26
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Charles Simic

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Charles SimicCharles Simic (May 9, 1938) was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and immigrated to the United States in 1954, and he is considered an American poet. He lived through World War II, where his town was bombed, and was even bombed by the American poet Richard Hugo. According to Simic in an interview with Grace Cavalieri:

Charles Simic: So, I met – bumped into [Richard] Hugo in San Francisco in a restaurant, and we were talking, and he said, “What did you do this summer?” And this is 1972, and this is the first time I went back to Belgrade, and I said, “Well, I went back to Belgrade.” “Ah,” he says, “Belgrade!” And he started describing Belgrade. He says, “Here’s the Danube; here’s the Sava River, here’s the main train station, here’s this bridge, that bridge.” So I had no idea how he knew. So I said, “You’ve been there. You’ve visited Belgrade.” And he said, “No, never in my life. I used to bomb it two, three times a week.” So then I just exclaimed – blurted out, I said, “I was down there!” And he was very upset. He was very, very upset.
Grace Cavalieri: Of course. It’s one of those amazing little things. And you became friends.
CS: Yeah. I mean, I understood it was wartime; bombs fall on your head.
GC: But there he is looking at you.
CS: He wrote me a poem, he was apologetic. It troubled him a great deal. (14-15)

Simic is the author of many collections of poems, including The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems (1989), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, the author of a number of books of essays, and he has translated French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian poetry.

When I read Grace Cavalieri’s interview with Charles Simic, two surprising things were pointed out. Surprise one, Cavalieri doesn’t “feel comfortable when people talk about [Simic’s] poetry as ‘surreal’” (12). To which Simic replied, “When you’re young, you get a label” (12), and he, too, didn’t think he was surrealist, which led to surprise two. Simic said he’s “a hard realist” (12). I had not read Simic in well over 10 years, but I remembered him being surreal, and so I assumed, like most poets, he didn’t want to be labelled or nailed down to any one particular aesthetic. Then today I read his Selected Early Poems (George Braziller, 1999). I, too, recognize that he isn’t a surrealist.

When I think of surrealism, I think of some surreal thing that invades and takes over a poem. The object/subject asserts its presence and its logic, like in a dream when the images invade your mind against your will and you watch. With Simic, however, he creates situations. He, along with language, controls how things will behave in his poems. Simic, among a number of techniques: creates situations; mythologizes or animates objects; manifests abstractions; or through his hyper-attention to the real, he brings forth what might be overlooked, and in that presentation, the object might appear surreal, when in fact it is just Simic looking at it a new. Simic is visionary in that he envisions his own realities.

“The Chicken Without a Head” (Selected Poems 74-77) is an example of where he creates a situation and mythologizes it. The poem opens with him imagining old realities when “the earth was still flat,” “When there were 13 signs in the zodiac,” and when “The chicken without a head was hatched.” The latter premise he uses as his scenario for which to follow with his imagination and creativity to make the rest of the poem. And in this poem, he creates the world, the possibility of a world, with a living “chicken without a head.” So it doesn’t come to him like an uncontrollable surreal dream. No, Simic, with all his fantastic imagery, is in control, and he reminds us twice. First in the middle of section 2, when he writes, “No, I’m lying,” which confirms to the reader that he is making up this story and that it is not a surreal projection from the unconscious of which he has no control. The second time is at the end of section 4, where he again reminds us of the lie when he writes, “I swear it by the yolk in my hair / There’s no such thing as a chicken without a head.” What Simic does do is to push the headless-chicken scenario as far as he can. He does a similar thing in “Brooms” (45-48), too. The initial scenario is that “Only brooms / Know the devil / Still exists,” and then what follows is something like his journalistic or documentary account of the history of the broom. It’s the realist’s approach to the mythologies of the broom, some of which come from “dream books” and some of which he imagines. In this poem, too, is an example of hyper-attention to the real presenting a seemingly surreal-like image. In lines 4-5, he writes, “That the snow grows whiter / After a crow has flown over it.” That’s a real perception that most of us have encountered, or have encountered something similar. When you look at the snow, it looks white, but when contrasted with black, it suddenly becomes whiter, especially after the juxtaposing black is removed. So it seems surreal, but it’s an optical illusion grounded in the real, but more on this later.

Sometimes Simic will animate an object, which in turn creates a surreal-like scenario. For instance, in “My Shoes,” the poem opens with a unique re-visioning of a pair of shoes:

     Shoes, secret face of my inner life: 
     Two gaping toothless mouths, 
     Two partly decomposed animal skins 
     Smelling of mice nests.

Then he begins to mythologize their existence by projecting his dead brother and sister into the shoes, and then says:

     I want to proclaim the religion
     I have devised for your perfect humility
     And the strange church I am building
     With you as the altar.

He has made the shoes the center of a religion, his religion, for they are “The only true likeness of myself,” Simic’s self. Sometimes, however, Simic will just animate objects to see what they can do in his imagination, such as “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand” (21-22), “Fork” (23) where he also gives it a mythic origin, “Spoon” (24), etc.

On other occasions he will similarly manifest an abstraction, as in “Dismantling Silence” (20). In this poem, he takes the abstract idea of silence and gives it a body. It takes on a dream-like presence as it manifested with ears, which are quickly cut off, and then in the brilliant image “With a sharp whistle slit its belly open.” By continually adding human or animal like features to the “silence,” he is able to bring it to life while at the same dismantle it. He makes us it hear it by seeing it.

In yet other poems, Simic will create a seemingly surreal-like scenario because of his hyper-attention to the real. For instance, “Summer Morning”:

     I love to stay in bed
     All morning,
     Covers thrown off, naked,
     Eyes closed, listening.

     Outside they are opening
     Their primers
     In the little school
     Of the cornfield.

     There's a smell of damp hay,
     Of horses, laziness,
     Summer sky and eternal life.

     I know all the dark places
     Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
     Where the last cricket
     Has just hushed; anthills
     Where it sounds like it's raining;
     Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses.

     I pass over the farmhouses
     Where the little mouths open to suck,
     Barnyards where a man, naked to the waist,
     Washes his face and shoulders with a hose,
     Where the dishes begin to rattle in the kitchen.

     The good tree with its voice
     Of a mountain stream
     Knows my steps.
     It, too, hushes.

     I stop and listen:
     Somewhere close by
     A stone cracks a knuckle,
     Another rolls over in its sleep.

     I hear a butterfly stirring
     Inside a caterpillar,
     I hear the dust talking
     Of last night’s storm.

     Further ahead, someone
     Even more silent
     Passes over the grass
     Without bending it.

     And all of a sudden!
     In the midst of that quiet,
     It seems possible
     To live simply on this earth.

Here, there are a number of occasions where the speaker is just acutely aware of his surroundings that are out of the normal range of perception. For instance, normal senses would not be able to see schoolchildren “opening / Their primers,” or far off smell the “damp hay, / Of horses, laziness,” or far away hear “Where the dishes begin to rattle in the kitchen,” or more importantly, “hear a butterfly stirring / Inside a caterpillar” or hear someone pass “over the grass / Without bending it.” These are all real images but ones that could only be seen with his acute awareness, a hyperawareness, and because of that, their presentation, especially the butterfly, seems surreal-like. In a few places, he enhances his hyperaware perception by decorating it with surreal images of his making, such as “Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses,” or “A stone cracks a knuckle.” And so we have a speaker so attuned to his environment that it overwhelms him like the end of a James Wright poem, “And all of a sudden! / [. . .] It seems possible / To live simply on this earth.” That closing epiphany along with being situated in a real environment that slowly overcomes him, turns this into Deep Image poem, perhaps the only one in this selection. I note this because Simic if often considered a Deep Image poet, but Simic has too much humor and too much of his own creating of reality to be a Deep Image poet. Simic creates situations, whereas Deep Image poets re-create situations with a sincere tone. One can also find hyper-awareness of the real creating a surreal-like scenario in “Solitude” (66), where the speaker notes that no one can hear a crumb hit the floor, but he knows the ants can, and when they do, they put on “Their Quaker hats” to come and collect the crumb.

Simic is often animating or mythologizing an object or subject. He is in control, especially in his hyper-awareness of the real. There is at least one poem, however, where he is not. It’s one of the few poems where the subject of the poem gets its own voice, and this happens in “What the White Had to Say” (90-91). Right from the start, White speaks and tells Simic, “Because I’m nothing you can name, / I knew you long before you knew me.” Simic is confronted with something he can’t control or animate for the White will “not answer to your [Simic’s] hocus-pocus.” The White will animate Simic. The White takes on the qualities of fear and anxiety, and it’s so powerful, that even Simic’s “shadow / [. . .] has not stirred on the wall.” To me this means either there is so much white and so much brightness, that a shadow cannot be cast (which in Jungian terms might mean there’s so much self-conscious awareness in that fear/anxiety state, that the unconscious (the self) cannot be projected). Or it might just mean that there is a shadow, but Simic is scared stiff and can’t move, thus his shadow can’t move. Simic is paralyzed in his inability to animate or create.

There are also a few ars poetica poems that can help shed light on what I am getting at overall. One is “Description” (111-113), which begins:

     That which brings it
     about. The cause.

     The sweet old temptation
     to find an equivalent

     for the ineffable

This describes the process of creation of a Simic poem, as I see it. There’s the inspiration or scenario or subject/object that has yet to be seen in a unique way, and Simic will find a way to represent those unseen qualities by finding equivalent language and images, which often appear surreal. Then there’s the ars poetic “Elementary Cosmogony” (42), which is even closer to describing Simic’s poetic process.

     How to the invisible
     I hired myself to learn
     Whatever trade it might
     Consent to teach me.

     How the invisible
     Came out for a walk
     On a certain evening
     Casting the shadow of a man.

     How I followed behind
     Dragging my body
     Which is my tool box,
     Which is my music box,

     For a long apprenticeship
     That has as its last
     And seventh rule:
     The submission to chance.

Here we see Simic treating the writing of poetry like a “trade,” and he even has “toolbox” (the tools of his writing craft) and a “music box” (a poem is musical). As part of his trade, he will observe the invisible (“the ineffable” from the previous poem) like a scientist or investigator, “How I followed behind / Dragging my body.” He’s staying close to that invisible realm, or what others might consider invisible, but Simic has hyper-awareness and is able to track the invisible. This doesn’t come easy though, as it is “a long apprenticeship.” Even though I’ve been noting that Simic likes to control his renderings, he’s not immune to letting “chance” enter his poems. A good poet likes to be surprised, and often that surprise arrives luckily, unconsciously, from some place else, from the chance of language and imagination, and Simic has learned to allow for this.

I bought this book well over ten years ago. On the title page, under “Selected Early Poems,” I wrote, “He sleeps in the mind.” I don’t know why I wrote it, or what it means, but it feels right somehow.

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Works Cited

Cavalieri, Grace. “Interview with Charles Simic.” Paterson Literary Review 37 (2009): 9-22. Literary Reference Center. Web. 24 Sept. 2015. PDF.

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