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Charles Simic
Harcourt Brace, $22 (cloth)

by Brian Henry

CHARLES SIMIC continues to revel in play and menace in his most recent collection, Jackstraws. A jackstraw is a scarecrow-a non-living thing brought to life through its function-as well as a man of no worth or substance. Jackstraws, though, is a game played with a pile of straw or sticks; the object is to remove each piece without disturbing the pile. It is the final meaning to which Simic refers in the title poem:

My shadow and your shadow on the wall
Caught with arms raised
In display of exaggerated alarm,
Now that even a whisper, even a breath
Will upset the remaining straws
Still standing on the table…

Simic implicitly acknowledges the scarecrow through the image of the raised arms, but the game itself governs the poem, which becomes a theatrical event complete with dramatic flair, lighting, and suspense. Simic's rendition of jackstraws reminds us of the seriousness of games and of the value we often attribute to them. Because the game of jackstraws requires dexterity, patience, and force of will, it becomes a metaphor for that most serious of games: poetry.

Simic's recent poetry demonstrates the fruits of such skills; but at this stage in his career, complacency, with its resulting predictability, emerges as the foremost threat to his work. Simic has published thirteen full-length books of poetry as well as two editions of Selected Poems, four books of non-fiction, a book on artist Joseph Cornell, eleven anthologies and books of translations that have brought into English such influential poets as Vasko Popa, Tomaz Salamun, and Novica Tadic. At what point, though, does the poet start to coast, become entrenched, depleted?

The atmosphere of Simic's poetry has changed little since Hotel Insomnia (1992), and the titles of poems such as "The Street of Martyrs," "My Little Utopia," "School for Visionaries," and "Insomniacs' Debating Society" could appear in any number of his recent books. The ingredients of Simic's poems-"tail of a black cat," "divine breasts," "batty schoolgirls," "Head of a Doll," "the Madonna with the mop," "blind pickpockets," "a blind beggar"-remain mostly the same from book to book.

One justification for this style-dwelling is the potential for the poet (if up to the task) to extract much from little, to bring out nuance and meaning from similar landscapes, as in the poetry of Charles Wright and Yannis Ritsos. To call Wright and Ritsos repetitive is to miss the importance of their projects-a physical and spiritual expanse that requires retreading and revisitation. In an interview in Harvard Review, Simic explained this stylistic constancy by pointing out, "Most of us know only a few tunes." And his description of Thomas Campion's poetry applies equally to his own: "The subject and the manner is almost always familiar; all invention is concentrated on variation and departure from convention." As if by design, few of Simic's recent poems are singular-for him, it is the repetition that makes his project appealing.

Simic's style carries the advantage of familiarity-in-strangeness (we must "strike a match to orient" ourselves) and the disadvantage of repetitiveness (we become oriented quickly, and then realize we aren't that dislocated). This familiarity comforts critics, who know what to expect of Simic and either praise or blame him for it (he has been heralded as the most original American poet and accused of writing translationese). Readers looking for formal ingenuity, lushness, or lyrical experimentation probably will find Simic's style disappointing. He favors the common tetrameter- and pentameter-based line, and nearly half of the sixty-two poems in the book are composed in regular stanzas of four, five, or six lines. He reveals a fondness for colloquial American speech-"bummed out," "lucky fellow," "chump," "Mr. Hot-Nuts," "fat chance"-and prefers a plain diction and flat rhythm. Exacting in word placement, Simic writes poems that demand slow reading. By stripping everything extraneous from his poems, he has arrived at the essence of the English language-"a few words surrounded by much silence," as he has said of both Ales Debeljak's and Tadic's poetry. Because of their unadorned language, Simic's poems generally rely more on content and perspective than on music and rhythm. His way of seeing, his ability to find and illuminate details in the shadows, recommends his poems as much as his style does: "To find clues where there are none, / That's my job now."

While many of the poems in Jackstraws seem typical of Simic's recent poetry, some reveal him testing new strategies. The only prose poem in the book, "In the Street" formally resembles Russell Edson's work while using the absurd and wistful tone of James Tate's latest work:

He was kneeling down to tie his shoes which
  she mistook for a proposal of marriage.
--Arise, arise, sweet man, she said with tears
  glistening in her eyes while people hurried
  past as if stung by bees.
--We shall spend the day riding in a balloon,
  she announced happily.
--My ears will pop, he objected…
--Don't worry my love, she hugged him.
  Even where the clouds are darkest, I have a
  secret getaway.

More common are poems like "Live at Club Revolution," Simic's version of Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," in which the apparently experienced Corinna stands in for the newlywed Faith:

It's time to burn witches again,
The minister shouts to the congregation
Tossing the Bible to the ceiling.
Are those Corinna Brown's red panties
We see flying through the dark winter trees … ?

These lines represent the bulk of the poetry in Jackstraws: they present a recognizable yet unsettling narrative, upset expectations of detail and development, and force the reader to see differently.

Frequently morbid (in one new poem, the "mother tongue" is wrapped in newspaper by the butcher), Simic in recent years has become increasingly preoccupied by mortality. Jackstraws' epigraph, taken from Adam Zagajewski-"this moment-what is it-just a mosquito, a fly, a speck, a scrap of breath …"-gestures toward one of Simic's primary concerns in the book: locating and capturing the ever-vanishing scraps of breath that make a life. Many poets in their autumnal years become staid or dull; but as "The Gang of Mirrors" demonstrates, Simic will not sing quietly in the face of his own mortality:

And the one that's got it in for you,
That keeps taunting you
In an old man's morning wheeze
Every time you so much as glance at it,
Or blurt something in your defense,
Screaming, raising your chin high,
While it spits and chokes in reply.

Here and elsewhere in Jackstraws Simic achieves the personal without resorting to autobiography; we learn much about the poet, but little about his family, marriage, and childhood.

This personal element rubs against the supposed surrealism in Simic's work. Although often labeled surrealist, Simic's poems do not conform to any brand of surrealism, French or otherwise. The worlds in his poems might not confirm our own, but they still are fundamentally realistic, since Simic takes the world and refracts it through his imagination and perceptions. He is ultimately a romantic poet, albeit one who has learned from surrealism the effectiveness of surprising juxtapositions, dream-like imagery, and absurdity.

With its simplicity and strangeness, Simic's style assists in his pursuit of the "Mystic Life," which is "like fishing in the dark, / If you ask me: / Our thoughts are the hooks, / Our hearts the raw bait." His linguistic whittling also has its spiritual counterpart; although Simic has not pursued the via negativa as consistently as Charles Wright, the constant process of paring and sifting has allowed Simic, at times, to empty himself of his self. But Simic's sense of humor-as subversive as it is youthful-keeps him on the rogue side of the spirit/body divide.

Simic seeks to deflate and defame (religion, governments, the machine of history), thereby perpetuating the romantic poet's privileging of the self. "The task of poetry, perhaps, is to salvage a trace of the authentic from the wreckage of religious, philosophical, and political systems," Simic writes in "The Flute Player in the Pit." Lyric poets, then, "must assert the individual's experience against that of the tribe." A poet who believes "only the individual is real" and who champions "the need to make fun of authority, break taboos, celebrate the body and its functions, claim that one has seen angels in the same breath as one says that there is no god" will never divest himself of self to lead the "mystic life." But he still can nod toward it.

IN ADDITION to numerous signature Simic poems, Jackstraws presents one of his major achievements to date, "Talking to the Ceiling," a suite of eight unrhymed sonnets that prove "the insomniac's brain is a choo-choo train." Most of the lines evade continuity and, thanks to the heritage of the sonnet, benefit from the appearance of fluidity and from the startling juxtapositions of language and imagery that result:

Cassandra with a plastic rose between her teeth.

Is this then the cabinet of Dr. Caligari?

Who is that milking a black goat under the


My uncle, the general, never came out of the

Because he could not find his beach ball.

Along with discontinuity, the poem relies on the pun ("The undercover agent under my covers stayed hidden"), the bizarre ("A baby, you say, smuggled inside a watermelon"), twisted wisdom ("Coming down from the trees was a big mistake"), and incongruity ("Long hours of the night; St. John of the Cross / And Blaise Pascal the cops in a patrol car"). Through their rejection of narrative and their acceptance of randomness, the eight parts of "Talking to the Ceiling" resemble Simic's unconnected notebook entries (especially "The Minotaur Loves His Labyrinth"). Here, however, the possibilities offered by the form of the unrhymed sonnet, though not fully realized, energize this insomniac's jottings, gesturing toward completion without finding it. Although Simic has created a potentially new style with "Talking to the Ceiling," the poem's title diminishes his accomplishment, reducing the leaps and restraints of the poem to a disconnected monologue (one person "talking," not to another person but to "the ceiling"), when the poem itself leans toward polyphony and indeterminacy. Because Simic has made essential his own poetic style, he now faces the choice of continuing to refine and extend that style or using it to push his poetry into new territories by modifying his strategies and, therefore, his vision. In Jackstraws he seemingly has opted for enhancement and repetition, but the strengths of "Talking to the Ceiling" and a handful of other poems quietly, yet firmly, call for further breakage, further risk-taking. n

Originally published in the Summer 1999 issue of Boston Review


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