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Treasure Box

1.

In our bicentennial year, Charles Simic and Mark Strand, two poets of kindred excellences and temperaments, published an anthology entitled Another Republic and devoted to seventeen European and Latin American poets whose work was (and still largely remains) outside the orbit and canon of this nation’s taste and habit of mind. The seventeen included Vasko Popa, Yannis Ritsos, Fernando Pessoa, Miroslav Holub, Zbigniew Herbert, Paul Celan, and Johannes Bobrowski, along with a few more familiar Nobel laureates-to-be. The editors lumped their poets into two general batches, the “mythological,” a group that included Henri Michaux, Francis Ponge, Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, and Octavio Paz, and another group, the “historical,” devoted to Yehudah Amichai, Paul Celan, Zbigniew Herbert, Czesl/aw Milosz, and Yannis Ritsos, while acknowledging that some of the poets fall between the two stools, or partake of both categories, while resisting identification with either one. They furthermore define the “mythological” strain by deriving it from sources in Surrealism.

Surrealism has never really enjoyed much favor in North America, a fact Octavio Paz has explained this way:

The French tradition and the English tradition in this epoch are at opposite poles to each other. French poetry is more radical, more total. In an absolute and exemplary way it has assumed the heritage of European Romanticism, a romanticism which begins with William Blake and the German romantics like Novalis, and via Baudelaire and the Symbolists culminates in twentieth-century French poetry, notably Surrealism. It is a poetry where the world becomes writing and language becomes the double of the world.*

Furthermore, our sense of Surrealism, at least when it figures in poetry, is of something facile, lazy, and aimless except in its ambition to surprise by a violation of logic, taste, and rigor. Bad Surrealism can grow tiresome very easily, and one does not feel encouraged to continue reading a poem such as Charles Henri Ford’s “He Cut His Finger on Eternity,” which begins:

What grouchy war-tanks intend to shred
or crouch the road’s middle to stop my copy?
I’ll ride roughshod as an anniversary
down the great coiled gap of your ear.

If we have no good native Surrealists, we can at least boast of a few fine imported ones, of which Charles Simic is certainly one of the best. “Imported,” however, is the wrong term for someone who was a refugee, a DP (Displaced Person) who was born in Belgrade in 1938 and left when he was fifteen. The poetry Simic writes is not simply better than bad Surrealism; it is what we instantly recognize as a responsible mode of writing, a poetry that, for all its unexpected turns, startling juxtapositions, dream sequences, mysteries, will be found, upon careful consideration, to make a deep and striking kind of sense. It is utterly without Dali pretensions or Dada postures. It makes no appeal to the unconscious for the liberty to write nonsense. In Simic’s art especially we must attune our ear to a voice usually softspoken, often tender, not infrequently jolly, the sort of lover of food who has been instructed in starvation. No single poem of his can be said to represent the whole range of his gifts, or the variety of his comedic sense, so often tinged with grief, or laced with that special brand of the sardonic, ironic humor characteristic of Corbière or Laforgue. Yet I think that in a poem of his called “Views from a Train” something essential of his poetic intelligence makes itself beautifully audible:

Then there’s aesthetic paradox
Which notes that someone else’s tragedy
Often strikes the casual viewer
With the feeling of happiness.
There was the sight of squatters’ shacks,
Naked children and lean dogs running
On what looked like a town dump,
The smallest one hopping after them on crutches.
All of a sudden we were in a tunnel.
The wheels ground our thoughts,
Back and forth as if they were gravel.
Before long we found ourselves on a beach,
The water blue, the sky cloudless.
Seaside villas, palm trees, white sand;
A woman in a red bikini waved to us
As if she knew each one of us
Individually and was sorry to see us
Heading so quickly into another tunnel.

This is neither simple allegory nor dream, but a fused vision embracing both. The first four lines initially seem to recall La Rochefoucauld’s bitter acknowledgment, “In the misfortunes of our best friends we often find something that is not displeasing.” But the poet gives depth to what passes in the Maxims for ruthless candor and lacerating exposure. The “aesthetic paradox” connects the brutal pleasure in another’s pain with Aristotle’s Poetics and the classic demonstration of how an audience, by a double act of identification and distancing, can find artistic and poetic pleasure in viewing deep torment and agony.

The next four lines seem to be offered as illustration to the generalization of the opening. They served to remind me precisely of a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, in which a group of boys, viewed through the hole in a wall undoubtedly made by a bomb, appear to be taunting and attacking one of their number who is on crutches. The picture is titled simply “Seville, 1933.” It may well be quite unknown to the poet, but he is the survivor of bombings by the American Air Force, occupation by the Nazis, and further occupation by the Communists, in a war-ravaged and desperately poor country, so he knew, both from close up as well as distanced by time and travel, the situation depicted in the photograph.

All of a sudden we were in a tunnel.” The lines that immediately follow blot out all the external world for a brief interval, as we return to our inwardness, not only as we slip in and out of sleep but as our very thoughts negotiate between external and internal experience. The woman waves to us from a privileged setting of seaside villas with palms and white sand. Our view of her is as fleeting as was the view of the naked children and lean dogs. Tragedy, we are being reminded, is not a presentation of pure agony, but of the change of state from good fortune to misfortune. The poem presents both in what seems like the wrong order. But the order doesn’t matter, since we are “heading so quickly into another tunnel.” It may be we ourselves who are the tragic figures in this poem, for we do nothing, we are simply passive viewers, while the children, the dogs, and the woman lead lives of which we catch only a glimpse. In the manner of other Simic poems, there are no neat and easy conclusions to be drawn, yet the poem is full of strange revelation, darkness and brilliance, sadness and luxury.

The luxury is, for the most part, a rare ingredient in Simic’s poetry, where it is more than likely to appear as some simple but satisfying food. What this poet is particularly gifted at revealing is the derivation of joys and pleasures from the most unlikely, and even forbidding, sources, as here in a poem called “Unmade Beds”:

They like shady rooms,
Peeling wallpaper,
Cracks on the ceiling,
Flies on the pillow.
If you are tempted to lie down,
Don’t be surprised,
You won’t mind the dirty sheets,
The rasp of rusty springs
As you make yourself comfy.
The room is a darkened movie theater
Where a grainy,
Black-and-white film is being shown.
A blur of disrobed bodies
In the moment of sweet indolence
That follows lovemaking,
When the meanest of hearts
Comes to believe
Happiness can last forever.

The last six lines compose a “sentence” without a main verb. It is purely descriptive, a blurred, grainy vision of a movie, itself a vision, of something fleeting that is nevertheless both wonderful and durable. Of course, being an old black-and-white film, this can be pure delusion, and not very persuasive at that. Is all our happiness mere delusion? Is that film like the shadow-play on the walls of Plato’s cave? And if it is no more, isn’t it still to be cherished, being all we have? If we find ourselves in a fleabag hotel room, is this an adequate symbol for our normal existence? Is it folly or heroism to be able to rise above the sordors of this world? The elements of Simic’s remarkable life, to which I will turn shortly, may suggest what answers he might give to such questions. Certainly that hotel room, soiled as it is, nevertheless is much to be preferred to Sartre’s in Huis Clos. Another poem, “Firecracker Time,” starts off with some of the same mixed ingredients:

I was drumming on my bald head with a pencil,
Making a list of my sins. Well, not exactly.
I was in bed smoking a cigar and studying
The news photo of a Jesus lookalike
Who won a pie-eating contest in Texas.
Is there some unsuspected dignity to this foolishness?
I inquired of the newly painted ceiling.

There are sixty-eight poems in Night Picnic, none of them long, most of them fitting on a single page. But it’s not easy to convey the fine variety this collection so generously presents. Here, for example, is a poem that itself revels in variety:

THE ALTAR

The plastic statue of the Virgin
On top of a bedroom dresser
With a blackened mirror
From a bad-dream grooming salon.
Two pebbles from the grave of a rock star,
A small, grinning windup monkey,
A bronze Egyptian coin
And a red movie-ticket stub.
A splotch of sunlight on the framed
Communion photograph of a boy
With the eyes of someone
Who will drown in a lake real soon.
An altar dignifying the god of chance.
What is beautiful, it cautions,
Is found accidentally and not sought after.
What is beautiful is easily lost.

The heterogeneous simplicity of these assembled items brings to mind certain photographic interiors by Eugène Atget or Walker Evans, pictures full of deep feeling, eloquent of frugal and damaged lives that nevertheless cling to small tokens of hope. And I can think of no poem that so powerfully conveys the raging, frenzied lusting of pubescent boys as does “The Cemetery”:

Dark nights, there were lovers
To stake out among the tombstones.
If the moon slid out of the clouds,
We saw more while ducking out of sight,
A mound of dirt beside a dug grave.
Oh God! the mound cried out.
There were ghosts about
And rats feasting on the white cake
Someone had brought that day,
With flies unzipped we lay close,
Straining to hear the hot, muffled words
That came quicker and quicker,
Back then when we still could
Bite our tongues and draw blood.

Such a poem cannot fairly be labeled “surrealist,” and yet it has about it a pungency of pain, fear, sex, and death blended into an extraordinary brew of life that is far from the literal world of commonplace experience. The distinct miscellaneousness that crops up in so many Simic poems does not lend itself to the confident summing-up that Emerson so cheerfully posits in “The American Scholar”:

  1. *

    Quoted by Paul Auster in the introduction to his Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry (1982), p. xxxi.

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