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Changing Light Bulbs in the Cosmos with Charles Simic

Back in the ‘70s, when I first learned to write poetry in earnest, I lived in a small country village with two boarding schools. One for the very rich; one for the middle class. At the rich school, where I was a scholarship student, we were favored with lectures from the likes of Dick Gregory and Dan Rather, while we heard that students at the other school were doing things like smoking reefer and watching A Clockwork Orange backwards. We listened to toccatas and fugues in our intimate chapel, while the others brought to life the J. Geils Band. We were an all-boys school; they were coed. On Saturday evenings, I would lay on my back on a circle of lawn and gaze up at the cosmos, while they smashed pumpkins, dated, and drank until they saw stars. Two worlds: two belongings: two visions of “Singing in the Rain.”

My English teacher liked my writing and told me his best advice was to read everything voraciously; and he set me up to correspond with a New York writer, Nat Hentoff, who sent communiques of encouragement to me occasionally. I was restless, insomniac; my mind was full of ideas and lyrical wisps that were sometimes ‘elegant’ visual solutions to problems nobody wanted to hear about. I used to take long melancholy walks at night, through pungent apple orchards, look up through autumn maples leaves lit by a street lamp, recall lines from Frost, think heavy cosmological stuff. In short, I was a struggling poet.

Reading New Yorker magazine, I came across the poetry of Charles Simic, and was immediately blown away by the juxtapositions of minimalistic imagery and an ironic humor that I didn’t quite understand but which made me chuckle. There was humanism that laughed at itself, that seemed to peek out at me from the shadows of what could have been a bleak pessimism. His images were feisty, sometimes like a comic frame in words. I was reading T.S. Eliot for the first time and especially liked his shorter more accessible stuff — like Preludes. I read a vision of human misery similar to Simic’s, but without the humor.

For instance, I read, from Prelude II:

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

I re-read the finality, the heavy chords of the last line. Laughter, not so much. Eliot was steeped in the Anglican, urban fatalism, the kind that sends you genuflecting early in the chapel before the others arrive, and which seemed like a deep, vain thrombosis that crept up toward his heart his entire career.

Charles Simic, on the other hand, can bring you to a similar place of darkness and simplicity, but the illumination that follows is bound in a conceit that is not yet ready to give up. Take these opening lines from his early poem “Butcher Shop,” for instance:

Sometimes walking late at night
I stop before a closed butcher shop.
There is a single light in the store
Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.

Simic’s poem is potent, driven — an escape toward freedom; The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen, rather than the bulldozers of Auschwitz. (I love Eliot, by the way.) It could have gone South: Like the light which in which the convict digs his own grave. Say.

Charles Simic has been asked a lot about his past over the years. His English, though coherent and smooth, is delivered as a second language speaker. He is a Serb from Belgrade. He spent his early childhood there during World War II. Bombing and destruction eventually led to his family to emigrate — first to Paris, then New York, and, later, Chicago. “Everybody thinks I’m out of my mind when I tell them that I had a happy childhood even with bombs falling on my head. Playing with toy soldiers, I would go boom, boom, and the planes would go boom, boom,” he writes in an essay, “The Prisoner of History,” at NYRB in 1984.

He expected to become a painter, rather than a poet. But love of women drove him to try his hand at ‘pick up’ lines. “When I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems,” he says in an interview. “I found out that I could do it, too. I still tremble at the memory of a certain Linda listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps.” One can almost see her pounding heart.

Lots of male poets and painters would attest to this romantic French benefit — a beauty modeling naked under the sun in the shade of the mind’s eye near the blue lapping sea. One can see why Simic admired Byron’s Don Juan. In an early untitled prose poem from his collection, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, he describes his first romantic intersection, with the help:

There was a maid in our house who let me put my hand under her skirt. I was five or six years old. I can still remember the dampness of her crotch and my surprise that there was all that hair there. I couldn’t get enough of it. She would crawl under the table where I had my military fort and my toy soldiers. I don’t remember what was said, if anything, just her hand, firmly guiding mine to that spot.

And out of the war years poetry was soon born — boom, boom, boom.

Simic’s poetry has won the Pulitzer Prize (1990) and has been a finalist twice more. If he’s not careful, he might win the Nobel prize one day — his stuff’s that good. In his just released collection, Come Closer and Listen, Simic continues to develop his surrealist survival technique. His images are as sharp as ever, the humor is intact. He cares about the right thing — his poetry — and is not so anxious to hold dear positions of cultural power.

The three qualities I have enjoyed most from reading Come Closer are his humor, his characterizations, and his healthy metaphysical relationship with things unknown. His humor is founded on the wry twists of his surreality, playful surprises, and modest language that overachieves with its humanity. Sometimes it’s so simple that you don’t fully ‘get it’ until you’re moving your eyes to the poem on the next page. “Astronomy Lesson” feels like that:

The silent laughter
Of the stars
In the night sky
Tells us all
We need to know

Similarly, and complementing his winky feel for space is his wry take on time, in “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”:

Time–that murderer
No one has caught yet.

Space and time, out of which we are ‘evolutionary’ constellations of consciousness, seems to mock us, lugubriously, from the dark side of our own minds.

Simic fancies John Keats’ expressed notion of “negative capability” in his poetics — what Simic calls “the uncertainty of certainty,” of living within the means of what’s knowable (or not), without giant leaps of faith across event horizons, which can leave you absorbed, not in light, but in total darkness. Like the fellow in “Butcher Shop,” Simic uses available light to dig out of the jail of constraining concepts. In his essay, “Negative Capability and Its Children,” he observes, “We could … bring in recent political history, all the wars, all the concentration camps and other assorted modern sufferings, and then return to Keats and ask how, in this context, are we capable of being in anything but uncertainties.” (83)

In contrast, Eliot’s characters proceed through a symbol-laden, even Jungian suffering leading to a pre-supposed “objective correlative.” Simic’s characters don’t seem capable, by disposition, of drowning in an oversaturated consciousness of the world. Like Simic’s childhood itself, Simic’s characters keep on ‘playing,’ even as the bombs of chaos fall all around them. There is a toy poem to play with — in everything.

Simic’s characters thrash in the world, “Like that crazy old woman / With something urgent to say / You couldn’t make sense of.” We’re all on the road to Babel, and if not careful, of being inexpressive selves and inscrutable. This poetic recognition is all the ‘symbolism’ Simic needs. Again in “Negative Capability,” he writes, “The goal in surrealism as in symbolism is a texture of greatest possible suggestiveness, a profusion of images whose meaning is unknown and unparaphrasable to a prior system of signification.” (88) There is no real translation.

Similarly, in “Sunday Service,” one of my favorite Simic characters, having briefly considered, in three stanzas, a Sunday world seemingly hard at work ridding itself of sin (even a dog is chasing a cat up a tree for religious purposes), our character tells us:

Descartes, I hear, did his best philosophizing
By lazing in bed past noon.
Not me! I’m on my way to the dump,
Waving to neighbors going to church.

Classic Simic. Junk as sin, sin as junk. Out it goes, on Sunday morns.

But he can go further, getting downright farcical with joy, as in the romping “Bed Music.” Four quick stanzas: one to set the scene — lovers in a worn-out bed; another to express the noisy musicality of the coital enterprise; another to introduce mad-driven neighbors downstairs, and then the coup de grâce stanza:

That was the limit!
They called the cops.
Did you bring beer?
We asked the men in blue
As they broke down the door.

If Eliot’s Preludes are Chopin, then Simic goes all Liberace at times. He just doesn’t care.

Without hanging a moral compass around the neck of his perceiving subject, unbalancing his vision like a phenomenological albatross, Simic allows the frame that is seen to be seen for what it is — whatever values (moral, aesthetic) are self-evident and don’t require the intervention of prejudice. Such is the case with his wonderful poem “Among My Late Visitors”:

There is also a cow
Whose eyes the soldiers
Took out with a knife
And lit straw under its tail
So it would run blind
Over a minefield
And thereafter into my head
From time to time

I’ve never considered ‘war’ that way before. Going through Simic’s poems is like going through a mindfield full of IEDs (improvised expressive devices), if you’ll forgive the pun.

There is an upbeat metaphysics at work in Simic’s crooked world, things don’t quite line up right, and he doesn’t even have to try to ‘find’ oddball juxtapositions — they’re just there, and he just needs to wait and observe, as he did with a “Cockroach” early in his career, where he provokes the reader by saying he doesn’t see cockroaches the same ‘icky’ way he presumes the reader does. It’s a playful tactic that makes the reading a kind of agent provocateur’s test.

In one interview, he tells J.M. Spalding of Cortland Review, “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs.” It would still be surrealism in most other places, but, uh, in America, the road of excess doesn’t necessarily lead to the palace of wisdom — at all. He continues, “Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves.”

In “Metaphysics Anonymous,” homeless, downtrodden truth-alkies seek Salvation:

A storefront mission in a slum
Where we come together at night
To confess our fatal addiction
For knowledge beyond appearances.

…we line up with bowed heads
For coffee and cookies to be served.

For Simic, there are only these places we go, lost, to stand up and attest to our powerlessness before our addiction, and tell our story, often poignant, of how the search for Truth has torn apart our lives and left us ruined. People holding up their 3-month or 6-month badges of sobriety smiling, full of genuine support, knowing, though, it’s just a matter of time before they fall off the wagon again — into the gutter, where all truths run in the end.

Simic decided to duck out of re-upping for another year as America’s Poet Laureate in 2008. He noted humorously: “It was just too much. I had at least 50 or 60 interviews and countless number of other things I had to do. I would receive 30 emails every day relating to poetry. It’s enough to make you hate poets and poetry. Enough! You know? I want to do other things.”

He is now a Professor Emeritus in English at the University of New Hampshire, where he is involved in the MFA program. At work and life in a New England setting. Lucky bastard. Under the table, still playing with toy soldier revolutionaries, being manhandled by beauty.

…..

Note: A well-produced short documentary of his life can be found here. Simic reading his “Hide and Seek,” from Come Closer and Listen can be found at Poets.org. “Light Sleeper” and “The Old Orphan” from the collection are also there.

More articles by:

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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