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Simic’s Peregrinations

Benjamin Paloff

The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems
Charles Simic
Harcourt, $25 (cloth)

8 Over the last 40 years, Charles Simic has become an undeniable, self-sustaining presence in contemporary American poetry. He has authored, edited, or translated dozens of books, writes frequently about everything from art to politics for literary and mainstream periodicals, and has received most of the major honors we have for our poets, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for The World Doesn’t End, a book of prose poems. Thus, like so many writers of his caliber, Simic has accumulated a set of journalistic clichés that attempt to assimilate his work. Words like “inimitable,” “surreal,” and “nightmarish” have followed him around in countless reviews and articles, and the first thing that The Voice at 3:00 A.M. reveals to us—if we look to these milestone collections to show us an arc that their constituent volumes cannot—is that only the last of these terms, “nightmarish,” really continues to hold true for Simic’s poems. This observation is quite a bit more unsettling than it initially may seem: the world delineated in Simic’s poems is nightmarish, but it is not surreal—it is our own world brought to ruin by our bizarrely human whims. If our world seems unfamiliar in his writing, it may be because most American readers cannot easily relate to the experiences that have shaped Simic’s vision. And if Simic himself often seems inimitable, it is because his epigones ape his predominant voice—offering glimpses of macabre scenes in clipped, soft-spoken sentences—without encompassing the historical purview evident throughout his work (though never as clearly as in the present collection).

Born in Belgrade in 1938, Simic occupies an unusual place in American letters in that, on the one hand, he writes in a natural American idiom and, on the other, knows what historical cataclysm looks like on the ground, not as a combatant or sympathizer might see it, but as a sustained, everyday reality in his own neighborhood. As a child Simic survived the Allied bombing of his native city and subsequently migrated through Europe until his family settled in the United States. (The late Richard Hugo, a bombardier in that campaign, offers us a peculiar literary artifact in his poem “Letter to Simic from Boulder,” in which he apologizes for unknowingly raining ordnance on his future colleague.) “This may sound unbelievable,” Simic recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, “but it took war photographs and documentaries that I saw a few years later to impress upon me what I had actually lived through.” But it is not unbelievable: no matter how much the child of war is told that the explosions, gunshots, and hangings are anomalies and abominations, daily life insists otherwise.

Yet Simic is hardly a poet of witness. The poems from his first twenty years of writing, gathered in his stunning Selected Poems 1963–1983, inhabit a space where Old World superstitions are made manifest in the modern city and miracles and worst-case scenarios become equally mundane. In this way, his early work bears strong affinities to such Yugoslav masters as Vasko Popa, Ivan V. Lalic, and Novica Tadic, whom he has translated to great effect. The Voice at 3:00 A.M. picks up where that first selected volume left off, allowing us to see how Simic has augmented the historical dimension of this worldview, thereby rendering the distinction between daily life and nightmare laughably naïve, as we see in the impressive “Paradise Motel” (from A Wedding in Hell, 1994):

Millions were dead. Everybody was innocent.
I stayed in my room. The President
Spoke of war as of a magic love potion.
My eyes were opened in astonishment.
In a mirror my face appeared to me
Like a twice-canceled postage stamp.

I lived well, but life was awful.
There were so many soldiers that day,
So many refugees crowding the roads.
Naturally, they all vanished
With a touch of the hand.
History licked the corners of its bloody mouth.

On the pay channel, a man and a woman
Were trading hungry kisses and tearing off
Each other’s clothes while I looked on
With the sound off and the room dark
Except for the screen where the color
Had too much red in it, too much pink.

Here, Simic takes a step back from the cropped focus of his earlier poems and achieves a broader perspective that brings almost otherworldly catastrophe—war like “a magic love potion”—into a chillingly domestic space. The poet is willing to overdo it: the image of history as a ravenous beast may be a little too much, but it crashes against an illusory erotic picture, the only thing the speaker can bring himself to criticize. This is the balancing act we should expect from a poetry that is essentially religious, though Simic’s is a religion without consolation: to take History as your God is to assert God’s existence, even His omnipotence, but not His benevolence. Or as Simic puts it in “The Old World,” “I believe in the soul; so far / It hasn’t made much difference.”

*  *  *

Simic ranks among that select company of anglophone writers—including such prominent Slavs as Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov—who have managed to become true stylists in their adopted language. Simic’s own distinctive style consists in the collision of a baroque sensibility, marked by his allegiance to unsettling conceits, with strict linguistic economy; his predilection for brief, unembellished utterances lends an air of honesty and authority to otherwise perplexing or outrageous scenes. And while the pleasures his poems afford are hardly syntactic, one finds Simic pushing the language of his later poems a little further to mirror the intensity of their subject matter. We see this throughout The Voice at 3:00 A.M. but perhaps most movingly in the last two stanzas of “Reading History,” a poem about discovering in text an uncanny communion with the past:

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.

There is nothing here that would betray the legacy of Simic’s earlier work: the image still abounds with darkness, doom, and above all a hopeless ambiguity, as though the speaker has resigned himself to the insolvable riddle of the universe. But whereas Simic’s most celebrated and anthologized early poems are fundamentally solipsistic, allowing verbal images to stand as their own gnostic truths, one cannot help but hear in a poem like “Reading History” the language stretching—not straining—toward a consequence that is greater than the image, the poem, or its author. Instead of proffering us the brief, deliberately mysterious utterances to which we have become accustomed, the poet takes the brakes off the sentence, allowing its focus to waver between the sky and the condemned, between the world and the body, finally to discover a helplessly omnipresent deity in the absent speaker. It is a measure of dynamic self-discovery that Simic achieves only by relaxing control of his tried-and-true formulas, a point the poet himself seems to articulate in the magnificent last stanza of “Ambiguity’s Wedding” (from Jackstraws, 1999): “Soul, take thy risk. / There where your words and thoughts / Come to a stop, / Encipher me thus, in marriage.”

The best of the later poems demonstrate how much a practiced maker can do with a rather conservative linguistic and conceptual palate, as Brian Henry persuasively argued in these pages in 1999. Even as The Voice at 3:00 A.M. is an important and extremely timely collection, however, its breadth serves neither its writer nor its reader. There are a great many poems here, including most of the new poems and those drawn from Simic’s most recent book, Night Picnic (2001), that sound less like the genuine Simic than like one of his imitators, all “dust” and “insomnia” and “black cats” (words he recycles with almost embarrassing regularity) organized around a whole lot of nothing. This poses a serious dilemma for the entire oeuvre. The more trivial of the later poems can be so portentously self-indulgent that it becomes difficult at times to trust Simic enough to get around his most arbitrary assertions, as in the couplet that opens “And Then I Think” (from Night Picnic): “I’m just a storefront dentist / Extracting a blackened tooth at midnight.” It is never a good sign when the reader’s first impulse is to gawk at the page and say, “No he isn’t.” When the writing grows tired, when the poem itself seems to lose interest in what it is talking about, the writer retreats to his most convenient, familiar ground, and we begin to see more of the backstage mechanics than we would like. At times it is as if Simic trusts his tableaux to overpower us with some self-evident profundity, and we can almost hear him breathing after the poem has had its say, waiting expectantly to harvest the reader’s awe. Such is the case with “The Scarecrow” (from The Book of Gods and Devils, 1990), quoted here in its entirety:

God’s refuted but the devil’s not.

This year’s tomatoes are something to see.
Bite into them, Martha,
As you would into a ripe apple.
After each bite add a little salt.

If the juices run down your chin
Onto your bare breasts,
Bend over the kitchen sink.

From there you can see your husband
Come to a dead stop in the empty field
Before one of his bleakest thoughts,
Spreading his arms like a scarecrow.

Simic has written many poems of this ilk, poems in which we witness the collusion of allegorical or quasi-Biblical imagery, a not-quite-comfortable sexuality, and vague intimations of our “bleakest thoughts.” With God out of the way, Martha, presumably the sister of Lazarus and Mary, engages in some Eden-style mischief while her unnamed husband pantomimes the Crucifixion. The salt may call Lot’s wife to mind, but the reading has already become a guessing game: the associations are so scattered, the speaker’s own investment in the scene so obscure, that we are left with no clear sense that the poem has enacted anything at all. We do not ask for every poem to be equal to the most effective, but poems like this fail to develop or complicate their details, availing the reader little more than pure voice.

Which brings us to a question that could apply to any number of American poets in Simic’s generation, many of whom subscribe to the notion that the poet has only one true voice: How can we, as readers, tell when the poet is still evolving, stripping away the increasingly subtle layers that separate him from his ideal self, and when he is merely treading stagnant water? In Simic’s case, it is reassuring that the best poems in The Voice at 3:00 A.M. show the poet at the top of his game, which is not to say that he still has it, but that he is still moving toward it. It isn’t too difficult for us to imagine another selected volume from Simic twenty years down the road, nor is it difficult to imagine what such a book might look like. We can only hope that the poet will answer our expectations with a healthy dose of the unimaginable. <

Benjamin Paloff, a frequent contributor to Boston Review and Harvard Review, has poems forthcoming in the Paris Review, New Republic, and elsewhere. He is a graduate student at Harvard.

Originally published in the December 2003/January 2004 issue of Boston Review



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