in no danger; in most cases their work continues fresh and strong, though we note that, formally speaking, they are not breaking new ground—not even in the sense that Pound, Williams, and Eliot continued to break new ground as long as they were active. But the followers, not the leaders, are the sufferers now. One needs no great acumen to foresee that a revulsion will come, even if one has no idea of its potential source nor any arguable notion of its form. But unless the vitality has suddenly departed from American poetry, which I do not believe, or unless there are countervailing political and social factors that lie outside the scope of this discussion, which I do not really believe either, it will come soon.

Notes

  1. Dismantling the Silence, by Charles Simic. Braziller. $3.95. The Stone Harp, by John Haines. Wesleyan University Press. $4.00 (cloth); $2.00 (paper).

  2. Who wants prose now anyway, if prose is the leaky string of sausage that goes by that name? Barth, Mailer, and Tom Wolfe are welcome to it.

James Atlas (review date February 1975)

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SOURCE: “Autobiography of the Present,” in Poetry, Vol. 125, No. 5, February, 1975, pp. 295-99.

[In the following review, Atlas praises Simic's ability to condense great meaning into single images in Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk.]

Charles Simic's second collection [Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk] draws on the practices of Surrealism, but his work owes more to East European poetry, with its emphasis on a condensed, sombre, even ballad-like language. Simic is a native of Yugoslavia, and has translated a number of poets from there, most notably Vasko Popa, with whom he has obvious affinities; his poems possess the same incantatory powers, the same cunning and story-telling art. Nor is there any falling-off from his first, much-praised volume, Dismantling the Silence, except for an occasional repetition of images; in some ways, this book seems even subtler in its modulations of the poems' voice, as it dispenses its ironic folk wisdom. Simic has ideas about the phenomenal world, and a marvellous capacity for locating the luminous objects which evoke (and invoke) those ideas; he is so close to everything he writes about that he can recover their most hidden properties. A bird is “shaped / like the insides / of a yawning mouth.” the sky “turns cold and lucent / like the water in which / they baptized a small child”; smoke trailing upward resembles “a fisherman, alone / on a quiet autumn lake.” These images could serve to illustrate what I. A. Richards called “reconciled impulses”; they are on one level so accurate and on another so strange that their comparison causes us to reflect on the inner congruence of disparate things.

The most impressive quality of these poems resides in their knowledge of what could be named a historical unconscious, the contemplation of a natural world to which eternity has been promised, outlasting those who love and record its features:

They were talking about the war
The table still uncleared in front of them.
Across the way, the first window
Of the evening was already lit.
He sat, hunched over, quiet,
The old fear coming over him …
It grew darker. She got up to take the plate—
Now unpleasantly white—to the kitchen.
Outside in the fields, in the woods
A bird spoke in proverbs,
A Pope went out to meet Attila,
The ditch was ready for its squad.

In these poems, men's own history comes back to them through repetition, so that what is known at any given moment is a composite of all that has ever been lived or known, distilled in a single image:

The fresh snow sobbed under the hoofs of the last horse.
The wagon wheels whined their ancient lineage
Of country roads, of drunks left lying in the mud—
A million years of shivering and coughing.

Not all of Simic's poems are so well-wrought; on occasion, he lapses into cadences of exaggerated feeling or a simulated violent rhetoric, especially in the longer poems. All the same, he has a great and original gift, the gift of awakening in us the sensation of being. When he writes of solitude that it “makes another gloomy entry / In its ledger,” or that the scent of a woman's body “is the land-birds sighted at sea,” he has miraculously provided the material correspondences of our emotions, and so deepened our relation to the world.

Richard Jackson (essay date Winter 1980)

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SOURCE: “Charles Simic and Mark Strand: The Presence of Absence,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 136-45.

[In the following essay, Jackson discusses Heideggerian meaning in the poetry of Simic and Mark Strand.]

“If Cleopatra's nose changed the course of the world, it was because it entered the world's discourse, for to change it in the long or short term, it was enough, indeed it was necessary, for it to be a speaking nose.” So writes Jacques Lacan in his essay “The Freudian Thing,” incidentally suggesting, for our purposes, something of the surrealistic moods of Charles Simic and Mark Strand, and the absolute priority these two poets give to the ontological function of language. Actually, to headnote a discussion of these two poets by citing a French linguistic psychoanalyst is to follow Simic's advice in a recent essay entitled “Negative Capability and Its Children” (Antaeus, Spring 1978) in which he talks about the “multiple sources,” often conflicting (he uses Hegel and Breton, Nietzsche and Heidegger), that contemporary poets have absorbed: “Their poetics have to do with the nature of perception, with being, with psyche, with time and consciousness. Not to subject oneself to their dialectics and uncertainties is truly not to experience the age we have inherited.” And what best characterizes this various age, from the phenomenologists to the structuralists to the deconstructionists, is this relation, even sometimes a lack of it, between language and Being.

“Poetry,” says Heidegger, “is the establishing of being by means of the word” (“Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry”). Thus Mark Strand's “author” says to his future translator in the prose work called The Monument, “Only this luminous moment has life, this instant in which we both write, this flash of voice” (# 4). So, too, the characters in his poem “Exiles” (The Late Hour) have an existence intimately related to language and “voice,” to the “story” they will find themselves in. Now this establishing of being, this passage into language, is for Lacan a passage from what he calls the Imaginary, a preverbal and visually oriented spatial grid of images lacking a phenomenological center of organization, into what he calls the Symbolic, into language as such with its temporal structurings and grammatical orders. For Simic, this is a passage from the simultaneity of experience to the linearity of language: “Form is nothing more than an extension of consciousness in Time” (“Composition,” New Literary History, 1976). But where does this extension lead? If Being is established, how is it manifested in language? In “A Day Marked With A Small White Stone,” Simic describes the dazed stupor of an animal caught in a trap:

The languorous, lazy chewing
On the caught leg
Stripped now to the bone. Pain
Joining the silence of trees
And clouds,
In a ring
Of magnanimous coyotes,
In a ring of
Compassionate, melancholy
Something or other. …

The “end” of the poem suggests a “chain of signifiers,” as Lacan and Jacques Derrida would say, that “mark,” as a gravestone might mark one's absence, a certain set of events in a life whose significance is deferred, as the infinite series implied by the three dots suggests, to further signifiers. The “luminous moment” is expanded, time is extended. In fact, it appears that language has directed us back to the timeless, nonverbal state, that there has been a reinvestment of the Symbolic Order in the Imaginary.

What we encounter here, then, is a dialectic between two orders. For Simic, the paradigmatic poem of this kind of poetic world is “Charon's Cosmology” in which the boatsman, “With only his feeble lantern / To tell him where he is,” journeys forever between shores: “I'd say by now he must be confused / As to which side is which.” What is more, says Simic—rivaling the casualness that ends “A Day Marked”—“I'd say it doesn't matter.” Strand's tone can be remarkably similar; the “author” of The Monument suggests to the translator, “find words for which you yourself have a fondness. … If ‘nothing’ conveys the wrong idea, use ‘something’” (# 14). There is a sense with both poets, then, of what Freud and Lacan describe as a “wandering” of meaning into what seemed at first to be irrelevant details, a sense of the emergence of form, the very process of suggesting possible meanings from “antithetical” words and phrases. What we arrive at, finally, is something like what Derrida terms “supplementarity,” an excess of both signifiers and signifieds; the dynamism, really, that defines the rich metaphoric quality of these poets.

Yet this excess, or imbalance, leads to what Paul Ricoeur calls the “suspicion” of language that characterizes modern thought. According to Ricoeur, “suspicion” involves the “possibility of signifying another thing than what one believes was signified” (“The Critique of Religion”). For Simic, there is always the possibility that language subverts the preverbal experience—“Suspicion is the voice because language is not mine.” Thus there is a consciousness in “Euclid Avenue” that is “doubting / the sound of its own footsteps” as they occur in a “Language / as old as rain.” But if not the speaker's language, whose? In a sense, it belongs to a collective unconscious. For Lacan, this unconscious is structured like a language and constitutes the “Other.” In fact, language itself may be said to constitute this Other; in the passage from Imaginary to Symbolic, language acts as a force which alienates us from ourselves, and in any process of reinvestment in the Imaginary, constitutes suspicion in the form of this alien Other. Thus Simic cites Heidegger to describe the way language lets Being speak: “To let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself” (“Negative Capability”). The experience of Otherness can be manifest in a poem like “Position Without Magnitude” in which the speaker rises in a theater, “projects his shadow / among the fabulous horsemen / on the screen,” and shudders to see his shadow / Other in an alien fiction. In “The Prisoner” the speaker imagines the inmate imagining a scene that includes him, “And all along the suspicion / That we do not exist.” On a more self-conscious level, the poet who begins by interrogating dispersed images in the Imaginary (“Among all the images / that come to mind, // where to begin?”) must eventually emerge towards the Symbolic by confronting his Other in “a corner where / a part of myself // keeps an appointment / with another part of myself” (“Description”).

Strand, too, conceives of the recognition of the Other as an elementary step for the emergence of the self: “consider how often we are given to invent ourselves; maybe once, but even so we say we are another, another entirely similar” (# 4). The Monument locates the dialectic between self and Other in the complex relationship between the “author” and his hypothetical translator. If the author recognizes the Other as he constructs the text, so too the verbal text, as it emerges from the Imaginary, is founded, in Lacan's words, upon the “discourse of the Other.” The author exclaims: “This word has allowed you to exist, yet this work exists because you are translating it.” By extension, of course, we are all “translators” of the text, and the author initiates an endless chain of relationships; moreover, he himself seems to emerge from the diverse texts, sometimes two or three of them together, that act as epigraphs to many of the fifty-two sections, often rivaling the length of the “prime” text. So, for example, a citation from Unamuno seems to prefigure the “author” of The Monument by making him an Other projected by a precursor—“the desire to be someone else without ceasing to be myself, and continue being myself at the same time I am someone else.” And so by analogy, it is the author of The Monument who makes the text of Unamuno or any other writer exist by “translating” it into his own work. The Monument thus establishes what Foucault calls the endless referentiality, the infinite contextualism of texts that transcends and subverts the priority of any particular Other, and any particular “author.”

What, then, happens to the author? Who is the author? He is, first, the speaker who dissolves into the Other's language. He is, then, the author who foresees an apocalyptic “giant of nothingness rising in sleep like the beginning of language” (# 48). But this subversion of the traditional role of the author does not subvert the fundamental structure of desire as a lack which motivates human action. Thus “Nothingness,” as Heidegger says in “What is Metaphysics,” is “Pure Other,” a signifier of openness, of possibility. So, says Strand's author:

It has been necessary to submit to vacancy in order to begin again, to clear ground, to make space. I can allow nothing to be received. Therein lies my triumph and my mediocrity. Nothing is the destiny of everyone, it is our commonness made dumb. I am passing it on. The Monument is a void, artless and everlasting. What I was I am no longer. I speak for nothing, the nothing that I am, the nothing that is this work. And you shall perpetuate me not in the name of what I was, but in the name of what I am. (# 9)

This passage towards “Nothing,” towards the absence of the author, must be seen as part of the structure of deferrals in the chain of signifiers. The void opened by Nothingness thus suggests a futural mode of thinking that ratifies events as history or memory once did:

This poor document does not have to do with a self, it dwells on the absence of a self. I—and this pronoun will have to do—have not permitted anything worthwhile or memorable to be a part of this communication that strains even to exist in a language other than the one in which it was written. So much is excluded that it could not be a document of self-centeredness. If it is a mirror to anything, it is to the gap between the nothing that was and the nothing that will be. It is a thread of longing that binds past and future. (# 22)

This “absence,” which eventuates in the self's being spoken of in the third person later on, is thus not so much a self-destruction as an attempt to “grow into the language that calls from the future” (# 46). The desire for what is lacking, the Other, becomes a desire for anonymity. “My greatest hope is his continued anonymity” (# 31), says the author of himself as if he were already an Other. By the end of the book the author/Other no longer speaks in his own words, for the last section consists entirely of three cited epigraphs. It is as if the author had disappeared into the future, or even the past, leaving only these traces, these markings on a page, “the text already written, unwriting itself into the text of promise” (# 38).

For Simic this promise inherent in the absence of the author is established in a way analogous to the pronoun usage Heidegger describes in Time and Being, a usage which marks the “presence of absence,” a purely ontological perspective. That is, for Simic, “‘I’ is many. ‘I’ is an organizing principle, a necessary fiction. Actually, I'd put more emphasis on consciousness: that which witnesses has no need of a pronoun. Of course, consciousness has many degrees, and each degree has a world (or an ontology) appropriate to itself. So, perhaps, the seeming absence of the author is the description of one of its manifestations, in this case an increase of consciousness at the expense of the subject” (“Domain of the Marvelous Prey,” Poetry Miscellany, 1978). From this perspective a poem can explore the “mythical consciousness that is to be found in language” beyond the rational control of a traditional ego. The result is a poetry constructed of idiomatic expressions and sentence fragments detached from the context of a specific speaker, of indefinite pronouns that seem to refer to several possibilities, of metaphors that are literalized into surrealistic events. When the subject presents himself he seems to be continually shifting his perspective, to be a signifier whose meaning is deferred, to be, that is, a grammatical function: “I find that in my own poems I tend to abandon the original cause and follow wherever the poem leads. that's why my poems seem often to have an impersonal quality to them. It is not clear who the ‘I’ is. … I follow the logic of the algebraic equation of words on the page which is unfolding, moving in some direction” (“Domain of the Marvelous Prey”).

Where then does this logic lead us? In “Nursery Rhyme” a series of discontinuous propositions leads to the conclusion, “I see a blur, a speck, meagre, receding / Our lives trailing in its wake.” It is this recession, this fading of Being, that locates Simic's poetic world. “The poem,” he says in very Heideggerian language, “is the place where origins are allowed to think” (“Composition”). This “place” is, as he says in “Ode,” a “space between the premonition / and the event // the small lovely realm / of the possible,” a realm seen through what Heidegger calls the “forestructure” that exists before language, what Lacan calls the Imaginary. But Simic goes beyond this Heideggerian notion of Being's activity as a kind of spatial “regioning.” For him, the region, the place, is what Jacques Derrida in his own criticism of Heidegger calls a “trace,” a place that is always already “erased.” Thus we can read “Eraser” as a deconstruction of the metaphysics of pure presence:

A summons because the marvelous prey is fleeing 
Something to rub out the woods
From the blackboard sound of wind and rain
A device to recover a state of pure expectancy
Only the rubbings only the endless patience
As the clearing appears the clearing which is there
Without my even having to look
The domain of the marvelous prey
This emptiness which gets larger and larger
As the eraser works and wears out
As my mother shakes her apron full of little erasers
For me to peck like breadcrumbs. …

The fading thus provides us with a summons, a summons to erase, to clear away our usual conceptions that bind us to a traditional world view, a summons to reinvest the nostalgia of origin as a new beginning, “to recover a state of pure expectancy.” Thus the prey itself will always escape, and the language of its hiding places in old “woods” (words) must be replaced by new language, new signifiers, new metaphors as the old “wear out.” The summons that the poet hears leads him back towards the origin, the mythical presence revealed by its absence in language, the absent “mother” veiled behind the apron of always more erasers. For Simic, the quest is endless, the region of absence ceaselessly growing “larger and larger,” the position of the self becoming like the proverbial fly on the wall he mythologizes—“An eternity / Around that simple event” (“The Wall”). His own time belated, searching receding traces, mired in the temporality of his language, the poet knows

A place
 known as infinity
toward which that old self
advances.
The poor son of poor parents
who aspires to please
at such a late hour.

(“Euclid Avenue”)

For Strand, The Late Hour is informed by an absence and otherness which creates the sense of a world and language so large and alien that their “presence” can be enunciated only through an indefinite, intersubjective mood. Somebody seems always to be saying something somewhere that seems to be somewhat significant:

Someone mentioned
a city she had been in before the war, a room with two candles
against a wall, someone dancing, someone watching.
We began to believe
the night would not end.
Someone was saying the music was over and no one had noticed.
Then someone said something about the planets, about the stars,
how small they were, how far away.

(“From the Long Sad Party”)

In this context, the Other before which the self becomes anonymous can be seen as a principle upon which the self can, to use Heidegger's phrase, “throw itself upon the world” and reside in its possibilities:

In the meantime I thought
of the old stars falling and the ashes of one thing and another.
I knew that I would be scattered among them,
that the dream of light would continue without me,
for it was never my dream, it was yours.

(“Seven Days”)

The poet here is located at a point in time where the events described have already begun to occur, and as the past subjunctive implies, continue into the present. This mode of vision constitutes the basis for what Heidegger calls the “retrieve,” a movement into the past to recover lost possibilities. Thus in “My Son” Strand reaches back towards a hypothetical son who seems to call “from a place / beyond, // where nothing / everything, / wants to be born.” The poet of the retrieve attempts to locate those images from the storehouse of the Imaginary that suggest possible symbolic identifications. That is precisely the motive in “For Jessica, My Daughter”—“I imagine a light / that would not let us stray far apart, / a secret moon or mirror, a sheet of paper.”

Whereas Simic's mode is finally to deconstruct presence, to recede back into the growing region of emptiness, Stand's is to expand with that region, to attempt a reconstruction of presence. The result is a transcendental vision that, because it transcends “Nothing” as well as everything, because it does, after all, grasp the problem of the absent Other, avoids the naive solipsism of earlier transcendental visions: “this is another place / what light there is / spreads like a net / over nothing” (“Another Place”). The poem “White” uses that color to link diverse places, seasons, shades, times, traces, images, events, leading to a final Heideggerian “leap” beyond language and sight:

And out of my waking
the circle of light widens,
 it fills with trees, houses,
stretches of ice.
It reaches out. It rings
the eye with white.
All things are one.
All things are joined
even beyond the edge of sight.

And so the poem becomes a means to include even what lies beyond the Heideggerian “horizon of Being,” a means to treat absence as presence. In “The Garden” Strand describes a kind of sourceless light of being, “suspended in time” yet resonating with both the past of the poet's parents and the future of the friend, the Other he addresses:

And when my father bends
to whisper in her ear,
when they rise to leave
and the swallows dip and soar
and the moon and stars
have drifted off together, it shines.
Even as you lean over this page,
late and alone, it shines; even now
in the moment before it disappears.

As with the Heideggerian “it” in phrases like “it gives being,” the pronoun here suggests a kind of phenomenological naming, an openness towards presence. It attempts to close some of the gaps that a poetry like Simic's, which emphasizes more of the absence in “presence of absence,” exposes. The result is not an utter ineffability, but rather, for both poets, a knowledge that poetic language is not simply communication, that it projects, in its relation to absence, to the Other, in its deferral of meanings for its signifiers, a truth that resides in its faithfulness to the multiplicity of the world. The result is, in effect, the creation of a world through language. So, Lacan has said:

I have only to plant my tree in a locution: climb the tree, indeed to project on it the ironic lightning that a descriptive context gives to a word: let it be seen by all, in order not to let myself be imprisoned in some sort of communication of facts, however official it may be, and, if I know the truth, make it heard, in spite of all the between the lines censures by the only signifier that my acrobatics can constitute in traversing the branches.

Peter Schmidt (essay date Fall 1982)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8311

SOURCE: “White: Charles Simic's Thumbnail Epic,” in Contemporary Literature, Fall, 1982, pp. 528-49.

[In the following essay, Schmidt analyzes White, finding elements that strongly liken the series to the tradition of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

O how joys, dreads, convolutions, human shapes, and all shapes,
spring as from graves around me!
 O phantoms! you cover all the land and all the sea!
O I cannot see in the dimness whether you smile or frown upon me. …

—Whitman, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1867 version)

A chaque être, plusieurs autres vies me semblaient dues.

—Rimbaud, Une Saison en Enfer

These are examples of Reason's momentary grasp of the scepter; the exertions of a power which exists not in time or space, but an instantaneous instreaming causing power. The difference between the actual and the ideal force of man is happily figured by the schoolmen, in saying, that the knowledge of man is an evening knowledge, vespertina cognitio, but that of God is a morning knowledge, matutina cognitio.

—Emerson, “Nature”

The number of Charles Simic's readers has been increasing steadily during the last decade, for those who come across his work tend to seek out more and show what they've found to others. His early volumes of poems from George Braziller, Dismantling the Silence (1971), Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk (1974), and Charon's Cosmology (1977), have steadfastly stayed in print, an unusual fate for poetry these days, and his most recent book, Classic Ballroom Dances (1980), was reviewed in places ranging from small but important publications like Field, a little magazine read by those who write what is in the others, to the Yale Review, in which Helen Vendler annexed Simic into her personal pantheon of contemporary poets worth watching.

Much of Simic's early work appeared in George Hitchcock's little magazine kayak. With its pages collaging poems and found illustrations, kayak was part of the flowering of surrealist experimentation in American verse which began in the 1940s and 1950s in New York and San Francisco but in the 1960s became especially associated with the Midwest—with Robert Bly and James Wright, among many others, and with the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the seminars at the University of Chicago taught by John Logan. Surrealism appealed to many poets coming of age during and after World War II because it gave them a way of rebelling against the allusive, paradoxical, and ironic poetics of high modernism. Its improvised metrics and leaping, associative structures showed such writers how to reground poetic language in simply-stated metaphors rather than in elaborate conceits, synecdoche, and irony, and how to rely on oracular declaratives rather than the distant, ironic use of personae which marked much high modernist work such as that of Pound and Eliot. Instead of requiring that the poet introduce a wide range of historical and contemporary allusion, surrealism taught him how to discover a primitivist poetics, an archetypal voice within him which was too ancient and too visionary to imitate an insider's knowledge of a particular society. By the 1950s, this poetics had created an informal underground network of writers who renounced Eliot and Pound as masters and founded new magazines to compete with the dominant journals of the time which promoted the latest versions of modernist aesthetics, such as the Kenyon Review and the Hudson Review. By the 1960s, these artists had become numerous enough (and had taught workshops enough) to have disciples of their own. They also had an effect on the canon of writers that young poets were told to study. Bly, Wright, and the new generation of poets coming out of the workshops in the 1960s (including Simic) generally turned away from Donne, Mallarmé, and LaForgue to the French, Spanish, and Latin American surrealists and the German Symbolists Rilke and Trakl. Simic added to this list Vasko Popa, a surrealist mythographer from his native Yugoslavia.1 In turning away from Pound and Eliot's tradition, these new American surrealists also returned to Whitman, and discovered that his visionary assertions, associative structures, and plain style could be merged with later Continental and Latin American innovations to become the basis for the new poetics they were searching for. Instead of Mauberley and “Gerontion,” they would study “The Sleepers” and Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu.

If each American generation must make its pact with Whitman, the particulars of that pact tell us much about what makes that generation distinct. Charles Simic is already recognized as one of the most important voices in the generation that came of age in the last decade. As it happens, one poem of his, a sequence of twenty-two lyrics called White, is a dramatic example of what sort of pact with Whitman Simic's generation is drawing up. Unfortunately, White is not so available or so well known as Simic's other work, for it has been published only by small presses. Simic first issued 1300 copies of it from New Rivers Press back in 1972, and two years ago he finished revising it and reissued it, in an even smaller edition, from Logbridge-Rhodes Press. He now dates the poem 1970-1980. After reading the work, it is easy to see why it has held Simic's imagination for a decade. Its drama, that of learning how to begin again, has always been at the heart of Simic's writing, and the lyrics in White provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of many of Simic's most recognizable characters and settings as they might first emerge in his notebooks, before they are fully portrayed in the lyrics which make up the Braziller collections. It is Simic's private collection of beginnings, of summonings—the daily record of the battles he had confronting the white page. In it, he seeks to recover that ancient yet spontaneous voice which he, like the surrealists (the true last romantics), believes lies beneath the masks and ironies that we adopt in order to survive our history. White is also a distinguished attempt to solve a problem which many other poets of Simic's generation are now facing—the creation of a long poem out of a sequence of shorter ones. All poets who do that, particularly American ones, must face comparing their sequences to those by Whitman, and White is additionally interesting because, of all the poems Simic has written, it is the one in which he most determinedly confronts his American poetic origins.

White is composed of three parts. The first two are spoken by the poet and consist of ten ten-line lyrics each. The concluding section, two twenty-line poems, contains the reply of “White” to the poet and is entitled “What The White Had To Say.” The “White” of the poem's title is a particular state of mind that the poet seeks to reach during the writing of each short poem, with the first two ten-part sections of White being the sum of these incantations. White is a tabula rasa et alba, a realm of pure possibility, new selves, new words, and new names, and may be said to be a modern version of the absolute expectancy of divine grace which was the desired climax of the meditative procedures employed by Catholic and Protestant poets in the Renaissance. “All that is near, / I no longer give it a name,” the poet says in the second poem of White, and later adds, “There are words I need. / They are not near men.”2 Each poem is thus a summoning of the muse of strangeness and new selfhood; White is the only power who can help him shed his past selves and begin again. Instead of using a Ouija board, as James Merrill, another contemporary poet of meditation, has done, Simic places the “five ears” of his fingertips “Against the white page” (p. 12), listening for signs of the descent of his daemon-muse, the White who speaks at the poem's conclusion. During each ten-poem sequence, Simic uses all the strategies he possesses, from prayer and propitiation to temptation and trickery, to summon her. He puts on many masks, including those of an orphan child, a bridegroom, and a hermit scholar, and envisions White appearing in many forms, from bestial to celestial.

In the first poem, the poet prays that White will descend and teach him how to divest himself of his old identity and its possessions. He also prays that White will give him a new self, a spiritual marriage. He desires to “touch what I can / Of the quick” and be carried across the threshold dividing one life from another:

Out of poverty
To begin again:
With the color of the bride
And that of blindness,
Touch what I can
Of the quick,
Speak and then wait,
As if this light
Will continue to linger
On the threshold. 

(p. 3)

His voice is humble and hushed, and he speaks in infinitives (“to begin”) and hypotheses (“as if”) as though what he desires and describes has not yet been created. He seems both an aspiring young groom and a hermit scholar determined to marry into spiritual wealth by taking a vow of poverty.

With the second poem, we see the poet beginning in earnest his task of shedding his old self. He starts by taking words which have become as familiar as stones or knives and making them suddenly strange. Habit has become a hardening of the senses, a learned deafness:

All that is near,
 I no longer give it a name.
Once a stone hard of hearing,
Once sharpened into a knife …
Now only a chill
Slipping through.
Enough glow to kneel by and ask
To be tied to its tail
When it goes marrying
Its cousins, the stars. 

(p. 4)

This poem has the same mix of humility and resoluteness that the first did. But now there is also an edge of fear: the proposed wedding between the poet and his muse may turn violent. At first, the violence in the lines may be hard to see because of Simic's spare, understated language, so typical of White: “To be tied to its tail // When it goes marrying. …” Instead of being a human bridge, White appears to have changed into an animal. And what is the poet's role in such a marriage? The lines at first seem festive, perhaps alluding to bows or decorations tied onto the tail of a prize animal. But Simic may in fact be merging a traditional rite of marriage involving tin cans with another, grotesque use for cans: instead of portraying bride and groom in a car with cans rattling behind them in celebration, Simic transforms White (the bride) into an animal running madly and hopelessly from the cans (the groom) tied to its tail. The reference is in fact double-edged; it seems first festive and then turns sinister. The implication is that the proposed marriage between the poet and White is equally risky. Indeed, the darker possibilities of marrying White begin to shadow the poem more and more strongly as the reader glances back at what has come before: “stone,” “knife,” “a chill / Slipping through.”

Later poems in the first section extend these nightmarish premonitions; the poet sees that by summoning White he may be creating a bond which is as torturous as that between an animal and the cans tied to its tail. As the first sequence of poems progresses, the shapes that the poet imagines White to take gradually become more and more frightening. In the fourth poem, for example, she is a “Hard-faced” old woman running a badly aired inner city grocery. She intimidates the poet, who is disguised as a young boy buying a cupcake (p. 6). In the fifth and seventh poems, it is true, she appears in apparently merciful guises, as a “kind nurse” who can show the poet the “place of salves” (p. 7) and as a mother who sings the child-poet an unsettling lullaby about an insomniac shepherd in the Arctic Circle:

And he can't get any sleep
Over lost sheep.
And he's got a flute
Which says Bo-Peep.
Which says Poor boy,
Take care of your snow-sheep. 

(p. 9)

In the last two poems of the first sequence, however, the sinister animal persona of White returns, and the language suggests that the death of the old self that the poet prays for will be torturous, like an execution or a religious martyr's mortification of the flesh. White also becomes a kind of Our Lady of Pain, a nurse who offers people salves but creates their wounds in the first place:

Woe, woe, it sings from the bough.
Our Lady, etc…
You had me hoodwinked.
I see your brand new claws.
Praying, what do I betray
By desiring your purity?
There are old men and women,
All bandaged up, waiting
At the spiked, wrought-iron gate
Of the Great Eye and Ear Infirmary. 

(p. 11)

By the next poem, the last one in the first sequence, this female incarnation of White has become even more fiendish; she reopens the poet's wounds indifferently, blindly:

We hear holy nothing
Blindfolding itself.
It touched you once, twice,
And tore like a stitch
Out of a new wound. 

(p. 12)

The hushed expectancy and the infinitive verbs of the first poem in the sequence vanish as the poet immerses himself in his various dreams of what White might be like when she answers his summons. Now, at the end of the first sequence, Simic speaks in the past tense, as if his wounding has already happened. (It hasn't; it's just the eloquence of his vision.) In the course of ten poems to White, his dream of a newborn self (“Touch what I can / Of the quick”) has turned into a nightmare in which that point of contact with White is far more painful than he ever expected. The situation of the poet waiting for White is precisely that of Whitman in the lines from “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” which I have used as an epigraph for this essay: “O phantoms! … / I cannot see in the dimness whether you smile or frown upon me” (1867 version).

The poet's second sequence of ten poems uses many of the same personae for both himself and White. We see the poet as a young child, aspiring groom, and hermit scholar, and White appears as an old widow, a bride, an animal, a maternal figure comforting orphans, and as a daemonic muse. The second sequence, however, seems to evolve in ways that reverse the pattern of the first. If the first sequence began quietly and evolved into the terrifying vision of Our Lady of Pain, the second begins violently but gradually modulates its voice to that of a young child praying and singing softly, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” The second sequence in White thus neatly folds back the unfolding of the first, so that at the end the poet is back to where he began, hushed, prayerful, and alone.

Despite this convergence between the poem's two sequences, there are important distinctions to be made—especially in the matter of tone—between the poems occupying the corresponding positions in each group. If the first poems in the second sequence, for example, do reproduce some of the violence of the final poems in the first sequence, the mirroring is not exact, for the poems about Our Lady of Pain embody the poet's most nightmarish fears of White, whereas the opening poems in the second sequence treat her violence comically. It is as if the poet has survived the worst vision of what White can do and thus has gained the courage to treat his predicament as a dark burlesque. Much of his tone, of course, remains that of a child whistling in the dark. But it also has the snappishness of a street-smart urchin who is proud that he can survive in such a tough neighborhood. In the second sequence's first poem, Simic imagines White's questions, then gives his own wily answers; they parry her thrusts and become comic versions of the tortures imagined with such horror in the last poem of the first sequence:

What are you up to son of a gun? I roast on my heart's dark side.

What do you use as a skewer sweetheart? I use my own crooked backbone.

What do you salt yourself with loverboy? I grind the words out of my spittle.

And how will you know when you're done chump? When the half-moons on my fingernails set.

With what knife will you carve yourself smartass? The one I hide in my tongue's black boot.

(p. 14)

Here the poet is a sort of spiritual artful dodger, a Huck Finn on New York's lower East Side able to evade any disaster that White may send his way. The next two poems also combine the call-and-response structure of traditional ballads and rope-skipping rhymes with contemporary punk patois. But the poet now can laugh at himself, tempering somewhat the aggressive, boasting tone of the first poem:

Well, you can't call me a wrestler
If my own dead weight has me pinned down.
....................
Well, you can't call me smart,
When the rain's falling my cup's in the cupboard.
Nor can you call me a saint,
If I didn't err, there wouldn't be these smudges.
....................
The flea I was standing on, jumped.
One has to manage as best as one can.
I think my head went out for a walk.
One has to manage as best as one can.

(pp. 15–16)

As the poems of the second sequence progress, the age of the poet seems to vary greatly, but the modulation in the sequence's overall tone from loud to soft remains clear. The seventh poem in the sequence is another variation on an imagined marriage between the poet and White which neatly merges the language of a child's geometry lesson with that of a marriage ceremony. The implication is that the marriage, if ever consummated, will be difficult to sustain, for the partners are as at odds with each other as a child's fragile body and the eternal purity of geometric truths.

Do you take this circle
Bounded by a single curved line?
I take this breath
That it cannot capture.
Then you may kiss the spot
Where her bridal train last rustled. 

(p. 20)

In other prominent poems in the second half of the sequence, the poet reappears in his familiar guise of the orphan. In the sixth poem, for example, he is confronted yet again by White in the form of an old woman: “She offered him / A tiny sugar cube // In the hand so wizened / All the lines said: fate” (p. 19). In the eighth and tenth poems, the poet seems like a child talking to himself: we are back to the hushed, prayerful persona that opened the first sequence. The eighth poem is a haunting lullaby for an insomniac somewhat like the earlier song about Bo-Peep; clouds and snowflakes form shapes then blow them away, and details from a child's imagination are disconcertingly placed against a vast, indifferent backdrop:

Winter can come now,
The earth narrow to a ditch—
And the sky with its castles and stone lions
Above the empty plains.
The snow can fall … 
What other perennials would you plant,
My prodigals, my explorers
Tossing and turning in the dark
For those remote, finely honed bees,
The December stars? 

(p. 21)

Speaking in the plural, the poet here appears to be addressing not just the child within him but also all his many selves. Each is an explorer, a prodigal returning to where he started from, and each searches for a lost pastoral world where human beings will feel as at home in the universe as bees in a flowering meadow.

The poet's last poem in White—his final “summoning,” as he calls it (p. 23)—recalls the steadfast, serious tone of his very first poem. There is “Solitude—as in the beginning,” Simic says, “And fear—that dead letter office. / And doubt—that Chinese shadow play.” He still cannot be sure that his prayers will summon White, or that they will give him any hint of what she will be like or how she will treat him if she does arrive. As in the first poem, he speaks and then waits, lingering on the threshold connecting this world and the spirit world. Mixed in with this humble voice, however, is a hint of the urchin who strutted and mocked both White and himself at the beginning of the second sequence of poems. He seems positive that White's presence will be maternal; he imagines her creating him in her own image and then—she is a poet's muse, after all—giving birth through the mouth: “A zero burped by a bigger zero— / it's an awful licking I got.” So secure does the poet seem that he jokes about it all. However White may beat me, he puns, her “lickings” will also be maternal, like that of a lioness licking clean her cub after boxing his ears. By the very end of the poem, though, Simic returns to the humble expectancy which is the dominant mood of White. The poet is not a tough talker but an orphan in bed, awake, alone, and softly praying for a comforting dream to appear:

Does anyone still say a prayer
Before going to bed?
White sleeplessness.
No one knows its weight.

Simic ends White with a masterstroke: after summoning White many times, he evades his own personae and in the two-part section “What The White Had To Say” allows White to take over his voice and have the last word. If this is self-effacement, however, it is also victory, for his muse has at last crossed over the threshold from whiteness and has her words appear in black ink on the page. In the two twenty-line monologues which are spoken by White (pp. 26-27), she appears in guises that readers of the earlier sections will readily recognize. At times she is both mother and lover, a force engendering and caring for the poet's many selves:

Poems are made of our lusty wedding nights …
The joy of words as they are written.
The ear that got up at four in the morning
To hear the grass grow inside a word.

Elsewhere in her monologues, she boasts to the poet that she contains all the myriad selves which he will never realize. She forever remains partially undisclosed, the White that got away:

Cleverly you've invented name after name for me,
Mixed the riddles, garbled the proverbs,
Shook your loaded dice in a tin cup,
But I do not answer back even to your curses,
For I am nearer to you than your breath.(3)

Just as he'd feared, the poet's muse here rises up in all her daemonic power, ever elusive and always dangerous. She can murder all his earlier selves, all the previous orderings of his life into poems which he fondly calls the “body” of his work, and she can evade all his future figures of speech attempting to figure her forth.

Because I am the bullet
That has gone through everyone already,
I thought of you long before you thought of me.
Each one of you still keeps a blood-stained handkerchief
In which to swaddle me, but it stays empty. …

The previous poems in White, those in the poet's ten-poem sequences, were all written using five tidy couplets. But the twin concluding poems by White are a torrential stream of run-on sentences, enjambed lines, mixed metaphors, changing voices, and seemingly formless paragraphs—pure energy vaporizing the poet's well-wrought urns. Moreover, if White in the early lyrics generally was given her personae one by one, in her own section of White she shifts her masks much more rapidly, merging and mocking the poet's own descriptions of her. Such simultaneous states of being are appropriate for such a pale muse, even though Simic's mixed voices and metaphors do make it difficult for the reader at first to discern a unified presence in these last two poems. But that is as it should be; accommodating oneself to White's sublime fluidity is one of the demands she makes of us. All her masks of bride, benevolent widow, animal, and Eumenides pass rapidly by us, and, feigning closeness with the poet, she parodies his earlier pretentions to being a hermit-scholar (“Out of poverty / To begin again …”):

One sun shines on us both through a crack in the roof.
A spoon brings me through the window at dawn.
A plate shows me off to the four walls
While with my tail I swing at the flies.
But there's no tail and the flies are your thoughts.

By the end of White's first poem, she has so taken over the poet's voice that his inhalation of her foreignness—his inspiration—is compared to drowning:

Steadily, patiently I lift your arms.
I arrange them in the posture of someone drowning,
And yet the sea in which you are sinking,
And even this night above it, is myself.

In the second poem by White, she tempers her invasion of the poet. Her tone becomes tender and elegiac, and she begins sincerely to speak of herself as the poet's equal. Eventually she drops her accusatory use of the second person and adopts the first person plural, speaking of herself as a fellow orphan or as an animal under the poet's care:

One gaunt shadowy mother wiped our asses,
The same old orphanage taught us loneliness.
Street-organ full of blue notes,
I am the monkey dancing to your grinding …

With the introduction of this new tone, the rapidly moving flood of White's masks crests and abates, and White's monologue and White itself ends with the poet nestled close to White's side, secure and finally able to stop his tossing and turning. It is as if the poet at the very last moment of the poem has finally earned the right to touch her. Appropriately, the last lines are hushed, as if White's words were a lullaby sung by one orphan to another, and the poet's many incarnations as scholar, husband, and frightened child are at last discarded. His agitated searching gives way to trust, steady breathing, and a dream of children's games. The new self that he prayed for, like a new tooth, seems effortlessly on its way:

Time slopes. We are falling head over heels
At the speed of night. That milk tooth
You left under the pillow, it's grinning.

Helen Vendler has recently argued that Simic is a strong poet plagued by poems with weak endings that merely complete a “known shape.”4 If this assertion may seem odd to a reader familiar with the dramatic accelerations and new twists in the concluding lines of poems such as “The Forest,” “Breasts,” “Charon's Cosmology,” “Shirt,” or “Prodigy,” it will perplex the reader of White, for rarely has a modern sequence of poems ended with such an apocalyptic fusion of tumult and calm—a whirlwind summoning, blending, and erasing the persons, places, and things of the poet's vision. For sheer dramatic power, the two lyrics that make up “What The White Had To Say” may stand (or whirl) beside the final sections of Yeats's “1919” and Stevens' “Auroras of Autumn.”

The closing passages of White, particularly Simic's reference to White as a “gaunt shadowy mother,” may remind some readers of the “old crone” swathed in sweet garments who rocks the cradle in Whitman's “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1859). This relation of White to Walt Whitman is worth considering more closely. The music of Whitman's poem imitates first the mockingbird's lament for the loss of its mate and then the sinister susurrus of the sea, the “fierce old mother” incessantly moaning the word “death.” Together, the songs of bird and sea cause the poet to understand for the first time that he will die. Soon after he overhears the bird pleading for its lost mate to appear against the background of the white breakers (“What is that little black thing I see there in the white?”), he himself is looking out to sea and beholding his own twin, a swimmer, and his “white arms out in the breakers.” At first, the boy hopes that this figure's arms are “tirelessly tossing”; his vision is as much a wish-fulfillment as the mockingbird's. But by the poem's end he admits that the secret the sea has shown him is a “drowned” one. Intuitively, he understands that the swimmer could not survive: it was his childhood self struggling against the undertow of his new knowledge that he is not immortal. The adult poet, moreover, understands that the sea has nursed him on this bitter wisdom and given him his voice. It is as if the child's sudden experience of death compelled him to fill the void he felt with song—as if by pouring out words and music he could somehow will into being the vanished sense of wholeness he once knew:

For I, that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping, now I
have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
.......................
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me …
.......................
My own songs awaked from that hour. …

But if the experience of loss destroys the child's illusion that all is permanent (thus rendering him a spiritual orphan from the things of this world), paradoxically such experience also supports the child's new, more mature self. Images which first reminded the poet of his secure childhood (such as “Pour down your warmth, great sun! / While we bask we have two together, // Two together!”) are by the end of the poem used to describe the experience of division, not wholeness. The poet's knowledge of death is a kind of grim but benevolent foster-parent, personified as an old crone “swathed in sweet garments” who bends her wrinkled face towards the child's, whispering in his ear, rocking his cradle, “pouring down” upon him her hoarse hissing, her bitter understanding that we are all orphans on this earth.

Simic's muse of Whiteness is also a half-benevolent, half-terrifying foster-mother, and his child-poet an orphan. The first and second parts of White have as their epigraph a line from “Out of the Cradle” which implies that the poet's songs, like those of Whitman's mockingbird, are inspired by loss: “What is that little black thing I see there in the white?” To make the connection between his poem and Whitman's even clearer, Simic in 1980 revised a central line in White's monologue from “I am the emptiness that tucks you in like a dove's nest” to “I am the emptiness that tucks you in like a mockingbird's nest.”5 In “Out of the Cradle” this nurturing figure modulated in the middle of the poem from the mockingbird to the sea-mother. Intuitively remembering this transformation, Simic has White in her monologues describe herself as both a mockingbird and an ocean: as a mockingbird she tucks the poet in at night, and as the sea she is the water “in which you are sinking.” There are other parallels between “Out of the Cradle” and White. Both Whitman and Simic describe the death of the poet's earlier self, and both end their works with an ambiguous moment of rebirth. Whitman is “awaked” and sings of birth yet stares into what passes for a death's-head, the face of the old crone, while Simic “falls” asleep but finds a new self rising within him:

Time slopes. We are falling head over heels
At the speed of night. That milk tooth
You left under the pillow, it's grinning.

Simic's milk tooth seems both sinister and heartening: it grins like a skull, suggesting the self which has died, but it also reminds us that a child's milk teeth are replaced by his adult ones, including his “wisdom” teeth.

Simic's reference to the “milk tooth” may also allude to other famous lines by Whitman about coming of age, the notorious section in “The Sleepers” in which he described a child's passage into adulthood by referring to teething:

[I] am curious to know where my feet stand—and what is
this flooding me, childhood or manhood—and the hunber that crosses the
bridge between.
The cloth laps a first sweet eating and drinking,
Laps life-swelling yolks—laps ear of rose-corn, milky and just
ripened;
The white teeth stay, and the boss tooth advances in darkness. … 

(1855 version)

The sudden changes of the body during the end of childhood are no less frightening to a child than the advancing stages of the mind's own transformations as one self yields to another. The boss tooth of the boy's manhood—his sexuality, his knowledge of evil and of death—ruthlessly expels his childhood self. This change is a prelude to the continual remaking of the self which is exemplified in “The Sleepers” and which Whitman wants the adult psyche to undergo each night during dreaming. Similarly, in White Simic uses references to drowning, falling, and teething to depict not just the passage from childhood to adulthood but also the passage he as an adult wants to make from one self to another.

Simic's White is also a meditation on another form of drowning and rebirth—the influence (literally, the in-flowing) of a previous writer's voice upon his own. Such a preoccupation with poetic predecessors is appropriate to White, for any poem about the poet's urge to be reborn must also be a poem about his origins. Simic seeks a new, “white,” unknown voice to inhabit him, yet as his desire for such an event increases, so too does his knowledge of how thoroughly both his new and his old voices resound with those of his predecessors, particularly Whitman's. Indeed, like the child in “Out of the Cradle,” he paradoxically comes of age and discovers his own voice only after he loses his illusions of wholeness and admits for the first time the terrifying insurge of an alien, foster-voice whose music is not his own. White is Simic's collection of strategies for summoning forth his muse. But when she appears, one of her masks is that of “White-man,” Whitman.

Simic alludes most clearly to this necessary inflooding in the penultimate poem of the poet's second sequence (p. 22). With puns on the phrases “getting through” and “going through,” he refers both to the process of transformation itself, the new self passing through (or flooding) the old self, and to the poet's stricken understanding of the process as it happens. That is, the spirit which teaches him about death and transformation must “get through” to the poet's obtuse old self, which Simic here portrays as a sort of cantankerous old man indignant at the fact that he can't be around forever. White's forces, however, are irresistible; they have all the power of an army of ants dismantling a body:

Had to get through me elsewhere.
Woe to bone
That stood in their way.
Woe to each morsel of flesh.
White ants
 In a white anthill.
The rustle of their many feet
Scurrying—tiptoing too.
Gravedigger ants.
Village-idiot ants.

White's concluding monologues also tease the defensive poet by playing upon the phrase “getting through.” The poet, like the old man, or an innocent child, naïvely believes that his voice and his self are of his own making. But White is disdainful and imperious. “I am the bullet that has gone through everyone,” she chants mockingly at the beginning of each of her two speeches, using “everyone” to refer to the poet's menagerie of selves. Then she forces him to locate the source of all of his powers of self-creation outside of himself: “I thought of you long before you thought of me.” It is a moment of sheer terror; the fragile levees defining the poet's self are inundated and swept away. Like the child in “Out of the Cradle,” the poet in White loses his illusions of independence and is flooded by a foreign presence; he learns how frail his own voice is, and that it is loaned to him, not his to keep. The poet had prayed for such a gift of a new voice repeatedly throughout his sections of White, but even his worst fears of what White might do to him had an arrogance in them, as shown by the involuntary references to himself as heroic martyr in her presence. He still believed that he could “summon” White as if she were a genie and bid her to give him a new self on demand. During White's monologues, however, he learns that even his pretensions to summoning her were under her control: “I thought of you long before you thought of me,” she says. She may give him a new self or drown his old self and leave it at that. This is the grim undercurrent of White's monologues, songs whose melodious hissing is kin to that of the old crone who rocks the cradle in Whitman's poem.

By the end of White's poems, however, her tone becomes more benign, even motherly, though an edge of her original anger remains. Her influx lifts or floats a new self to the poet even as it drowns the old one; she seems both a mother in mourning arranging the limbs of her lost child and a mother who rocks a newborn one—Simic's newborn poetic self—in her arms: “Steadily, patiently, I lift your arms … / … the sea in which you are sinking, / And even this night above it, is myself.”

A similar death and transfiguration occurs when Whitman's voice invades Simic's. At first it is Simic's undoing: when in White he finds his own voice immersed in the dangerous, powerful rhythms of Whitman's, he can only pray that his fate will not be that of the “white” swimmer in “Out of the Cradle.” But after enduring the successive infloodings of White, Simic has earned the right to discover the new voice that he asked for rising slowly but buoyantly within him. This voice is recognizably his own, although the drone of Whitman's sea-mother can still be heard beneath it.

Such an emergence in the last lines of White—even as the poet's old self “falls” asleep and is whirled away—shows that Simic, like Whitman, takes up Emerson's oracular challenge to the American poet in “Nature,” quoted here as an epigraph. He has confronted “evening knowledge,” what Emerson would later call “Fate”: the knowledge of powerlessness, limitations, death, an instantaneous in-streaming of a force foreign to himself. But he has managed to stay afloat, and thus may have revealed to him what Emerson calls “morning knowledge,” the “ideal” force of man—and the poet—which is the right to be broken and reborn again and again. Paradoxically, Simic learns how to free himself from history by immersing himself within a historical tradition that denies history and affirms only “morning knowledge,” the poet's inalienable right (as Emerson said in “Nature”) to discover an original relation to the universe. Simic assays the dangerous crossing from “evening knowledge” to “morning knowledge” each time he begins a poem in White; he seeks to discard his earlier, time-bound selves and return to a place lit by the milk-white light of dawn. But none of the poet's twenty poems in White complete that return successfully. White does not appear except hypothetically, and the poet is left in twenty different states of hopefulness, despair, terror, and anger. In “What The White Had To Say,” however, the “White” muse representing the American oracular poetic tradition finally descends upon Simic and claims him, and White ends with the poet just about to receive the new self and new voice for which he has prayed for so long. Born in Yugoslavia but educated in America, Simic has absorbed many influences during the course of his career, including those of Yugoslavian folklore, Yeats, Rilke, and the surrealists, and I have unavoidably had to slight them in this essay. But White shows the central role played by those ambiguous foster-parents Emerson and Whitman.

In 1977, Simic published a short essay—really a collection of paragraphs, a notecard prolegomenon—entitled “Composition” which bears on the quest to recover purity in White. Simic noted that the poet's search is a search for origins, an epic journey leading backward in time rather than forward in space. He claimed that this desire to discover primordial voices beneath our historical ones is

the secret strength of poetry and the source of its perpetual renewal. The “difficulty” of modern poetry from Imagism to Surrealism is that it has invested all its energies to permit that ancestral and archetypal thought to become audible in its purity.6

Simic's many masks in White and in his Braziller volumes accordingly tend to possess the archetypal qualities which Yeats associated with masks. Simic's personae are unlike Browning's, which speak with single, everyday voices, and unlike Pound's and Eliot's, which speak with the many voices of a historical period. They are more kin to the songs sung by the orphans and beggars in Rilke's Buch der Bilder or any of Yeat's volumes; they employ the ahistorical, ancestral voices of the orphan, the vagabond, the rogue, the stepmother. Simic's use of such generic psychic personae is complemented by his pervasive interest in imitating riddles, incantations, and charms, all primary sources for lyric poetry, and folkloric formulae and notated incident, all kernels of narrative.

Intriguingly, however, the personae in Simic's work in the late 1970s and early 1980s appear to be evolving from the strongly archetypal to a mode that mixes such universal correspondences with much more autobiographical and historical detail. “Forest,” for instance, opens Simic's first Braziller volume and strikes its keynote; its hero is somewhat like a blend of Prospero and Whitman, with the former's rough magic (“my roots and streams / Will stitch their chill into the heart of man”) and the latter's stentorian confidence (“Ladies and gentlemen, you will hear a star / Dead a million years, in the throat of a bird”). Simic's language stresses the archetypal qualities of all the poem's events—all “man” is involved, time is measured in eons rather than in forty-hour weeks, and the knowledge the poem teaches is ancient, even prehistorical:

There'll be plenty of time
When an acorn grows out of your ear
to accustom yourself to my ways,
To carve yourself a hermit's toothpick.

In “Forest,” identity dependent upon a particular place, time and society gives way to a primordial self, as if the dark forest of man's collective unconscious were reclaiming the collapsing cities of modern personality. In Simic's most recent volume, Classic Ballroom Dances (1980), such prehistoric forces remain ever-present, but paradoxically they seem all the more compelling because they are less confidently inherited; several of the poems are filled with more personal and historical references than Simic has ever included, and their protagonists' escape from history, when it occurs, is more provisional, more tentative.

In “Furniture Mover” for example, the speaker longs to escape from the burden of carrying his possessions, his body, and his self. He wants to arrive at a future destination in his life ahead of time—or, rather, ahead of Time, ahead of his history. The tone of the poem is also much like that of White, hushed and prayer-like, but with muted comic asides. For the tragicomic battle of the speaker's soul and his furniture mover is at a standoff. He wants to leave behind his physical, historical self (represented by the furniture mover), but he always arrives in the future just one step too late:

oh
          Mr. Furniture Mover
on my knees
          let me come
for once
          early
to where it's vacant
          you still
on the stairs
          wheezing
between floors.

The speakers in Simic's earlier poems tended to be archetypal presences, as in “Forest”; magicians or fortune-tellers interpreting the mysteries of such presences, as in “The Needle” from Dismantling the Silence, which begins, “Watch out for the needle, / She's the scent of a plant / The root of which is far and hidden”; or heroic voyagers who escape history entirely, as in “The Explorers,” which ends with each of the explorers greeting a newly discovered world: “You are all / that has eluded me. // May this be my country.” Such oracular confidence is generally absent in Classic Ballroom Dances, where the tone is greyer, the events suggest historical as well as mythic incidents, and the characters tend to be not those who have escaped history but those who have been disfigured by it—orphans, war refugees, beggars, lunatics, widows and widowers, a pair of “ancient lovers” on the “dancefloor of the Union Hall, / where they also hold charity raffles / On rainy Monday nights of an eternal November” (“Classic Ballroom Dances”). Such figures have been in Simic's work from the start, but never has their presence loomed so large or been described in such detail. Ironically, part of Simic wants to escape from history, but another part of him knows that he has the responsibility of the furniture mover to remember—to carry—as much as he can bear.7

White is indispensable for helping us account for the growing presence of such irony and such historical detail in Simic's work. For in White (unlike Dismantling the Silence) the poet's desire to transcend history is eventually subverted; the “white” muse of purity and “morning knowledge” is also what I have called Whitman's crone, the muse of eternal tragedy and fallen experience. White will become a permanent part of American oracular poetic tradition because it is a well-written poem about a successful quest to leave irony behind and to return to oracular assertion. But it also turns upon itself and becomes simultaneously an ironic critique of the oracular poet's belief that he may transcend time and disown the grim absolutes of “evening knowledge.” At first glance, perhaps, White seems unlike Simic's more recent ironic lyrics, for it appears patently to be a poem in which the poet sheds his old self and ends in free fall, free from space and time and safe in White's embrace. But that moment of free fall cannot last. The last lines of the poem about the milk tooth that the poet has placed under his pillow while his dreams imply that he is poised at the moment of transformation, just about to recross the boundary separating eternity from time to accept the new, time-bound, and necessarily disfigured self that White will give him. Thus, although White is a successful quest to return to White's embrace, its ending foretells another beginning when that embrace is broken and the child-poet is exiled and falls into time, selfhood, particular lyric forms, and ink marks on the page. It is apparent that the drama of summoning White has been enacted again and again, and that Simic's Braziller volumes collect with increasingly ironic detail the various mortal selves that White left the poet each time she descended upon him, passed through him, and then vanished. Guided by his female muse, Simic at the end of White is in the same position as the child in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”—just on the verge of a tragic awakening. The pain and loss caused by such an orphaning will inspire all his songs: “For I, that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping, now I have heard you, / Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake. …”

If Simic's Braziller volumes contain portraits of the selves that his muse has awakened within him, in White he gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what it is like to summon one's psychic forces and then watch them invade, form shapes, and displace each other. In doing so, Simic has created a poem whose intimate immensity gives it a right to be called an epic in scale if not in length. Unlike previous epics, White does not incorporate large chunks of narrative; instead, it rewrites narrative in the key of the lyric, with each of its poems compacting its story within the confines of the spot of time, rarely more than a few moments, in which the lyric traditionally takes place. White also has the requisite epic subject, the story of the struggle to return home, and it uses the traditional epic mode of characterization, employing larger-than-life archetypal personae for its protagonists. Presenting the struggle between a poet and his predecessors, and between “evening knowledge” and “morning knowledge,” the experience of time and the appetite for that power which frees one from time, White is a long ur-lyric, a thumbnail or miniature epic about the painful birth of the lyric itself.

Notes

  1. Originally published in 1970, the translations were recently reissued as Vasko Popa, Homage to the Lame Wolf: Selected Poems, 1956-1975 (Oberlin, Ohio: Field Translation Series, 1979).

  2. Charles Simic, White (Durango, Colorado: Logbridge-Rhodes Press, 1980), pp. 4, 8. All other references to this edition will be cited in the text.

  3. The present text has “Shook you loaded dice in a tin cup.” But since White is addressing the poet in this passage, surely “you” is a misprint for “your.”

  4. Helen Vendler, Part of Nature, Part of Us (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 358.

  5. Simic's revisions also include changing selected lines, transposing a few lyrics, and cutting some others to replace them with new poems. In all cases in this essay except this one, I refer to Simic's 1980 version.

  6. New Literary History, 9, No. 1 (Autumn 1977), 149-51.

  7. For more on the matter of Simic's evolution, see David Young's fine review of Classic Ballroom Dances in Field, 24 (Spring 1981), 83-88, and David Walker's excellent article “O What Solitude: The Recent Poetry of Charles Simic,” in Ironwood, 4, No. 1-2 (1976), 61-67, which covers Simic's work through Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk. That same issue of Ironwood also has a brief introduction to Simic's earlier version of White by James Carpenter, pp. 72-84, but I do not find useful Carpenter's premise that White convinces the poet that any separation between a poet and his poem or an observer and the object observed is false.

Bruce Bennett (review date 12 March 1983)

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SOURCE: “Poems Magical, Poems Mordant,” in Nation, Vol. 236, No. 10, March 12, 1983, pp. 314-15.

[In the following excerpted review, Bennett admires the spareness and clarity of poems that make up Austerities.]

[In Austerities] Charles Simic is a story teller, but his tales are mordant. “Rosalia” begins typically:

An especially forlorn human specimen
Answers a marriage-ad
On a street of compulsory misfortune,
One drizzly November afternoon …

They are set in landscapes—general cityscapes—despoiled by history (“From Tooth Crowned With Gold,” “Punch Minus Judy”), and in a climate almost unremittingly harsh. Scarcity is the rule and practically everyone practices “austerities” of some sort. Even on those rare occasions of abundance, the results are not precisely satisfying:

We ate so well after the funeral
In that shack by the town dump;
Fingers dripping with barbecue sauce and grease
Making the quick sign of the cross
In the cramped, smoke-filled living room …

(“Antediluvian Customs”)

In “Guardian Angel” the poet refers to “these dark, hell-bent days”; in “Dear Isaac Newton” he declares “the maggots romp / In the Sunday roast.” A “born doubter,” he has been vouch-safed few signs, and like other non-believers has no alternative but to look “both ways at the crossing / At two gusts of nothing and nothing.”

Yet, despite the bleakness, the experience of reading Austerities is not austere. For one thing, there is abundant humor, albeit of the gallows variety. “Hurricane Season” begins: “Just as the world was ending / We fell in love, / Immoderately.” In “Biographical Note” a rat wanders on stage during the performance of a school Christmas play, creating predictable havoc before it is dispatched moments later in the wings. There is a wonderful sardonic quality in “The Great Horned Owl,” where “the Grand Seigneur / Is so good as to appear,” and the poet makes what he can of this problematic visitation. There is even, in “Old Mountain Road,” a fleeting glimpse of something, perhaps, beyond the darkness. But most important, there is the pleasure afforded by the poems themselves: precise and pungent, clean and spare, they make Simic's grim vision more than palatable.

Charles Simic with Sherod Santos (interview date 1984)

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SOURCE: “An Interview with Charles Simic,” in Missouri Review, Vol. VII, No. 3, 1984, pp. 59-74.

[In the following interview, Simic discusses influences on his work, his personal experiences in Eastern Europe and the United States, and the act of writing poetry.]

[Santos]: Would you mind talking a little about the conditions in Yugoslavia just before you left?

[Simic]: I had what Jan Kott calls “a typical East European education.” He means, Hitler and Stalin taught us the basics. When I was three years old the Germans bombed Belgrade. The house across the street was hit and destroyed. There was plenty more of that, as everybody knows. When the war ended I came in and said: “Now there won't be any more fun!” That gives you an idea what a jerk I was. The truth is, I did enjoy myself. From the summer of 1944 to mid-1945, I ran around the streets of Belgrade with other half-abandoned kids. You can just imagine the things we saw and the adventures we had. You see, my father was already abroad, my mother was working, the Russians were coming, the Germans were leaving. It was a three-ring circus.

I don't want to sound overly psychological, but there is in your work that peculiar element which blends so naturally horror and fun. Do you think it had its origin in those days?

Very probably. I'm the product of chance, the baby of ideologies, the orphan of History. Hitler and Stalin conspired to make me homeless. Well, then, is my situation tragic? No. There's been too much tragedy all around for anyone to feel like a Hamlet. More likely my situation is comic. It's “the amazement of the thinking spirit at itself” and its predicament—or so said Schlegel. One just has to laugh at the extent of our stupidity.

So what happened after 1945?

Well, from 1945 to 1948 it was just poverty. I remember being very, very hungry, and my mother crying because she had nothing to give me. Still later, it became clear to my mother that if I was ever going to become an American poet, we'd better get moving. that's Phil Levine's theory. Actually, my father was already in the U.S.A. working for the same telephone company he had worked for in Yugoslavia before the war. Anyway, we ended up in Chicago, and my father took me out one day to hear Coleman Hawkins. You could say the kid was hooked. Jazz made me both an American and a poet.

What was it about jazz that seemed to you so distinctly American?

I heard in it, experienced in it what it feels like to be sad or happy in America. Or more idiomatically: how to raise hell, or how to break someone's heart and make beautiful music in the process. I mean, it's fine to read the great lyric poets of the past, but one also has to know how the people in the language you're writing in sing.

Is there an identifiable influence jazz has made on your work? I'm wondering, for example, if you see surrealism in any way as a literary equivalent to jazz?

The poet is really not much different from that tenor player who gets up in a half-empty, smoke-filled dive at two in the morning to play the millionth rendition of “Body and Soul.” Which is to say that one plays with the weight of all that tradition, but also to entertain the customers and to please oneself. One is both bound and free. One improvises but there are constraints, forms to obey. It's the same old thing which is always significantly different.

As for surrealism, I think there's more of it in the blues. The early stuff, especially. Most people know Bessie Smith and perhaps Robert Johnson, but there are many others. Incredible verbal invention. What one would call “jive,” but also eroticism, the tragic sense of life. If the blues was French we'd be studying it at Yale. As it is, hardly anyone knows my heroes, people like Cripple Clarence Lofton; Frankie Jaxon, or Bessie Jackson, who also called herself Lucille Bogan. They are our Villons.

Anyway, blues taught me a number of things. How to tell a story quickly, economically. The value of gaps, ellipses, and most importantly, the virtues of simplicity and accessibility.

That erotic element, since you mention it, is an important part of your work as well; and now that I think about it, you use it in ways that are actually quite similar to the ways it's used in the blues. The last two stanzas of your poem “Breasts” is a good example:

O my sweet, my wistful bagpipes.
Look, everyone is asleep on the earth.
Now, in the absolute immobility
Of time, drawing the waist
Of the one I love to mine,
I will tip each breast
Like a dark heavy grape
Into the hive
Of my drowsy mouth.

I don't know if I still care for the ending of that poem. “Wistful bagpipes” is awful. Also, the pace of these stanzas is awkward. The earlier ones are better, I think.

As for eroticism, isn't it synonymous with imagination? Eros as the cause of logos, and that sort of thing. The one lying in the dark and trying to visualize the loved one is at the mercy of both. … There's not much more that I can say.

Abstract painting is important to you as well—and, I assume, for many of the same reasons. Does that interest go back as far?

You know, I was in Washington D.C. last fall, and I had a chance to see some paintings I'd known for a long time and to my great surprise I no longer cared for a couple of my old heroes, Pollock and Rothko. Their conceptions struck me as being simple-minded. The work had no depth. The problem with abstract art is that it restricted itself so much. Let's admit, in the end, Mondrian is pretty boring. it's like using only a few keys on the piano. One admires the purity, but that's about it.

Was it because the paintings had finally abandoned representation that made them seem so restricted?

Not necessarily. I mean, I like de Kooning, Guston, Frankenthaler, to speak only of Abstract Expressionists. The two I mentioned just don't have the range of these others. That day in Washington I realized that my early admiration was really an intellectual appreciation of what their work means in the history of modern painting.

Analogies between the arts aren't always accurate, but do you think poetry has ever reached that same level of abstraction?

Hmmm. Perhaps Creeley's Pieces, and the work of Bob Grenier. I don't know what to say! Language is much better when it's concrete. “The bride unramples her white dress, the minute-hand of the clock moves slowly,” says Whitman, for example. Abstraction is precisely what one should avoid in poetry.

Was that ever an ambition of yours, to be an abstract poet?

Only in the sense that I wanted a poem with just a few elementary verbal gestures.

So there was jazz and painting, but what poets did you start out reading?

The first two poets I truly liked were Vachel Lindsay and Hart Crane. Lindsay is like those primitive painters. He throws everything in, angels and pigs. I mean, you have Salvation Army Generals, Chinese laundrymen, Bible-pounding blacks, factory windows that are always broken, etc. That's how I see the world too. Crane made me go to the dictionary. I realized certain words are very beautiful, very apt. It was a lesson in lyric poetry as well as a lesson in making associations, in using my imagination in a certain way.

Can you say more precisely what that “certain way” is?

Words call to other words and so on. Words know much better what needs to be said than I do. That sort of thing.

Eliot once remarked that a poet's material is his own language as it's actually spoken around him. That would seem to have been a much more complicated issue for a writer like yourself whose first language was not the language actually spoken around him.

I was never at any point capable of writing a poem in Serbian. By the time I started writing poetry in high school all my serious reading had been in English and American literature. So, it was inevitable. I read American poets and wanted to write like them. At that time, I didn't have the slightest idea of Serbian poetry.

What language do you dream in?

The language I dream and know best I speak with an accent.

About 1958 you moved from Chicago to New York. What was your life like there?

I worked during the day and went to school at night. I did just about every kind of work imaginable. I was a shirt salesman, a house painter, a payroll clerk, I had no thought of the future. No plans to be a professor or a poet. I mean, I wrote poetry, even published it, but that was it. That lasted twelve years. New York is, of course, a place that could have been imagined by Hieronymous Bosch. Rome must have been like that at the end of its days when all the barbarians got in. It's a city which either proves that the end of the world is near, or that human beings will survive no matter what. I always get that sense of hope when I watch those guys on street corners peddling stolen umbrellas, or some kind of idiotic wind-up toys. I love to breathe that air.

The more I read your work, the more I think of you as a poet of the city—in that particular way one thinks of poets like Baudelaire or Eliot or Auden or even Lowell—not so much in the landscape itself as in the way the city functions, both internally and externally, as a symbol of modernity.

When I close my eyes I go into cities. Others, I suppose, sail the ocean blue. The rat is my totem animal, the cockroach my wood thrush. My mother is calling my name out of a tenement window. She keeps calling and calling. My entire psychic life is there.

I'm sure you're familiar with The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. At the end of that book Kundera, who also comes from an East European background, draws a pretty sad picture of the West, sad because it seems to him rather soulless.

That's a version of the old “suffering ennobles” argument. I suppose the more political repression one experiences, the greater one's chances are for spiritual growth. The guys in the Gulags are overflowing with soul. Stalin was like Buddha. The problem with us is that we don't shoot poets. Meanwhile, millions have been running in our direction. it's one-way traffic. You don't find anyone going the other way to embrace all that soulfullness.

I see your point, but do you really think Kundera was suggesting, even indirectly, that political repression gives rise to a more meaningful life for the individual? In Kundera's book the West is, after all, still clearly “the free world.”

Of course. There are many things wrong with the West. I guess I just don't like the way East European intellectuals, at least since Dostoyevsky, have patronized the West and especially this country. One ends by claiming, say, that only Serbians know how to sing and drink, and that the stuffed peppers made by our grandmothers are superior to all French cooking. And then, of course, there's the local wine which is the best in the world, and the women—oh boy! those dark eyes and gypsy black hair …

John Bayley has commended Max Hayward for pointing out to us our great debt to Soviet literature: in Bayley's words, “that only a man who has joyfully prostrated himself to embrace an idea, and had a boulder rolled on top of him, has any idea what freedom is. We may all need that awareness and that example in time to come.” Is East European and Soviet literature making us more aware of our own freedoms?

It ought to be that way. But I met people in Paris, poets and intellectuals, who assured me that Albania is a wonderful place. For the most part, Western writers have no idea how free they are. You even hear people say that we live in a police state. America is no heaven on earth, but let's not exaggerate. Nadezhda Mandelstam's books ought to be required reading.

Admittedly, you came here at a much younger age, but do you feel any affinity at all with writers like Milosz, Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn?

I admire the people you mention but feel no kinship with the Russians. The Poles I understand better, especially their sense of history. As for Yugoslavia, I feel like a foreigner there. Everything I love and hate with a passion is over here. I'd die of grief if I left this country for long. Still, I'm not so naive as to pretend there aren't certain East European elements in my poetry. They are biographical and temperamental. I am still haunted by images of that war, and then when it comes to history, I'm like one of those late Byzantine intellectuals. I don't believe in History anymore.

Once that belief is gone, what takes its place?

Now you've got me. I don't believe in History as a road to Utopia and the accompanying idea that the present is a kind of fertilizer, in human terms for that future flower garden. Which is to say, I no longer believe in the Marxist model, which is basically a version of the Christian model, that history ends in some sort of paradise on earth.

At what point did you stop believing in the Marxist model?

When I realized that Marx lacks the most elementary psychology. it's not just classes and economics that make men what they are. Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Freud knew a thing or two about that. Anyway, the world is cruel, humankind is probably insane, but I don't have a solution. Except, I want everybody to disarm. I'm not even asking whether this is possible, but it's the only thing worth yelling about. You could say, I refuse to play the game anymore. Instead of history, we are left now only with the present moment, in which we are all, collectively, like that wild-eyed suicide with the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth. Ergo, first things first. Take the gun away.

In the face of all that, do you ever still feel, as you said more than a decade ago in “Summer Morning,” that “It seems possible / To live simply / On the earth”?

Not with all these madmen in charge of the world!

To what extent do you think poetry is able to engage those issues?

I never liked the term “political poetry.” It implies a cause, partisanship, petitions for this or that, and finally propaganda, regardless of how worthy the reason. On the other hand, the world is mean, stupid, violent, unjust, cruel. I read in the Times this morning that 40,000 children die every day in the world from hunger and disease. Well, what do you say to that? And you must say something. A poet who ignores the world is contemptible. I find the narcissism of so much recent poetry obscene. I don't mind people talking about themselves—we all do—but all the time! Mao had the right idea. Send the crybabies to dig turnips. I'm kidding, of course. The Chairman wouldn't find my poems so amusing either. Too many tyrants and torture chambers in them. I make sure the executioners are included. Obviously, I'm uncomfortable with poetry which just keeps telling me how wonderful nature is, or how much the author is misunderstood.

Could you name a particular poem which in your mind best exemplifies that commitment to “saying something” without being partisan or propagandistic?

Whitman's “Drum-Taps.” Many others since. Quasimodo speaks of “the black howl of the mother gone to meet her son crucified on the telegraph pole.” The poet is one of the crowd of witnesses watching her go. Poetry about human suffering requires empathy of course, and humility. It's no place to parade one's ego and make political editorials. That poor woman has been doing that since the beginning of time. One must not presume to understand.

Given all that, do you think it's possible for poetry to be a public force for good?

In the long run, I'm sure. Many souls were ennobled reading Chaucer or Whitman … It reminds them of their humanity—poetry does. But the act is private, intimate. Poetry works, one reader at a time.

Okay, then let's talk for a moment about the act itself. Is it for you—as it was apparently for poets like Blake and Whitman—an ecstatic one?

Are you kidding me? My mother almost married a guy who used to compose his symphonies while sitting naked in an empty bathtub. I one've been his son. Anyway, that's not my style. Breton says “poetry is made in bed like love.” I too have to be horizontal, and a bit lazy.

In your essay, “Some Thoughts About the Line,” you say, “In the end, I'm always at the beginning. Silence—an endless mythical condition.” Obviously you mean by silence something more than just that condition out of which poems grow.

I call silence what precedes language: the world and the sense of oneself existing. I always thought, if you will, that speaking is a bit like whistling in the dark. The universe, in my humble opinion, doesn't require me saying anything. When I'm attentive and silent I seem to be closer to the way things are. A number of my early poems are attempts to make that predicament into a myth of origins.

What is it then that makes you break that silence?

To speak as the translator of silence rather than its opposer. I think Thoreau said something like that, seeing language as but a minor ripple on the great pool of wordless silence, which, I agree, is our true environment.

In that same essay you say, “To see the word for what it is, one needs the line. … For me the sense of the line is the most instinctive aspect of the entire process of writing.” One of the noticeable features of your lines is how often they are end-stopped; how often a sentence is a line by itself, or if not a line then a stanza. Is that done to further emphasize the silence?

Yes, the line is the unit of measure, the unit of attention. it's the way one slows down and speeds up the language, the place for the “counterpoint of eye and ear,” as Robert Morgan says. I'm still learning how to do it right.

Could you describe the particular way in which an image functions within your poems?

Olga Freidenberg, Pasternak's aunt, says in their correspondence: “A poetic metaphor is an image functioning as a concept.” I agree with that. In my poetry images think. My best images are smarter than I am.

Your work has always stood somewhere outside the narrative mode, but do you ever find yourself drifting in that direction?

I hope not. Most of the so-called narrative poems just plod. They have no sense of the line, nor do they imagine well. When poets forget what imagination can do they get into these linear, prosy, redundant, long-winded poems. It's possible to tell a story, the whole story, in twenty lines. The art consists of making a few details and images say everything. They should study Strand's “The Untelling.” There's a masterpiece for you.

But don't most poems of any kind just plod? I was really wondering about the exceptional few. Or are you saying that at some point the imagination and the narrative are antithetical?

No. Imagination and narrative go fine together. Consider myths, fairy tales, prose poems, etc. However, most narrative poems I see operate largely in the framework of realism.

I notice in reading reviews of your books that critics at times have a tendency to read your poems as parables. Is that the result of your working beyond the framework of realism?

I don't know. I don't write parables. If I say “rats in diapers” that's to be taken literally.

Then do you think of your poems as having a clearly communicative function, on rational or cognitive levels?

I don't know about “clearly communicative” and “cognitive,” but the point of writing a poem, actually the need to do so, is to give, pass on, relate to someone something of value. I don't want to waste people's time. It matters to me (I mean, what goes on in the poem), and I want them to know about it. One can't always make it simple because many things are not simple, but it's worth trying.

You read a good deal of philosophy, and, I'm told, have a particular interest in Heidegger.

I always read philosophy. I suppose I'm a bit envious of that kind of disciplined thinking. Also, I am curious what human beings have been thinking for the last three thousand years about the nature of things. As for Heidegger, I admire the phenomenological impulse to reexamine the simplest, the long-taken-for-granted things. That's what a poet is supposed to do, too.

Is that the most important thing a poet is supposed to do?

No! You must have a pencil handy when the Muse barges in. My father told me that many poems came to him in his lifetime but just in those moments when he couldn't find anything to write with. Otherwise, it's pointless to say what a poem should do. Someone always comes along and does the opposite, and it's perfectly fine. What all good poetry has in common is the use of the imagination. Imagination, on the other hand, is like the universe of which only a small part has been explored.

You've just recently had an incredible piece of news about the MacArthur Foundation Grant. What sort of effect do you think that will have on your work?

I really don't know what to say, and I have no opinion about it yet. I realize it beats breaking a leg, but at the same time the idea that I have five years to just write is frightening. Thank God I still have to finish this busy semester and make the usual ends meet.

We're very happy to have these new poems, particularly “Birthday Star Atlas,” which speaks of an interesting connection between you and Emily Dickinson.

Yes, Miss Emily is my great love. In fact, I'm the long lost lover to whom she wrote all her poems. I used to play for her all my Billie Holiday records.

Any particular song she was especially fond of?

“I can't believe that you're in love with me,” of course. She dug Buck Clayton's muted trumpet and Lester Young's supremely melancholy playing.

Kenneth Funsten (review date 16 March 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems 1963-1983, in Los Angeles Time Book Review, March 16, 1986, p. 9.

[In the following review, Funsten provides an overview of Selected Poems 1963-1983, finding that Simic's later work is neither as startling nor as evocative as his earlier poems.]

At night some understand what the grass says.
The grass knows a word or two.
 It is not much. It repeats the same word
Again and again, but not too loudly …

The best poems by Charles Simic harbor an enigmatic simplicity, contain an evasive weight to them. Influenced by riddles, parables and nursery rhymes, Simic populates the folk world of his poems with simple objects and puzzling omens. His poems have the atmosphere of a Bruegel feast day, without any of the people.

Born in Yugoslavia in 1938, Charles Simic spent his childhood watching Europe turn into rubble. “it's always evening / In an occupied country. / Hour before the curfew. / A small provincial city. / The houses all dark. / The storefronts gutted.”

In 1949, he emigrated to America, eventually working as an editorial assistant at Aperture, a photography magazine.

The fact is significant. For Simic's best poems share a quality with good photographs, the unceasing attention to objects in an effort to see them anew. At his best, it is the intensity of Simic's imagination as it attempts to animate the objects and renew itself that interests us. For example, in “Fork”:

This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird's foot
Worn around the cannibal's neck.
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless and blind.

Specifics, such as the fork, give the poet's surrealism the focus it needs. His catalogues of imagination improvise the souls of our most everyday objects, bringing them back to life and light as if from the world of our dreams.

His first two books, What the Grass Says and Somewhere Among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes, were published and championed by George Hitchcock's Kayak Press in the late '60s, and then combined with new poems into Simic's first Braziller volume, Dismantling the Silence (1971).

Here, Selected Poems gives us some of his best work, including the famous “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand.”

When Simic's metaphors are good, the disparate things they yoke together are both contradictory and strangely appropriate. His achievement in these early poems is maintaining that tension of the suspense between known and unknown, object and spirit.

But, of course, a poet cannot perform the same trick ad infinitum—even if it is his best. So, in his later books, Simic's task has been to branch out, to grow into the tree his acorn promised.

Simic's third book from Braziller was Charon's Cosmology. There is less zip, more speculation on death, more pessimism here. Many poems, like “The Prisoner,” seem derivative of an earlier self:

It's been so long. He has trouble
Deciding what else is there.
And all along the suspicion
That we do not exist.

But Classic Ballroom Dances (1980) announced the rebirth of a sort of classic Simic, lean, mystical, authentic again. Many of the poems are about the poet's childhood in war-torn Yugoslavia.

The last 20 or so pieces in this Selected volume are from Simic's 1982 book, Austerities. Less dark, both literally and figuratively lighter, these are mostly too cute, too pat. Bordering on self-parody, many poems indulge what Auden called “the Dada giggle”: “Pascal's own / Prize abyssologist / In marriage. / On her knees / Still scrubbing / The marble stairs / Of a Russian countess.”

The tired symbols are recycled again—gravediggers, their spades, mirrors, bones, utensils. But they are no longer unnerving.

So what is the verdict? Has Simic's achievement amounted to automatic, clever writing that must forever sacrifice its future breadth and seriousness to remain its present self? Is this poet finally ensnared in his own cleverness? This collection of Selected Poems might make it appear so.

Peter Stitt (review date Spring 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Whirlpool of Image and Narrative Flow,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XLI, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 200-203.

[In the following review, Stitt traces the evolution of Simic's poetry from dark and terrifying to lighter and gentler in his volume Unending Blues.]

The voice of Charles Simic is surely one of the most distinct in the world of contemporary poetry. He is known for his terrifying Kafkaesque vision, his propensity for speaking in parables, and his use of pointed and surrealistic images. The title of his newest volume, Unending Blues, seems to promise the first two of these characteristics, and the knowing reader assumes the presence of the third. These elements are indeed dominant through most of the book, though subtle forces of change seem to be undermining two of them. Before I talk about the changes I see taking place, I would like to look at an example of the kind of poem we expect from Simic, “Dark Farmhouses”:

Windy evening,
Chinablue snow
The old people are shivering
In their kitchens.
Truck without lights
Idling on the highway,
Is it a driver you require?
Wait a bit.
There's coal to load up,
A widow's sack of coal.
Is it a shovel you need?

Idle on,
A shovel will come by and by
Over the darkening plain.
A shovel,
And a spade.

A threatening world is created in the first stanza and deepened thereafter: something like the State is conspiring against widows and other old folks, taking away their coal and preparing to bury them anonymously. The imagery is suggestive but imprecise, familiar but hauntingly unreal. The shovel and spade suggest the dark knights of chivalric romance; they bring death, seemingly at the behest of a truck that has been personified into the technological overseer of eternal destruction.

In its austerity of both image and narrative, the poem is representative of Simic's work up to now (indeed, one of his earlier books is titled Austerities). Almost as though to emphasize this characteristic himself, Simic begins another poem in Unending Blues: “I only have a measly ant / To think with today. / Others have pictures of saints, / Others have clouds in the sky.” As the volume progresses, however, we begin to see a change (the first of the two that I mentioned above) away from the sparseness of parable towards greater narrative fullness. Consider “For the Sake of Amelia,” which begins with the speaker identifying himself and his job:

Tending a cliff-hanging Grand Hotel
In a country ravaged by civil war.
My heart as its only bellhop.
My brain as its Chinese cook.
It's a run-down seaside place
With a row of gutted limousines out front,
Monkeys and fighting cocks in the great ballroom,
Potted palm trees grown wild to the ceilings.

We meet his heroine, Amelia, “surrounded by her beaus and fortune-tellers, / … pleading with me to check the ledgers, / Find out if Lenin stayed here once, / Buster Keaton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, / St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote on love?” She calls the speaker to her at the end of the poem:

But now a buzz from the suite with mirrors.
Amelia in the nude, black cotton over her eyes.
It seems there's a fly
On the tip of her lover's Roman nose.
Night of distant guns, distant and comfortable.
I am coming with a flyswatter on a silver tray.
Ah the Turkish delights!
And the Mask of Tragedy over her pubic hair.

It is the length of this poem (which in some ways seems a rewriting of Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily”), the fullness of its narrative structure, the wealth of its detail, that make it different from Simic's habitual practice—though the atmosphere is familiarly frightening, the landscape typically devastated.

The other change that I think is taking place in Simic's work involves a subtle undermining of this very sense of Kafkaesque terror. Again there are lines that seem to explain what is going on: “He was writing the History of Optimism / In Time of Madness.” Characterizing the twentieth century as a time of madness is entirely in character for Simic; writing a history of optimism certainly is not. And yet that is precisely what he ends up doing in this volume, in an understated way and with some backsliding. The geographical pattern the book falls into is one indication of this: section one is set in the Europeanized City of Dark Intent so familiar to Simic's devoted readers; the poems of section three, however, are set almost entirely in the country, in a place relatively sequestered from the faceless and soulless technological forces of the modern world. The first sign of this change in setting appears in a twisted bucolic image that the reader cannot help but see, on first reading, as ironic, just another twist of the Simic knife: “If Justice and Liberty / Can be raised to pedestals, / Why not History? // It could be that fat woman / In faded overalls / Outside a house trailer / On a muddy road to some place called Pittsfield or Babylon.”

That Simic actually might care for this woman becomes a possibility when she makes a second affectionate appearance in another poem, called “Outside a Dirtroad Trailer,” which begins: “O exegetes, somber hermeneuts, / Ingenious untanglers of ambiguities, / A bald little man was washing / The dainty feet of a very fat woman.” The pattern reaches its climax in the volume's concluding poem, “Without a Sough of Wind”:

Against the backdrop
Of a twilight world
In which one has done so little
For one's soul
She hangs a skirt
On the doorknob
She puts a foot on the chair
To take off a black stocking
And it's good to have eyes
Just then for the familiar
Large swinging breasts
And the cleft of her ass
Before the recital
Of that long day's
Woes and forebodings
In the warm evening
With the drone of insects
On the window screen
And the lit dial of a radio
Providing what light there is
Its sound turned much too low
To make out the words
Of what could be
A silly old love song.

Silly old love song indeed. It seems impossible not to conclude that Simic has arranged the poems in this book so that they will end up contradicting his title. Though blues they may often be, these certainly are not blues unending. A tone of affection enters, lightly sounded midway through the book, and grows in power and range until it drowns out all wailing by the end.

Marci Janas (review date Spring 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Secret World of Charles Simic,” in Field, No. 44, Spring, 1991, pp. 67-76.

[In the following review, Janas explores the major mythological and philosophical themes in Simic's The Book of Gods and Devils.]

What I see is the paradox. What shall I call it? The sacred and the profane? I like that point where the levels meet … We know what the Egyptians have said: as above, so below. This is the paradox, and I like to draw them close together. …

—Charles Simic, The Uncertain Certainty

Charles Simic follows phenomenology all the way back to its hermeneutic roots in his marvelous new collection, The Book of Gods and Devils. The Egyptian god alluded to in my epigraph, and identified by Simic in a new book of essays—Wonderful Words, Silent Truth—is Hermes Trismegistos, a.k.a. Thoth. He was really the start of it all for the philosopher Heidegger—a major figure in hermeneutical or interpretative phenomenology—and the poet Simic, who has often expressed a deep and abiding interest in Heideggerian philosophy. It is possible to claim Thoth as a sort of unseen—of course!—charismatic presence in the book.

Simic is continuing the saga of the Chaplinesque—he would say Buster Keatonish—seer in a world as inscrutable as a sacred text. He's working again in the verse and stanza forms he virtually abandoned for the compact prose poems of his Pulitzer Prize-winning The World doesn't End. And, as his mode of discourse has become increasingly expansive, so too has his cosmology. The dominant theme is still the search for determinate meaning and enlightenment in an indeterminate and secret world—as if in subliminal testament to its mystery, the last word of the book is “secret”—but all the hermeneutic goings-on extend beyond ontology; Simic is playing with the teleological. Who—or what—are these gods and devils? Are they within or without us? These are the questions.

In a sort of nostalgia for the noumenal discoveries of his earlier, truncated “object” poems, where the odd stone, knife or broom—“things as they are”—were conceptualized, Simic reveals his fascination with the implications of concealment and disclosure:

“The White Room”

The obvious is difficult
To prove. Many prefer
The hidden. I did, too.
I listened to the trees.
They had a secret
Which they were about to
Make known to me,
And then didn't.
Summer came. Each tree 
On my street had its own
Scheherazade. My nights
Were a part of their wild
Story-telling. We were
Entering dark houses,
More and more dark houses
Hushed and abandoned.
There was someone with eyes closed 
On the upper floors.
The thought of it, and the wonder,
Kept me sleepless.
The truth is bald and cold, 
Said the woman
Who always wore white.
She didn't leave her room much.
The sun pointed to one or two 
Things that had survived
The long night intact,
The simplest things,
Difficult in their obviousness. 
They made no noise.
It was the kind of day
People describe as “perfect.”
Gods disguising themselves 
As black hairpins? A hand-mirror?
A comb with a tooth missing?
No! That wasn't it.
Just things as they are, 
Unblinking, lying mute
In that bright light,
And the trees waiting for the night.

In tight four-line stanzas that are nearly all complete syntactic units—stanzas 3 and 7 are the exceptions—Simic seems to be saying that he's done with hairpins and hand-mirrors; it's not the noumenon but the mysterious force that makes the noumenon so compelling, that makes us all Scheherazades, telling stories for our lives. He focuses here on the revelatory moment when one feels what Keats called “the burden of the Mystery.”

What brings us to revelation is often antithesis; Simic's particular concern with opposites is again foregrounded in these new poems; they could be the textual children of Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, sharing its motto: “Without Contraries is no progression.” Simic has fun with dialectic, and among the contraries he toys with are mutability and immutability. It may be helpful to think of the way time works in a Simic poem by comparing it to the way Heraclitus and Parmenides viewed reality. For Heraclitus, reality was like a river: “One cannot step into the same river twice, since it is endlessly flowing with fresh waters.” In other words, reality is constantly changing, nothing is stable or fixed, and, following that logic, the Truth is elusive (though one can enjoy looking for it, splashing around in all that water). For Parmenides reality was permanence. Extending Heraclitus's metaphor, the river is perpetually frozen, and Truth is therefore attainable.

The one reliable absolute in Simic's cosmology is that time passes:

Mrs. Digby's watch has no hands.
But it keeps running.

(“Mrs. Digby's Picture Album”)

You forgot about time
While you sought its secret
In the slippery wheels,
Some of which had teeth.

(“The Pieces of the Clock Lie Scattered”)

The other, almost reliable, absolute is that, in the midst of this Heraclitean reality, the philosopher-poet is a presence—sensitive to the tenuousness and fragility of perception, but deeply aware of its Parmenidean value:

Eternity jealous
Of the present moment,
It occurred to me!
And then the moment was over.

(“The Betrothal”)

Time had stopped at dusk.
You were shivering at the thought
Of such great happiness.

(“The Immortal”)

The poor speaker in a Simic poem runs out on the ice—having waited so patiently for the river to freeze—and then falls through.

The one who seeks time's secret, who shivers “at the thought / Of such great happiness” is the one susceptible to what can be called divine revelation. A paradigm for the whole collection is the amazing narrative poem “The Initiate,” an unusually long work for Simic. Here the revelatory moment occurs at the point of recollection which separates what are actually two surreal pilgrimages: the first is the quest for identity; the second is the acceptance of that identity's burdens and the start of a new quest. Here are the first thirteen stanzas:

“The Initiate”

St. John of the Cross wore dark glasses 
As he passed me on the street.
St. Theresa of Avila, beautiful and grave,
Turned her back on me.
“Soulmate,” they shouted. “it's high
time.”
I was a blind child, a wind-up toy. 
I was one of death's juggling red balls
On a certain street corner
Where they peddle things out of suitcases.
The city like a huge cinema 
With lights dimmed.
The performance already started.
So many blurred faces in a complicated plot.
The great secret which kept eluding me: knowing who I am …
The Redeemer and the Virgin, 
Their eyes wide open in the empty church
Where the killer came to hide himself …
The new snow on the sidewalk bore footprints 
That could have been made by bare feet.
Some unknown penitent guiding me.
In truth, I didn't know where I was going.
My feet were frozen,
My stomach growled.
Four young hoods blocking my way.
Three deadpan, one smiling crazily.
I let them have my black raincoat.
Thinking constantly of the Divine Love and the Absolute had
disfigured me. 
People mistook me for someone else.
I heard voices after me calling out unknown names
“I'm searching for someone to sell my soul to,” 
The drunk who followed me whispered, 
While appraising me from head to foot. …

What we have thus far seems more than a compelling poetics of applied Heidegger, where the essence of what it is to be human in a world where humans are not autonomous subjects contemplating an objective reality but somehow inextricably linked with that reality, is sought; Simic is interpreting the interconnectedness of the supernatural with the natural world. He has written what amounts to a teleological riddle: guess the initiate's divine identity … along with him. The initiate finds a nebulous self-definition through his interaction with or exposure to others—the mystic Spanish poet-saints, for example, or the implied other at the other end of a causal relationship—he is a Cartesian “wind-up toy,” a “red ball” in the deft hands of Death. Again, we can turn to Keats. In The Uncertain Certainty, Simic talks about translating Keats's notion of “uncertainty” as “Chance,” which he says was made famous and ontological by Dada and the surrealists: “They turned it into a weapon. Cause and effect as the archenemies.”1 In “The Initiate,” Chance appears to be the recessive rather than the dominant gene: “I was a blind child,” setting up a dialectic struggle where “cause and effect” appear to have the upper hand.

The question of his identity becomes increasingly problematic and his situation increasingly threatening as more characters are met along the way. Do the four young toughs get the initiate's raincoat out of his own sense of fear and inevitability or out of benevolence? Simic evokes multiple visual icons in this brief scene—Christ's robe being divvied up, for example, or St. Martin of Tours and the beggar. Religious contemplation is cited as the source of his disfigurement: he is many things to many people. After the drunk appears on the scene, we begin to wonder: is he Mephistopheles or Michael? Is it Faustus following him, or Adam? Is this the point “where the levels meet,” or is he the Second Coming? This is beginning to feel a little bit like “What's My Line?” Whoever he is, one thought resonates: “Without Contraries is no progression …”:

At the address I had been given,
The building had large X's over its windows.
I knocked but no one came to open.
By and by a black girl joined me on the steps.
She banged at the door till her fist hurt.
Her name was Alma, a propitious sign.
She knew someone who solved life's riddles
In a voice of an ancient Sumerian queen.
We had a long talk about that
While shivering and stamping our wet feet.
It was necessary to stay calm, I explained,
Even with the earth trembling,
And to continue to watch oneself
As if one were a complete stranger.
Once in a hotel room in Chicago
I caught sight of a man in a shaving mirror
Who had my naked shoulders and face,
But whose eyes terrified me!
Two hard staring, all-knowing eyes!
Alma, the night, the cold, and the endless walking 
Brought on a kind of ecstasy.
I went as if pursued, trying to warm myself.
There was the East River; there was the Hudson. 
Their waters shone like oil in sanctuary lamps.
Something supreme was occurring 
For which there will never be any words.
 The sky was full of racing clouds and tall buildings.
Whirling and whirling silently.
In that whole city you could hear a pin drop. 
Believe me,
I thought I heard a pin drop and I went looking for it.

The arrival of the enigmatic Alma marks the turning point in the poem. To see for myself why her name was “a propitious sign,” I looked her up in the OED; this gave me one of the joys of discovery which occurs so often when reading a Simic poem. The name comes from the Arabic—calmah—which means “learned,” or “knowing.” Alma also refers to an Egyptian dancing-girl. It is tempting to link Alma and Thoth, the Egyptian god … whom Simic loves to quote: “as above, so below.”

It is after meeting Alma that the initiate reveals he once glimpsed Truth in a sort of Studs Lonigan milieu:

Once in a hotel room in Chicago
I caught sight of a man in a shaving mirror
Who had my naked shoulders and face,
But whose eyes terrified me!
Two hard staring, all-knowing eyes!

Something about the combination of “Alma, the night, the cold, and the endless walking” operates on the initiate in a kind of alchemy, bringing about a change in his attitude toward himself and his destiny. He now finds comfort in signification: “There was the East River; there was the Hudson. / Their waters shone like oil in sanctuary lamps.” Naming is a solace against the abstraction of geography, but there is also an underlying sense that signifiers are illusory; their power is limited: “something supreme was occurring / For which there will never be any words.”

Despite the ultimate sense of the ineffable, there is a definite acceptance now of whatever or whoever he is, and what his purpose has been all along:

In that whole city you could hear a pin drop.
Believe me,
I thought I heard a pin drop and I went looking for it.

This is the kind of idiomatic expression Simic has developed before—cliches like “it goes without saying,” or “chicken with its head cut off” become profundities in his hands. In this instance, I was reminded of Breton:

Life, undesirable life, goes on ravishingly. Each one goes at it with the idea of his own freedom that he has managed to frame for himself, and God knows that generally this idea is a timid one. But it is not the man of today who would consent to search in the stars for the head of the pin, the famous pin he can't get out of the game anyhow. He has patiently accepted his lot, poor man, has even been, I do believe, endlessly patient.2

The asterisk refers us to the translators' note: “The expression ‘tierer l'epingle du jeu,’ literally ‘to get the pin out of the game,’ figuratively means ‘to get out of something without a loss’” (198). It seems to me that this is what We're all trying to do—get out of something without a loss. For the initiate, whoever you decide he ultimately happens to be, the idea may simply be that he must somehow get out with as much of his soul intact as possible. And isn't this the poet's dilemma? Earlier in the same passage, Breton talks about the unhappiness of those who “have done what in all simplicity they believed they had to do … they have not taken the orders of the marvelous” (197).

In this respect, Charles Simic must be a happy man; he religiously follows “the orders of the marvelous” as he is called to explore—with sly wit and all the melancholy patience of an end-of-the-millennium, urban Job—a compelling, secret world.

Notes

  1. Charles Simic. The Uncertain Certainty, Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1985), p. 84.

  2. Andre Breton, “A Letter to the Seers,” Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1989, p. 195, hereafter cited in the text.

Steven Cramer (review date January 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems 1963-1983 and The Book of Gods and Devils, in Poetry, Vol. CLIX, No. 4, January, 1992, pp. 227-34.

[In the following review, Cramer examines elements of Simic's poetry throughout his career that effectively distinguish him from other poets of his generation.]

Though often associated with the “new surrealists” of the 1970s—American poets influenced by “deep imagist” elders like Bly, Wright, Merwin, Kinnell et al.—Charles Simic deserves to be distinguished from this group on at least two counts. First, as a native of Yugoslavia, his attachment to riddles, proverbs, magic formulas, and nursery rhymes has a bona fide regional pedigree, above and beyond the hours he logged studying folklore in the New York Public Library. More important, his memories of growing up in war-torn Belgrade provide an experiential groundwork for the primeval violences in his work. From the earliest poems in his Selected Poems 1963-1983 to 1990's The Book of Gods and Devils, Simic has rarely settled for the Jungian ahistoricity typical of American period surrealism. Instead, Simic's images—pre-industrial and “archetypal” at first, distinctly urban and modern later on—bear the scars of historical witness.

Rereading Dismantling the Silence (1971), I'm struck less by its folkloric evocations of “the old country” than by its peripheral hints of political horror. The apron hanging in “Butcher Shop” is “smeared into a map / Of the great continents of blood.” In “Marching,” dressing at dawn invites an image of “boots that have trodden men's faces,” while the subsequent morning walk brings “the sound of men marching” and a warning that occupied nationals instinctively heed: “so close your doors and windows and do not look.” In the insomniac “Chorus for One Voice,” Simic's sleep of reason produces a motley army of nightfears: “A sound of wings doesn't mean there's a bird. / If you've eaten today, no reason to think you'll eat tomorrow. / People can also be processed into soap.” The eye of Simic's early poems may be directed inward, but out of its corner we often see men about to be hanged.

Even his famous object poems, though never explicit about Simic's biography, employ complex tonal ironies that belie surrealist anonymity. Dismantling's anthology piece, “Stone,” rewards rereading not only as a period anthem to interiority but also as an oblique self-portrait of beleaguered neutrality, caught between the warring claims of pacifism and militance: “Go inside a stone / That would be my way. / Let somebody else become a dove / Or gnash with a tiger's tooth.” “Stone” also manifests Simic's empirical manner of association, his imagistic turns propelled by skewed extensions of logic: “I have seen sparks fly out / When two stones are rubbed, / So perhaps it is not dark inside after all. …”

Much of Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk (1974) recapitulates Simic's atavistic mutations of common objects, Dismantling's primitivism beginning to ossify into formula. Still, some poems augur a restlessness with image-driven writing by flirting with self-disclosure—“Charles Simic is a sentence. / A sentence has a beginning and an end”—and one perfect miniature, “The Place,” stands out as precursor to the rich tapestries of folklore, autobiography, and history to follow:

They were talking about the war
The table still uncleared in front of them.
Across the way, the first window
Of the evening was already lit.
He sat, hunched over, quiet,
The old fear coming over him …
It grew darker. She got up to take the plate—
Now unpleasantly white—to the kitchen.
Outside in the fields, in the woods
A bird spoke in proverbs,
A Pope went out to meet Attila,
The ditch was ready for its squad.

This seems to me one of the lasting poetic responses to the Vietnam war, all the more resonant for its seamlessness of contemporary event, ancient conflict, and timeless dread. Imagine it written during the Gulf war; none of “the old fear” loses relevance. And in a stylistic shift that will bear fruit in later collections, “The Place” relies more on psychologically potent detail—“the plate now unpleasantly white”—than decontextualized image.

White (1970-1980) is Simic's anomalous book-length work, a last object poem that, perhaps fittingly, plays a theme and variations on immateriality. The voice sounds valedictory—“All that is near, / I no longer give it a name”—and although some sections are vivid with memory and invention, its total effect is of muted exasperation. Losing interest in his totemic miniatures, Simic may have needed this last gasp of primitivism: “And how will you know when you're done chump? / When the half-moons on my fingernails set.”

After three volumes of runic imagery, it's startling to encounter “The Partial Explanation” from Charon's Cosmology (1977), its diction and tone—“Seems like a long time / Since the waiter took my order. / Grimy little luncheonette”—imbued with modernity. “The Lesson” follows up on this plunge into the present with an equally bracing immersion into autobiography:

I lingered more and more
over the beginnings:
The haircut of a soldier
who was urinating
against our fence;
shadows of trees on the ceiling,
the day
my mother and I
 had nothing to eat. …

For Simic, however, a documentary approach insufficiently embodies the nightmares of memory in which he “couldn't get past / that prison train / that kept waking me up.” The tonal stance must be riskier, more subversive:

in this long and terrifying
apprenticeship,
I burst out laughing.
Forgive me, all of you!
At the memory of my uncle
charging a barricade
with a homemade bomb,
I burst out laughing.

Throughout Charon's Cosmology and Classic Ballroom Dances (1980) Simic perfects his agile mature style: straight-faced, outrageously comic, sage and slangy, prankish, always economical. Some poems, more absurdist than surreal in their abutments of history, myth, and metaphysics, create harrowingly funny collages of nostalgia and dread:

The little pig goes to market.
Historical necessity. I like to recite
While you prefer to write on the blackboard.
Leap frog and marbles.
Their heads are big and their noses are short.
Lovely afternoon. The firing squad. … 

nursery rhyme

Others, like “The Terms,” approach the mysteries of the moment directly—“A child crying in the night / Across the street / In one of many dark windows. / That, too, to get used to, / Make part of your life”—and still others lend palpable textures to the austerities of abstract thinking. Unlike Simic's earlier totems to concepts, however, poems like “Euclid Avenue” pay homage to their personal sources: “The poor son of poor parents / who aspires to please / at such a late hour.”

Of the many fine poems in these collections—my very short list includes “The Variant,” “Travelling Slaughterhouse,” “Primer,” “Prodigy,” and “Begotten of the Spleen”—“The Prisoner,” from Charon's Cosmology, is Simic at his most beguiling:

He is thinking of us.
These leaves, their lazy rustle
That made us sleepy after lunch
So we had to lie down.
He considers my hand on her breast,
Her closed eyelids, her moist lips
Against my forehead, and the shadows of trees
Hovering on the ceiling.
It's been so long. He has trouble
Deciding what else is there.
And all along the suspicion
That we do not exist.

A rendition of the artist's imprisoning self-consciousness, a depiction of erotic love circumscribed by a tyrannical overseer, “The Prisoner” shows how the mature Simic entertains paradox and mystery in sharply etched visualizations. We “see” what happens, but does it happen outdoors or indoors? How many characters are involved? Does “thinking” imply an event imagined (i.e., “conjuring”) or recalled (i.e., “remembering”)? These are a few of the exquisitely unanswerable questions “The Prisoner” provokes.

From Classic Ballroom Dances, the arrestingly titled “Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators” qualifies as one of Simic's great poems. Loosely based on the infamous photograph of Hitler as an infant, it's a poem of grim foreknowledge, first in an aerial view of late-nineteenth-century complacency, then in close up:

… there are always a couple of infants
Posing for the camera in their sailors' suits,
Out there in the garden overgrown with shrubs.
Lovable little mugs smiling faintly toward
The new century. Innocent. Why not?

Here Simic punctures the poem's billing and cooing with an ingenious triple play on words—“mugs” connoting the babies' faces, the infant thugs themselves, and the “mug shots” these photos will become in retrospect. Had the poem ended here, it might be accused of easy hindsight irony, but Simic obliges the speaker to own up to his outrage at destiny:

One assumes that they all stayed up late squinting at the stars,
And were carried off to bed by their mothers and big sisters,
While the dogs remained behind:
Pedigreed bitches pregnant with bloodhounds.

The shock of the last line derives in part from its aptness as a displaced image for tyranny in embryonic form. It also unnerves us tonally with harsh consonance and aggressive diction. Yet even as we recoil from its implications—does Hitler's mother deserve the appellation “bitch”?—we share the speaker's helpless rage at the dandling of future tyrants.

The poems from Weather Forecast for Utopia & Vicinity and Austerities (both published in 1982) offer no less capacity for surprise. Both feature poems addressed to Simic's adoptive country, Weather Forecast in particular taking stock of the economic victims of America's broken utopian promise: the “rain- / Blurred weedchoked outskirts / Of a dying milltown” in “A Fall Day”; the weighted shoulders of Baptist congregationalists in “Gravity”; the dirt-poor “Old Couple,” who are “waiting to be murdered, / Or evicted.” Simic's own impoverished background certifies him as an unsentimental voice of the struggle for survival. As one recurrent detail—the suitcase, often hastily packed—makes plain, Simic recognizes the diaspora in all its incarnations.

Simic published Unending Blues in 1986 and the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of prose poems, The World doesn't End, in 1989. These indispensable collections initiated Simic's forays into cagey narrative, experiments he consolidates in The Book of Gods and Devils, perhaps his most memory-charged volume so far. “St. Thomas Aquinas,” a skewed autobiography of his seedtime in New York City, paints a Boschian portrait of the city as grotesque carnival. Here are two of its ten stanzas, each a discrete chapter in Simic's cockeyed Bildungsroman:

I was already in New York looking for work.
It was raining as in the days of Noah.
I stood in many doorways of that great city.
Once I asked a man in a tuxedo for a cigarette.
He gave me a frightened look and stepped out into the rain.
Since “man naturally desires happiness,”
According to St. Thomas Aquinas,
Who gave irrefutable proof of God's existence and purpose,
I loaded trucks in the Garment Center.
 Me and a black man stole a woman's red dress.
It was of silk; it shimmered.

The speaker's naïveté beautifully inheres in the end-stopped lines, the deliberate solecism, and simple declarative sentences, their lack of subordination capturing his childlike, noncausal mode of thinking. When causality does enter the grammar of thought, its logic is disarmingly off-kilter. Later, a reference to “the travels of Melville” suggests that Simic intends this poem, at least in part, as an homage to that master of tall tales and fish stories. In fact, the spirit of Melville's Bartleby presides over a number of the many city poems in The Book of Gods and Devils. In “Factory,” he makes an invisible cameo in “the chair in the far corner / Where someone once sat facing the brick wall.” In “St. Thomas Aquinas,” however, this nineteenth-century prophet of urban nihilism serves as Simic's patron saint and doppelganger: “Everyone I met / Wore a part of my destiny like a carnival mask. / ‘I'm Bartleby the Scrivener,’ I told the Italian waiter. / ‘Me, too,’ he replied.”

In addition to longer poems like “St. Thomas Aquinas”—“Shelley” and “The Initiate” are equally fine—The Book of Gods and Devils offers ample views through Simic's miniaturist eye for common oddity. The shorter poems here that touch me most deeply display a new intimacy and emotional directness. “Heights of Folly” and “Cabbage,” two quirky love poems to his wife, should be read with a pair of equally affecting lyrics in Unending Blues. “The North” is a sober, even stately, meditation on exile. My favorite among the book's brief lyrics, “The World,” hushes all temptation toward analysis. Read it for nourishment:

As if I were a big old shade tree
On a side street with a small café.
Neon beer sign with the word “cold” shining in it.
Summer dusk.
The solitary customer, who looks like my father,
Is bent over a book with small print
Oblivious of the young waiter
Who is about to serve him a cup of black coffee.
I have an incalculable number of leaves
Not one of which is moving.
it's because we are enchanted, I think.
We don't have a care in the world.

Rereading Charles Simic's work in bulk reveals a major artist constantly redefining an unmistakable style. You can always identify a Simic poem, even as you can never tell what it will do next with its “incalculable number of leaves.” Unlike many in his generation, Simic hasn't run aground on self-imitation. While never losing faith in the expressive possibilities of the image, he consistently widens the contexts for his gnomic figures. I look forward to a more concentrated study of Simic's key motifs—his suitcases, toys, loaves of bread, blackboards, blind people, lampposts, balls, glasses, and geometrical shapes, just to name a few. This fabric of elemental forms suggests the scope of his imaginative project: nothing less than the creation of an individual folklore, one that embraces the privacy of dream without evading the public atrocities of civilization. Future readers will return to Simic's mythic well for enchantment and instruction.

Ileana A. Orlich (essay date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: “The Poet on a Roll: Charles Simic's ‘The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé,’” in Centennial Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Spring 1992, pp. 413-28.

[In the following essay, Orlich analyzes Simic's connection to the Surrealists, particularly their respective ideas about chance in their writings.]

The poet of the future will overcome the depressing idea of an irreparable divorce of action and dream. He will hold the magnificent fruit of the tree whose roots intertwine, and he will be able to persuade all who taste it that there is nothing bitter about it. Carried by the wave of his time, he will assume for the first time without distress the task of reception and transmission of signals pressing towards him from the depths of the ages. He will maintain at all cost the common presence of the two terms of human rapport, by whose destruction the most precious conquest would become instantaneously worthless: the objective awareness of realities, and their internal development in what, by virtue of a sentiment partly individual, partly universal, is magical until proved otherwise. This rapport can pass for magical in the sense that it consists of an unconscious, immediate action of the internal upon the external. …

—Andre Breton, “Les vases communicants” in “What is Surrealism?”

… There are poems I write where the strategy is directly an offshoot of some traditional mode. There's also no doubt that the manner in which my psyche makes the material available to me is predicated by everything I have absorbed about the tradition of poetry. The act of writing, however, is something else. There I have to forget all that in order to undertake the impossible task of giving these words life. Since all words have a history and the act of composition is presumably ahistorical, the resulting tension can only be overcome if one has faith in the uniqueness of the undertaking.

—Charles Simic, 50 Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process

With Classic Ballroom Dances (1980), Charles Simic consolidated his reputation as a major contemporary American poet, whose popularity has steadily increased since the publication of such earlier volumes as Dismantling the Silence (1971), Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk (1974), Charon's Cosmology (1977) and White (1970-80). Classic Ballroom Dances was selected as a winner of the Poetry Society of America di Castagnola Award and was reviewed in The New York Times and The Yale Review, where Helen Vendler included Simic in a “Who's Who” gallery of poets worth watching. Simic's recent books include Unending Blues (1986), The World doesn't End (1989), and The Book of Gods and Devils (1990). In 1990 Simic received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In more senses than the casual reader of poetry could possibly imagine, Simic's achievements from 1980 to 1990 constitute his progress toward artistic fulfillment—the poet on a roll, conscious of taking extraordinary chances, “spending for vast returns,” as Whitman phrased it.

Simic's early poetry was published in Kayak, George Hitchcock's small but interesting magazine, whose surrealist experimentations appealed to many poets who, like Simic, were coming of age during and after World War II. Simic found surrealism particularly attractive because it gave him a way of rebelling against the allusive, highly academic, paradoxical poetics of modernism. Surrealism taught him how to rearrange poetic language on a simple, non-connotative basis, in simply-stated metaphors rather than in elaborate conceits, and how to rely on accessible declaratives rather than the detached, ironic use of personae which marked the work of Pound and Eliot. Simic's acknowledgment of the surrealist tendencies in his work is expressed early in 1972 in “Where the Levels Meet: An Interview with Charles Simic.”1

My work always had surrealist tendencies. … I don't know about my being original. Much of that [“Your poetry is so original, so unique”] comes the way of surrealism. … So, in telling about originality, most of that has its roots right there. At the same time I feel to be in that tradition. … I don't think of myself as a surrealist. I don't think of myself as anything. But I would say my greatest debt is to surrealism. (53)

Recognized as “a new American surrealist,”2 Simic turned to Stéphane Mallarmé—one of the Surrealists' most revered precursors—as both a poetic force and an influence he must confront in “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé,” one of the poems in Classic Ballroom Dances. In spite of the fine review David Young gave the volume in Field (Spring 1981), he referred only too briefly to “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé,” a poem “only intermittently successful … too often so abstract and attenuated that it seems to drift away like smoke.” It is my intention to dispel such a notion and to elucidate “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” by discussing the poem in terms of a mobile, fluid relationship to Mallarmé's hermetic last poem, “Un Coup de dés” and the last two sections of the unfinished “Igitur,” or “Folie d'Elbehnon,” two works that use the same Mallarméan elements and to an extent complement each other.3 Also necessary in deciphering “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” are André Breton's prose poems entitled “Constellations” (whose structural ellipses and central “constellation” image bear a direct connection to Mallarmé's “Un Coup de dés”), his celebrated work Nadja, and some of the tenets of surrealist ideology he so assiduously formulated. Ironically, both Mallarmé's “Un Coup de dés” and “Igitur” and Breton's “Constellations” are culminating poetic works for each of these poets. After having served as spokesman and pathblazer to the symbolists, Mallarmé had proceeded on his own course, outdistancing those tenets, while Breton evolved, developed, and went beyond the stipulations of the First Manifesto of Surrealism, beyond automatic writing to the exploration of the poet as essential observer of energies of language.4 Acknowledging origins and confronting a precursor, “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” is a pivotal work for Simic, since it recognizes the issue of his surrealism and marks the trajectory to his postmodern poetic craft.

I do not wish to impose Mallarméan models or Breton's surrealist ideology on Simic's poem, but rather to show how their poetic metaphors are resurrected by Simic and to point out the convergence as well as the differences among the three poets' ideas. It is also my purpose to explore Simic's recuperation of Mallarmé as an important influence on Breton, the founder, chief theorist, and charismatic leader of surrealist ideology, and to show the impact surrealism, with its systematic exploration of language, the subconscious mind, and the operations of chance, has had through Mallarmé via Breton on Simic's poetry.

From the start, Simic's poem calls attention not only to the name of Stéphane Mallarmé, but also to the tomb-style poems such as “The Tomb of Edgar Allan Poe” and “The Tomb of Charles Baudelaire,” that are among Mallarmé's greatest texts. They are, in their creator's own words, “sumptuous allegories of the void”5 which emphasize the solitude in which artists must live and create, the submerged reefs upon which they may founder, the guiding stars of their ideals, and the emptiness of their voyages in life. Engaged in a search to attain the absolute, artists become exemplary voyagers, charting a course for mankind and especially for other artists. Simic's title then suggests the author's recognition of the French poet, his intent to emulate Mallarmé, and his knowledge that a similar emulation had taken place earlier, in 1959, when Breton borrowed the title of his last poetic work, “Constellations” from “Un Coup de dés.” In Mallarmé's poem, “constellations” is a central word denoting the void of a poet's sad journey in a cosmos whose rules are outside of his dominion. Breton's “Constellations” is a cosmic venture in which the poet, through his manipulation of language, extends his own sensation in an attempt to decipher the eternal mysteries of the universe. What is important here is the shift in thinking from Mallarmé to Breton in spite of the similar appearance of their works—the cryptographic writing and the common poetic imagery. For that shift and its distinctions held profound implications for Simic's subsequent work.

The opening line of “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé,” “Beginning to know” introduces one of the central ideas of Simic's poetry: the poet's need to learn how to begin again, his search to recover that spontaneous voice which he, like Mallarmé and like the Surrealists, believes reenacts “the adventure of the spirit,”6 as it sails on into the unknown, the subconscious which represents, according to Breton, a possible point of contact with a primordial level of awareness in which will and reason exercise no influence. It is in this region that both sense perceptions and thoughts take form. It is here, in a poetic context, that the creative impulse originates. As the poem, “the die,” as Simic calls it, takes over the poet's voice,7

Beginning to know
how the die
navigates

(61)

a twist is played on the Mallarméan “tombeau”-style poems: Simic's “tombeau” is not “a sumptuous allegory of the void,” but rather a dramatic reenactment, a reassertion of the poetic process, more like Mallarmé's “dice-throw,” or Breton's “Constellations.”

Simic's “die” in “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” recalls the Mallarméan metaphor of “the dice-throw” to suggest that every time a poem is written the poet is engaged in a throw of the dice, since “toute pensée émet un coup de dés [Every thought emits a dice-throw].” When casting a die, or writing a poem, the poet is involved in a spiritual battle against the mystery of the unknown, in a fashion that recalls the dice player and his game of chance—a sort of chance that, according to Breton in “Surrealist Situations of the Object,” “shows man, in a way that is still very mysterious, a necessity that escapes him, even though he experiences it as a vital necessity.” The poet thus becomes completely fused with his poem and is expressed completely through it, just as Mallarmé's “dice-throw,” or Simic's die

held tight
between the thumb
and the forefinger
to be hexed
and prayed over

(61)

is always identifiable with the player experiencing an enjoyment of such intensity and depth that it makes the moment of the throw (or the writing of the poem) eternal, in quality if not in duration. For Simic, then, as well as for Mallarmé, the dice-throw is a metaphor of the poetic process, a concrete formulation of an abstract process which “Un Coup de dés” and “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” try to capture and express, of “the precise instant when a thing outward and objective”—such as the throw of the dice—“transforms itself, or darts into the inward, the subjective”8 that is the poem.

Since both “Un Coup de dés” and “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” speak preeminently of the sum of poetic energy concentrated on “the throw of the dice,” the writing of the poem becomes an exercise always subject to chance, whose operations fascinated Mallarmé and the Surrealists. Consequently, Mallarmé's throw of the dice, i.e. the poet's will, meanders and confronts the absurdities of chance, i.e. the irrational, disorderly will of the universe paralleling Simic's “blindsman's die,” which is also an agent of the accidental prone to startling encounters,

making its fateful decisions
endlessly changing directions
and mind
in a state of blessed uncertainty

(62)

In “Negative Capability and Its Children,” Simic equates “uncertainty” with “chance” and goes on to explain that a poet's “project” is to use “Chance to break the spell of our habitual literary expectations and to approach the conditions of what has been called ‘free imagination’” (400). For Simic, as for Breton, “Chance remains the great veil to be lifted … the form of the manifestation of external necessity as it makes its way into the human unconscious.”9

Furthermore, Simic defines chance as “a submission to a message from the unconscious, a matter of obedience to inwardness” (402). It is the chance Breton in “Surrealist Situations of the Object” terms, “le hasard objectif,” the objective chance encompassing the seemingly inexplicable connections that characterize certain events in everyday life:

… an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences, and reflexes peculiar to each individual, of harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they were not so much quicker than all the rest. I am concerned with facts of quite unverifiable intrinsic value … facts which may belong to the order of pure observation, but which on each occasion present all the appearances of a signal, without our being able to say precisely which signal, and of what; facts which when I am alone permit me to enjoy unlikely complicities, which convince me of my error in occasionally presuming I stand at the helm alone.10

In translation, then, Simic's poem is “the blindsman's die” navigating “in a state of blessed uncertainty” like the Mallarméan throw of dice, which is to abandon itself entirely to chance, to submit to hazard completely and enter without reserve into its intimacy, trusting along with the surrealists in the belief that the events of the outer world were somehow mysteriously aligned with the needs and desires of the unconscious.

Every creative act is a gamble for high stakes. The dice throw proved disastrous for Mallarmé, as his will and the whims of objective chance were pitted in uneven battle culminating in the poet's terrifying awareness of his losing score. The movement of “Un Coup de dés” suggests a rich, slow brooding over the inevitable effort of writing, of casting the die. Poetic inspiration is brought by the “lucid and lordly aigrette”11—possibly Mallarmé's equivalent to Poe's raven—with its long, showy plumes shining forth the purity, the quintessential quality of the poetic process. But “the siren twist” of Mallarmé's poetry connotes despair and sterility.

By contrast, Breton sets out to structure the forces of chance in poetic ellipses which, unlike Mallarmé's, do not fall adrift like alien elements but rather successfully combine dexterity and chance (“adresse et hasard”) in a glorious trajectory. Unlike Mallarmé's egret, the aigrette of “Constellations” carries an acorn, which suggests images of love and fertility and all the decomposition and recomposition that the fertilizing process involves in nature. It is almost as if Breton, who in the celebrated early essay “Les Mots sans rides” wrote that “Les mots font l'amour” is making love with words, and words are making love with him: he penetrates language and through language establishes a deep and intimate relationship with the physical world. Far from being melancholic or brooding, poetry becomes a studied and learned activity in which the poet, as molder of language, seizes on the associations of his mind, tests them against the universe, cultivates them by orchestrating harmony around him. The dominant images of the lines relate to “weaving” as the poet moves back and forth in a virtual manual linking of threads which lead toward the secrets of life itself.

A similarly winning course is that followed by Simic's “lucid” and “white” die—an echo of Mallarmé's “lucid” and “white” aigrette, which again closely follows both Mallarmé and Breton. Like Breton's “weaving,” Simic's “navigating” involves the poet's movements back and forth as he ventures toward deciphering the underlying harmony which unites external with internal, matter with mind, a system of surrealist correspondences between “the constellations,” between the outer world and the human mind. In the parlance of the casino, Simic is the poet “on a roll,” as his dice throw, his poetic craft, translates into an exercise of his imagination decoding the apparent incoherence of the natural world. As for Mallarmé in the “Preface” to “Un Coup de dés,” poetry is for Simic “the unique source” (106).

For Mallarmé the roll of the dice, the poem, would figure like the shipwreck in the lines: “Un coup de dés jamais n' abolira le hasard quand bien meme lancé dans les circonstances éternelles du fond d'un naufrage [A dice-throw … even when cast in eternal circumstances from the depth of a shipwreck].” For Simic the die would

navigate
making its fateful decisions
in eternal circumstances …
at the heart of the shipwreck

(61)

The “circonstances éternelles” to which the two poets refer would not be perpetual motion, but the freezing of time for the Parmenidean eternal moment that rebukes the Heraclitean flux. (Simic alludes to “the childhood of Parmenides” in “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé.”)

With the making of the poem the only enduring value, the poet's only significant ground is the “Abyss” of “dice-throw,” the sea of the subconscious, a “whirlpool of hilarity and horror” (117) “from the depth of a shipwreck,” or Simic's “heart of the shipwreck.” But shipwreck (naufrage) is always the risk of navigation, as Mallarmé warns in “Brise marine”:

Et peut-etre, les mats, invitant les orages
Sont-ils de ceux qu'un vent penche sur les naufrages
Perdus, sans mats, sans mats, ni fertile ilots.
[And perhaps the masts, inviting tempests,
Are of those which a wind bends over shipwrecks
Lost, without masts, without masts or fertile isles.] 

(17)

If carried away by the breeze, one tries to go beyond one's limits, one's boundaries, the “borne a l'infini [limit of infinity]” of the “dice-throw.” One risks “the memorable crisis” (124), the passage to death, the dream defeated, nothingness. The Master of the “dice-throw,” the artist of sovereign mastery, does hold the successful throw of dice in his hand, “the unique Number beyond old time cypherings which does not want to be another” (112), but he fails to throw it outside the world of pure intellect and abstract metaphors and thus renounces a lifetime of illusion that he is to write the Grand Oeuvre. Rejecting the challenge of life, he leaves all attempts to cast the dice to chance and illustrates the meaning of the title. He then dies outside this power, “cadaver pulled away by the arm from the secret he holds” (112), much like Mallarmé himself who allowed chance, or “total submission to a message from the unconscious” in Simic's definition,12 and his desire for mastery over ideas and purity of the language to drown him in a constellation of the abstract. It is the “Constellation” of “dice-throw” which engulfs the Master or Mallarmé, who wrote the word “Nothing” on the first page of his complete works.13 “Nothing will have taken place but the place [Rien n' aura en eu lieu que le lieu]” (125). And to substantiate the failed imaginative experience of this chance that is not taken, Mallarmé's dice progress idly on a downward flight:

before hand fallen back from incapacity to trim the flight
and covering what foams
cutting back what soars
most inwardly resumes

(111)

It is a defeated motion, aiming at misery and self-abandon, paralleled early in “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” by Simic's die, engaged on an aimless course taken

only to fall
head over heels
to be set adrift
in the middle of
nowhere

(61)

and suggesting the inertia of loss in its most devastated form.

But Simic seems to be aware of Mallarmé's “naufrage,” of the pitfalls of not loosening the gates of the unconscious so that pure poetry could issue forth, of offering no other certainty but the concentration of chance and its glorification. His die, Simic's will as a poet, would not be lost in the Mallarméan constellation of the abstract; rather, the die would be cast in the realm of the concrete and palpable and brushed against all odds. It would become “the death-defying somersault beating the supreme odds” and allow itself to be “worn clean / by endless conjectures,” as the poet transcends the need to decipher old mysteries and makes his die “free of / the divinatory urge,” of the Mallarméan “Number,” “even if it existed” (62). It is interesting to note that when Mallarmé died pages of mathematical formulae were found on his desk. Breton also refers to mathematics in “Constellations,” since numbers are the tools of chance.

Cast upon the world, the die, the poem, is a receptacle of “the poet's inwardness”14(Simic's other definition of chance) filled with a wide range of choices from a long forgotten past. Clearly, for Simic the making of a poem is both a meditation on the literary influence of his predecessors, and a necessary “rite de passage” since it enables the poet to achieve a new stage of poetic maturity after assimilating tradition. The same idea is expressed by Mallarmé who parallels the stages of a child's transformation to an adult with the incipient poetic self's yielding to ancestral influences for renewed identities on its way to self fulfillment. “Un Coup de dés” speaks of

his [the Master's] puerile shade
caressed and polished and rendered and washed
supplied by the wave and withdrawn
from the hard bones lost among the timbers

(114)

while “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” mentions the poet casting his die “among the ghostly salt-cellar bones” (62). In his turn, Breton always acknowledged Mallarmé's influence. The language of “Constellations” is the visionary language to which Mallarmé had accustomed him; the rebus images of Breton's last work, although modeled after the cabala and latter day alchemists, owe much to the graphic combinations of linear and vertical annotations of “Un Coup de dés”; finally, like Mallarmé's “Un Coup de dés,” Breton's “Constellations” contains rather than conveys meaning.

But for Simic the experience of tradition adds a new dimension: the rolling of the die is an indication of the poet's flight over the house of the dead, the tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé, where lies his predecessor—an attempt on Simic's part to express his debt to Mallarmé and to supersede Mallarmé and the tradition. Simic crosses the threshold and “the die worn clean” (by brushing not only against the real world, but also against Mallarméan verse) becomes “my die,”

white
as a milk tooth
the perfect die
 rolling

(61)

The old becomes the new poetic self that Simic has waited for, like a new tooth. As in the long poem “White,” the milk tooth in “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” is sinister (it grins like a skull, an image summoned by the tomb in the title), suggesting the self which has died, but it is also reminiscent of a child's passage into adulthood in the reference to teething.15

The passage from the old self to the new suggested by images of death (the tomb, to be prayed over, to fall) and rebirth (to be set adrift, navigate, rolling) sums up the influence of Mallarmé's voice on Simic's own, but is simultaneously Simic's way of asserting his own renewed identity. For “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” is a poem about writing poetry, about the relationship of the poet to his poem and to tradition. And “the poet,” as Simic once remarked,

is capable of being in uncertainties. [He] is literally in the midst. The poem, too, is in the midst, a kind of magnet for complex literary forces, as well as of maintaining oneself in the face of that multiplicity.16

Just as the metaphysical poets made a poetic conceit of “die” in its sexual connotation, its denotation of mortality, and its further connotation of mystical union, Simic might well be fashioning a new conceit on the morphology of the old. The new meaning stresses the old emphasis on chance in the creation of art and in the duration of life; each is a gamble for high stakes. It seems an experience unique to the individual artist, and yet it echoes the experience and expression of precursors. Simic is looking for a new voice to inhabit him, yet as he yearns for it, he realizes how thoroughly his old voice echoes that of Mallarmé17 (hence the poem's title, the borrowed metaphors of the die and the tomb). However, the new poetic self announced by “the milk tooth” in “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” points out the differences between the two poets' views and their individual approaches to writing, and marks Simic's determination to treat poetry in the manner prescribed by Breton and the surrealists, i.e. as a liberative experience, released from all critical and academic pressures and habits.

Mallarmé's poet or “Master” in “Un Coup de dés” searches only for himself in the night and, like Igitur, displays self-imposed silence (perhaps to avoid misrepresenting his newly found surreality) and wants to die in the heart of his thoughts. Unlike the “Master” of “Un Coup de dés,” Igitur, the poet whose “breath contained chance,” rolls his dice in a futile, fruitless attempt for him, or the poetic sensibility he represents and, as Paul Claudel remarks, “awaits for nothing else from the world of science and from art” because he feels, along with Mallarmé, “that the contingent will never be able to touch the absolute or to produce anything other than a combination precarious and as such, useless.”18

In the fourth section of “Igitur,” “The Dice Throw in the Tomb,”

Igitur simply shakes the dice—a motion before going to rejoin the ashes, the atoms of his ancestors: the moment, which is in him, is absolved. It is understood what its ambiguity means. He closes the books—snuffs out the candle—with his breath which contained chance: and, folding his arms, lies down on the ashes of his ancestors. (100)

There, in the silent night in the tomb where the ashes are and where nothing can be grasped, Igitur attains not the certainty of death, but the eternal torments of Dying. The relevant passage in the text appears with its own marginal commentary:

Or the dice chance—absorbed Upon the ashes of stars, the undivided ones of the family, lay the poor character, after having drunk the last drop of nothingness lacking to the sea

(101)

Igitur, whose “dice [are] absorbed by chance,” is unable to communicate with the ashes of his ancestors, much like the “Master” of “Un Coup de dés,” for whom there is no connecting with the past and who chooses

to not open the hand
clenched
beyond the useless head
 legacy among vanishment

(114)

The dice absorbed by chance, i.e. the poet allowing the unconscious to take over, the world of ashes, dimness, and the despairing darkness, point to the great dangers inherent in Mallarmé's approach to poetry, his excessive dwelling on the “subjects of pure and complex imagination or intellect.”19 As the poetic sensibility loses its élan, Mallarmé turns into an anguished dilettante, trapped in what Simic calls “Death's great amateur / night,” while his work, “left unfinished and without inspiration having entered into it”20 (302), becomes “Cerberus' new toy” (62), subservient to shadows and “chance absorbed.”

Perhaps as a response and reaction to Mallarmé's “Un Coup de dés” and “Igitur,” which describe only the “state” of the poet's mind as a sort of half revelation of “truths of psychological order”21 never fully brought up to the light of consciousness, Breton's Nadja, which begins with the interrogation “Who am I? [Qui suis-je?],” is an auto-psychoanalysis of the poet's sensibility. Breton becomes two “I”'s: the poetic sensibility is identified with Nadja (from the first syllable of the Russian word that means “hope”) and rises to the challenges of ordinary reality, with the rational mind becoming the analyst of the quotidian and its relation to the psyche.

Nadja, whose inability to distinguish between reality and illusion is suggested by the presence of the nonexistent feather on her hat, “cares little but marvelously for life”: little in the sense of life's social meaning and duration, marvelously in the intensified sense of the immediacy of experience. It is the same immediacy that surrealist poetry was trying to capture and which draws its essence from Nadja's belief that “all the beyond is in life.” Freed from the “cage raisonable,” able to break the barrier separating sanity from insanity, and to cross the threshold between the rational and the irrational, Nadja is “une étoile au coeur méme du fini” (206), the continuum between the exterior world and the objectification of the subjective Mallarmé had been seeking in “Igitur” or “Folie d'Elbehnon.”

For Breton the unconscious was not an adventure in the realm of the unknown, a descent to the néant resulting in “déchet” (or nothing, the epitaph Mallarmé added to “Igitur”); rather the unconscious represented for Breton a possible point of contact with a primordial level of awareness where the creative impulse originates. It is in this context that Simic's “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” may be better understood, since the poem is ultimately Simic's attempt to show that the poet, while exploring the dark womb of the unconscious, must rise from the depth of the psychic plunge and break the shell of the solitary spirit. Since “poetry is a concrete living force yearning to humanize the abstract,”22 the poem, like the poetic sensibility Breton created in Nadja, is at the threshold between the two worlds; “the vague figure in the doorway”23 is the means to transform the eternal into the temporal and the infinite into the contingent.

In “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé,” Simic's ideal poem is

the perfect die
rolling
picking up speed
how delightful
this new contingency
occupancy
both inside and outside
 the unthinkable

(62)

The poet's job is that of “gobbling the world”24 as “the die,” the poem, is “cast / on the great improbable table” (62) of life where “the ghostly salt-cellar bones” of the ancestors, of tradition, unlike Igitur's “undivided ashes of the family” in the tomb, mingle with the “breadcrumbs,” juxtaposing the sacred and the profane. Simic makes the poet's mission quite clear when he states: “What I see is the paradox. What shall I call it? The sacred and the profane? I like the point where the two levels meet.”25 It is from that point, the threshold between the two realms, that Simic's die is cast.

“The great improbable table” draws attention to Simic's preoccupation with the world of objects which Mallarmé had hoped, as he confesses in a letter to a friend, to destroy by sealing them in hermetic language: “There is no reality left; it has evaporated into language.”26 Recognizing Mallarmé's poetic “naufrage” in annihilating the real world, and in treating “not the object, but the effect which it produces,”27 Simic, like Breton and the Surrealists, focuses on the partnership between dreams and reality suggested in Breton's metaphor of the two urns connected to each other by what might be termed psychic capillary action. Simic lets “experience choose and then send forth”28 by focusing his poetry on the essential quality of things, on the objects themselves as well as on the effect which they produce; this is a poetic credo Simic learned from Breton (who placed equal value on both realms of experience and envisioned that one day they might be synthesized into a superior concept of existence) and later developed in poems that speak of knives and spoons, of stubs of red pencils, and of grandmothers with chickens. Fulfilling the requirements stipulated in Breton's, “What is Surrealism?” such poems “display an objective awareness of realities” and trigger “their internal development” forming a magical rapport which “consists of an unconscious, immediate action of the internal upon the external.”29

As Simic evokes the opening line of “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé,” “Beginning to know,” he embarks upon a flight over the tomb, and over the project of his predecessor. He then reaches from the imaginary dizzying descent into the tomb to explore the ways in which Breton countered Mallarmé's trajectory. As a result, Simic's rejection of Mallarmé's obscure adventures in the search of an absolute where the physical world and the animate objects lose their natural attributes in pure otherness, coincides with the heralding— through the affirmative “oh yeah”—of Breton's and the Surrealists' objective recording of the external world and their endeavor to make poetic language not an expression of one man's expansion of consciousness but a clarification of the channels of the expansion. In contrast to Mallarmé's despair,30Simic's down to earth “oh yeah” is indicative of a kind of relaxed playfulness, a humor so characteristic of Simic who once said: “I never separate humor from the serious. I don't want them separate.”31

Unlike Mallarmé, who turns his back on life to create a poetry of gloom “located in an indefinable realm,” which contemplates “neither an object nor an external world, but rather the very being of the observer—a mirage in which the poet recognizes himself, not by where or how he is, but rather by where he is not and the way he is not,”32 Simic externalizes his experience of writing poetry and of finding adequate outward symbols for his emotions. Like the Breton of Nadja, Simic lives “in a glass house,”33 resisting any attempt at isolating himself and his work inside the Mallarméan “vitre froide et nue qu'il [Mallarmé] n'a jamais pu rompre.”34 And while in the midst of a web of “uncertainties,” subject to the powerful influence of two Masters, Simic maintains himself and his poem, “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé”—a document-like poem, a kind of manifesto for Simic's art—in the face of the Mallarméan mirage and of Surrealist dislocation. This act, simultaneously casual and creative, offers a key to his work of the past decade, carries us beyond the frontiers of both verbal and visual imagery, and delivers us to where we recognize the interaction of reason and the unconscious—to “where the levels meet.”

Notes

  1. Charles Simic, “Where the Levels Meet: An Interview with Charles Simic,” The Ohio Review (1972).

  2. Peter Schmidt “‘White’: Charles Simic's Thumbnail Epic,” Contemporary Literature 23:4 (1982): 528, 529. Also, James K. Carpenter in “Charles Simic: White,” Ironwood 7/8 (1976) 79, refers to Simic's “surrealistic tendencies in poetry.”

  3. In this sense, see Harold Bloom's review of “Igitur” in Stéphane Mallarmé: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (Chelsea House Publishers, 1987) 5-15.

  4. According to his second wife, Jacqueline, by the time he wrote “L'Air de l'eau” in 1934 Breton had already abandoned “automatic writing.”

  5. As quoted by F.C. St. Aubyn in Stéphane Mallarmé: Updated Edition (Twayne Publishers, 1989) 94.

  6. A phrase from André Breton's surrealist manifesto, quoted by Simic in “Where the Levels Meet,” The Ohio Review (1972) 54.

  7. Simic has called his poem a die before. In White, a series of lyrics preceding “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” and dated 1970-1980, poetry writing is conveyed through the image of the poet who “shook his loaded die in a tin cup.”

    All quotations from “The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé” are from Classic Ballroom Dances: Poems by Charles Simic (Brazilier, 1980).

  8. Simic's “Negative Capability and Its Children,” Claims for Poetry, ed. Donald Hall (U of Michigan P, 1982) 402.

  9. André Breton in “Situation of Surrealism Between the Two Wars,” in “What is Surrealism?” Selected Writings, ed. Franklin Rosemont (New York: Monad P, 1978) 245.

  10. André Breton, Nadja, 2nd ed. (Gallimard, 1928) 19-20. All subsequent quotations are from this edition.

  11. Stéphane Mallarmé: Selected Poetry and Prose ed. Mary Ann Caws (New Dictions, 1982). All quotations from “Un Coup de des,” “Brise marine” and “Igitur” are from this edition. Mallarmé's admiration for Poe is well-documented. As a very young man, Mallarmé went to London for the acknowledged purpose of studying English to be able to read Poe in original.

  12. “Negative Capability” 402.

  13. “Nothing, this foam, this virgin verse [Rien, cette écume, vierge vers].”

  14. “Negative Capability” 402.

  15. The Whitman connection is discussed by Peter Schmidt in “White: Charles Simic's Thumbnail Epic” 542. According to Schmidt, Simic's reference to “the milk tooth” is an allusion to Whitman's use of the “boss tooth” to indicate a child's passage into adulthood in “The Sleeper.”

  16. “Negative Capability” 399.

  17. In “Where the Levels Meet,” Simic declared: “I owe the greatest debt to surrealism as an influence rather than a practice,” 53.

  18. Paul Claudel, “Preface” to “Igitur” in Stéphane Mallarmé: Selected Poetry and Prose 101.

  19. Mallarmé's “Preface” to “Un Coup de dés” 106.

  20. Within the same passage in “Poet and novelist,” Marcel Proust, speaks further of Mallarmé “who for ten years had wrestled with a huge work, [and who] clear-sighted in the hour of death like Don Quixote, told his daughter to burn the manuscript.” On Art and Literature: 1896-1919 (New York: Carroll and Gray, 1954).

  21. In “Negative Capability” Simic defines the surrealist poet in general as one who “equates the imaginary with a truth of psychological order,” 404.

  22. “Where the Levels Meet” 50.

  23. 50 Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process, ed. Alberta Turner (New York: Longman, 1977) 280.

  24. “Where the Levels Meet” 53.

  25. “Where the Levels Meet” 55.

  26. Quoted by Sartre in Mallarmé or the Poet of Nothingness, trans. and introd. Ernest Sturn (Pennsylvania State UP, 1988) 140.

  27. Quoted by Geoffrey Brereton in An Introduction to The French Poets: Villon to the present day (Harper and Row, 1973) 217.

  28. 50 Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process 279.

  29. Breton, “Les Vases communicants,” trans. Stephen Schwartz, in “What is Surrealism?” Selected Writings, ed. Franklin Rosemont (New York: Monad P, 1978) 75.

  30. As quoted by Brereton, in An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the present day, Claudel speaks of “… ce mot que Mallarmé a dit a l'un de nous: ‘Je suis un desespéré,’” 219.

  31. “Where the Levels Meet” 53.

  32. G. Poulet, Éspaces et temps Mallarméens (Lausanne: La Baconniére, Collection “Etre et Penser”) 222-25.

  33. Anna Balakian in André Breton: Magus of Surrealims (Oxford UP, 1971) 111.

  34. Brereton in An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the present day: “cold and empty glass he [Mallarmé] could never break” 218.

Edward Hirsch (review date 21 December 1992)

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SOURCE: “Joseph Cornell: Naked in Arcadia,” in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 44, December 21, 1992, pp. 130-34.

[In the following excerpted review, Hirsch praises Simic's musings on the artist Joseph Cornell in Dime-Store Alchemy.]

Charles Simic's new work of prose, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, is the most sustained literary response thus far to [Joseph] Cornell's boxes, montages, and films. It is a poet's book: incisive, freewheeling, dramatic—a mixture of evocation and observation, as lucid and shadowy as the imagination it celebrates. Simic wears his learning lightly. “I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street,” he begins, and that sentence—that dream—sets the tone for what follows: a personal quest to approach Cornell through the urban milieu, to encounter and exalt his spirit. Simic writes, “Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects which belong together. Once together they'll make a work of art. That's Cornell's premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.”

Dime-Store Alchemy tracks Cornell from a unique angle. Simic—an American poet born in Belgrade and weaned on Surrealism; a writer with an antenna for paradox and a penchant for philosophy; an antic, skeptical visionary (“What a mess!” he has written. “I believe in images as vehicles of transcendence, but I don't believe in God!”)—is one of Cornell's most unlikely and most genuine literary heirs. For years, the poet tells us, he tried to approximate Cornell's method, to “make poems from found bits of language.” He brings to his task a desire to pursue the collagist's ideas and strategies, and a confirmed sense that he is dealing with “an American artist worthy of imitation.” The result is a compact book with a large reach, a work that goes on reverberating, like a Duchamp “readymade” or a Mallarmé sonnet.

The book consists of sixty short texts—diverse “illuminations,” notebook entries arranged in associative rather than linear fashion, paragraphs put together in tonal blocks that accrue into an homage and a portrait. It is an appreciative assemblage of reveries and meditations, vignettes, memories, lists, and prose poems, quotations from Cornell's copious diaries, and descriptions of the artist's work—his working method—which often read like parables. The pieces range from acute, fairly straight-forward mini-essays on Cornell's modernist aims to highly evocative and uncanny responses to the collagist's ideas. Sometimes the two modes are combined, as in “These Are Poets Who Service Church Clocks,” which begins with the sociological language “Many people have already speculated about the relationship between play and the sacred” and rises to the ultimate symbolist notion: “Silence is that vast, cosmic church in which we always stand alone. Silence is the only language God speaks.”

Simic characteristically proceeds by peering into Cornell's constructions and then describing not only what he sees but where it leads him. “Perhaps the ideal way to observe the boxes is to place them on the floor and lie down beside them,” he writes in “Poetics of Miniature,” and one pictures him doing precisely that. In this way he becomes a solitary onlooker in a tiny memory theatre, gazing at a floodlit stage where time has been permanently suspended. The curtain goes up on a strange play already in progress—Cornell's boxes, like his films, begin in medias res—and the viewer is immediately thrust into a dream world. Simic is so deeply immersed in Cornell's universe that at times he looks right past the actors and into the realm Cornell termed “backstage”—that is, his imagination. In the one-paragraph entry “Cigars Clamped Between Their Teeth” Simic writes:

I've read that Goethe, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll were managers of their own miniature theaters. There must have been many other such playhouses in the world. We study the history and literature of the period, but we know nothing about these plays that were being performed for an audience of one.

He intrudes into Cornell's private sanctum in order to re-create the aura of just such shadow plays.

Simic's response to Cornell is often intuitive and oblique. His meditation may yield an equivalent mood, a kind of light, the look of a place that articulates a parallel reality. Here is “The Magic Study of Happiness”:

In the smallest theater in the world the bread crumbs speak. it's a mystery play on the subject of a lost paradise. Once there was a kitchen with a table on which a few crumbs were left. Through the window you could see your young mother by the fence talking to a neighbor. She was cold and kept hugging her thin dress tighter and tighter. The clouds in the sky sailed on as she threw her head back to laugh.

Where the words can't go any further—there's the hard table. The crumbs are watching you as you in turn watch them. The unknown in you and the unknown in them attract each other. The two unknowns are like illicit lovers when they're exceedingly and unaccountably happy.

This is Simic's own miniature theatre, in which inanimate bread crumbs—the poor leftovers—come to life and speak. it's a fairy-tale kitchen drama that moves offstage to recall a moment of intense domestic happiness, a voyeuristic glimpse of the vulnerable, joyous young mother. This entire scene seems inspired by a constellation of perceptions about the size, scale, and staging of Cornell's work, its deep reverence for the innocence of childhood as well as its Proustian feeling for involuntary memory, for paradise lost and magically recaptured. It illuminates the work's ecstatic, inward nature, how it slips into a range beyond language. What is crucial in Simic's second paragraph is how the solitudes meet and communicate with each other—the secret communion between actor and audience. He dramatizes the way Cornell's boxes activate something immense, lonely, hidden, and almost illicit in the viewer, speaking to him or her with a poignant, blissful intimacy.

As in his poems, Simic's style in Dime-Store Alchemy is deceptively offhand and playful, moving fluently between the frontal statement and the indirect suggestion, the ordinary and the metaphysical. In “Dog Wearing Baby Clothes” Simic quotes Cornell's description of more than a hundred and fifty working files:

a diary journal repository laboratory, picture gallery, museum, sanctuary, observatory, key … the core of a labyrinth, a clearinghouse for dreams and visions … childhood regained.

Cornell repeatedly sifted these elaborate dossiers in quest of lost time, seeking to recover, in Simic's words, “our old amazement.”

The book has eight useful black-and-white illustrations, an abbreviated but deft chronology, and an epigraph from Gérard de Nerval—“Me? I pursue an image, no more”—which, despite its disclaimer, is like a blinking sign that says “Visionary at Work.” Simic includes a poem by the Serbian poet Vasko Popa (“Now in the little box / You have the whole world in miniature”) and cites passages by Breton, de Chirico, and Magritte, canonical exemplars of mystery. Cornell was himself an artist who referred continually to his own sources. Nerval was his particular hero, the hallucinatory mystic and precursor of the Surrealists, who was famous, as Simic notes, “for promenading the streets of Paris with a live lobster on a leash.” The artist also loved Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, all alchemists of the word. Like Borges, Cornell was conscious of “inventing” his own precursors, who then served as touchstones and sacred figures. Like Wallace Stevens, he was a stay-at-home who loved the idea of romantic Europe, and especially France—a country he visited often in his mind. “The man who never travelled made up his own Baedeker,” Simic writes, and many of the boxes feel like guidebooks in three dimensions, maps to another terrain.

Simic has a humane vision of art as consolation, a certainty that Cornell was trying “to construct a vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination of the viewer and keep him company forever.” In this book Simic becomes that ideal viewer and recipient, following the artist into imaginary hotels “frequented by phantoms.” He watches as Cornell sets out from the family house on Utopia Parkway, knowing that the surveyor of the commonplace is also an interrogator of the ineffable, who isn't sure exactly where he is going or what he is looking for and so desperately needs to find. Perhaps there is a spiritual point where all contradictions can be resolved: “That point is somewhere in the labyrinth and the labyrinth is the city of New York.” Simic presents Cornell as a man who basically “walks and looks.” He dreams and watches people. In a piece called “The Romantic Movement” Simic summons up the figure of the discharged patient in Poe's story “The Man of the Crowd”: “Who among us was not once that pursuer or that stranger?” Simic asks. “Cornell followed shopgirls, waitresses, young students ‘who had a look of innocence.’ I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music.” In an entry titled after Wallace Stevens' poem “The Man on the Dump,” Simic notes that Cornell “looked the way I imagine Melville's Bartleby to have looked the day he gave up his work to stare at the blank walls outside the office window.” For Simic, Cornell resembles no one so much as those familiar-looking strangers in outmoded overcoats who haunt the city like ghosts: “They sit in modest restaurants and side-street cafeterias eating a soft piece of cake. They are deadly pale.”

Simic's Cornell is also like Apollinaire (“the poet who loved street performers, musicians with cornets and tambourines, tightrope walkers, jugglers”) and Rimbaud (“Arthur, poor boy, you would have walked the length of Fourteenth Street and written many more ‘Illuminations’”). For the symbolist poet, eternity has been cut up and scattered into thousands of minuscule pieces. Cornell puts a few of them back together. Simic calls this “the quest for the lost and the beautiful.” He writes:

The disorder of the city is sacred. All things are interrelated. As above, so below. We are fragments of an unutterable whole. Meaning is always in search of itself. Unsuspected revelations await us around the next corner.

Simic believes that, like Whitman, Cornell “saw poetry everywhere.” Simic's feeling for this aesthetic imperative and ideal—this way of life, really—is everywhere apparent, since he, too, is a somewhat ironic seeker and witness, an urban lookout. He observes, “On a busy street one quickly becomes a voyeur. An air of danger, eroticism, and crushing solitude plays hide-and-seek in the crowd. The indeterminate, the unforeseeable, the ethereal, and the fleeting rule there.”

Once, in a moment of candor, Cornell said, “My work was a natural outcome of my love for the city,” and some of Simic's most felicitous passages consider the implications of that basic premise. What he often sees in Cornell's boxes is a freeze-frame of Manhattan in the thirties, forties, or fifties—Cornell's very productive decades. In a particularly affecting piece, the poet peers into a see-through box depicting a window façade and discovers a luminous Hopperesque moment of urban peace:

Early Sunday morning in June. It had rained after midnight, and the air and the sky have miraculously cleared. The avenues are empty and the stores closed. A glimpse of things before anyone has seen them.

Here Simic stands in Cornell's place and describes a city emptied of people, a world refreshed, renewed, and clarified.

Simic's sense of isolation—his memory of being an immigrant—informs not only his reading of Cornell but also his understanding of the country we inhabit. “America is a place where the Old World shipwrecked. Flea markets and garage sales cover the land,” he says in “Naked in Arcadia,” and goes on:

They should have made them undress and throw their possessions into the sea for the sake of an America where everybody goes naked, it occurs to me. My parents would be naked, too, posing for that picture in the Yellowstone Park with my father's much-prized Moroccan red fez.

One of the subtexts of this book is the link between art and loneliness, or, more specifically, the way the wanderer makes what he can out of what he happens upon. The modern artist collects fragments, things that other people throw away. Thus Simic defines an epiphanic instant of poetry: “Three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley.” He recalls the first premise of collage technique—“You don't make art, you find it”—and concludes, “Every art is about the longing of One for the Other. Orphans that we are, we make our sibling kin out of anything we can find.”

In “Medici Slot Machine,” one of the book's strongest and most charming pieces, and one of the few that take their title from the art, the poet responds to a key work by constructing a separate but analogous universe. The center of Cornell's 1942 construction, his initiating masterwork, is a reproduction of a Renaissance “Portrait of a Young Noble.” Black lines crisscross the surface, and the boy stares at us even as we locate him through a telescope lens or a gun sight. He is flanked by fragments of an old map of the Palatine Hill in Rome, which, in turn, are framed by vertical panels of film—strips of Renaissance faces, serial photos of the boy himself. Simic explains:

The name enchants, and so does the idea—the juxtaposition of the Renaissance boy, the penny arcade, and the Photomat in the subway; what seem at first totally incompatible worlds—but then, of course, we are in Cornell's “magic regions” of Forty-second Street and Times Square.

Simic teases out the implications of the three realms Cornell has radically conjoined, creating a contiguous context for the imagery, daydreaming about the Renaissance princeling in a seedy urban landscape:

The boy has the face of one lost in reverie who is about to press his forehead against a windowpane. He has no friends. In the subway there are panhandlers, small-time hustlers, drunks, sailors on leave, teen-aged whores loitering about. The air smells of frying oil, popcorn, and urine. The boy-prince studies the Latin classics and prepares himself for the affairs of the state. He is stubborn and cruel. He already has secret vices. At night he cries himself to sleep.

By projecting outward from the construction, Simic sends the prince—“‘He is as beautiful as a girl,’ someone says”—into a hustling, shadowy, eroticized world where “blacks shine shoes, a blind man sells newspapers, young boys in tight jeans hold hands.” None of these figures exist in the original box—they are Simic's invention. We follow the androgynous figure into the mirrored world of vending machines and then into the underground cityscape, where he represents “an angelic image in the dark of the subway.” Simic's summary statement about the heterogeneous but unified character of the “slot machine” is an ars poetica that applies to the piece we are reading as well as the one we are looking at:

Whatever it is, it must be ingenious. Our loving gaze can turn it on. A poetry slot machine offering a jackpot of incommensurable meanings activated by our imagination. Its mystic repertoire has many images.

In essence, Dime-Store Alchemy rotates on the axis of two perceptions of Cornell as a modernist in the American grain: an updated version of Poe and of Dickinson, one metamorphosing into the other. “Cornell and Dickinson are both in the end unknowable,” Simic writes. “They live within the riddle, as Dickinson would say. Their biographies explain nothing. They are without precedent, eccentric, original, and thoroughly American.”

To appreciate fully Simic's reading of Cornell, you need to look hard again at Cornell's work, to peer into the looking glass of his objects and dream the boxes back into your hands. Reading this book reminded me time and again of the 1980 Cornell retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Emerging from that show, one felt the buoyant Americanness of Cornell's work, its totemic innocence and passionate inwardness, its reverence for the wayward magic of city life. It was like being swept back into the world by a giant revelatory wave. “Like a comic-book Spider-Man,” Simic writes, “the solitary voyeur rides the web of occult forces.”

Dime-Store Alchemy is a meeting of kindred spirits that is itself a work of art, and a tribute to a precisionist of longings and enigmas, an explorer who used the quotidiana of the past to investigate the secret recesses of the heart.

Lisa Zeidner (review date 21 March 1993)

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SOURCE: “Empty Beds, Empty Nests, Empty Cities,” in New York Times, March 21, 1993, pp. 14-15.

[In the following review, Zeidner finds Insomniac Hotel occasionally redundant but many of the individual poems “breathtaking.”]

Few contemporary poets have been as influential—or as inimitable—as Charles Simic. For more than 30 years his work has claimed citizenship to its own dreamlike land, an elusive place hard to pinpoint. His poems are like dense medieval towns seen from the air: you get a sharp view, “time only for a glimpse,” before the view clouds up and you're not sure where you are or even when you are, whether awake or asleep. The dislocation is both spooky and seductive.

Mr. Simic migrated to the United States from Yugoslavia in 1954, and his haunting images have roots in war-torn Europe, where, as a small child, he watched his father being arrested by the Gestapo. In essays, he has described himself as a lonely, frightened boy, sleepless as bombs fell. But there is rarely anything overtly autobiographical in his poems, except the lingering mood of being orphaned by logic and culture: “I spent my childhood on a cross / In a yard full of weeds, / White butterflies, and white chickens.”

In his 11th volume, Hotel Insomnia, Mr. Simic continues to explore the ghost town he has limned in past collections. It is a world of empty cities filled with empty storefronts, “millions of empty rooms with TV sets turned on.” The poet wanders past prisons and convents and theaters in flames, occasionally spying the shadow of someone he knows or used to know, “my mother and her old dog” or, in “Missing Child”:

You of the dusty, sun-yellowed picture
I saw twenty years ago
On the window of a dry-cleaning store.
I thought of you again tonight,
In this chilly room where I sat by the window
Watching the street,
As your mother must've done every night,
And still does, for all I know.

Hotel Insomnia is not Mr. Simic's most focused or freshest collection. He himself concedes that he's sleepwalking in “the same old city, the same old street.” The repetition is intentional, of course. The reader circles images like a sleeping man circling the same hypnagogic thought over and over. Occasionally the insomniac treading the “gloomy corridors” feels more like a tic than a dynamic means of exploring memory and perception. Yet individual poems are breathtaking—like “The Prodigal,” in which “Everything is a magic ritual, / A secret cinema,” and the poet's trademark tropes seem almost dewy in their immediacy.

Mr. Simic operates like the spiders that frequently creep into his poems. He balances himself on the web of the poem and lies in wait for the reader. The reader is that lone fly on the ceiling—another favorite image. The web's design might be familiar, but more often than not, it still does the trick.

Tam Lin Neville (review date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: “In a Room Where We Are Absent,” in Hungry Mind Review, Spring, 1993, p. 32.

[In the following review, Neville notes the painful subject matter but eloquent writing in The Horse Has Six Legs, edited and translated by Simic.]

I've always thought it eerie the way a voice from another culture can come through in the English of a good translation. it's as though a ghost had passed through a wall. “Poetry is what is retained in translation,” not what is lost, poet Charles Simic argues. After reading The Horse Has Six Legs, I have to agree with his optimism.

The book begins with “Oral Poetry, Women's Songs,” a group of early folk poems collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was drawn to the raw, earthy ones.

The sky is strewn with stars
And the wide meadow with sheep.
The sheep have no shepherd
Except for crazy Radoye
And he has fallen asleep.
His sister Janja wakes him:
Get up, crazy Radoye,
Your sheep have wandered off.
Let them, sister, let them.
The witches have feasted on me,
Mother carved my heart out,
Our aunt held the torch for her.

Another short song ushers out a common, unwanted guest of peasant houses:

There smoke, sooty smoke,
There is your door,
And fried egg.
And bread and butter,
And your grandpa's bones
With which to prick yourself.

The “Women's Songs” show us the ground many of these Serbian poems come from, and they reflect Simic's allegiance to what is plain and down to earth, for what grows out of folk life. The book as a whole represents Simic's own tastes. Simic, who emigrated to the U.S. from Yugoslavia when he was fifteen, is a prolific author, translator, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990 (for The World doesn't End, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). In thirty years of translating, Simic explains in the introduction, he has translated only what he liked; “representing the entire range of Serbian poetry was beyond my ambition and ability.”

The other poets in the book are twentieth century: thirteen out of eighteen still alive; two of eighteen women.

Early in the collection there is a lyric and palpable poem, “Snake,” by one of these two women, Desanka Maksimoviç (born 1898).

On the road winding into the distance,
someone's song.
The lonely sound entangles itself
in the grass.
She listens, her head raised
wide-awake into the air.
The sun is shining.
Here's where they killed her mother
with the blade of a scythe.
they'll do the same to her
when she crawls out of the shrubbery.
Her clothes will rot
with their embroideries
and the glow of dew.

One of the pleasures of a good anthology is walking, in the space of a few pages, between two very distinct sensibilities. Unlike the translations of Robert Bly, which manage somehow to make Rilke, Machado, and Kabir all sound alike, in this anthology the individuality of each voice is preserved. Following the strong physical reality of Maksimoviç, it's a long way to the more surreal and metaphysical poems of Vasko Popa (1922-1991), the most widely translated and best-known postwar Yugoslav poet. Soon after the exquisite vulnerability of Maksimoviç's snake, a fantastic, magnified shewolf is painted in bold strokes by Popa: “On the bottom of the sky / the shewolf lies // Body of living sparks / overgrown with grass // … They catch the shewolf in steel traps / Sprung from horizon to horizon // Tear out her golden muzzle / And pluck the secret grasses / Between her thighs // With her severed tongue the shewolf / Scoops live water from the jaws of a cloud / And again becomes whole” (“Burning Shewolf”).

Popa's “Little Box” poems are also surreal, but unlike his “Burning Shewolf,” they are intimate and unassuming in tone. In his essay “Negative Capability and Its Children,” Simic says that, unlike imagism, which names what is there, surrealism “endlessly renames what is there, as if by renaming it could get closer to the thing itself.” In these eleven short poems we circle around and around the little box, a box which is stubbornly itself and also alive with metaphysical possibilities. Perhaps the little box is pure consciousness or spirit, embodied in affectionate, household terms. “Line the inside of the little box / With your precious skin / And make yourself cozy / Just as you would in your own house” (“The Owners of the Little Box”).

There is a notable lack of ego here. In one of the last poems the little box is returned “into the arms / of her inconspicuously honest properties,” into her “pure inconspicuousness” (“The Benefactors of the Little Box”). In an interview in The Uncertain Certainty: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry (the source of other prose quotes from Simic in this review) Simic talks movingly about a “profound anonymity” which he feels we all have inside us. Certain texts “are longings to experience that anonymity, the condition where we don't have an ‘I’ yet. It is as if we were in a room from which, paradoxically, we were absent.” I think “the little box” is a text imbued with this longing.

Several of the poets in this anthology have learned another kind of humility, one taught by history. A friend of mine said today's headlines would make him hesitate before picking up a volume of Serbian poetry. But the current stories of civil strife and fanaticism represent only a fraction of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's past, a long, hard history that is alive both inside and in the margins of many of these poems.

In “Spring Liturgy for Branko Miljkoviç,” by Ivan V. Laliç (b. 1931), the spirit of a dead friend reappears in the world as a tree, a “tree that stutters with arms full of living rain.” The poem continues on in its shattered but majestic certainty, “Beauty endures. It matters not whether it remembers, / The road continues past the broken rails.” In the end of the poem beauty returns “like pillage.”

In a poem by Jovan Hristiç (b. 1933), “I want you to know, my dear Phaedrus, / We lived in hopeless times.” The poet pleads with Phaedrus to remember his people because “The true seriousness, measure, wise exaltation, / And exalted wisdom always eluded us. We were / On no-man's-land, neither being ourselves // Nor being someone else, but always a step or two / Removed from what we are and what we ought to be.”

This is a poet overwhelmed by history. Often Hristiç's poems ask forgiveness, from a more noble past, or from “some future morning” whose light the poet will not see. On the whole though, the work in this book does not speak of oppression, fatalism, or defeat, but instead shows poets working to maintain their vulnerable selves in the face of the multiplicity and confusion that surrounds them.

In “Notes on Poetry and History” Simic says poets are here to insist on the “unimportant events” of history. He prefers Sappho's insomnia, the small pool of light it throws over the ordinary things around her, to Homer's larger sense of history as sacred myth. Simic's own “thing” poems, “Fork,” “Spoon,” “Brooms,” “My Shoes,” come from this impulse and in this anthology he has included others in a similar vein.

Poems about food come to my mind first. I'm thinking of one called “Breakfast,” in which the poet Ljubomir Simoviç wakes into a world where “Snow has hatched in every den and lair / putting out every fire. / The snow: our lock and key.” But soon he's got three rashers of bacon in his skillet and into this sizzling pan he cracks an egg—“I rejoice because of the egg.” The poem too seems like a spoonful of rich yellow swallowed to ward off an obliterating whiteness.

In another poem, “Crucifixion,” Simoviç writes about an abandoned country cross, attended only by sparrows, crickets, and snowflakes.

Crucified Jesus on a yellow cross
Washed down by cold rain
Spreads his arms wide
As if playing the accordion.
He bends his ear down to the instrument
Better to hear the sound
Unaware the passing tinker took it
When he went by cold and hungry.

Here is a poet with a strong feeling for the everyday world. At the same time his spirit is working to pull up from the often dull, cheerless weight of the daily. Simic has always been interested in the predicament of a figure like this, caught between the ordinary and the illumined world, oddly, sometimes comically, capable of both. This predicament is what he calls poverty, a word to which he brings his own idiosyncratic definition. Uncomfortable with flights of imagination which leave behind the human condition, Simic believes poetry should not try to sustain illumination but should stick close to life—life which is always swinging us between extremes. To me this is a rich sense of poverty because of the ambiguity it can absorb and the great delight Simic takes in it.

Others have approached this predicament much more soberly. I think of Dimitri Karamazov, flushed with shame and self-loathing when he has to take off his socks before the police and reveal the flat, coarse nail on his big right toe. I think of Simone Weil, with her severe migraine headaches, laboring in an automobile factory, knowing that grace is possible but pressuring herself, in great pain, to experience with others the cold, leaden gravity of the common world.

I don't think Simic would dismiss this kind of angst, but his own sense of things is lighter, less grave. In Simic's view we are more like sheep, “trying to fly with woolen wings,” a line I found toward the end of this anthology in one of three wonderful, comic outhouse poems by Aleksandar Ristoviç (b. 1933). I will quote the first in full:

“Outhouse”
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 cover
and a bottle of wine.
Behind your back, if you turn,
you'll make out the sheep
trying to fly with their woolen wings.
And through the heart-shaped
hole in the door,
someone's cheerful face
watching you shit.

In “Spring Liturgy” Ivan Laliç says, “A poem is a poem even when it's made of clay.”

The earth can be a comic curse, a reward, or a commemorative marker. In a poem composed by Ljubomir Simoviç of “Epitaphs from Karansko Cemetery” little “Stanoje two months old / sleeps in a cradle of soil … / his mound cannot be jumped over or avoided.” This anthology is like that mound.

Philip Miller (essay date Summer 1993)

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SOURCE: “Simic's ‘Cabbage’,” in Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 4, Summer, 1993, pp. 257-58.

[In the following essay, Miller analyzes similarities between Simic's poem “Cabbage,” Andrew Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress,” and John Donne's “The Flea.”]

Charles Simic's recent book Gods and Devils, itself a kind of Dantean parody, contains poems that displace a number of other literary myths. One poem, “Cabbage,” for example, comes nicely into focus when we see its subtle parody of two well-known seventeenth-century carpe diem love poems: Andrew Marvell's “To My Coy Mistress” and John Donne's “The Flea.”

The “mistress” of Simic's poem is about to “chop the head” of cabbage “in half,” just as the mistress in Donne's poem prepares to kill a flea. The cabbage is Simic's emblem for love, like Donne's conceit, but also brings to mind the “vegetable love” of Marvell's poem. Simic's narrator makes “her reconsider” just as Donne “stays” his mistress's hand, temporarily. Simic's poem reduces the rhetorical seduction, so elaborate in both Donne and Marvell, to only one line: “‘Cabbage symbolizes mysterious love.’” Simic's line, however, is still “a line,” and appropriately cavalier in its formal and hyperbolic tone and in its allusion to Charles Fourier, not exactly a cavalier lover, but a late-eighteenth-century French socialist. Yet Fourier is a fitting hero for Simic's late-twentieth-century cavalier, who wishes to impress upon a woman the mysteries of love and other “strange and wonderful things” still associated with the “mad” French. Of course, his language would be veiled in “romantic suggestiveness” rather than mock argumentation. In fact, Simic's contemporary lover trusts actions more than words, and his attempted seduction shifts quickly from the rhetorical to a physical attempt to seize the day (although with gentlemanly restraint): “Whereupon I kissed the back of her neck / Ever so gently.”

At the end, Simic's narrator cannot suggest (as Marvell's does) rolling “all our strength and all / Our sweetness into one ball. …” Nor does Simic's displaced cavalier “win the argument”; he will not have his way. The love emblem—the globe-like cabbage head—(like Donne's flea, with whose “blood of innocence” his mistress “purpled” her nail) is destroyed: “… she cut the cabbage in two / With a single stroke of her knife.” Again, actions speak louder than words in Simic's poem, and unlike Marvell's “coy” mistress or Donne's, who has the “tables” of the argument turned upon her, Simic's woman succeeds in whimsically cutting the dramatic moment short and exposing the real substance of the narrator's intentions.

Scott Edward Anderson (review date November-December 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Hotel Insomniac and Dime-Store Alchemy, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 6, November-December, 1993, p. 12.

[In the following review, Anderson explains how the poems in Hotel Insomniac and the prose observations in Dime-Store Alchemy compliment each other, noting in particular Simic's interest in the meaning and purpose of art.]

“The world is beautiful but not sayable. That's why we need art,” Charles Simic writes in Dime-Store Alchemy. He refers to the artist Joseph Cornell but could have easily been describing his own work and focus. Like Cornell, Simic has been trying to translate the ineffable through his own inimitable language since Dismantling the Silence (Braziller, 1971) was published. Critics have often tried, without much success, to define the elusive, beguiling, and seductive quality of his poetry, and have used vague generalizations: “a Central European sensibility,” an “accent” laced with “garlic and a readier good will,” “the dreamy, unexpected metaphors of a foreigner.” His work remains, after a dozen books, provocative, impossible to pigeonhole, and often difficult to decipher.

It is not surprising that Cornell's work and example have had such a profound effect in shaping Simic's own art, for his poetry often resembles a Cornell box: found images and objects, fragments, inscriptions, dolls, birds, balls, bubble pipes—the wispy strains of a tarnished nostalgia, wire cages brought together to make a lyric poem-assemblage. The work of both artists suggests a dream world at once sinister and redolent of a childlike illogic—images are randomly grouped such that their curious juxtaposition might serve to provide a new experience.

“In Cornell's art, the eye and tongue are at cross purposes. Neither one by itself is sufficient. It's the mingling of the two that makes up the third image,” Simic writes. In many ways, Cornell is the unwitting godfather of Simic's poetry, supplying the method if not the means for the enigmatic gesture of his writing. Simic's tribute to Joseph Cornell is in the use of his own “language” to translate the beauty that can't be spoken in the artist's creations.

The prose pieces in Dime-Store Alchemy occasionally resemble the poems in The World doesn't End (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), Simic's Pulitzer Prize-winning volume of prose poems:

The lonely boy must play quietly because his parents are sleeping after lunch. He kneels on the floor between their beds, pushing a matchbox, inside which he imagines himself sitting. The day is hot. In her sleep his mother has uncovered her breasts like the Sphinx. The car, for that's what it is, is moving very slowly because its wheels are sinking in the deep sand. Ahead, nothing but wind, sky, and more sand.

“Shush,” says the father sternly to the desert wind.

from “Postage Stamp with a Pyramid”

The poems from Hotel Insomnia echo the concerns of Cornell:

Hearing me approach
He took a rubber toy
Out of his mouth
As if to say something,
But then he didn't.
It was a head, a doll's head,
Badly chewed,
Held high for me to see.
The two of them grinning at me.

from “Street Scene”

For Simic, “Everything is a magic ritual, / A secret cinema,” an existence “Which cannot be put into words— / Like a fly on the map of the world / In the travel agent's window.” Simic's response to Cornell is so clear, so precise, because they were both insomniacs working the front desk of a “hotel frequented by phantoms.” Simic agrees with Magritte's assertion that “people who look for symbolic meaning fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the images.” Perhaps this is how to approach both the poetry of Simic and the constructions of Cornell—each is concerned with constructing “a vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination of the viewer and keep him company forever”; both view chance as a means by which “to reveal the self and its obsessions.”

This would seem to explain why so many of these two artists' images stay with us for so long. Who can forget, once they've seen it, Cornell's untitled construction (“Bebe Marie”), with its “chubby doll in a forest of twigs. Her eyes are open and her lips and cheeks are red.” Or the pig and the angel from “To Think Clearly” in Hotel Insomnia: “The pig to stick his nose in a slop bucket, / The angel to scratch his back / And say sweet things in his ear.”

These two intriguing books seem to be of a piece—the Cornell book serving as a Baedeker to the Hotel Insomnia, while the poems further illustrate what Simic calls the “all-inclusive aesthetic” that is the means through which we can “make sense of American reality.” The poet, in offering insight into the world of the artist, reveals much more about the poet and his own world in a tantalizing, sometimes beautiful fusion of visions.

Judith Kitchen (review date Winter 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of A Wedding in Hell, in Georgia Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 938-41.

[In the following review, Kitchen discusses Simic's political poetry in A Wedding in Hell.]

[One] way poets have handled … political material is to release it from its historical ties, creating … a kind of imaginative transmutation. Charles Simic's latest book, A Wedding in Hell, does just this. The poems are vintage “Simic”—cool, surprising, an odd mix of images that disturb as often as they satisfy.

Simic, who was born in Yugoslavia, must, like most of us, respond to the nightly images on the television screen as the people of the former republic wage a multifaceted civil war. But his poems have not been written for this context; instead, they seem to aspire to timelessness by displaying a distanced universality reminiscent of the poetry of Vasco Popa or Jean Follain.

Simic's poems are never locked in the past, but take place in the present tense of the lyric. They transcend chronology, eschewing even imagery that would date them, reaching for eternity. This is true for most of his work, but in A Wedding in Hell there is an emphasized dislocation, as though the poems were trying to bridge the gaps between languages—and, in many ways, they are. Simic fuses the multiple connotations of his words by wedding dissimilar images. Things exist in their very particularity even as the landscape they inhabit is nebulous, unknown and unknowable. (“you've no idea what city this is, / What country? It could be a dream.”) The first poem, “Miracle Glass Co.,” shows us a world seen only in a mirror:

This street with its pink sky,
Row of gray tenements,
A lone dog,
Children on rollerskates,
Woman buying flowers,
Someone looking lost.

But the innocence is short-lived as poem after poem reflects a more sinister world, as in “Paradise Motel”:

I lived well, but life was awful.
There were so many soldiers that day.
So many refugees crowding the roads.
Naturally, they all vanished
With a touch of the hand.
History licked the corners of its bloody mouth.

For Simic, History (with a capital H) becomes a character playing out its lines on a shabby stage. To a large extent, “No one ever sees the play.” The leaves “thrill / and shudder almost individually” in the wind; the wine tastes good; the window is shuttered against late afternoon light. But each innocent image is matched by a threat. A poem that celebrates love is followed by one of loss or fear. More often than not, one line will undercut its predecessor: “here's a city at sunset / Resembling a butcher's fresh carcass.” Like paper dolls cut out of a newspaper, the poems make tenuous connections between disparate headlines. The themes of war and destruction brood throughout the pages. “Documentary” and “The World” confront the reality head-on, but there are dozens of oblique references as the images slip into the poems, catching the reader unawares. (“There's a war on this morning / And an advertisement for heavenly coffee …”) Spoken matter-of-factly, the poems enact the persistence of war. The hundred-year-old woman appears in a dream with a dead child in her arms, and she might have lived at any time.

In this indeterminate landscape, it's the poet's job to note the ironies. For example, in “The Massacre of the Innocents,” Simic recounts how the poets of the Late Tang Dynasty could do nothing but create poems of beauty. “I couldn't help myself either. I felt joy,” says the speaker. The world intrudes with all its worlding—leaf, cloud, evening bird—and the heart responds in spite of itself. The poet's role is to become the recording angel. The conclusion of “Reading History” emphasizes that point:

How vast, dark, and impenetrable
Are the early morning skies
Of those led to their death
In a world from which I'm entirely absent,
Where I can still watch
Someone's slumped back,
Someone who is walking away from me
With his hands tied,
His graying head still on his shoulders,
Someone who
In what little remains of his life
Knows in some vague way about me,
And thinks of me as God,
As Devil.

The God of this volume is certainly as silent as any Elie Wiesel could imagine. In fact, for Simic, “he's still trying to make up his mind.” Part of the timelessness of this volume is its evocation of an earlier religious rhetoric which is dislocated by a skeptical contemporary mind. God is a given, but not a savior. He spells nothing of hope, but of a monumental indifference—even, at times, a glib and deliberate lack of concern. “Prayer” begins by invoking God's ineffectual presence as a clean slate: “You who know only the present moment, / O Lord / You who remember nothing / Of what came before …” “Psalm” ends in an indictment of a God who has turned away:

I sought with my eyes, You in whom I do not believe.
you've been busy making the flowers pretty,
The lambs run after their mother,
Or perhaps you haven't been doing even that?
It was spring. The killers were full of sport
And merriment, and your divines
Were right at their side, to make sure
Our final goodbyes were said properly.

These poems have been “liberated” from the specificities of history. They are political without having any particular cause. And yet they feel like little warnings, as though Simic had unlocked the absurdities of our time and had discovered in them the future as well as the past. It's a sobering thought. And it's equally sobering when Simic does touch on a real, and personal, history, reminding us how poems can connect one life to another. The last stanza of “The Clocks of the Dead,” with its restrained simplicity, is unforgettable in any age:

Just thinking about it, I forgot to wind the clock.
We woke up in the dark.
How quiet the city is, I said.
Like the clocks of the dead, my wife replied.
Grandmother on the wall,
I heard the snows of your childhood
Begin to fall.

Christopher Merrill (review date 19 March 1995)

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SOURCE: “Moments Frozen in Time,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 19, 1995, p. 8.

[In the following review, Merrill praises Simic's historical sense in A Wedding in Hell and The Unemployed Fortune-Teller.]

Where shall we place our faith, in the individual or in the tribe? For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic the answer is a function of poetry itself: “Lyric poets perpetuate the oldest values on earth,” he reminds us. “They assert the individual's experience against that of the tribe.” Those values, needless to say, are under attack around the world. Religious fundamentalists, ardent nationalists, tribalists of every color and moral suasion—all seek to diminish the worth of individual experience. Born in solitude, the poem celebrates freedom, the ideologue's enemy; hence the sad history of poets in exile—or worse. As the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, a victim of Stalin's gulags, wrote of Dante: “To speak means to be forever on the road.”

This knowledge is what makes the simultaneous publication of Simic's 12th volume of poetry, A Wedding in Hell, and third book of prose, The Unemployed Fortune-Teller, such an important literary event. His ars poetica—“trying to make your jailers laugh”—is wise as well as funny: his is an essay in liberation. And never has he been more successful at unsettling a reader's certainties. “My aspiration,” he admits, “is to create a kind of non-genre made up of fiction, autobiography, the essay, poetry, and of course, the joke!” In these books he fulfills that ambition.

Simic was born in 1938 in Yugoslavia, spent the war years in Belgrade, and in 1954 emigrated to the United States. Unlike many poets of his generation, he served his literary apprenticeship away from the university, forging a unique poetic sensibility out of his encounters with his adopted homeland. The writings of the French Surrealists, Theodore Roethke, Emily Dickinson and Vasko Popa—these were central to his artistic development, inspiring him to use chance operations, myth and folklore in order to say the unsayable. Of equal significance is his interest in translation from Serbian, his native tongue (which, he regrets to tell us, he was never able to use for his own poetry, because when he started to write “all the girls [he] wanted to show [his] poems to were American”). Vasko Popa, Ivan Lalic, Alexander Ristovic and Novica Tadic are just four of the Serbian poets he has translated and promoted in this country; in 1992 he published The Horse Has Six Legs, a remarkable anthology of Serbian poetry.

Simic's own poetry has always been informed by his acute historical sense, strange juxtapositions, daring imagery and comic spirit—qualities on full display in A Wedding in Hell. “Paradise Motel” is one of his best new poems:

Millions were dead; everybody was innocent.
I stayed in my room. The President
Spoke of war as of a magic love potion.
My eyes were opened in astonishment.
In a mirror my face appeared to me
Like a twice canceled postage stamp.
I lived well, but life was awful.
There were so many soldiers that day,
So many refugees crowding the roads.
Naturally, they all vanished
With a touch of the hand.
History licked the corners of its bloody mouth.
On the pay channel, a man and a woman
Were trading hungry-kisses and tearing off
Each other's clothes while I looked on
With the sound off and the room dark
Except for the screen where the color
Had too much red in it, too much pink.

Those refugees may well come from the former Yugoslavia, where day by day History's bloody mouth opens ever wider. Indeed, the Third Balkan War provides the backdrop to much of Simic's recent poetry and prose. And no wonder. What could be worse for the man who has done more to bring Serbian poets to the attention of the English-speaking world than to witness the carnage his former countrymen have committed in Croatia and Bosnia? In a courageous essay first published in the New Republic and included in The Unemployed Fortune-Teller he makes plain his feelings about Serbia's war machine—and his former countrymen, his tribesmen. “The destruction of Vukovar and Sarajevo,” he writes, “will not be forgiven the Serbs.”

Whatever moral credit they had as a result of their history they have squandered in these two acts. The suicidal and abysmal idiocy of nationalism is revealed here better than anywhere else. No human being or group has the right to pass a death sentence on a city.

“Defend your own, but respect what others have,” my grandfather used to say, and he was a highly decorated officer in the First World War and certainly a Serbian patriot. I imagine he would have agreed with me. There will be no happy future for people who have made the innocent suffer.

“Here is something we can all count on,” he adds. “Sooner or later our tribe always comes to ask us to agree to murder.” This Simic will not do—to the chagrin of his old friends—perhaps because he witnessed enough carnage in World War II. (In one essay he remembers eating watermelon while Belgrade was bombed in the distance—“The watermelon made a ripe, cracking noise as my mother cut it with a big knife. We also heard what we thought was thunder, but when we looked up, the sky was cloudless and blue.”) While epic poets “find excuses for the butcheries of the innocents,” he sides with the solitaries, the lyric poets who “deserve to be exiled, put to death, and remembered.” And lest we imagine Yugoslavia's tragedy as a local event, Simic warns: “If our own specialists in ethnic pride in the United States ever start shouting that they can't live with each other, we can expect the same bloodshed to follow.”

Simic's prose has taken on a new urgency in The Unemployed Fortune-Teller. Here are introductions to poets from the former Yugoslavia; meditations on food, music, film and photography; and witty essays on chance, the limitations of nature writing and “The Necessity of Poetry.” His memoirs about his military service in Luneville, France, and years in New York are lyrical, aphoristic and stunning. As in his previous book of prose, Wonderful Words, Silent Truth, Simic has chosen to publish selections from his notebooks, which include some of the most interesting pensees on the art of poetry since Wallace Stevens' “Adagia”: “A poem is an invitation to a voyage. As in life, we travel to see fresh sights.”

And what fresh sights he offers in A Wedding in Hell. These lyrics and prose poems are records of marvelous journeys. He addresses mystics; Raskolnikov and a certain Mr. Zoo Keeper; his reading of Pascal, like his depiction of the Miracle Glass Co., is both delightful and terrifying. “I have my excuse, Mr. Death,” is how “The Secret” begins, “The old note my mother wrote / The day I missed school.” And since the poet believes “the secret wish of poetry is to stop time” we are treated to one such moment from Simic's childhood, when he saw his mother:

In her red bathrobe and slippers
Talking to a soldier on the street
While the snow went on falling,
And she put a finger
To her lips, and held it there.

The secret? The poetry and presence—the gifts—of Charles Simic.

Helen Vendler (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “A World of Foreboding: Charles Simic,” in Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp. 102-16.

[In the following essay, Vendler presents an overview of Simic's major themes and techniques.]

Charles Simic's riddling poems, for all that they reproduce many things about his century (its wars, its cities, its eccentrics, and so on) in the end chiefly reproduce the Simic sieve—a sorting machine that selects phenomena that suit Simic's totemic desire. There is no escape hatch in a Simic poem: you enter it and are a prisoner within its uncompromising and irremediable world:

The trembling finger of a woman
Goes down the list of casualties
On the evening of the first snow.
The house is cold and the list is long.
All our names are included.

This short poem, entitled “War,” from the collection Hotel Insomnia (1992), exhibits all the hallmarks of the Simic style: an apparently speakerless scene; an indefinite article establishing the vagueness of place and time—“a woman” somewhere, anywhere, on a wintry evening; then a menacing definite article focusing our gaze, in this instance on “the” list; then a late entrance of the personal pronoun engaging the speaker's life and ours. This coercive poem of war excludes everything else that might be going on in “real” wartime (people eating, drinking, going to school, manufacturing guns, and so on) in favor of a single emblem—the domestic Muse enumerating the many war dead—followed (as in emblem books) by a motto underneath: “All our names are included.” The motto broadens the emblem from the war dead to all dead.

Thus, Simic's poems, even when they contain a narrative, can almost always be “folded back” into a visual cartoon accompanied by a caption. I say “cartoon” at this point rather than “emblem” because Simic is a master of the mixed style, with vulgarity cheek by jowl with sublimity. Simic's interesting memoir of his youth, “In the Beginning,” included in his collection of essays called Wonderful Words, Silent Truth (1990), suggests that both the working-class origin of his joking and hard-drinking father and the middle-class origin of his musical mother exerted Oedipal claims on his sensibility. The poems abound in working-class litter, both rustic and urban: pigs, kitchens, newspapers, dishes, gum machines, butchers, sneakers, condoms, grease; but they also exhibit the furniture of the maternally espoused ideal realm—monarchs, clouds, angels, Madonnas, martyrs, palaces, and saints.

Simic's work demands that we cohabit with both classes, with pigs and angels alike. “To think clearly,” he says in the poem of that name in Hotel Insomnia, “What I need is a pig and an angel.” Then the fate of the pig and the task of the angel are sketched in:

The pig knows what's in store for him.
Give him hope, angel child,
With that foreverness stuff.

This is where some will part company with Simic. “I don't mind admitting that I believe in God,” he said in an interview almost twenty years ago (reprinted in The Uncertain Certainty of 1985), and although the injunction to the “angel child” has a good deal of irony attached, Simic cannot do without the presence of the angel. To describe the world as it is, without the backdrop of the ideal, is to be a collaborator in the world's injustice. As Simic says to his angel, “don't go admiring yourself / In the butcher's knife / As if it were a whore's mirror.” The butcher and the pig alone do not a poem make.

Simic's mockery is aimed at the pig, the angel, and himself; the sardonically comic side of his nature alternates with the remorselessly bleak. Life is a vulgar joke; life is tragedy. Perhaps for one who as a child saw World War II in Yugoslavia, life will always be overcast by horror; yet for one who escaped destruction, life will also seem charmed, lucky, privileged. Simic is not unaware of appetite, relish, and gusto. Yet it is in the coercive nature of his writing, as I have described it, that I find the deepest truth about him: “I have you trapped and you can't get out.” Think how different from his the lyrics of Wordsworth or Keats are, always leading you from hill to vale, from bower to nook. In them, alternative universes abound, with elbowroom, legroom, headroom; styles meander, migrate, elevate you high and beckon you low. Attention tightens and slackens, lyric solos are followed by choral effects (as in the “Grecian Urn”). All of these fluidities disappear in Simic. An unbearable tension darkens the air. “No one is to be let off,” says the punisher. No air. Few windows. No key. Minimal furniture; the bread is stale. The view is circumscribed.

I deduce that this was Simic's fundamental experience of the world for so many years that he was destined to immortalize himself by finding a form that reproduced it exactly, as in this extract from The Book of Gods and Devils, (1990):

Outside, the same dark snowflake
Seemed to be falling over and over again.
You studied the cracked walls,
The maplike water stain on the ceiling,
Trying to fix in your mind its cities and rivers.

The persistence of the definite article marks this symbolic scene as an iconic one, to be exfoliated into poem after poem. Simic has been annoyed that critics have spoken of his works as “parables,” saying, in The Uncertain Certainty, “I don't write parables. If I say ‘rats in diapers,’ that's to be taken literally.” Simic's inclination is indeed to present deeply literal details, but they take on parabolic or emblematic significance because so much has been erased in order to isolate those details in a glaring beam of pitiless interrogation. The first poem in Hotel Insomnia reads, in its entirety, as follows:

“Evening Chess”

The Black Queen raised high
In my father's angry hand.

Like many other Simic poems, this one depends on a verbless sentence fragment, its past participle suspending forever the father's wrath. Everything else has been suppressed—the chessboard, the table, the mother, the brother, the father's face; we are not told the motive for, or the object of, the father's anger. The largest suppression of all is that of the frightened little boy sitting opposite the angry father. Perhaps we are to understand that the parents are quarreling. Or perhaps the father is angry at his son. In any case, the cowering child, so fully implied and necessary to the scene, is effaced except in his personal pronoun, and the hand grows immense as it occupies the whole world of the poem. The poetics that generates such a poem, dependent on a single detail, is one of ruthless extirpation. What remains on the page is monumentalized, pregnant with signification, a cartoon “hand” that all by itself can be “angry.”

The two books of poems under scrutiny here, while preserving Simic's coercive style, vary its content. The Book of Gods and Devils is often autobiographical, sometimes covertly (as is Simic's wont) but at other times overtly so. There is, for example, a touching glimpse of Simic's first reading of Shelley in a “dingy coffee shop” in New York: the poem alternates between urban wreckage—drunks, the homeless, broken umbrellas—and the visionary reaches of Shelley's social prophecies:

How strange it all was … The world's raffle
That dark October night …
The yellowed volume of poetry
With its Splendors and Glooms
Which I studied by the light of storefronts:
Drugstores and barbershops,
Afraid of my small windowless room
Cold as a tomb of an infant emperor.

What distinguishes this excerpt, and makes it something more than a reminiscence of adolescent idealization juxtaposed with urban banality, is the presence of two startling phrases—“the world's raffle,” and “the tomb of an infant emperor.” Neither of these is at all expectable, and one halts in coming to them as before a surrealist effect. Neither is strictly speaking surreal; both can be parsed into sense. But the essentially lawless nature of Simic's imagination, darting against his coercive structures, is continually escaping the very prisons he has himself built.

A comparable poem of adolescence (“Crepuscule with Nellie”) chooses as its moment of escape the writer's unearthly sense of joy while listening to jazz at the Five Spot; there follows a jolting comedown at closing time, with “the prospect of the freeze outside,” and the disappearance (no doubt because her partner found the jazz more interesting) of the Nellie of the title. But the autobiographical reach of The Book of Gods and Devils goes back further than adolescence. There are also reminiscences stemming from Simic's wartime childhood (“We played war during the war, / Margaret. Toy soldiers were in big demand”). One of the best of these, “The Wail,” recounts, I believe, the arrest of Simic's father by the Gestapo, recalled in the memoir “In the Beginning” (collected in Wonderful Words, Silent Truth):

One night the Gestapo came to arrest my father. This time I was asleep and awoke suddenly to the bright lights. They were rummaging everywhere and making a lot of noise. My father was already dressed. He was saying something, probably cracking a joke. That was his style. No matter how bleak the situation, he'd find something funny to say. …

I guess I went to sleep after they took him away. In any case, nothing much happened this time. He was released.

Here is “The Wail,” complete, in which the atmosphere of that night is recreated. The child Simic, his brother, and their mother wait to see if the father will return:

As if there were nothing to live for … 
As if there were … nothing.
In the fading light, our mother
Sat sewing with her head bowed.
Did her hand tremble? By the first faint
Hint of night coming, how all lay
Still, except for the memory of that voice:
Him whom the wild life hurried away …
Long stretches of silence in between.
Clock talking to a clock.
Dogs lying on their paws with ears cocked.
You and me afraid to breathe.
Finally, she went to peek. Someone covered
With a newspaper on the sidewalk.
Otherwise, no one about. The street empty.
The sky full of gypsy clouds.

Simic here shows us nothing followed by nothing; fading light, coming night; stillness, silence, suspended breath; fear, no one about in an empty street. This is the classic Simic: a landscape or a room full of vague menace, a sinister light hovering above a clustered huddle of victims. The wail as title and caption is the unheard melody of the scene.

Though there are “persons” serving as dramatis personae or addressees in some of these poems—the “Nellie” of the jazz bar, the “Margaret” of the toy soldiers, a “Martha” here, a “Lucille” there, these women, otherwise unidentified, seem to serve only as rhythmic pretexts in a line—“Bite into [the tomatoes], Martha”; “Better grab hold of that tree, Lucille”—and have none of the human power of the mother and her terrified children in “The Wail.” I'm not clear about Simic's purpose in resorting to these women's names as vocatives of address; they seem inert, pointless, and in some odd way useless to the poem. Their colorful particularity seems an affront to Simic's bleached-out negations; but they may be his way of affirming the verbal color of life even in the absence of situational color.

In The Book of Gods and Devils, for all the fascination of the quasirealistic scenes retrieved from Simic's childhood and youth, it is the poems of slightly surrealist malice that still seem to me Simic's best. I can give only one example, for reasons of space; it is his Black Mass parody of the religious quest, called “With Eyes Veiled”:

First they dream about it,
Then they go looking for it.
The cities are full of figments.
Some even carry parcels.
Trust me. it's not there.
Perhaps in the opposite direction,
On some street you took by chance
Having grown tired of the search.
A dusty storefront waits for you
Full of religious paraphernalia
Made by the blind. The store
Padlocked. Night falling.
The blue and gold Madonna in the window
Smiles with her secret knowledge.
Exotic rings on her fat fingers.
A black stain where her child used to be.

This poem displays Simic's characteristic anticlimaxes of disappointment falling after line breaks: we see icons “Made by the blind. The store / Padlocked.” This is deflationary, but worse is to come. The degradation of the Madonna into fallen woman, “exotic rings on her fat fingers,” is followed by the macabre replacement of Innocence by “a black stain.” The successive images here—each one worked, significant, memorable—are “locked into” their respective lines by their placement. Simic's alternation of full sentences and sentence fragments mimics the acquisition of knowledge: an original main-clause existential statement (“A dusty storefront waits for you”; “The … Madonna smiles”) is followed by one or more short “takes” of perceptual noun-phrase noting: a padlock; dusk or exotic rings; a black stain. Once one has felt the point of these placements—both the anticlimactic line-break ones and the “noticing” noun-phrase ones—the poem is by no means exhausted; the semantic freight of its “paraphernalia,” the implications of words like “secret,” “fat,” and “stains,” send forth ripples of suggestion in ever-widening circles. The achieved Simic poem is itself often a “black stain” of innocence destroyed, and, like a stain, it spreads and deepens.

Hotel Insomnia, the volume following The Book of Gods and Devils, reminds us that Simic (as he tells us in “In the Beginning”) suffers from “lifelong insomnia.” This book is more an evolving sequence than a collection of separate poems. What makes it a sequence is the inscribing, on every page without exception, of several words from the repeated epistemological master list that forms a backdrop to the whole. The accompanying table shows the words comprising the master list, and the rough categories into which they fall.

Closure Menace Home Nature
evening black father rain
dark scream(ing) child fire
shadow red table cloud
empty match mother moon
sleep(less) deaf door view
insomnia blood(y) wall sky
death flame room flowers
silent(ce) unhappy mirror eternity
shuffle candle corner time
secret strange love light
night cross dream wind
winter white happy morning
end list house sun(light)
snow blind book sea
afternoon long window leaves
late fallen bed woods
storm broken coat bird
fate chilly name quiet
unknown dumb roof beautiful
whisper pale watch truth
mute scribble infinite
strange(r) pencil life
greasy memory world
knife wine golden
chewing boy day
slaughter toy air
scream kiss
spike doll
funeral
Body People City Subhuman
hand old men hotel fly
naked murderer street spider
eye old woman sidewalk web
head prisoner city mice
fist fortune-teller (dime-)store crow(ing)
heart poet window pig
mouth nun building(ers) dog
hair homeless ceiling
breasts preacher prison(er)
tongue glove school
shoe cage
shop
shutter
glass

Like Trakl, Simic moves counters such as these into new configurations within each poem. Each poem becomes a new chess game, but the pieces are often invariant. Here is “Romantic Sonnet,” played with some twenty of the magic counters, which I have underlined:

Evenings of sovereign clarity—
Wine and bread on the table,
Mother praying,
Father naked in bed.
Was I that skinny boy stretched
out
In the field behind the house,
His heart cut out with a toy knife?
Was I the crow hovering over him?
Happiness, you are the bright red lining
of the dark winter coat
Grief wears inside out.
This is about myself when I'm remembering,
And your long insomniac's nails,
O Time, I keep chewing and chewing.

After reading sixty-six pages in which words like these are heard again and again, chiming with and against each other, one has a comprehensive picture of the mind in which they keep tolling. Simic's world has aged. About one poem in three has something old in it—an old dog, a blind old woman, old snow, shoes grown old, a crippled old man, an old cemetery. In Simic's insomniac nights, the world shrivels, wrinkles, dwindles, both physically and metaphysically. The fly on the pale ceiling enlarges its sinister web, the meadows themselves become a theater of cruelty, children and pigs alike are led to slaughter, a nun carries morphine to the dying.

Even the poems recording a moment of happiness or appetite—“Country Lunch,” for instance—are shadowed by foreboding: “A feast in the time of plague— / that's the way it feels today.” Hotel Insomnia celebrates the “funeral of some lofty vision,” according to “Miss Nostradamus,” one of its many seeresses, Muses, and fortune-tellers. And the lofty visions go by, in cultural history, almost too fast to count. “Gods trying different costumes / … emerg[e] one by one / To serve you”; Hellenism, Christianity, and Materialism fuse in “Aphrodite with arms missing dressed as a nun / Waiting to take your order.” It is in this sort of philosophical shorthand that Simic sketches the unnerving persistence of the past into the present.

My favorite poem at the moment in Hotel Insomnia is a tour de force called “Tragic Architecture.” With the reverse prophecy of informed hindsight, Simic now knows what his elementary school classmates became when they grew up—madwoman, murderer, executioner. The potential cruelty of all children is laconically remarked: “The janitor brought us mice to play with.” The children have “hearts of stone.” And though Simic is a grown man on another continent, he is also forever imprisoned in his past, a boy left behind, forgotten by Time. “Tragic Architecture” is a circular poem, framed by its past/present trees in the wind:

School, prison, trees in the wind,
 I climbed your gloomy stairs,
Stood in your farthest corners
With my face to the wall.
The murderer sat in the front row.
A mad little Ophelia
Wrote today's date on the blackboard.
The executioner was my best friend.
He already wore black.
The janitor brought us mice to play with.
In that room with its red sunsets—
It was eternity's time to speak,
So we listened
As if our hearts were made of stone.
All of that in ruins now.
Cracked, peeling walls
With every window broken.
Not even a naked light bulb left
For the prisoner forgotten in solitary, 
And the school boy left behind
Watching the bare winter trees
Lashed by the driving wind.

The achieved musical form of this poem—solitary sentence-quatrain of the “I”; inventory of schoolmates; sentence-quatrain of the “we”; inventory of memory done in the third person—is typical of Simic's studied arrangements. The more extended sentences serve for reverie; the short declarative sentences serve as bricks to build a world. The entire impossibility of jettisoning a wretched past is more starkly exhibited in Simic than in any psychological treatise. Yet he does not treat his past in a “confessional” way; the material, we may say, remains psychologically unanalyzed while being thoroughly poetically analyzed (by image, by placement, by narrative). Simic's stylistic arrangements of experience suggest that tragic memory has found its appropriate architectural form.

It is not surprising, given Simic's gnomic forms, that he found the boxes of Joseph Cornell—mysterious formal arrangements of synecdochic objects—peculiarly congenial. His homage to Cornell's art—Dime-Store Alchemy (1992)—could have, as its motto, the closing sentence of one of its prose poems: “The clarity of one's vision is a work of art.” Admirers of Cornell's constructions will be drawn to Simic's “versions” of the boxes illustrated here. One Cornell box, for instance, contains a standing doll obscured by a hedge of twigs taller than she is. Needless to say, there could be many “readings” of this silent form, and perhaps only Simic would give this one:

The chubby doll in a forest of twigs. …
  A spoiled little girl wearing a straw hat
about to be burnt at the stake.

This prose poem might be better without its final line—“All this is vaguely erotic and sinister”—but Simic likes to embroider mottos under his emblems. It seems to me we would have known that the doll-scene, as he has described it, was both erotic and sinister without being told.

Dime-Store Alchemy offers more, though, than poetic versions of Cornell boxes. It is a book of art theory, full of obiter dicta on how to construct an artwork, a vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination of the viewer and keep him company forever. There are reflections on toys, dreams, fetishes, symbolic objects: “Two sticks leaning against each other make a house.” Cornell's art of the scavenger is composed out of “the strangest trash imaginable”; it is an invitation to a labyrinth. The successive alternatives offered in the poem “Matchbox with a Fly in It” (deriving from Vasko Popa's “The Little Box,” reprinted here by Simic) are as applicable to poems as to Cornell's art-boxes:

Shadow box [phenomena]
Music box [the Muses]
Pill box [Apollo as healer]
A box which contains a puzzle [poetry as enigma]
A box with tiny drawers [stanzas; secret contents]
Navigation box [a directive]
Jewelry box [poem as ornamental]
Sailor's box [vital supplies]
Butterfly box [preserved specimens]
Box stuffed with souvenirs of a sea voyage [memory and displacement]
Magic prison [the presentness of the past]
 An empty box [art as illusion]

The reader of any Simic poem has to stop—not to “translate,” as I've done in shorthand here, but to feel the individual pressure of each modifying phrase, and to construct the sequential interrelations of the whole. Perhaps the order of some of the phrases above could be shuffled, but the restriction and disillusion of the last two namings in “Matchbox with a Fly in It” make us see them as unalterable parts of its closure. The fly of the title is mortality itself, found inside all the boxes, no matter what their aspectual surface. Simic's fly, like Stevens' blackbird, inserts itself everywhere.

For Simic as for Cornell, “the city is a huge image machine,” and Cornell's daily wanderings through New York, picking up cast-off objects which he would transform into his profoundly meditated arrangements, match Simic's own observant walks through streets full of cinemas, penny arcades, stores, vending machines, newspapers, and mirrors. No other book by Simic transmits so strongly as Dime-Store Alchemy what New York must have meant to him when he first arrived from Europe—“A poetry slot machine offering a jackpot of incommensurable meanings activated by our imagination. Its mystic repertoire has many images.”

Myself, I draw the line at words like “incommensurable” and “mystic,” but that is perhaps my loss. I really do find poetry commensurable with life—not “mystic” (which for me would lessen its wonder) but rather entirely within the realm of human power, however rarely that power appears. Chirico is quoted by Simic a few pages earlier, uttering a sentiment with which Simic explicitly agrees (“He's right”): “Every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general; and the other, which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance.” I could understand such a statement if it were put in terms of ascribed value. After all, a perfectly bad painting is to its maker a beloved object, as it is to some of its viewers (see, for example, Bishop's “Poem,” on the bad painting by her great-uncle); and even an unlovely house is someone's castle. Perhaps the ascription of value to any object is a form of “clairvoyance,” because objects look different seen with the eye of love or the eye of poetic scrutiny. But Chirico doesn't seem to be talking about this sort of invisible halo, which we all can confer on many objects. No: some other claim is being made here. The “rare individuals” that Chirico and Simic have in mind are artists. But is there some aspect of objects seeable only by artists? And if so, is the right word for such an aspect “spectral”? Or “metaphysical”? And if so, is a reader or viewer then privileged to see this “spectral” aspect through the eyes of the artist? Artists make us see many aspects of being, but none of them seem to me either spectral or metaphysical, nor do I feel admitted to a form of “clairvoyance,” in the usual occult sense of that word. I am wary of vaguely mystical claims made for poetry and the other arts—as wary as I am of ethical and civic claims, and of truth claims. There are better ways of making good citizens, or laying down laws of ethics, or providing a defense of truth claims, than lyric poetry. Poems, like all human fabrications, from straw huts to theology, are made to our measure and by our measure, and are not above or beyond us. We do not need to ascribe more to art than we ascribe to unaided human powers elsewhere. Language and paint are not metaphysical and forms are not spectral. Patterning is a universal human act; and even when it is extended to the most complex and imaginative and individual patterning, it is still ours and of us, no more. The wonder of art, for me, is precisely that it does not belong to some rare or spectral realm. As Stevens said of the poet, “As part of nature he is part of us, / His rarities are ours.”

Simic is still enough of a surrealist to want to claim some realm that is edgily outside nature—in nonsense, in philosophy, in paintings like Chirico's, or in boxes like Cornell's. It probably seems like reductionism to him if a critic wants to describe, in knowable human terms, that edge of unreason, that irrational element of poetry (as Stevens called it). The weird angles and colors of Chirico, his mute and looming forms, do indeed want to intimate a realm other than the known world, and the same is true for Cornell's tiny environments, which the eye enters into and lives within. Perhaps critics are of two kinds: those who rest in the strangeness of such environments and truly regard them as alternate forms of existence—“spectral and metaphysical”—and more empirical critics who will not rest until they find the link between those environments and the human ones from which they sprang. Like others, I prize Simic for his stanzas of the eerily inexplicable (manifested in his wonderfully varied means of menace and his formally laconic manner), but I would be very unhappy if the stylistic imagination in them were not intimately linked to recognizable human predicaments. The Language Poets have sometimes made common cause with Simic, and he with them; but where they are often merely clever, he is clever and horrifying and heartrending. He is also down-to-earth and mockingly skeptical, especially with respect to himself; he never forgets the dime store when he is about his stylistic alchemy. He is certainly the best political poet, in a large sense, on the American scene; his wry emblems outclass, in their stylishness, the heavy-handedness of most social poetry, while remaining more terrifying in their human implications than explicit political documentation. In his plainness of speech, he is of the line of Whitman and Williams, but in the cunning strategies of his forms, he has brought the allegorical subversiveness of eastern European poetry into our native practice. The next generation of political poets will need to be on their mettle if they want to surpass him.

Charles Simic with Molly McQuade (interview date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Real America: An Interview with Charles Simic,” in Chicago Review, Vol. 41, Nos. 2-3, 1995, pp. 13-18.

[In the following interview, Simic discusses his high school and college years in Chicago.]

Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia and came to the U.S. in 1954, when he was sixteen. He went to high school in Oak Park, Illinois, and attended the University of Chicago at night while working by day at the Chicago Sun-Times.

His poetry has been collected in Selected Poems 1963-1983 (Braziller, 1985), The Book of Gods and Devils (Harcourt, 1990), and many other books. His translations include Homage to the Lame Wolf: Selected Poemsby Vasko Popa (Field, 1979), Roll Call of Mirrors by Ivan Lalić; (Wesleyan University Press, 1987), and Selected Poems of Tomaz Salamun (Ecco Press, 1987). Simic's essays have been published in The Uncertain Certainty (University of Michigan Press, 1985) and Wonderful Words, Silent Truth(Michigan, 1990). He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990.

I interviewed Simic about his education in general and about his Chicago experiences in particular. As a recent immigrant, Simic had an experience at the university which was less than typical. That was what he chose to emphasize, modestly but heartily. In what follows, I've edited the transcript of our interview so that it reads as a first-person essay.

My father was an optimist. He always felt like the money would just sort of appear one day, you know? “Here it is!”

But it never did.

He went along with everything I said, as long as I was healthy and did not break the law. In that respect, my parents were very nice. My father wanted me to be an artist of some sort. I studied painting first. He was happy about that.

When I was a senior in high school, my father, who at one time had been accepted at Columbia University—he never actually went—asked me to apply to Columbia, and I did. I also applied to Purdue and to the University of Chicago. I was accepted at all three places, but discovered that my father didn't have the money to put me through those schools. So I went to Chicago at night and worked during the day at the Chicago Sun-Times.

I must say, it was a very strange period in my life. I started college in 1957, an émigré from Yugoslavia living in Oak Park. I had been in the United States for only three years.

I never had much confidence. I didn't even raise the question. Everything happened so quickly. For a long time, I couldn't sort things out. I'm saying this only now; I wasn't thinking it in those days. It seems very strange that I should have come from this to that to that.

I just wanted to drift along. It was easy to live, to get a job. But I had no plans. I couldn't imagine what I would be.

We all came to America as if to an ideal. America was Hollywood, an incredible place. All American movies were made in southern California, and if you were in Europe, you were watching those palm trees in the wind, convertibles, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth. There's something about the place that was very attractive, but also troubling. America was too much, too different, enormous compared to what I knew when I came.

There was something wonderfully reassuring, though, in discovering suffering humanity in America. You'd say, “Okay, this I understand. This I understand.”

Chicago in those days was a scene that Dostoyevsky would have found congenial and familiar. Chicago was like Dostoyevsky's descriptions of the slums of St. Petersburg: there was ugliness, tremendous ugliness. And impoverished Eastern Europeans. Well, not so impoverished, because they did have jobs. A Ukrainian, let's say, would come to Chicago when he was a boy, get on a shift in some factory and then, because overtime was so well paid, stay for the next forty years. He would speak some English, a little bit of Hungarian, a little bit of Italian, and Polish, because he'd worked for years with those people. But these were the kind of people who were not at home in any culture anymore. They had forgotten their own culture, and they were not participating in American culture. Actually, they didn't speak any languages.

They became slaves. They liked the idea! They worked four extra hours every day, and they worked weekends. They just worked—all their lives. When you met them, you couldn't tell what age they were. They were forty, fifty, sixty; they had a gray look.

The Midwest was a tremendously prosperous place. Yet Chicago was odd, provincial in many respects. The Loop would be dark at eight o'clock in winter—nothing going on. If you went on the el, you would see women going off to the factories, wearing babushkas—journeys that would take an hour and fifteen minutes. You know how, in winter, an el door opens with a blast of really cold air? And you shiver, then the door closes, and there's an artificial heat? It was money, it was work; people got along.

Whenever I go to Chicago, I feel at home, as if I could resume my life. It's not as if I would ever do it. But I know how the place works, who the people are.

Chicago gave me a sense of real America, better than if I'd happened to be in a small town in the Midwest, where everybody, the local pastor, neighbors, would have met me, would have been very friendly.

I wrote a six-part poem that describes a scene on Maxwell Street. I like the anarchy in Chicago, the sense of roughness only a few blocks from the lake—where there were gin mills, honky tonks, all the way down the Chicago River. Those were real dives!

In Chicago, you got a sense of all the streams that America could contain. As an education, it was vivid.

A lot of people were educating themselves. I knew many Chicagoans who were not from Chicago originally, or if they were, they came from the lower class. Eventually, they moved out of that; they wanted to educate themselves. There was a tremendous excitement about it. Everybody was sharing it. God, there is so much fun in the world of art and movies and theater and music. You wanted to know everything. I felt annoyed with myself anytime I would hear names dropped. Somebody would say, “Oh, I don't think Pissarro is as good as … um … Seurat,” and I would think, “Oh my God—I've never heard of those guys!” So I'd go and look them up. You didn't want to be left out.

I'd take huge art books out from the library—just take them home and read them. I couldn't believe it. Take ten of them! And I did. I wanted to educate myself totally.

Once you get in the habit of discovery, it doesn't end.

As a University of Chicago student, I went to the campus on the South Side. After the first year, I went to a downtown campus in the Loop. I remember endless trips to the campus at night to get to my classes in Hyde Park.

By the time I got to school, I was tired, because I'd gotten up very early for my job at the Sun-Times. It was a union job that started at seven o'clock in the morning. Those were long days. But the good deal about the job was that once you had finished, you could leave. I would start fairly early and then kind of goof off for the rest of the day. I was responsible for preparing a section of the paper which consisted of classified and personal ads. It was a prestigious position—you met all these famous Chicago newspaper people. There was a guy called Irv Kupcinet. (Big nose.) Ann Landers worked there. These people were stars; you were almost afraid to approach them.

I expected that the University of Chicago would be a very intellectual place. I was interviewed by a young fellow—I don't know if he was an instructor or a graduate student or simply an admissions officer—and the first question he asked was what did I think of Henry James.

Henry James is one of the few writers I've never cared for much. Like root vegetables—I can take him or leave him. I found him just so slow, and I didn't care about the people he wrote about. In those days, I really hated him. So I remember having a very awkward conversation. I didn't blurt out, “Oh, no, I don't like Henry James!” But …

I took a course in contemporary poetry that stopped with Pound and Eliot. I remember wanting to write a paper on Hart Crane.

There were very large classes in the evenings. I remember the winter cold, and having to walk through the el and wait on the platform and go to the Loop. Then I had to change els to get to Oak Park.

That was an interesting crew of people in those big evening classes. I was more interested in the girls than in the boys. There was always somebody I'd accompany to the el, you know. … They were kind of touching, small-town girls whose parents didn't have the money or the inclination to send them to college. They came to the city and worked somewhere all day, as secretaries. Some were almost too poor for college. There was a heroic element in what they did.

I remember a slight jealousy, more than regret, when my buddies from Oak Park High School all took off to good schools. Before that, their parents had paid for trips to Europe. I was reminded of my poverty, of my immigrant status. I couldn't do what they did, though I found myself in their world.

I was divided. I was ambivalent, you know. I was embarrassed to be around ethnics. I liked to occasionally sneak in by myself to a place like the Drake Hotel. I liked nice places.

Oak Park was a very classy suburb. Mine was the high school where Hemingway had gone to school, as the teachers told us. I had a French teacher, Miss Miller, and she would say almost daily, “Ernest Hemingway sat here, in my class. I taught him French that he later spoke in France.”

The most memorable part of my time at the university was a poetry workshop taught by John Logan. I wasn't a member of the workshop, but I sat in on it, because all of my friends were taking it. A number of poets gathered: Dennis Schmitz, Bill Knott, Marvin Bell, Naomi Lazard, William Hunt. A lot of people.

We showed each other what we were writing—constantly. I was writing bad poems, a lot of bad poems. I suspected they were bad when I was writing them. They were derivative. Derivative of all sorts of people. Every couple of months, I would be in love with someone else.

I had all these great friends: poets, would-be writers, painters. And I would see the guys and sit in on the workshop and go out afterwards, stay up late, and talk about poetry.

Working at the Sun-Times, I met an aspiring writer named Robert Burling. He was studying for a Ph.D. in philosophy at the university, and had a job as a receptionist for Marshall Field, publisher of the Sun-Times. We got to talking. He was writing poetry, and I was writing poetry. So we decided to split from home and live on the North Side. My parents were fighting, and I wanted to be closer to school and work and Chicago.

We got a little basement apartment that doesn't exist anymore on Dearborn between Goethe and Schiller. Though it had a gorgeous address, the house itself was a crummy old tenement, and our place was in the cellar. The Oak Street beach was close; we could go swimming. I met some more writers at a bar called Figaro on Oak Street. I met Nelson Algren then, not at the bar, but at some party, a couple of times.

He was blunt and very nice. The second time I met him, I had Life Studies, a volume of Robert Lowell's poetry, with me; I had a friend who was a great fan of Lowell. So Algren said to me, “What do you want to read that for? A kid like you, just off the boat? Read Whitman, read Sandburg, read Vachel Lindsay.”

I took him up on it. I was never very happy with Robert Lowell, anyway. His stuff was foreign to me.

Ours was a very small literary scene. We would have a party in a room with the lights lowered, maybe a couple of candles stuck in Chianti bottles, some kind of primitive record player, and records by Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker. All the women were in black; it was the existentialist period. People would be reading Camus and Sartre. (Existentialism came to Chicago late.) And they'd have their hair in long bangs so you couldn't see their faces. They smoked a lot. Not much to drink, because everyone was broke. The drink would always be pretty odd: a bottle of rum or kirschwasser, something awful.

This was the hip crowd of the Near-North side, people who liked jazz. Among the older crowd were radicals, leftist intellectuals. There were interesting older people, too, at the university. In a course on sociology, old men who had obviously been in the labor movement in the past would ask tough questions of some young teacher: “Hey, wait a minute!” You know, the kinds of questions college students don't ask, ordinarily. Just because it's in the book doesn't mean it's right, you know?

In those days, much more so than today, intellectuals came from a working-class background—Jewish, Irish. They worked all day long at the railroad, the docks, being a boss in the union, or doing manual labor. And there was a tremendous wisdom behind them.

They were very pleasant. And they all had advice for you. They told you what you should do. There was a tremendous suspicion of the Eastern literary establishment.

When you're young, and even more so if you're an immigrant, you're looking for role models; you want to blend in. I was all ready to blend in, and these guys kept saying, “don't read those books! Remember who you are! You come from the Balkans. you're scum of the earth!”

Sure. I agreed.

They were an influence on me. They prevented me from becoming a phony.

One of the temptations for an immigrant is to outdo the natives—to immediately get a three-piece suit and read Henry James. It seemed too genteel. I wanted something gutsy, fast, full of anger.

Even if I don't mention them in every poem, there is an America of hard-working people in the back of my mind. I do not forget them.

I remember once or twice being in WASPy circles of very informed young men and women who were graduate students, Ph.D. candidates. You'd sense that their dream was to be British. If they were ever to become writers, they would like to be reviewed in the London Times and be received at Oxford and Cambridge. They were sort of nice people, but …

It has always delighted me that I come from an “inferior” race. There we were in Chicago, sitting around, Polacks and Irish and Italians.

I never believe for a minute that I'm inferior or superior.

Those young men in the three-piece suits—they just didn't know!

David Sofield (review date 13 January 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of A Wedding in Hell, in America, Vol. 174, No. 1, January 13, 1996, p. 18.

[In the following review, Sofield offers a mixed assessment of A Wedding in Hell.]

In the prose-poem “Voice from the Cage,” God seems to appear as “Mr. Zoo Keeper,” and we animals know that “sorrow, sickness, and fleabites are our lot. The rabbits still screw but their weakness is optimism. … I've dyed my hair green like Baudelaire. … Ours is a circus of quick, terrified glances.” End of poem. In the penultimate poem of a A Wedding in Hell, entitled “Mystery Writer,” God figures as a genre author whose apparent interest is to obscure our understanding of urban life. And this poem begins with the deceptively easy “I figured, well, since I can't sleep / I'll go for a walk.”

Occasionally a whole short poem will speak in a welcomely guileless voice, the guilelessness in the end serving to make us face How Awful It Is. “The World,” in the poem so named, chooses to “torture me / Every day” with its “many cruel instruments,” the torture today being two pictures of a woman and a child, first fleeing and then:

fallen
With bloodied heads
On that same winding road
With its cloudless sky
Of late summer
And its trees shivering
In the first cool breeze
On days when we put all
Our trust into the world
 Only to be deceived.

This is one of the two archetypal Simics, lucid as yet another daybreak that brings us nothing but pain, the language plain, the anger huge and entirely implicit. The other voice, relieving dread yet still in touch with it, gives us breathing room. In “This morning,” the speaker begins: “Enter without knocking, hard-working ant.” The night passed has been troubled, but “Estella” did come to him, only to vanish:

You visit the same tailors the mourners do,
 Mr. Ant. I like the silence between us,
The quiet—that holy state even the rain
Knows about Listen to her begin to fall,
As if with eyes closed,
Muting each drop in her wild-beating heart.

With his customary sure touch, Simic states in his prose book: “I'm in the business of translating what cannot be translated: being and its silence.” To transmute passion and its evanescence into a suddenly unironic request to a black ant is worthy of the end of Bishop's “Questions of Travel,” in which silence and rain are put to rather other excellent purposes.

Often, it must be said, Simic is notably more oblique than here. Sometimes the complicated oppressiveness of Eastern European (and other) governments is a steady undercurrent, but the syntax is frequently a bit skewed; in nearly 80 pages we are offered the consolation of a single and, as it were, accidental full rhyme. The voice can be detached to the point of unintended listlessness, and poem after poem is so ironically titled that on occasion we are unable to engage any other feeling.

A recurrent strategy is to start a poem in such a way as to require a reader to play constant catch-up, to piece together a prehistory—what happened before the first words are spoken—that begins to make sense of puzzlement. It isn't always possible, or at least it's not always worth the effort. Although the poems are more of a piece than in most books, Simic is a less even writer than one might expect. The great successes are only minimally more realized than the flat failures. Still, no other of these poets begins to manage the astringent, attacking wit Simic commands; one may have to go back to Eliot and his mentors Donne and Shakespeare to find the like.

David Bafer (review date April 1996)

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SOURCE: “On Restraint,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXVIII, No. 1, April, 1996, pp. 33-47.

[In the following review, Bafer compares the works of Ted Kooser to Simic's A Wedding in Hell, finding Simic's poetry taut and evocative.]

I am not concerned here with artistic timidity, moral constraint, or polite decorum—that is, restraint as puritanic virtue—but rather with tactics of restraint which allow us to gauge a poem's opposite pole, its power and passion. Even Walt Whitman is at his most persuasive when his enthusiasms are informed by subdued counter-pressures. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” those ominous, looming “dark patches,” which accompany his confessions of secular guilt, temper his later transcendental encouragements to “flow on … with the flood-tide.” The poem's polar forces—obliteration and regeneration, liability and acceptance—hold themselves in a kind of checks-and-balance. The result is precarious and powerful. Other poets use different methods of restraint: Dickinson with her severe, compact technique (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”); Bishop in her very stance, what Jeredith Merrin calls an “enabling humility.” Restraint can ironize, enable, even sustain, a poet's great passions and wildness.

Ted Kooser is the most restrained of the five poets I consider here, if restraint also nominates characteristics like compression and control. A critically undervalued poet, Kooser is a joy to read, even if, every now and then, he may be a little too restrained. His touch is so light, and his poems generally so compact, that occasionally there doesn't seem to be enough passion or material at hand. But after all, much of the power of Kooser's work is accretive, since for decades he has been constructing out of individual poems a long, sustained, and important life-work in the manner of Robinson's Tilbury Town, Master's Spoon River, or Hugo's Great Northwest. Throughout his splendid new Weather Central, Kooser's individual poems are evocative, often perfectly realized, even as they also become part of his larger project, the creation in poetry of a distinctly Midwestern social text, where

                                        … there
is something beautiful
about a dirty town in rain,
where tin cans, rails,
and toppled shopping carts
are the sutures of silver
holding the guts in,
keeping the blue wound closed,
while over a pawnshop, the plain
wet flag of a yellow window
holds out the cautious welcome
of an embassy.

“Lincoln, Nebraska”

Kooser is highly selective in the amount and type of material he includes in a poem. Only seven of the fifty-eight poems in Weather Central are longer than a page; the longest, “City Limits,” runs to forty lines. He is a devoted chronicler of the Midwest, but so careful, so meticulous, that even his most modest poems ring with pleasing recognitions:

It is morning. My father
in shirtsleeves is sweeping
the sidewalk in front of his store,
standing up straight in the bow
of his gondola, paddling
the endless gray streets of his life
with an old yellow oar—
happy there, hailing his friends.

Here in “The Sweeper,” and throughout this book, recognition and connection are Kooser's recurrent longings—the connective goodwill of neighbors, families, and of the images themselves. Notice how he activates the poem's only metaphor exactly halfway through this poem, with “in the bow / of his gondola, paddling,” where a plain description of the father's movement turns into the stroke of a gondolier—the absolutely familiar touched with wistful exotica. He is uncanny in selecting such right-seeming metaphors; he is also a realist, a nearly haiku-like imagist whose tropes are rarely dramatically transformative but, rather, clarifying. He wants us to see things more sharply. He connects his deliberate images with a kind of restrained, respectful sanity, like “Aunt Mildred” who “picked up a pencil stub and pinched it hard, / straightened her spine, and wrote a small / but generous letter to the world.”

Kooser rarely refers to himself in his work, and then hardly ever in the first person. This kind of restraint is particularly striking in a period when so much poetry is, to parrot Hawthorne's Zenobia, so much “Self, self, self!” The closest Kooser comes to self-portraiture may be the image of the blue heron in the book's first poem, “Etude,” where the first-person speaker watches “a Great Blue Heron / fish in the cattails, easing ahead / with the stealth of a lover composing a letter.” He sees in the bird's actions and its “blue suit” the reflection of a businessman who “holds down an everyday job / in an office” (like Kooser's own occupation as an insurance executive):

Long days swim beneath the glass top
of his desk, each one alike. On the lip
of each morning, a bubble trembles.
No one has seen him there, writing a letter
to a woman he loves. His pencil is poised
 in the air like the beak of a bird.
He would spear the whole world if he could,
 toss it and swallow it live.

The letter is a figure for the kind of lifelike text Kooser seems to strive for in his poems. The final sentence with its sudden, dramatic feat is even more effective given this love poem's delicate restraint.

Midway into Weather Central we encounter the image of the heron again, in “A Poetry Reading,” though by now he's “an old blue heron with yellow eyes,” a poet opening his “book on its spine, a split fish.” These mere hints are among the most directly self-revealing moments in the book. Kooser reserves his more emotional involvements for his characters, as in the tender “Four Secretaries,” where all day, like ordinary sirens, they “call back and forth, / singing their troubled marriage ballads, / their day-care, car-park, landlord songs. …”

A far more acclaimed and much-awarded poet, Charles Simic plays the Romantic to Kooser's Realist. They were born in 1938, and 1939, respectively, and have published a dozen volumes apiece. Each is masterful at plain-spoken rhetoric and impeccably tight free-verse techniques; each is skilled at creating memorable individual images as well as coherent patterns of metaphor; miniaturists, each exploits the short poem to great advantage (only two of the seventy poems in A Wedding in Hell are longer than a page, and the longest is thirty lines). Simic employs many of the same strategies of restraint that distinguish Kooser's poems.

But Simic's metaphors transform where Kooser's clarify:

In the frying pan
On the stove
I found my love
And me naked.
Chopped onions
Fell on our heads
And made us cry.
 it's like a parade,
I told her, confetti
When some guy
 Reaches the moon.
“Means of transport,”
She replied obscurely
While we fried.
“Means of transport!”

Simic likes to wink at us “obscurely,” as here in a poem that opens with the most restrained of rhetorics but the oddest of metaphors. Lovers as potatoes, or cuts of liver? “Transport” takes us into the surreal, as many of his poems ferry us from the familiar to the entirely alien, from the mundane to the holy, or from the dim to the philosophical (or vice versa). As he professes in another poem, “‘I'm crazy about her shrimp!’ / I shout to the gods above.” Simic is a Postmodern Romantic, a mystic grinding his forehead into the stones though he knows that God is dead and buried, a believer who asserts the transcendent moment but who also perceives that transcendence is likely to send us to the kind of place he describes in “Pascal's Idea”: “It was terrifying / And I suppose a bit like / What your heaven and hell combined must be.” Poem after poem insists on these kinds of metamorphic changes. I like to amass Kooser's poems, letting them gather in a larger social scene, but I prefer Simic's a few at a time. Too much similar magic at once exposes its tricks.

To American audiences part of Simic's charm derives from his Continental-sounding images and cosmopolitan sensibilities. If he has a riddler's sense of humor, he can also don the Romantic's blackest cape. He recalls Kafka's great European absurdist masterpiece “The Hunger Artist” in the prose poem “Voice from the Cage,” where caged animals act out their existential agony: “Sorrow, sickness, and fleabites are our lot. … Even the lion doesn't believe the fables anymore. ‘Pray to the Lord,’ the monkeys shriek.” Even the freakish speaker has “dyed [his] hair green like Baudelaire.” This contorted display of grotesqueries, like a “circus of quick, terrified glances,” is repeated in many poems. Toothless monkeys, “chickens living in a rusty old hearse,” a gorilla suit with “silly angel wings,” a white cat “picking at the bloody head of a fish”—such often feral malformities are the shadow-images of the faceless soldiers and anonymous “refugees crowding the roads” who also populate Simic's poems. Expatriation, the brutal repetitions of history, the chaos of broken walls, of failed faiths, drive the speaker in “Explaining a Few Things” underground, like Dostoevsky's “sick man.” Once again, armies and animals are Simic's companions:

Every worm is a martyr,
Every sparrow subject to injustice,
I said to my cat,
Since there was no one else around.
It's raining. In spite of their huge armies
What can the ants do?
And the roach on the wall
Like a waiter in an empty restaurant?
I'm going to the cellar
To stroke the rat caught in a trap.
You watch the sky.
If it clears, scratch on the door.

As crisp and plainly spoken as Kooser's documents to the commonplace, still this poem is a world and an age away from “Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Charles Simic has been writing like this for a long time, sharply, seriously, with a rhetoric of restraint but with a vision of haunted strangeness. In fact, I think his talent is growing, as his poems continue to deepen, subtly but surely. The poems of A Wedding in Hell are more emotionally absorbing than the work of his famous books of the Seventies, such as Dismantling the Silence or Classic Ballroom Dances. “O dreams like evening shadows on a windy meadow,” he sings in “A Wedding in Hell,” “And your hands, Mother, like white mice.” His plainness makes these surprises, these pointed and surreal mutations, all the more powerful.

Paul Breslin (review date July 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735

SOURCE: “Four and a Half Books,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXX, No. 4, July, 1997, pp. 226-39.

[In the following review, Breslin asserts that Simic relys on his reputation in Walking the Black Cat rather than breaking new poetic ground.]

The dustjacket blurb for Charles Simic's Walking the Black Cat invites us to a world in which “a man waits at a bus stop for the love of his life, a woman (Lady Luck?) he's never met. The world's greatest ventriloquist who sits on a street corner uses passersby as dummies and speaks through us all. Hamlet's ghost walks the hallways of a Vegas motel.” And more inducements in the same vein. If only they had proved a less accurate harbinger of the poems themselves—which too often have the contrived goofiness, with portentous hints of significance for “us all,” that the blurbist promises. The best ones won't submit to their own glibness altogether, but on the whole I have the sense of a style running on automatic pilot, the urgencies that once called it into existence largely forgotten. Strange events do not erupt, but saunter lazily into view, voiced in such inert syntax and blasé affect as to seem oddly comfortable. Instead of a Borgesian dream tiger, Simic offers the leashed housecat of his title, which is, to judge by its gait, fat, sleepy, and a little bit spoiled.

As an instance of this volume's stylistic lassitude, consider the opening of “Lone Tree,” not one of the best passages in the book, but not the worst, either:

A tree spooked
By its own evening whispers.
Afraid to rustle,
Just now
Bewitched by the distant sunset.
Making a noise full of deep
Misgivings,
Like bloody razor blades
Being shuffled.

Lines 3-5 repeat the substance of lines 1-2, as if Simic belatedly had realized how weak the word “spooked” is, evoking B horror movies rather than the Abyss, but couldn't be bothered to start the poem over. “Misgivings,” ominously perched on a line by itself, fails to deliver the mystery or threat its isolation promises. And just what sort of noise do “bloody razor blades / Being shuffled” make, anyway? The syntax is as loose as the diction. Although sentence fragments can give an effect of swift associative leaps, or of surging movement (think of the opening of Williams's “Spring and All”), their main effect here is to slow and muffle the language, forcing verbs into participial or passive constructions, lest they startle or disturb. Throughout the book, there's very little interplay between sentence rhythm and line breaks. Sentences extending more than two or three lines are unusual, and as a rule syntactical pauses and line breaks coincide. Even poems that seem relatively intense often dissipate their force in trivializing endings (e.g., “Talking to Little Birdies,” “Against Winter,” “The Something”).

Simic, of course, is not without talent, and flames of imagination occasionally flicker amid the ashes. The best poems in this collection have a trace of urgency in them, some hint of what may have hurt their maker into poetry, to adapt Auden's phrase about Yeats. Urgency needn't mean largeness of theme; the loneliness of the speaker in “Late Train” is palpable, even though (or perhaps because) it makes no claim to cosmic profundity:

In the empty coach, far in the back,
I thought I could see one shadowy passenger
Raising his pale hand to wave to me
Or to put a watch to his ear,
While I stretched my neck to hear the tick.

The stretch of the sentence, across five lines, signals a modest increase of energy, and the potential cliché, “pale hand,” is rescued by the adjective “shadowy” in the previous line: the hand is the one part of the indistinct figure to catch the light. Others among the better poems have some political steel in them, such as “Cameo Appearance,” “The Conquering Hero Is Tired,” or “The Emperor.” In “Cameo Appearance,” the horrors Simic witnessed as a child in Yugoslavia become a film to be shown to “the kiddies,” in which the poet “had a small, nonspeaking part.” The numbed affect that elsewhere seems merely an all-purpose varnish for once seems appropriate to the occasion of speaking. But for the most part, this book is long on manner and short on substance, half-imagined and half-formed. It's time to take the black cat off its leash. Given more exercise and freedom, it may actually catch something.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151

CRITICISM

Ford, Mark. “The Muse as Cook.” Times Literary Supplement, No. 4814 (7 July 1995): 15.

Review of The Unemployed Fortune-Teller and Frightening Toys that examines Simic's ideas about poetry.

Jackson, Richard. “Charles Simic's Mythologies.” In The Dismantling of Time in Contemporary Poetry, pp. 240-79. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1988.

Examines Simic's sense of mythic time.

Nash, Susan Smith. A review of Walking the Black Cat. World Literature Today 71, No. 4 (Autumn 1997): 793-94.

Praises Walking the Black Catas a coherent and unified presentation of Simic's major themes.

Simic, Charles. “Composition.” New Literary History IX, No. 1 (Autumn 1977): 149-51.

Brief essay in which Simic describes his poetics of composition.

Additional coverage of Simic's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 12, 33, 52, 61; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 105; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2.

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