November 20, 2011

Review by Jason Tandon

THE MONSTER LOVES HIS LABYRINTH
by Charles Simic

Ausable Press (Copper Canyon Press)
Copper Canyon Press
PO Box 271
Port Townsend WA 98368
ISBN-10 1931337403
2008, 128 pp., $14.00
www.coppercanyonpress.org

Charles Simic’s The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, a seemingly random collection of notebook entries and sketches, achieves a singular theme: an artist meditating upon his craft. Though neither a polished treatise nor didactic in tone, this book belongs in the 20th century American canon of poetics, somewhere between Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Frank O’Hara’s “Personism.”

Part I consists of biographical sketches that shed light on Simic’s predilection for juxtaposing tragic events with the absurd. He recalls Belgrade during World War Two and his early days in Chicago, establishing the significance of these experiences in his artistic development. He recounts one particular episode that will resonate with any poet: after showing his work to an older, painter friend, the friend responds, “Simic, I thought you were a smart kid. This is pure shit you’re writing!” Simic, recoiling from the unadulterated critique, recalls:

…mulling over what he had said, I got pissed off. There were some good things in my poems…I sat on a bench…crossing out most of the lines, attempting to rewrite them then and there, still angry, still miserable, and at the same time grimly determined.

This stubbornness, bluntness, and unflinching assessment recur in parts II-V, which include clipped proclamations on art, religion, politics, and history:

God died and we were left with Emerson. Some are still milking Emerson’s cow, but there are problems with that milk.

Stupidity is the secret spice historians have difficulty identifying in this soup we keep slurping.

Centuries ago, when the king’s advisers and seers gave wrong predictions as to the outcome of military campaigns, they were tortured and publicly executed. In our days, they continue being called “experts” and appear on TV.

What will draw most readers to this book are Simic’s poetic aphorisms. His tenets for writing poetry rest upon linguistic frugality (“Be brief and tell us everything”) and unyielding faith in the imagination. He suggests that sight, “seeing with eyes open and seeing with eyes closed,” is the poet’s most important and reliable sense. The fragmentary nature of these entries reflects the central qualities of Simic’s preferred genre, the lyric poem; yet, the idea of language accurately capturing a heightened state of emotion or recreating a visceral experience leads Simic to his central, paradoxical dilemma:

How to communicate consciousness…the present moment lived intensely
that language locked in the temporal order of the sentence cannot reproduce?

Much of this dilemma focuses on the conflict between time and space. Words mark time, Simic observes, and a sentence is a unit of time. Therefore, what occurs in the process of writing a lyric poem is the diminishment of temporal suspension and of experience (real or imagined) that initiated the poem. Poets often comment that when they are really writing time falls away, and they try to induce this state by unplugging the phone, locking the door, eliminating interruptions or markers of time.

The element that can combat the constraints of time is space, which Simic defines as the “attention we pay to each word.” Language, despite its apparent unity and universally accepted usage, contains multitudes of meanings and associations. It is this ambiguity, a word’s range of connotations (Simic refers to this as “non-Euclidian geometries”) that creates the space in which a reader experiences timelessness. “A battle against time” is perhaps the best way to describe the feeling one gets when reading a Simic poem:

BUTCHER SHOP
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.

An apron hangs on the hook:
The blood on it smeared into a map
Of the great continents of blood,
The great rivers and oceans of blood.

There are knives that glitter like altars
In a dark church
Where they bring the cripple and the imbecile
To be healed.

There is a wooden slab where bones are broken,
Scraped clean:—a river dried to its bed
Where I am fed,
Where deep in the night I hear a voice.

(from Dismantling the Silence by Charles Simic)

Simic continuously returns to the dilemma of writing poetry, lamenting that “Language is the Fall from the awe and consciousness of being,” but he is thrilled by the possibility of “making[ing] something that doesn’t exist, but which after its creation would look as if it had always existed.” He concludes that “Lyricism, in its truest sense, is the awe before the untranslatable…A great lyric poem must approach untranslatability,” a line of thinking that precipitates his thoughts about literary theory: “A high school student reading an ancient Chinese poem and being moved—a theory of literature that cannot account for that commonplace miracle is worthless.”

The Monster Loves His Labyrinth is a perfect companion to any handbook that deals explicitly with forms and figures of speech. It reminds us that writing poetry in and of itself is a supreme pleasure, and that poetry is an art and language its medium. Simic occasionally offers glimpses into his writing process—”Chance [is] a tool with which to break up one’s habitual associations. Once they’re broken, use one of the pieces to launch yourself into the unknown,” intimating that truth can always be sacrificed for the sake of the poem—offerings that encourage poets to reflect upon their poetics, a constantly evolving hodge-podge of touchstones, departures, and obsessions of language, image, and memory. Simic returns an air of mystery to poetic composition, when chance, happy accidents, and the hard work of revision produce a poem that prompts even its creator to marvel, “I wrote that?”

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Jason Tandon is the author of three collections of poetry, Wee Hour Martyrdom, Give over the Heckler and Everyone Gets Hurt, and Quality of Life, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. His reviews have recently appeared in the Boston Review and Pleiades. You can read more about his work at jasontandon.wordpress.com.