“The Lunatic: Poems” by Charles Simic (Ecco Press, 96 pages, $22.99)
“The kinds of poems I write – mostly short and requiring endless tinkering – often recall for me games of chess. They depend for their success on word and image being placed in proper order and their endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate.”
– Charles Simic
The shadow of war-torn Belgrade falls across the short, brisk lines of Charles Simic’s poetry, dividing his work into a darkness and light, a surreality and wit that are rare among today’s poets. Although he has written about his childhood in Yugoslavia during the Second World War, where bombs fell on the capital city day and night, and bodies hung from the lampposts, he no longer looks back, he says, to his past. His eyes are fixed instead on the future – on his mortality, especially now that he is in his late 70s.
That one remaining, barely moving leaf
The wind couldn’t get to fall
All winter long from a bare tree –
That’s me! thinks the old fellow,
The one they roll out in a wheelchair
So that he can watch the children
Play in the park, their mothers
Gossip all day about their neighbors
While pigeons take turns landing
And taking off from a newly arrived hearse
Parked in front of the parish church,
Dragging his gaze along as they do.
But more may inform Simic’s artistic vision than he consciously acknowledges – mordant one moment, unexpectedly funny the next, a melange of Eastern Europe and the New World – making him a surprising and delightful presence on the page. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former Poet Laureate, he is amazingly prolific. “The Lunatic” is his 23rd volume, which Ecco Press has issued along with a collection of his essays, “The Life of Images: Selected Prose.”
For all their immediacy and clarity, however, a profound sense of displacement permeates Simic’s poems. Displacement lets him see the ordinary in vividly fresh ways: its inherent surrealism, its playfulness, its minor miracles. This aesthetic distance also creates a wide range of emotions, from the tragic to the ironic, to a deep sense of isolation.
It pains me to see an old woman fret over
A few small coins outside a grocery store –
How swiftly I forget her as my own grief
Finds me again–a friend at death’s door
And the memory of the night we spent together.
Simic likes fleas and grandmothers and angels in his poems. An insomniac, he revels in the shufflings and shudders of the night. His diction pares down the English language to its bare essentials, like a finely honed chess piece. You won’t find a wasted word in his verse, made up of piercingly (and disarmingly) simple short lyrics. Many poems fill less than a page, yet brim with epiphanies, startling endings, and metaphors that awaken and arouse. And sprinkled throughout we find his hallmark wry humor, an impish twist on American life.
My subject is the soul
Difficult to talk about,
Since it is invisible,
Silent and often absent.
Even when it shows itself
In the eyes of a child
Or a dog without a home,
I’m at a loss for words.
This may be in large part because English is his second language – something he perfected to pick up girls as a teenager, and the legacy of his new home away from home in America, where he, his brother and mother immigrated in 1954 to meet up with his father, already ensconced in Chicago.
Simic’s poetry proves powerfully imaginative, making us see the world in new and engaging ways. He depicts the wonder of the everyday object, the glory of the down and out – an abandoned storefront, a humble barber shop, a seedy pawn shop, a missing button.
Death asking an old woman
To please sew him a button,
And she agrees, gets out
Of bed and starts looking
For her needle and thread
With a lit candle the priest
Had placed above her head.
Simic’s style has changed little during his more than 50-year career. But that is a strength, not a weakness: He remains one of our most accessible poets. His poems are slight, fast-moving and precise. He has said that he doesn’t want the reader thinking about the experience of reading a poem while he or she is reading one of his poems. The encounter should be as effortless as a conversation with an old friend. And as penetrating as a burst of wisdom.
Perhaps that’s American pragmatism speaking, since Chicago shaped Simic’s sensibility as much as Serbia did. Even so, he fairly quickly settled in New York, which, he said, had more of everything he sought as a poet: the vivid colors of life, fueling his urge to create and endlessly revise his art. (He now lives in New Hampshire, where he has taught since 1973.)
Oh, laggard snowflake
Falling and melting
On my dark windowpane,
Eternity, the voiceless,
Wants to hear you
Make a sound tonight.
“The Lunatic” may be as good a place as any to start your introduction to this fine poet. And if you are already familiar with him, this book will only add to your admiration. In it, you might find that
Because all things write their own stories
No matter how humble
The world is a great big book
Open to a different page,
Depending on the hour of the day
Every hour is the right hour to rediscover Simic, a time when you can decide on which side of the shadow his immense talent lies.
Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.