July 8, 2016

Charles Simic

THE VICES OF THE EVENING

The way the light and shadow
Go one with their tug-of-war
While the night busies itself
Behind our backs

To catch us by surprise
With a single burnt matchstick
Left in someone’s hand,
Who forgot why he lit it,

Unless it was for children
To find their way
Through weedy gardens
And narrow back alleys

from Rattle #17, Summer 2002

__________

Charles Simic: “When you read a nice poem, somebody else’s poem, you become attuned to the words on the page. The language seems so rich, so beautiful, imagination making connections. You do need the reader as a collaborator. There could be other experiences beyond that of course. There might be some thoughts, some ideas emerging out of that, but I think the most basic fundamental thing is to give the reader something pleasurable.”

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June 9, 2016

Charles Simic

MIDSUMMER

The truth is, we are nearer to heaven
Each time we lie down.
Take a look at the cat
Rolled over with its feet in the air.

A sunny morning after last night’s storm
Is one more invitation to paradise.
So we leapt out of bed
To dress quickly, only to tarry

Kissing, and fall into bed again,
Astonished to find
The ceiling over our heads,
And not the blue sky.

from Rattle #17, Summer 2002

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May 24, 2016

Charles Simic

FRIED FISH CAFE

The evening sky is red
And so is the wine I’m drinking.
I’ll stay on right here
At the end of this long pier.

O world with your traveling horrors,
Cities burning in the distance,
Coffins piled up to the sky,
Martyrs hung like butcher’s carcasses.

Whatever your secret is, sea wind,
Whisper it in my ear and only in my ear
And then let the gulls
Spread over me their ghostly wings.

from Rattle #17, Summer 2002

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December 30, 2013

Review by Howard RosenbergNew and Selected Poems by Charles Simic

NEW AND SELECTED POEMS: 1962-2012
by Charles Simic

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
215 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10003
ISBN 978-0-547-92828-9
2013
384 pp., $30.00
www.hmhco.com

In an interview published in The Paris Review, Charles Simic said, “I love odd words, strange images, startling metaphors, and rich diction, so I’m like a monk in a whorehouse, gnawing on a chunk of dry bread while watching the ladies drink champagne and parade in their lacy undergarments.” That love displays itself in the poems in his new book, New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012, most of it culled from thirteen of his earlier works.

Almost hidden near his latest book’s end are the new poems. Many didn’t captivate me as much as ones in his previous works, such as Master of Disguises’ “Summer Storm”: Its style reminds me of Linda Pastan’s, one of my favorite poets. For me, poems need to tell a story that I can invent from, expand upon. In “Summer Storm,” its final quintain both ended the poem and initiated my imagination’s journey. The “deepening quiet” that enters the poem surrounded me as my eyes lingered on its lines. Of the sixteen new ones, six are discussed below, beginning with “I’m Charles” and ending with “In the Egyptian Wing of the Museum.”

“I’m Charles” is the first-person, one-stanza account of its narrator

Swaying handcuffed
On an invisible scaffold,
Hung by the unsayable
Little something
Night and day take turns
Paring down further.

Battling writer’s block, the narrator struggles to express the “unsayable,” warring with a deadline that’s effecting his “last-minute contortions,” the poem animating the difficulty of expressing what’s just beyond the mind’s reach. Rather than relating to the experience literally, Simic mutates it, transfiguring it into a scene whose similes, metaphors, and personifications could have captured Poe’s attention. However, what I enjoyed most was the poem’s abstraction, first a distraction and then an attraction.

“Things Need Me” further displays Simic’s skill at animating the inanimate. Its opening lines, “City of poorly loved chairs, bedroom slippers, frying pans,/ I’m rushing back to you” introduce another narrator—totally different persona, one cognizant of the outer, literal world but not trapped within an internal conflict. The narrator verbally glares at the “heartless people who can’t wait/ To go to the beach tomorrow morning,” people eager to desert the city with its “Dead alarm clock, empty birdcage, piano I’ll never play,” objects the narrator prefers as his companions, “Each one with a story to tell.”

The interaction with the outer world continues in “Lingering Ghosts.” Its narrator asserts, “Give me a long dark night and no sleep,/ And I’ll visit every place I have ever lived,” those lines reflecting Simic’s statement in Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell that “Insomnia is an all-night travel agency with posters advertising faraway places.” When told in an interview published on Terrain.org that “many of your poems seem to take place late at night,” he replied, “As for late-night settings in my poems, it’s my lifelong insomnia speaking. I’m usually up when everyone else is snoring away.” The night seems to guide his vision in ways the day cannot.

In “Ventriloquist Convention,” the narrator addresses anonymous others identified in its opening quatrain:

For those troubled in mind
Afraid to remain alone
With their own thoughts,
Who quiz every sound
The night makes around them …

Then those being addressed are offered an invitation to enter “a room down the hall” where the voices and forms of those not actually there—some deceased— are “All pressing close to you,/ … Leaning into your face,” one person’s “Eyes popping out of his head.” This poem reminds me of those of James Tate, the style change adding spice to Simic’s new poems, its title a lure, its bait worthy of a bite. It’s the second new poem I dwelled upon, treated as a puzzle whose pieces contained a secret I wanted to share.

“Grandpa’s Spells” is another new poem in which the narrator prefers his own company.

Bleak skies, short days,
And long nights please me best.
I like to cloister myself
Watching my thoughts roam

Like a homeless family
Holding on to their children
And their few possessions
Seeking shelter for the night.

But the narrator’s favorite thought is of “The dark sneaking up on me,/ To blow out the match in my hand.” The dark’s actions are both a personification and a metaphor for death—a frequent guest in Simic’s poems—as the narrator awaits without fear his dispossession from everything tangible.

Life and death also coexist “In the Egyptian Wing of the Museum.” A man and woman engage in coitus against a coffin painted with death’s rituals

While the dog-headed god
Weighed a dead man’s heart
Against a single feather,
And the ibis-headed one
Made ready to record the outcome.

Preceding the above, final stanza is a middle quintain laden with prepositional phrases—“like an unicyclist,” “up a pyramid,” “in the hands of a magician,” “at a mortician’s convention”—that slow its pace, control its rhythm, and detail the live couple’s unification. Simic’s minimalistic style both sharpens and condenses the reader’s focus and reflects the bond between life and death, creating a verbal representation of the Yin-Yang symbol.

When the new poems’ pull on my attention waned, I returned to earlier times, to poems such as “St. Thomas Aquinas” (in The Book of Gods and Devils), to its six-line stanza that begins with “I stayed in the movies all day long./ A woman on the screen walked through a bombed city/ Again and again” and ends with “I expected to find wartime Europe at the exit.” For a moment, I was more than a reader. I was an observer, the woman walking away from me, the war outside my door.

Also in The Book of Gods and Devils is “The Little Pins of Memory,” a first-person tale recounting a remembered event, one involving a “child’s birthday suit,” “a tailor’s dummy,” and a store that “looked closed for years.” Though the tale’s revealed to be real, to stimulate my imagination I blurred its border between the real and the surreal, an action that many of Simic’s poems easily allow if not already doing that for the reader.

Another of my favorites is “Listen” (in That Little Something). An apostrophe poem, it begins with

Everything about you,
My life, is both
Make-believe and real.

We are a couple
Working the night shift
In a bomb factory.

The narrator gives his life a joint existence, treating it as if it’s separate, yet inseparable, one partner a “he,” the other, a “she.” This poem displays Simic’s strength, his ability to mesh seamlessly the real and unreal, using simple language to express complex ideas.

Another earlier poem, “The Common Insects of North America” (in Jackstraws), contains an allure that I wish more of the new poems had. Insects, its narrator proclaims, are all about, “Behind Joe’s Garage, in tall weeds,/ By the snake handler’s church,” among them, “Painted Beauty,” “Clouded Wood Nymph,” and “Chinese Mantid,” all animated by personification. One insect’s “barefoot and wears shades”; another’s “climbed a leaf to pray.” Further, in Simic’s “scene” the insects are not intruders but more like acquaintances who are asking us, through him, to “Please let us be neighbors” a la Mister Rogers.

New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012 offers an excellent selection of Charles Simic’s poetry; however, I wish it included one omission: information about the “nearly three dozen revisions” to previously published poems that its front flap states the book contains.

__________

Howard Rosenberg has had poems published in Christian Science MonitorVerse Wisconsin, Boston Literary Magazine, and Rattle, and his poetry book reviews have appeared in Rattle. He also has written articles for magazines and newspapers, including the Philadelphia Daily News. He writes and teaches in New Jersey.

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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?”

____________

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.

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March 15, 2011

Review by Howard RosenbergMaster of Disguises by Charles Simic

MASTER OF DISGUISES
by Charles Simic

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
15 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10003
ISBN 978-0-547-39709-2
2010, 96 pp., $22.00
http://www.hmhco.com/

In Master of Disguises, Charles Simic’s first poetry book since ending his tenure as Poet Laureate, he continues a trend toward writing about the “dark side,” pushing it into the limelight while exposing its consequences.

In one “trend” poem, the “Old Soldier,” the speaker begins with “By the time I was five, / I had fought in hundreds of battles,” revealing that war occupied even his earliest thoughts. But given that war formed the foreground for Simic’s early life — he lived in Yugoslavia during the Second World War — those thoughts at that age are understandable. As Simic said in an interview in The Cortland Review (August 1998), the “Germans and the Allies took turns dropping bombs on my head while I played with my collection of lead soldiers on the floor.”

Then, the scene shifts to “after the bombing raid” — a raid unmentioned to that point — his mother leading him “into the garden” where he swats at flies with a toy sword, aware of a nearby cat “whose tail I wanted to pull.” But that moment of escape quickly fades into the final stanza, where the mood changes and the war returns:

All I needed was a horse to ride,
Like the one hitched to a hearse,
Outside a pile of rubble,
Waiting with its head lowered
For them to finish loading the coffins.

That volta-like shift in “Old Soldier” magnifies the poem’s impact. It’s not just a poem about a boy; it’s a poem about the outer context that shapes the boy’s life. Simic’s voice is a warning of the way war alters lives, a reminder that it’s impossible to isolate ourselves within our own worlds. No matter how pleasant they may be at times, they can’t fully protect us from the world without.

When I was young, my parents never took me to a relative’s funeral, never allowed me to experience that part of life. As a result, funerals I’ve attended as an adult have affected me more than I think they would have had I not been isolated from them when young.

The “Old Soldier” reminded me of a previously published war poem Simic wrote, “The Big War,” a piece in which the speaker leads an army of soldiers made of clay. In its opening, he also treats war like a game: “We played war during the war.” It amazes me how during a time when war raged around him, “playing” war gave Simic pleasure, something he addresses in an interview published in the Spring 2005 issue of The Paris Review. When told on May 9, 1945 — which happened to be his seventh birthday — that the Second World War had ended, “apparently I looked at them puzzled and said, ‘Now there won’t be any more fun!’”

Both war — and coffins — reappear in “The Sparrow,” a poem written in response to “the current wars.”

There’ll be plenty of business
For those making bombs,
Uniforms and hospital beds,
And, of course, coffins.

In the above stanza, the repetition of the “b” and “c” sounds binds the lines, enhancing the stanza’s somber, almost satirical, tone.

The poem takes a sharp turn in its final stanza. The speaker shifts his attention to a sparrow “hopping in the yard,” concluding the poem with this political commentary:

If our president is right,
You and I may be on crutches
Next time you pay us a visit.

Besides communicating his political opinions in Master of Disguises, Simic also shares his social concerns. In “The Invisible One,” the first of the book’s 52 poems, he focuses attention on loneliness and separation, writing about a person so immersed in his own problems that he isolates himself from the outer world.

The three-stanza poem begins with this quatrain:

You read about a child
Kept for years in a closet
By his crazy parents
On a street you walked often.

Its simple, yet engaging language, grabbed my attention and propelled me into the second stanza:

Busy with your own troubles,
You saw little, heard nothing
Of what was said around you,
As you made your way home

Its wording reminded me of how isolated our society is becoming. Recently, sitting on a subway train traveling from Manhattan to Brooklyn, my fellow passengers seemed to seal themselves within their own cocoon, a shell that separated them from those they neither knew nor wanted to. I, too, sought to conceal myself, seeing “little,” hearing less, never glancing at a fellow passenger long enough to draw his or her attention.

In the third and final stanza, the action returns to the “street”:

Past loving young couples
Carrying flowers and groceries,
Pushing baby carriages,
Hanging back to scold a dog.

Each line contains an “ing” word which, coupled with the repetition of the “hard sounds,” the plosives (found in words such as “push,” “couples,” “groceries,” “baby,” and “dog”), tightens the stanza’s structure and provides the mortar that cements together the lines.

In another poem of three quatrains, “The Elusive Something,” Simic again addresses the issue of separation. It begins with sights and smells:

Was it in the smell of freshly baked bread
That came out to meet me in the street?
The face of a girl carrying a white dress
For the cleaners with her eyes half closed?

By personifying the bread’s aroma, Simic’s words caused me to pause; the unique way in which he described the sensory experience effected an image that filled my mind. And every time I return to those lines, the image also returns. It’s a very pleasant association.

More sights lead into the third stanza’s final line — “And found myself alone on a busy street” — the poem ending with this stanza:

I didn’t recognize, feeling like someone
Out for the first time after a long illness
Who sees the world with his heart,
Then hurries home to forget how it felt.

Its last five lines contain one of the most powerful messages I’ve ever read in a poem, a message its last line sealed in my memory. Too often, whenever I’ve “seen” the world with my heart, it has caused suffering. But rather than facing it, I’ve usually sought to shut it out. The epitome of that was on September 11, 2001. The terror of the event overwhelmed the sympathy welling in my heart, a horror still difficult for both my mind and eyes to view.

Simic’s words in “The Invisible One” and “The Elusive Something” continue to resonate both in my heart and mind, and though those two poems are about separation, they have effected “collaboration” between us.

The book’s poems pave a path that Simic didn’t detour from until the second-to-last poem, a path filled with words about war, death, loss, doom, and loneliness. But then, in that next-to-last poem, “The Invisible,” the book’s only multi-page poem, both style and substance shift. In its eleven stanza-groupings, each headed by a Roman numeral, Simic journeys further into surrealism.

It first stanza begins with one of the book’s best first lines — “It was always here.” — and follows it with these:

It vast terrors concealed
By this costume party
Of flowers and birds
And children playing in the garden.

This stanza’s metaphor and imagery elevates this poem: it was thought-provoking, planting seeds in my imagination that I enjoyed watering.

The book ends with a poem that’s possibly its shortest, yet probably its most poignant. Titled “And Who Are You, Sir?,” a question whose asker is left to each reader’s imagination, the poem is wedged into 36 words which address the philosophical issue of whether G-d exists. Its speaker refers to himself as “just a shuffling old man” and bemoans that a superior being “hasn’t spoken to me once,” a being who dwells “On some high mountain meadow / In the long summer dusk.” Yet despite his concern, he retains hope. I hope that, in his future, Simic writes more poems like this one.

In retrospect, the man who’s referred to himself as a “cheerful pessimist” succeeds again in demonstrating his ability to condense meaning without obscuring it, to empower his poems with paradox, and to mesh seamlessly the real and imagined. And though many of the poems in Master of Disguises continue a style trend, they are also verbal tightropes off which a reader rarely falls, tightropes that demand — and deserve — a reader’s complete attention.

____________

Howard Rosenberg has written articles for both magazines and newspapers, including the Philadelphia Daily News. He has had poems published in Poetica and Vanguard, and a poetry book review appeared in Rattle. His poem, “Stetter to Sheffield to Matcovich,” was selected by Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine as its “Baseball Poem of the Month” for July 2010. He teaches writing at a two-year college in New Jersey.

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