Two Essays on Charles Simic by Donovan McAbee and Chard deNiord
Charles Simic: An Appreciation from Donovan McAbee
“This is not poetry…. It’s just words cut up into lines!” that was his assessment, anyway, though I disagreed vigorously and with some volume. The closest I’ve come to a screaming match in public, in the last few years at least, regarded Charles Simic’s poetry. The incident occurred in those months before Covid-19 began to wreak its havoc. It happened at a coffee shop with a man named Tom. Tom is a fine art dealer turned real estate developer, who wears an inordinate amount of sterling silver, turquoise jewelry and thinks that American poetry ended with Wallace Stevens. You know the type. I kept my cool mostly, knowing that Tom’s opinions were clearly the result of a diseased aesthetic.
For years, I’ve been a dedicated fan of Simic’s work. Of course, I love some of Simic’s collections more than others. And though Come Closer and Listen, the particular collection Tom was speaking of, isn’t one of my favorites, it too has its gems. Besides, out of principle, I had determined not to concede any ground to my coffee shop interlocutor. To be honest, I don’t mind not loving a particular collection. I’m such fan of Simic’s work that if he had released a collection consisting entirely of poems created from anagrams of his own name, I’d’ve bought two copies: one for me and one for Tom.
I stumbled onto Charlie’s work when I began a hybrid academic-creative writing PhD at the University of St Andrews in 2005. (Permit me to call him Charlie for a moment, the more familiar name he preferred.) I’d come to the east coast of Scotland four months after finishing Seminary and only ten months since the death of my Mom. I was twenty-six years old, in the throes of grief and undiagnosed depression. I was also in the midst of an existential crisis, as is any reasonable person in their mid-20s. I’ve some doubt as to whether or not Tom ever had such a crisis.
When it came to the more traditionally academic part of my PhD, I wanted to compare the uses of humor in contemporary American and British poetry. My advisor asked if I’d read much Simic. Only a bit, I responded. He suggested I take a deeper look at Simic’s work.
As I dove into Simic’s poetry, I found myself at home. One of the lovely things about poetry is the communities it forms. Sometimes, you find solitude in a poet’s work, a communion of solitaries gathered around words. I loved Simic’s work so much that I abandoned my original humor project altogether and chose to write my PhD dissertation on Simic’s poetry. Years later, this became my book Charles Simic and the Poetics of Uncertainty.
Clearly, I was not a student of Simic in any traditional sense, nor a close friend. I met and interviewed him once, spoke with him on the phone a few times and very occasionally exchanged emails with him. And yet, the news of his death has struck me with significant force. The times I interacted with him, as well as his work has left a deep impression on me and on the contours of my own poetry.
For someone trying to become a poet, one of the biggest gifts another author’s work can offer is to expand their understanding of what’s possible in the space of a poem. From his first poems in a 1959 issue of Chicago Review, to the chapbooks released by George Hitchcock in the late 1960s, the Braziller books throughout the 70s, into the early 80s, all the way through to his masterful, final collection, No Land in Sight, released last year, Simic’s work has constantly transgressed and redefined the possibilities of what a poem might be.
Simic’s poems seem to exist in many worlds at once. Angels and pigs wallow together; bawdy references slide alongside metaphysical musings, Julian of Norwich, and cable TV. When asked about the origins of this eclecticism, Simic sometimes referred to the traumas of his childhood. Born in 1938, in the city of Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia, Simic experienced firsthand the horrors of World War II as a young child. Once, when an Allied bomb struck the apartment building across from his, he was thrown to the floor of his room from the blast. He witnessed executed soldiers hanging from trees on a country road and once caught lice from the helmet of a dead German soldier, whose corpse he and his friends had pilfered.
At 16, Simic immigrated to the United States. Articulating the fragmented sense of self he experienced as a young immigrant, Simic reflects,
It was part of being an immigrant and living in many worlds at the same time,
some of which were imaginary. After what we had been through, the wildest
lies seemed plausible. The poems that I was going to write had to take that
into account. (Orphan Factory 15)
The eclecticism of Simic’s work can’t be attributed wholly to his biography. It also results, partially at least, from the influences on his work of such disparate voices as American poets like Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Simic’s friends James Tate and Mark Strand, the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, the Romanian-French aphorist E.M. Cioran, as well as the Serbian poets Ivan Lalić and Vasko Popa. Simic’s poems remind us of the disparate sources of identity and the ways that poems can bring these together, the particularities of our outer lives as they converge with our inner lives, in the making of poems.
Simic’s work also offers us the chance to engage with poetry as a form of irreverent prayer. Once told by his friend Frank Sempieri, that “every poem, knowingly or unknowingly, is addressed to God,” Simic initially shuddered and disagreed. He knew that Sempieri was reading a lot of Dante at the time; so, he concluded that his friend’s mind was stuck in fourteenth-century Italy. Later, however, Simic concedes, “Today I think as he did then. It makes absolutely no difference whether gods and devils exist or not. The secret ambition of every true poem is to ask about them even as it acknowledges their absence” (Orphan Factory 21). Throughout Simic’s poems, God is called upon, God is rejected, God is challenged, and God always seems just out of the frame. Simic was always caught in this agnosticism, “Tuesday I may be a believer. Wednesday a blasphemer,” as he puts it (Kitchen Metaphysics 84). His poem “Metaphysics Anonymous” teases out this tension by combining the atmosphere of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with that of a mission soup kitchen, the members of this support group confessing to their “lifelong addiction / To truth beyond appearances” and “The unreality of us being here” (That Little Something 49).
For Simic, the space of a poem is a meditative space that holds together one’s own contradictory opinions and beliefs, poetic knowing an epistemology of receptivity. While for Keats, negative capability meant the state in which one is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” Simic surveyed the various intellectual, aesthetic, and political upheavals of his own time and asks, “in this context, are we capable of being in anything but uncertainties?” (Uncertain Certainties 8). For Simic, uncertainty was no longer an optional, emotional state but rather an ontological condition, one which shaped the poems he wrote. Uncertainty became Simic’s dogma, laughter his song of praise, even laughter in the face of the long night that promises to swallow us all.
For Simic, humor bolsters the ego in the face of one’s existential drama, as we hear in the desperation of the speaker of his two-line poem, “The Voice at 3:00 A.M.” ask, “Who put canned laughter / Into my crucifixion scene?” (Jackstraws 13).
For me, and I’m sure for many others, it’s not just the eclecticism of Simic’s work that makes it so dear, not the clear-eyed intelligence, the philosophical or theological bent, the political adeptness, or even the humor. I think it’s something more simple and elegant that draws me again and again to Simic’s work, and that’s the hospitality I feel when I enter his poems. I feel welcomed there by this other presence.
When I had the chance to interview him sixteen years ago, I asked about the relationship between the “I” of the reader and the “I” of the speaker in a poem. In his response, he gave a delightful explanation of how he construes the space a poem makes:
For me, a poem is a place where one invites someone in. You build a little house, fix it all up real nice. Inside, you’ve got some interesting things you want to show them. You’ve got a painting on the wall, a new couch, some knick-knacks and souvenirs, a swell meal all laid out on the table, and you open the door and hope somebody comes in. The really wonderful thing about certain poems is, you start reading them, and you find yourself after three or four lines inside somebody’s head and somebody’s reality….I’m always worried about this unknown other who’s going to come in. They’ve got to come in because without them there is no poem. (Kitchen Metaphysics 81)
Simic’s poems, as funny as they can be, as dark as they can be, are ultimately hospitable spaces for the reader, spaces we enter and engage, spaces where we are changed.
In his final collection, Simic wrestles often with death, its nearness, its searing inevitability. And he does so unflinchingly, with signature humor. The final poem, “The Wind Has Died,” four lines long, seems a fitting benediction:
My little boat,
There is no
Land in sight. (81)
HE WHO REMEMBERS HIS SHOES, CHARLES SIMIC by Chard deNiord
The “vast image” that disturbs Yeats’s sight in his poem “The Second Coming” is atomized in Charles Simic’s poetry into radiant matter. Whether they be spoons, ants or a plain black cotton dress, these subjects take on character in his poetry with abiding animism. Simic perceives the world with a vision that apprehends the dynamism of small things. He is exotic for this reason, a kind of stranger in our midst who sees through the familiar into spirtus mundi. He describes himself in “Solving The Riddle” as a builder of a lighthouse (rather than a sailing ship) inside his wine bottle. The beacon that emanates from inside his bottle is a metaphor for the geometric illumination that occurs when both one’s psyche and consciousness are aligned. This light not only illuminates the visible world, those places “lit by a glass of milk,” but reveals the hidden as well, the “White ants/ In a white ant hill.” An avatar of minutiae, his apprehension leaves him with a possessed sense of his nameless muse. “Each one of my thoughts,” he writes in “Emily’s Theme,” “was being ghostwritten/ by anonymous authors.”
The weird menagerie of animated objects that populate Simic’s poems are careful constructs, poetic boxes that are both entertaining and disturbing, often achieving a tragi-comical intensity that leaves the reader suspended between amusement and grief. Simic’s mythical imagination imbues him with this parallax vision of reality’s double yet seamless nature. By unveiling first sight as a rebus, he trains his poetic eye on what perhaps can only be described as the obviously invisible. “What is that little black thing I see there in the white?” he quotes Whitman in the epigraph of his poem “White.” But neither is Simic merely a vatic poet who discerns the darkness inside the light. His inspiration derives equally from the simple rigors of daily living. His poems consequently often sound as alarms for second awakenings.
Every morning I forget how it is.
I watch the smoke mount
In great strides above the city.
I belong to no one.
Then, I remember my shoes,
How I have put them on,
How bending over to tie them up
I will look into the earth.
(Dismantling The Silence, 1971)
The weird menagerie of animated objects that populate Simic’s poems are careful constructs, poetic boxes that are both entertaining and disturbing, often achieving a tragi-comical intensity that leaves the reader suspended between amusement and grief. Simic’s mythical imagination imbues him with this parallax vision of reality’s double yet seamless nature. By unveiling first sight as a rebus, he trains his poetic eye on what perhaps can only be described as the obviously invisible. “What is that little black thing I see there in the white?” he quotes Whitman in the epigraph of his poem “White.” But neither is Simic merely a vatic poet who discerns the darkness
Although he writes with an exquisite sensibility of twentieth century alienation, Simic’s psyche is archetypal, not postmodern. He wishes to make new pastoral sense by creating a contemporary landscape out of the old world in which elderly ladies emerge during cease-fires from bombed out apartment buildings to search for their cats. Modern in the sense that he has been a witness since World War II of the ongoing legacy of devastation in his native Yugoslavia, Simic has as an exile and U.S. citizen only deepened his solitary sense of the poet’s role as an individual who stands heroically alone against the self-justifying, “religious” tenets of nationalism. Simic has cited these lines of Emily Dickinson as a kind of credo: “And I alone, a speck upon a ball, went upon circumference, beyond the dip of bell.”
In his distance from isolation, he has pursued his art with the kind of purity of heart that Soren Kierkegaard defined as willing one thing. This “one thing” is a surrealistic vision of the dual nature of objects. He quotes Chirico in Dime-Store Alchemy: “Every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general; and the other, which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance.” However, he is neither elitist nor occult, grounding himself in ordinary life as time passes by with the conceit of history.
On a gray evening Of a gray century, I ate an apple
While no one was looking.
A small, sour apple The color of wood fire Which I first wiped On my sleeve.
Then I stretched my legs As far as they’d go,
Said to myself
Why not close my eyes now
Before the late
world News and Weather.
Simic knows the diachronic appeal of archetypal images in an age when the rudiments of sense have been scrutinized and questioned as never before. The legacy of his runic coherence is remarkable for its success in conveying the ironic, often foreboding life in inanimate things. With electric economy, Simic assays the world with a mythopoeic eye, coloring in negative space, singing “through the throat of an empty beer bottle.” He is a Buddhist comedian, having discovered through poetry rather than catechism the inherent humor in what Whitman called “the natural beauty of dumb objects.” His ontological conceit is that all things are imbued with a risible, hardwon spirit. What Stephen Dobyns observed about Yannis Ritsos in his essay “Ritsos and the Metaphysical Moment”, holds true for Simic’s poetry:
The poem is anti-Aristotelian. It posits a world beyond scientific measurement. Once
again we have a world of sym pathetic affinities. More than a world, a universe: the very
stars have quickened their breathing. Something important and mysterious has happened
and this mystery communicates itself with the ripple effect of a stone dropped in a pond.
The poem doesn’t try to explain the mystery, it bears witness to it and to these affinities,
The antinomian surprises of Simic’ s imagery, a fork “right out of hell,” a knife that rises and “sets in your hand,” create a reality in which the entire world is alive in a way that presents a refreshingly heretical rebuttal to Descartes’ syllogism that equates cognition with existence. I imagine, Simic retorts, therefore I am whatever I imagine. Or, as the old witch instructs in “Make Yourself Invisible,” “Prom now on, we were bread crumbs/ In a dark forest/ Where the little red birds/ Had just fallen silent.”
Simic has struck an originality that transports William Carlos Williams’s credo, “no ideas but in things” in to a narrative as well. The subjects of his poetry, things as characters, comprise the essential images on which so much depends, making claims in turn for how all things are in unlikely cahoots. What unfolds consequently in most Simic poems are sudden poetic fictions in settings where the line between the phenomenal and the relational is deftly blurred. We see this beautifully accomplished in the conclusion of “Winter Evening” where the particular, a lovelorn speaker, extrapolates from a single spare scene of his “love’s window … on fire/ With the Sunset.” He allows himself to be consumed by, yet not lost in the oceanic denouement. “Quiet as a bread crumb,! I stood and watched./ All around me birds had fallen silent. / And then the clouds moved/ Their tragic robes,/ And so did the night.” This sympathetic awareness supplants naive hope in his poetry with metaphysical affirmation, for he has precious little faith in any happy outcome. Yet his underlying realism does not subvert his compassion. Rather it imbues his poetry with an uncanny tension between his intimate knowledge of the world as a Darwinian playground and his deep-seated pathos. At the conclusion of his brilliant essay “The Spider’s Web” he writes, “As an elegist I mourn and expect the worst. Vileness and stupidity always have a rosy future. The world is still a few evils short, but they’ll come. Dark despair is the only healthy outlook if you identify yourself with flies, as I do.” It is this awareness of his vulnerability as a poet that generates the ironic power of his voice. In a poem titled ‘Two Riddles” he defines poetry in this way.
Hangs by a thread-
Whatever it is. Stripped naked.
Shivering. Human. Mortal.
On a thread finer than starlight.
By a power of feeling.
Hangs, impossible, unthinkable,
Between the earth and the sky.
I, it says, I. I.
(Dismantling The Silence, 1971)
Simic’s poetic zone “beyond the dip of bell” provides a parallax vision. One view apprehends the boring human legacy of “vileness and stupidity,” while the other keeps a clear focus on the inherent peace of the world. In recounting his response to a Serbian patriot whose invitation to speak he had turned down, he makes this strident apology, “The true poet is never a member of any tribe. It is his refusal of his birthright that makes him a poet and an individual worth respecting, I explained.” But he then refutes this assertion with a sober acknowledgement. “This wasn’t true of course. Many of the greatest poets have been fierce nationalists.” More as an honest man, perhaps, than a lyric poet, Simic recognizes his own limitations and potential lies. This is a chicken and egg speculation, however, for while one senses that poetry has played a critical role in honing his honesty, it is easy to think that he would be no less the man if he weren’t a poet, for his poems emanate his humanity foremost. He is a postmodern jester in a “black cape” and “orange wraparound shades.” Establishing his voice as morally audible in the wilderness of American privilege and isolation, he eschews the epic. Too often, he claims, has this genre been employed by bloodthirsty patriots who “find excuses for the butcheries of the innocent.” As a lyric poet, Simic celebrates rather than mourns the epic hero’s demise, for it presages the brief interstices of peace in the interminable history of “heroic” warfare.
My Weariness of Epic Proportions
I like it when Achilles
And even his buddy Patroclus
And that hothead Hector-
And the whole Greek and Trojan
Is more or less
So there’s finally
Peace and quiet
(The gods having momentarily Shut up)
One can hear
A bird sing
And a daughter ask her mother
Whether she can go to the well
And of course she can
By that lovely little path
That winds through
The olive orchard
Simic’s unnerving intelligence saves his poems from mere sentimentality. With his “darling premonition,” he invites his reader into alluring pastoral scenes, such as this one: “Today we took a long walk in the forest./ There we met a couple walking/ Arm and arm with eyes closed,” and then closes the poem’s door on her with a gentle but resounding click. By the end of this poem, ‘The Forest Walk,” the couple is running to return to the horrors of contemporary life.
The forest’s classical foreboding has been inverted by such artificial omens as “the video store,” “the ice cream truck” and most eerily, “the plane’s landing lights.” Like Grimm, Simic appeals directly to the curious child in his reader for the purpose of revealing some new laconic terror about those very places we thought were most safe and familiar. By arresting our attention with dream-like vignettes, Simic converts his private myths into universal narratives. He dreams for us, and we let him, for he is such a good dreamer. We allow him even his nightmares. In “Club Midnight,” for instance, Simic beguiles his reader with questions about the psyche itself, referring to it figuratively as a nightclub. Since we are each the “sole owner” of our psyches, we feel compelled with a kind of soulful responsibility to answer his questions about our respective “establishments.” But he has trapped us. Because he knows his psyche so well he also knows ours. We answer unhesitatingly in the affirmative when he asks in the tone of either an insouciant analyst or tired detective, “Are bearded Russian thinkers your silent partners? Do you have a doorman by the name of Dostoyevsky? Is Fu Man Chu coming tonight? Is Miss Emily Dickinson?”
Oddly, then, it’s not just the strangeness of Simic’s imagery that is so moving, but the illumined darkness behind the familiar. He arouses his reader from her waking sleep to remind her that she is at home on earth, and that it’s a haunted house. The particular minutiae of daily life are personified in Simic’s poems as preternatural characters. He blurs the line between symbols and real things in order to, as E.R. Dodd writes about shamans in his book The Greeks and the Irrational, “become a repository of a supernormal wisdom.” At times we feel his landscapes transforming from conventional pastoral scenes into cartoonish tableaux where ants wear little Quaker hats or liars have long tails and look like monkeys or an old man who’s learned to eat air floats overhead clutching his hat on a cold and windy day. These wild images nonetheless resonate with a meaning that reflects an inner reality, where the imagination dislocates and embellishes nature with incongruous yet poignant images that reflect the sympathetic tendency of the imagination to illustrate feelings in often bizarre, dream-like ways. Simic did not derive his picaresque sensibility from the allegories of eastern Europe, but rather developed it on his own as a young man in Chicago and New York. He has aspired since childhood to become an American poet. In achieving this goal he has also become an international voice. But he is a lyric poet first and political witness second. He needs this titular distinction in order to write judiciously about his tribe’s “stupidity.” His tribe should thank him for it, as should all other tribes, for as a lyric poet he didn’t have to write about his tribe’s stupidity. He is successful enough writing about anything else. With the same wit and self-effacing voice that resonate from his less direct poems, he writes about the tragedy of Yugoslavia. His poem ”Tragic Architecture,” is particularly memorable for its disturbing prophecies couched in rhetorical reminiscence. One also gains from this poem an enormous appreciation for Simic’s redoubtable authority as a witness to the events that destroyed his country:
School, prison, trees in the wind,
I climbed your gloomy stairs.
Stood in your farthest corners
With my face to the wall.
The murderer sat in the front row.
A mad little Ophelia
Wrote today’s date on the blackboard.
The executioner was my best friend.
He already wore black.
The janitor brought us mice to play with.
In that room with its red sunsets-
It was eternity’s time to speak,
So we listened As if our hearts were made of stone.
All of that in ruins now.
Cracked peeling walls
With every window broken.
Not even a naked light bulb left
For the prisoner forgotten in solitary,
And the school boy left behind
Watching the bare winter trees
Lashed by the driving wind.
(Hotel Insomnia, 1994)
Simic remains a child-like witness to the vileness of tribes; child-like in his clear-eyed, querulous vision, though very adult in his finely-tuned, lapidary irony. “The Garden of Eden needs weeding,” he writes in “The Emperor,” the last poem of his latest book Walking The Black Cat, “And the soda machines don’t work.! I saw the panhandling Jesus/ And heard the sweet wind chime in his head.” This is the spectral vision that Chirico referred to. By resisting the ambition of the epic, Simic has set grand ideas aside and gone “inside a stone … to make out the strange writings, the star charts/ On the inner walls.” Like the Ancient Mariner discerning the ”happy living things” after killing the albatross, Simic has felt the same kind of vicarious remorse for the sins of his tribe, which includes us all. This grief has instilled him with a metaphysical sight. What monsters he sees in the air. What praise he bestows on them.
Chard deNiord is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently In My Unknowing (University of Pittsburgh Press 2020) and Interstate (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015). He is also the author of two books of interviews with eminent American poets titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century Poetry (Marick Press, 2011) and I Would Lie To You If I Could (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018). His poems have appeared in numerous anthologies, including two Pushcart volumes, What Saves Us (edited by Martin Espada), American Religious Poems, edited by Harold Bloom, and Plume Poetry 5 and 6, edited by Danny Lawless. He is a Professor Emeritus of English and Creative Writing at Providence College where he taught for twenty two years and the essay editor at Plume Poetry. From 2015 to 2019 he served as Poet Laureate of Vermont. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife, Liz.