Charles Simic in The New Yorker

When I was a student in his workshop at N.Y.U., the poet Charles Simic would frequently counsel me and my classmates, “You could write a poem about anything!” (A toothpick, for example, or a rat on the subway tracks—he would perform a little impression, protruding his front teeth and waggling his fingers before his cheeks like whiskers.) Simic, who died this week, at the age of eighty-four, served as the United States Poet Laureate and won the Pulitzer Prize, among other national and international honors, and his advice is borne out in his body of work: a trove of surreal, philosophical verse, melancholy yet marked by a profound sense of humor and joie de vivre, in which the everyday mingles with the existential.

Simic contributed regularly to The New Yorker for half a century, starting in 1971, with “Sunflowers,” an oblique riff on the King Midas myth that reads simultaneously like a love poem and an ars poetica. Writing, after all, is an alchemical act—the poet’s touch transforming the stuff of life into art—and one that is often if not always intertwined with desire. The poem ends: “Sunflowers, / my greed is not for gold.” For what, then? Romance, experience, the world itself—or something more intangible, immense, whose mystery is realized and deepened through the language of the lyric? In their compression, Simic’s imagistic poems, whether looking inward, outward, or in many directions at once, convey a sense of vastness. “Harsh Climate,” from 1979, describes the brain as “Something like a stretch of tundra / On the scale of the universe.” But his work is also sensually abundant and imbued with earthly appetites, such as in “Country Lunch,” which begins, “A feast in the time of plague— / That’s the way it feels.”

Simic was born in Belgrade in 1938 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1954. He drew on memories of his war-torn youth for many poems, including “Empires”:

My grandmother prophesied the end
Of your empires, O fools!
She was ironing. The radio was on.
The earth trembled under our feet.

Someone important was giving a speech.
“Monster!” she called him.
There were cheers, long applause for the monster.
“I could kill him with my bare hands,”
She announced to me.

The juxtaposition of the domestic and historical realms is characteristic. Even poems that deal more explicitly with the nightmarish violence that Simic witnessed evoke that devastation through striking details and disconcerting metaphors. While his work avoids didacticism and stands in opposition to ideology, it evinces a practical righteousness. That humanity is embodied here in the figure of the grandmother, who admonishes the speaker not to tell anyone what she has said. “She then pulled my ear to make sure I understood,” Simic writes. This simple, intimate yet forceful gesture manages to convey the grave peril of their surroundings, but also contains a broader lesson for the child about power, demagoguery, and nationalism.

A contrast in scale creates an uncanny effect, too, in “Stub of a Red Pencil,” a metaphysical address to the titular object. “You were sharpened to a fine point / With a rusty razor blade,” Simic writes. “Then the unknown hand swept the shavings / Into its moist palm / And disappeared from view.” That hand recalls the hand of God, whose absence or apathy shapes “An inconceivable, varied world / Surrounding your severe presence / On every side, / Stub of a red pencil.” In Simic’s poetry, the universe’s indifference to mortal affairs is less a source of mourning than of marvel; in the dreamlike “Makers of Labyrinths,” he proposes a toast with “The wine of eternal ambiguities,” and muses, “Our misfortunes are builders. / They always forget about windows, / Make the ceilings low and heavy.” There is an acute awareness of suffering, and even a suggestion of complicity, in poems like “Reading History,” in which the speaker, studying atrocities of centuries past, compares himself to a judge condemning someone to execution:

How vast, dark, and impenetrable
Are the early-morning skies
Of those led to their death
In a world from which I’m entirely absent,
Where I can still watch
Someone’s slumped back,

Someone who is walking away from me
With his hands tied,
His graying head still on his shoulders,
Someone who
In what little remains of his life
Knows in some vague way about me,
And thinks of me as God,
As Devil.

Yet Simic also laughs at the tendency to see one’s reflection everywhere. From “Mirrors at 4 A.M.”:

They are more themselves keeping
The company of a blank wall,
The company of time and eternity,

Which, begging your pardon,
Cast no image
As they admire themselves in the mirror,
While you stand to the side
Pulling a hankie out
To wipe your brow surreptitiously.

Or, as he puts it in “Private Eye”—which, like many of Simic’s poems, bears the influence of film noir—“To find clues where there are none, / That’s my job now.”

A year after the September 11th attacks, The New Yorker dedicated a full page to “Late September,” an understated, haunting poem that both acknowledges the grief and terror of its moment and takes a long view. The speaker, hearing what he thinks is a television, “sure it was some new / Horror they were reporting,” goes to investigate, and finds “It was only the sea sounding weary / After so many lifetimes / Of pretending to be rushing off somewhere / And never getting anywhere.” In the wake of this nod to eternity, Simic returns to human time—“This morning, it felt like Sunday”—closing the poem by personifying “a dozen gray tombstones huddled close / As if they, too, had the shivers.”

Always a poet of memory, Simic continued, in his career’s later stages, to contemplate the past and to imagine the beyond. “To Dreams,” by the logic of the unconscious, disrupts chronology—“I’m still living at all the old addresses”—and, in a reversal of expectations, stages waking as a kind of death:

These back-door movie houses in seedy neighborhoods
Still showing grainy films of my life,

The hero always full of extravagant hope,
Then losing it all in the end?—whatever it was—
Then walking out into the cold, disbelieving light,
Waiting close-lipped at the exit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *