The Voice at 3 AM’

Jackstraws

by Charles Simic
Harcourt Brace, 85 pp., $22.00

Ever since Charles Simic came to America from Belgrade in 1954, at the age of sixteen, he has been transmitting, in a rush of books of poetry and prose, images deriving from the traumatic no man’s land of his youth:

The Germans bombed Belgrade in April of 1941, when I was three years old. The building across the street was hit and destroyed. I don’t remember anything about that bomb, although I was told later that I was thrown out of my bed and across the room when it hit. The next day we left the city on foot….

How many of us were there? I remember my mother but not my father. There were people I didn’t know, too. I see their hunched backs, see them running with their bundles, but no faces…. My film keeps breaking.

Though by the usual systems of counting, Simic is now sixty-one, in his poems he is without chronological age. He has written that in its essence, “a lyric poem is about time stopped. Language moves in time, but the lyric impulse is vertical.” The poems are like self-developing Polaroids, in which a scene, gradually assembling itself out of unexplained images, suddenly clicks into a recognizable whole. Here, for instance, is a poem from Simic’s newest book, Jackstraws:

Head of a Doll

Whose demon are you,
Whose god? I asked
Of the painted mouth
Half buried in the sand.

A brooding gull
Made a brief assessment,
And tiptoed away
Nodding to himself.

At dusk a firefly or two
Dowsed its eye pits.
And later, toward midnight,
I even heard mice.

One could call this a miniaturist’s rewriting of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” with its colossal head half-buried in the sand:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies….
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias’ severed head remains unmolested, and is merely observed by the traveler; but Simic’s severed doll’s head, “assessed” by the daytime gull flying over the sand, has its vacant eye sockets investigated by the firefly at dusk; and surely, at midnight, the mice approach to use their teeth. A painted simulacrum—a “doll”—is what any statue, human or divine, appears to be to an observer who is not a member of the cult that has erected it. The toppled Ozymandias and Simic’s half-buried doll have lost their personal and cultural significance; the blinded doll, half-buried already, is about to be consumed by the nibbling creatures. While Shelley’s speaker invests himself in the ruins of the sublime, Simic questions a broken “demon” or “god” of the most ordinary sort—a child’s doll—bringing his poem into the surreal of the everyday, Simic’s defining atmosphere.

Simic’s mind is—because of …

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