Reassembling Simic

And now for something relatively different: an appreciation of the well-known Serbian-American surrealist poet, Charles Simic.

Over the years I’ve collected nine of Simic’s books almost without trying – the better part of his oeuvre. I have to say I like the earlier books better – they have more of the breath of authentic discovery in them. In the later ones he seems a bit tame, a parlor magician still given to occasional flashes of wizardry among all the prestidigitation. But the two most recent books of his that I have, Walking the Black Cat and Jackstraws, contain almost as many startling images as the first three.

Even at his best Simic has always been the master of the inspired couplet or stanza; individual poems are sometimes a little less than the sum of their parts. Perhaps this is an Eastern European thing, but the world his poems inhabit does appear irredeemably fragmented. The shards, however, suggest figured urns that would’ve blown Keats’ mind. Sometimes the antiquarian’s labored reconstruction is successful, and sometimes there simply isn’t enough that’s salvageable.

But as Milosz says, over-analysis of poetry is reprehensible! All this is simply by way of excusing what I am about to do here this morning: liberate a bunch of Simician fragments from their original matrices and reassemble them into a short sequence of linked verses. Pretend that it’s 2500 years in the future and we’re puzzling over the only leavings of another Sappho.

Actually, there is already something of that lost quality in Simic’s work, with its inescapable mid-20th century milieu. Men wear hats, gypsies tell fortunes, and the corpses of abstract truths still seem relatively fresh. Could anyone else get away with such rank idealism? But in the mouth of a non-native speaker like Simic a language can sometimes ring more true, freed from the worst excrescencies of literary precedent and quotidian use.

Sources: FOREST (Dismantling the Silence, 1971), HUNGER (Ibid), FOR THE VICTIMS (Ibid.), THE CURE (Charon’s Cosmology, 1977), AN EVENING WITH THE MASTER (Austerities, 1982), EARLY EVENING ALGEBRA (Unending Blues, 1986), THE FLY (Ibid ), untitled (complete poem, The World Doesn’t End, 1989), THE VARIANT (Charon’s Cosmology), CREPUSCULE WITH NELLIE (The Book of Gods and Devils, 1990), INSOMNIAC’S DEBATING SOCIETY (Jackstraws, 1999), DARK TV SCREEN (A Wedding in Hell, 1994), WINTER EVENING (Walking the Black Cat, 1996), BED MUSIC (Ibid.), THE WIND (complete poem, from Dismantling the Silence), MYSTIC LIFE (Jackstraws).

A cluster of roots
Pulling in every direction.
. . . .

Take it as medicine,
A teaspoon at a time, and remember:
You are a saint turned over on a spit,
You are a roach caught by the convicts.
. . . .

Then, at last, we’ll get a true taste of ourselves.
The ear will crawl back into the eye
Like Jonah into his whale.
. . . .

Mating season
Of the hand and the glass,
Respectful homage
Of the wine to the light,
That I talk to, that I quarrel with . . .
. . . .

A soul with a falcon’s hood
Bent over a nursery school slate
Which screeches and bleeds darkly
As it lets itself be written
. . . .

The chalk must have been given her by a child.
One kept looking for him in the crowd . . .
. . . .

He was writing the History of Optimism
In Time of Madness. It was raining.
. . . .

“Tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul,” writes Nietzsche. I always felt that too, Friedrich! The Amazon jungle with its brightly colored birds squawking, squawking, but its depths dark and hushed. The beautiful lost girl is giving suck to a monkey. The lizards in attendance wear ecclesiastical robes and speak French to her: “La Reine des Reines,” they intone. Not the least charm of this tableau is that it can be so easily dismissed as preposterous.
. . . .

The proverbial dry blades
Sticking in the throat.
. . . .

All of a sudden, a clear sense of a memorable occasion . . .
The joy of it, the delicious melancholy . . .
This very strange man bent over the piano shaking his head, humming . . .


Then it was all over, thank you!
Chairs being stacked up on tables, their legs up.
. . . .

The cueball Buddhist
Among us
Pooh-poohing all foregoing,
It’s just our imagination.
Imagine that?
. . . .

O Cordelia, my name is Lear. My name is
Primo Levi. I sit naked between
The open window and the dark TV screen,
My hands and sex bathed in the fire of evening.
. . . .

My love’s window was on fire
With the sunset.
Her hair was red.
The pillow she carried in her arms
Was like a baby.

Quiet as a bread crumb,
I stood and watched.
. . . .

Our love was new,
But your bedsprings were old.
. . . .

Touching me, you touch
the country that has exiled you.
. . . .

It takes a tiny nibble
From time to time.

Don’t you believe it.

It sends a shiver down our spines
In response.

Like hell it does.

There’s a door you’ve never noticed before
Left ajar in your room.

Don’t kid yourself.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.