That Little Something
Whimsy, usually defined as “curious, quaint, or fanciful humor,” has a contract with oddity, and the “odd” has a way of flirting with the darker side of experience. One does not think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) or Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia (1823) as dark works, and this is because their whimsy falls just short of embracing oddity too warmly. Alice is constantly stepping back from the darker aspects of the oddity forced on her at every turn. She walks out on the Hatter’s “Mad Tea-Party” at just the point where highjinks turn into mayhem:the last time she saw them, they were putting the Dormouse into the teapot.
“At any rate I’ll never go there again!” said Alice, as she picked her way through the wood. “It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was in all my life!”
Charles Simic rarely gives his readers the choice to escape the darkness of his whimsy in his collection That Little Something. Rather than implicit, the darkness is explicit and no more avoidable than the owlish laughter that resonates long after his poems are read. That laughter is often silent, largely because his poetry does not invite a voiced reading. Without rhyme and often flat in diction, the metrical precision of his verse bites into the mind and holds the reader’s thinking on a tight leash. After leapfrogging from quaintness to terror, his poems usually leave readers thinking thoughts that they cannot always easily connect or explain to their deepest selves. In this collection, one of several eight-line poems describes this effect perfectly:
Thoughts frightened of the light,Frightened of each other.They listen to a clock ticking.Like flock of sheep led to slaughter,The seconds keep a good pace,Stick together, don’t look back,All worried, as they go,What their shepherd may be thinking.
What are these “thoughts” that Simic forces on the reader? The first poem of this new collection, “Walking,” invites readers to take a prosaic stroll through the proverbial old neighborhood, a place that everyone knows intimately but where the speaker can “find nothing remotely familiar.” The “trees . . . the bus that passed this way . . . the greengrocers and hairdressers,” all the ordinary things and places he remembers cannot be found. Things become desperate when, despite his inability to find any of the things his memory tells him should be there, he realizes that he has “no return ticket/ To wherever it is I came from earlier this evening.” The whimsical absurdity produced by the misalignment of memory and experience gives way to the terrifying discovery that memory deceived can actually cut one off from the experience of the present. One relies on the past to flesh out the moment at hand. Robbed of that past, one has nowhere to goor to be.
This is the kind of primal anxiety Simic’s poetry brings into comic relief again and again. He makes readers grin, almost feverishly, at their helplessness. Often the sensation is dreamlike, a nightmare brought under control with wit and humor. Phantasmagorical images abound. In “The Elevator Is Out of Order,” a “monkey dressed in baby clothes” and an “old man, with a face powdered white” frighten a protagonist “frazzled and descending in a hurry” down the staircase of what seems to be the proverbial house of life. When the elevator is not working, one has to keep one’s eyes open in the stairwell, and suppressed memories rise up from nowhere.
If the past is both elusive and overpowering, the future is no less maddening. The future is not dependent on memory, but it teases one into thinking that it is moored in the past. In the poem “Clouds,” which sails by in three perfectly balanced stanzasvery much like a series of clouds in a quiet skythe future seems at first to be riding the crest of Nature’s being: “To those worried about the future,/ You bring tidings,/ Shapes that may recall things/ Without ever shedding/ Their troubling ambiguity.” Even Nature seems to be playing games: “Like a troupe of illusionists/ Traveling in circus wagons/ You play hide-and-seek with the light/ In country fairgrounds/ Until overtaken by the night.”
Although above and beyond the self, the clouds fall into the same darkness that Simic’s whimsy cannot avoid. They do not belong to themselves. Nature’s voice is no more independent than the bemused speech of the bracketed poet: “Taking a break from prophecy/ Over small prairie towns/ In company of dark trees,/ Courthouse statues, crickets,/ And other amateur ventriloquists.” The odd marriage between past and future can propel one into illusions about the present. Here is the first stanza of “Crickets”: “Blessed are those for whom/ Time doesn’t run/...
(The entire section is 2070 words.)