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The poet Charles Simić is the ultimate ideological skeptic.
Laurence Edwards, Clay Head (2015), Cley Beach, England. Photograph: Matt Cooper
The Life of Images: Selected Prose
Ecco Press, $27.99 (cloth)
The Lunatic: Poems
Ecco Press, $22.99 (cloth)
Shop windows empty except for a dusty mannequin or a boy’s suit long out of style; a seedy magician doing his threadbare act in an unpopular theater; a fat fly in a matchbox clutched by a lunatic. Charles Simić has been the primary purveyor of images such as these in American poetry for close to half a century, importing them from a mysterious region rumored to lie between the former Yugoslavia and the monstrous mountain passes of his private dream kingdom. A specialist in the uncanny, in objects removed from explanatory contexts, in stories gestured at but left untold, Simić describes his orientation as cosmic rather than historical or natural. He distrusts the tribalism inherent in history, with its chains of “begats” and its stockpiles of grievances, and he sees a direct link between the Romantic idealization of nature and a dangerously naive utopianism. He would rather reach beyond history and nature to deep enigmas of the cosmos itself—“the brain-chilling infinities and silences of modern astronomy and Pascalian thought.” He finds unsettling enigmas not just in the vastness of space, but in the scenes and objects nearest to hand. When Simić looks at it, even a dog heading up the walk with the newspaper in his mouth becomes eerie and touches on an aspect of infinity.
Yet Simić’s turn from history to the cosmic is itself a product of history, of the collision of his life with some of the most brutal events of the past century. A child of war-ravaged Belgrade, Simić tells us, “I’ve seen tanks, piles of corpses, and people strung from lampposts with my own eyes.” Although they could not have known it, Hitler and Stalin were, according to Simić, “hatching an elaborate plot to make me an American poet.” There is truth to this, and not just truth about Simić as an immigrant to the United States. His commitment to lyric poetry has everything to do with skepticism about the certainties of ideologies, whether of the right or the left, and his orientation toward the cosmic and the uncanny comes, too, from his traumatic childhood, from a series of events that seemed to deny any rational explanation.
Trauma figures prominently in some of the earliest memories recounted in The Life of Images, a selection of essays drawn from previous prose collections dating back to 1990’s Wonderful Words, Silent Truth. “I remember lying in a ditch and staring at some pebbles while German bombers were flying over our heads. That was long ago,” he writes. “I don’t remember the face of my mother nor the faces of the people who were there with us, but I still see those perfectly ordinary pebbles.” The palpable fact of the pebbles was somehow uncanny, immediate but strange, within but somehow outside the human context of war. “It is not ‘how’ things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists,” Simić writes, quoting Wittgenstein. “I felt precisely that. Time had stopped. I was watching myself watching the pebbles and trembling with fear. Then time moved on.” Moments such as these give form to Simić’s imaginative reflexes and make the ordinary appear strange.
Simić’s aversion to orthodoxies informs his poetics as well as his politics.
Another early memory involves a visit, just after the war, to a museum with an exhibition about wartime atrocities. The casualness surrounding unspeakable murderousness was all too evident: photos showed people chatting at public hangings, or soldiers smiling for the camera while they slit the throats of prisoners. When Simić’s school group stepped outside for lunch, one of the boys had nothing but a piece of bread and scallions, which the other students found hilarious. Someone snatched the bread and threw it into the branches of a tree. Everyone, including the teacher, laughed as the boy, humiliated and hungry, tried and failed to get it down. It is a Lord of the Flies moment in which we catch a glimpse of the darkness just below the surface of quotidian life, sensing the failure of well-meaning efforts, such as, the exhibition, to dispel it.
Efforts to improve or perfect humanity terrify Simić, and understandably: he saw the Nazis, with their ideology of racial purification, triumph over Europe, and he grew up in a province of Stalin’s empire, with its talk of a worker’s utopia and the reality of its gulag. Simić is a great reader of philosophy, but like many modern philosophers he is radically opposed to the rigidities of systemic thought, whether metaphysical, political, social, or religious. “What if one doesn’t buy any of these theories—as I do not?” he asks. In that case, “one just writes poems as someone who sees and feels deeply, but who even after a lifetime does not understand the world.” Lyric poetry, for Simić, is about the specific case, and it stands as “the defense of the individual against all generalizations.”
Commitment to the individual served Simić well in the 1990s, when his native Yugoslavia tore itself to pieces in internecine warfare. This was clearly a difficult period for Simić, who saw in the bombing of Belgrade a reprise of his youth and who found himself actively courted by the Serbian community to serve as a spokesman in America. Refusing this role, he wrote against the rise of Serbian nationalism in Serbian and German newspapers. For his efforts, he was accused of being both a traitor and a spy. “Here is something we can all count on,” he wrote in 1993, the year the Bosnian Serbs scuttled an international peace plan, “sooner or later our tribe always comes to ask us to agree to murder.” Nationalist ideology was no better than what he’d seen in the ’40s and ’50s, and Simić would have none of it.
At times this anti-ideological stance is entirely laudable, but in Simić’s essays we sometimes see it harden into a kind of orthodoxy of its own. He treats the literary theory that became fashionable in universities in the ’80s and ’90s as if it were, by virtue of its abstraction and political commitments, no different from Stalinism, and his sense of the unregenerate nature of humanity leads him to see all efforts at making the world a better place as autobahns to totalitarian dystopia. “The dream of a social reformer,” he asserts, “is to be the brains of an enlightened, soul-reforming penitentiary.” Simić is not alone among Cold War–era anti-Communists in taking a hard line against social reform, but sometimes his arguments ring as hollow as those of any ideologue. In the essay “Reading about Utopia in New York City,” he blasts all ideas of social reform while looking out from his Park Avenue balcony at young people enjoying themselves on a summer day. “If New York City is not already heaven, then I don’t know what is,” he writes. One wonders how heavenly New York would have appeared if he’d continued north on Park Avenue, hung a right on 131st Street, and taken the Madison Avenue Bridge to the South Bronx—a significantly tougher sell as the best of all possible worlds.
Simić’s aversion to predetermined meanings and orthodoxies informs his poetics as well as his politics. His is a poetics of discovery rather than expression of existing ideas or observations. We might start out, in writing a poem, with a sense that “we are recreating an experience, that we are making an attempt at mimesis,” he writes, “but then the language takes over. . . . When it first happened I was horrified. It took me years to admit that the poem is smarter than I am.” He courts, rather than spurns, those moments when the poem takes an unforeseen turn, as in a series of poems he wrote in the ’70s with James Tate:
Tate and I collaborated on some poems in the following manner: We’d take a word or a phrase and then we’d turn ourselves into a ʻpinball machine of associations,’ as Paul Auster would say. For example, the word ʻmatch’ and the word ʻjail’ would become ʻmatchstick jail.’ At some point we’d stop and see what we had. . . . We’d revise, free-associate again, and watch an unknown poem begin to take shape.
Simić invites chance into his poems, but does not give it carte blanche. He is more like André Breton who, caught revising his automatic writing, shrugged and claimed, “It wasn’t automatic enough.” Simić submits to chance “only to cheat on it.” The resulting poetry is a close cousin to the works of the visual artists to whom Simić is drawn: Giorgio de Chirico, Eva Hesse, Joseph Cornell, and Odilon Redon. His work, like theirs, is pregnant with meanings always about to be born, with significances hovering on the verge of expression.
Like Cornell or de Chirico, Simić often works by juxtaposing powerful but seemingly unrelated objects, chosen not so that the relation can be explained—as John Donne would explain, say, the surprising similarity of parted lovers and a compass drawing a circle—but to place them in a suggestive relationship. The technique goes back at least as far as the proto-Surrealist poetry of Pierre Reverdy, who claimed, in 1918, that a powerful image is born from “a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities”—the more distant the relationship between those realities, the stronger the image. In de Chirico we may see, for example, a composition in which a classical bust and a rubber glove sit side by side. The first is an object of artistic beauty, a memorial to an individual, a survivor from ancient history; the second is utilitarian, modern, industrial. Side by side they register a common status as traces of human presence, and we sense something important in their relation without being able to define it.
Similarly, Simić will pull two realities together, teasing us toward a sense of significance. In the poem “Eternities,” for example, we first behold:
A child lifted in his mother’s arms to see a parade
And that old man throwing bread crumbs
To the pigeons crowding around him in the park,
Could they be the very same person?
And then, in the second and final stanza, we are told:
The blind woman who knows the answer recalls
Seeing a ship as big as a city block
All lit up in the night sail past their kitchen window
On its way to the dark and stormy Atlantic.
The first image gives us a sense of the cycle of life from youth to age, the second an eerie image of immense mechanical power setting out into an ocean that renders such power insignificant. We hover on the brink of a revelation, a statement of some kind about our status in the vastness of time and space—and remain hovering.
“If you worship in the Church of Art with a Message,” Simić writes in an essay about a Surrealist art exhibition, “stay away.” The sentence would make good jacket copy for The Lunatic, his latest collection of poetry, a book full of images of people waiting for messages that will not come: a man sitting by a dead telephone telling himself it may yet ring; a blind man holding a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant, hoping the waiter (who has gone home for the evening) will read it to him. The poems gathered here do not so much make sense as express a sensibility—dark, deadpan, insomniac, haunted. Even the consolations of the pastoral rapidly peel away, revealing something eerie, as in the opening stanzas of “As You Come Over the Hill”:
You’ll see cows grazing in a field
And perhaps a chicken or a turtle
Crossing the road in their sweet time,
And a small lake where a boy once
Threw a girl who couldn’t swim,
And many large maple and oak trees
Offering ample shade to lie in,
Their branches to hang yourself from,
Should you so desire
“Over the Hill” may be a play on words, given how frequently the idea of aging finds its way into this book. Sometimes we see sex standing in the shadow of death—a girl in a red flamenco dress walking past a funeral parlor, a prisoner who finds happiness in the arms of the executioner’s daughter—we get a sense of our powers and vital energies dwarfed by the vastness of time, like that “ship as big as a city block / All lit up in the night” as it sails past the kitchen window “on its way to the dark and stormy Atlantic.”
The idea of mortality doesn’t drive Simić any closer to religious or philosophical certainties, though. Instead it heightens his sense of mystery, and of how we remain strangers even to ourselves. “Have you introduced yourself to yourself?” he asks in “Late-Night Inquiry.” “Have you found a seat in your room / For every one of your wayward selves?” And can you do so “before they take their bow and the curtain drops / As the match burns down to your fingertips?”
War, deprivation, atrocity, hunger, and dictatorship hurt Simić out of certainty and into poetry. His poetry avoids easy consolations: there are no gestures at transcendence or divine union, no visions of ideal love, no celebrations of community. But in the austerity of his poems, in their odd juxtapositions of images, there is a strange and quiet fullness. We get a sense of what this means to Simić when, in the essay “The Power of Ambiguity,” he writes that he prefers empty rooms, “spaces where a single chair or an empty birdcage can do wonders for the imagination” because “in such rooms one has the feeling that time has stopped, that one’s solitude and that of the remaining object are two actors in a metaphysical theater.” We may count ourselves lucky to have tickets to the show.
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