Charles Simic

Stephen Yenser

“To Generalize is to be an Idiot,’’ William Blake sneered—rather recklessly, in view of the nature of the assertion. Still, and notwithstanding Dr. Johnson’s famous stricture about numbering the streaks of the tulip, many writers would agree that details, however seemingly trivial or transitory, because they are so, are their stock in trade. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire it’s the archvillain Gradus who is said to have ‘‘worshipped general ideas… with pedantic aplomb. The generality was godly, the specific diabolical.’’ G. K. Chesterton thought carefully that ‘‘the philosopher may sometimes love the infinite; the poet always loves the finite. For [the poet] the great moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and the moon.’’ Charles Simic’s version of this view appears in his essay ‘‘The Trouble with Poetry’’: ‘‘The identification of what remains untouched by change has been the philosopher’s task… As far as poets are concerned, only fools are seduced by generalizations.’’ In the same essay he insists that the poet is by nature ‘‘delighted with the ephemeral—the smell of bread for instance.’’

Simic’s volumes of poems—now a baker’s dozen, excluding Selected Poems and The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems—are often redolent of fresh bread and other such ephemera, a notable number of which, as it happens, have involved food. Some time ago it even seemed to me that Simic was among the most gustatory of our poets. His ‘‘Café Paradiso’’ (in Walking the Black Cat) is a love poem addressed to a menu. It ends with these detailed lines:

Beloved monkfish braised with onions, capers
And green olives.
Give me your tongue tasting of white beans and garlic,
Sexy little assortment of formaggi and frutta!
I want to drown with you in red wine like a pear,
Then sleep in a macédoine of wild berries with cream.

It might come as no surprise, then, that he has argued that ‘‘the true poet specializes in a kind of bedroom and kitchen metaphysics’’ and is ‘‘the mystic of the frying pan and [his] love’s pink toes,’’ which can be nibbled in so many ways. His taste for detail is bound up with an appreciation of simplicity. ‘‘Blues musicians know,’’ he reminds us, ‘‘that a few notes rightly placed touch the soul, and so do lyric poets.’’ Then he reverts to the culinary metaphor: ‘‘The idea is, it is possible to make astoundingly tasty dishes from the simplest ingredients.’’ He has some of the best cooks on his side. Escoffier himself took as his motto the phrase ‘‘Faites simple,’’ an injunction that I’m fond of just now since it sounds like another phrase Simic’s previous poems have often conjured: ‘‘Fêtes simples.’’

Simic’s new book, Night Picnic, however, is no picnic. ‘‘Sunday Papers’’ ends with ‘‘the lamb roast [that] sat / In your outstretched hands / Smelling of garlic and rosemary,’’ but on the whole if you’re looking for delectations, colorful nature, or a moment of dolce far niente, you’re barking down the wrong alley. These poems are what your local stationer’s greeting cards become when passed through the looking glass. None of them exceeds a page—except for two sequences, in which each tiny section gets its own page—and their average length must be about sixteen lines. It is remarkable that they are that long, in view of what Simic leaves out, a list of which might begin with rhyme, meter, and other special sonic effects and extend through narrative and learned allusion to drama, to the extent that the latter involves points of view and voices other than the poet’s. The diction and syntax are those of basic English—it makes perfect sense to read on the dust jacket that ‘‘his work has appeared in translation all over the world’’—and figures of any kind are sparse. The other jacket flap promises us the book will ‘‘evoke a variety of settings and images . . . [and] subjects,’’ but in fact poem after poem deals with a small collection of closely related motifs, which include darkness, homeless people and other isolatos, vacant and run-down buildings, slaughterhouses, funeral homes, and cemeteries. In the opening poem there is ‘‘an abandoned gas station’’ and near the volume’s end, ‘‘At the end of a long dark stretch’’ indeed, there is another one, with its ‘‘empty office, / Its one naked dangling bulb.’’ ‘‘We’’ end up waiting like Vladimir and Estragon for the absent attendant or maybe ‘‘something / Difficult to find words for / On a late summer night without stars, / With no town or house in sight.’’ Along the way to this desert outpost ‘‘Death’s Little Helpers’’ have been legion.

One hears ‘‘nothing’’ throughout this book. Indeed it is here as a sort of ineffable ground of being, like God.

An earlier reviewer of Night Picnic has commented that the book is preoccupied with women, who ‘‘show up in the poet’s characteristic broken scenes, focused on, then refocused on,’’ and that ‘‘lust’’ is its focal point. There is a grain of truth in the claim, and when Simic prefaces his collection with these lines—‘‘Do you want to hear about the ants in my pants / For a certain Ms. Hopeless? // Or do you prefer me singing Amazing Grace?’’—one can’t but think the gag is that Ms. Hopeless’s first name might be Grace. But Simic has never been averse to the feminine, and it hardly follows that ‘‘lust’’ drives these poems. Indeed, the presence that strikes me most is not alluring and feminine but forlorn and canine. These pages smell not of Chanel or even eau de cologne but of ungroomed dog. Without poring over the text, I find ‘‘a kicked dog,’’ ‘‘a talking dog,’’ an ‘‘old mutt,’’ a ‘‘small, sickly dog,’’ a ‘‘mutt with ribs showing,’’ ‘‘lean dogs running / On what looked like a town dump,’’ ‘‘Icarus’s dog,’’ a ‘‘Dog on a Chain,’’ ‘‘the dog trailing after me,’’ a ‘‘dog [that] paced around the room,’’ and a ‘‘small white dog’’ that ‘‘follows an old Italian waiter. . . everywhere.’’ These faithful, usually hapless best friends remind me of one of Bill Mauldin’s better-known Willie and Joe cartoons, in which four eyes peer out of a dark tent at a starving dog shivering in a driving rainstorm and one GI says to the other, ‘‘Let him in. I want to see a critter I can feel sorry for.’’ Simic’s references—which in context remind us of the etymology of the term cynical—culminate in the valedictory penultimate poem, ‘‘I’ve Had My Little Stroll,’’ which discovers the speaker in one of the book’s graveyards, ‘‘Sitting, leaning against the stone / With a dog by my side. / Reading Emerson by candlelight, / Its yellow flame fretting / Like a caged bird. / Soul, what a lovely word.’’ As surely as that delicate detail of the flame-bird-soul looks back at the opening poem’s lugubrious ‘‘miner’s canary… caught in a mousetrap’’ that sometimes let out ‘‘a small squeak’’ (about the size of one of these poems), the dog, too, figures the poet.

If the reader thinks of T. S. Eliot’s ‘‘Isle of Dogs,’’ the reason might be that so many of the particulars of Simic’s cityscape recall The Waste Land and the ‘‘Preludes’’:

Small, baleful gusts whipped the trash in the street
And vacancy signs hung everywhere.


Everybody loves the life they did not choose,
The empty streets said, and to further emphasize,
There was a piece of greasy butcher’s paper
The wind blew at my feet.


And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots…


A city rose before us,
Its windows burning with the setting sun.
All that vanished as we quit the highway
And rolled down a dusky meadow
Strewn with beer cans and candy wrappers…


. . . this grubby vacant lot
With its exposed sewer pipe,
Rats hatching plots in broad daylight…


You won’t mind the dirty sheets,
The rasp of rusty springs
As you make yourself comfy.
The room is a darkened movie theater,
Where a grainy,
Black-and-white film is being shown.


You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.

The third and last excerpts are by Eliot. But this is not Eliot’s waste land, partly because there is no room in it for a hint of salvation, regeneration, or redemption and hence no spiritual agon. On the jacket, which dresses a bone-white cover, is an etching by Howard Michels, white lines on black, of two figures, a woman and a man, under some trees and as though on the outing alluded to in Simic’s title, with bread, fruit, and wine in evidence. If this volume itself supplies the familiar book of verses, the setting is hardly paradise enow. Although the artist’s manner is à la late Picasso, there is nothing bawdy or even sexy about the two people, so fragile are they, or ghostly, against the black. The etching must take its cue from the opening of the title poem:

There was the sky, starless and vast—
Home of every one of our dark thoughts—
Its door open to more darkness.
And you, like a late door-to-door salesman,
With only your own beating heart
In the palm of your outstretched hand.

That heart is right out of Nightwood, another tenebrous text haunted by dogs and indebted to Eliot, but in Djuna Barnes’s novel the threatened “nothing” gives way to a bizarre resurrection and reunion. At the close of “Night Picnic”

All things are imbued with God’s being
(She said in hushed tones
As if his ghost might overhear us)
The dark woods around us,
Our faces which we cannot see,
Even this bread we are eating.

You were mulling over the particulars
Of your cosmic insignificance
Between slow sips of red wine.
In the ensuing quiet, you could hear
Her small, sharp teeth chewing the crust—
And then finally, she moistened her lips.

The jibes at communion, wicked as her viverrid teeth, and the wry wit indicate the kind of comedy we can expect in this book. Darkness, emptiness, futility, and sterility, blank faces and blank pages, are everywhere. In ‘‘Whispered in the Ear’’ the poet interrogates his ‘‘friend,’’ his ‘‘chum,’’ his alter ego:

What do you do with yourself nowadays?
Consult the dictionary in the dark?
Kiss the Virgin in the empty church goodnight?
Tie beer cans to a parked hearse?

His counterpart, the ‘‘Blind Typist’’ who ‘‘stays late / To please her boss, / Working in the dark / Before a dark screen,’’ parodies Paul’s believer who in this life can only ‘‘see through a glass darkly.’’ ‘‘Her bony fingers [are] / Like two white canes / With metal tips [that] / Tap their slow way’’ into the abyss. Black and white: the end of all their ‘‘horrific complications,’’ as Sylvia Plath suggests in ‘‘Little Fugue’’ in regard to the keys and notes played by her own ‘‘blind pianist,’’ is the one death song. What can we make of it except some desperate banter?

For the love of God,
Be quiet
She’s proofreading,
Her lips are moving.
She wears a rose in her hair
As she sits there.
The rose is red, of course.
Tock, tock, tock.

The gallows humor might remind us that, as Howard Nemerov has shown in his essay ‘‘Bottom’s Dream,’’ lyric poems have a good deal in common with jokes. One basic similarity is ‘‘the mechanics of economy’’ and specifically a conclusion that seems ‘‘‘right’ or ‘inevitable,’’’ that constitutes ‘‘a revelation of sorts,’’ that compounds ‘‘expectation with a fulfillment which is simultaneously exact and surprising.’’ Of course Nemerov’s notion of the lyric rhymed with that of W. B. Yeats, who believed that a poem, as distinct from a piece of prose, should come closed with a click, like a box. Helen Vendler, writing about Simic, has compared his poems to ‘‘self-developing Polaroids, in which a scene, gradually assembling itself out of unexplained images, suddenly clicks into a recognizable whole.’’ For all his notorious neo-surrealism and postmodernism, when it comes to structure Simic is the heir of Yeats and Nemerov himself. Nemerov saw that ‘‘many jokes show a rudimentary form of stanzaic progression, by being arranged in a series of three, with similar grammatical structure, so that the hearer correctly anticipates the punchline as coming the third time.’’ Here is ‘‘The Cackle,’’ the last poem in Night Picnic, which ends things with—well, a recognizable hole:

Wee-hour world, insoluble world,
You may as well be a goldfish
Swimming in a bowl of ink
For all we understand of you.

Your small-beer philosopher,
Tinhorn preacher,
Chronic belly-acher,
Is about to die laughing tonight
With one final cackle

At the sight of a young couple
Slinking into the doorway
Of a grand old funeral home
Right across the street,
For some you-know-what.

These stanzas on the obscure at least make it clear that Simic follows Yeats, too, in that he aspires to ‘‘natural’’ or immediately apprehensible language. ‘‘There has been an article upon my work in the Yale Review,’’ Yeats reports to Dorothy Wellesley in 1938, ‘‘which is the only article which has not bored me for years. It commends me… because my language is ‘public.’ That word which I had not thought of myself is a word I want.’’ When he goes on to allow that the article’s author regrets that Yeats hasn’t often turned his ‘‘public’’ language to what is ‘‘evidently considered the right public material, politics,’’ we might be reminded of another string missing from Simic’s lyre. Unlikely candidate though he might seem, since he is of Yugoslavian origin and has been a keen observer of the recent wars in eastern Europe, he is perfectly nonpartisan, as when he notes in ‘‘Firecracker Time’’ that ‘‘There was a politician on TV / It would be a real pleasure to spit at.’’

Dramatically unlike Yeats, Simic offers little opposition to nihilism and misanthropy. For Yeats the famous counterbalance was an attitude, a ‘‘heroic discipline’’ and even ‘‘heroic ecstasy,’’ embodied in poems like ‘‘Dialogue of Self and Soul’’ and ‘‘Lapis Lazuli,’’ which he thought rooted in the fin-de-siècle. ‘‘‘Bitter and gay,’’’ he quoted Dowson approvingly, ‘‘that is the heroic mood.’’ Simic’s closer relative here is Samuel Beckett, some of whose later works are one-acts set in black boxes and written for a bodiless, uninflected voice or two. If for Yeats sex flew in the face of death, for Simic sex blurs into death. In ‘‘The Cemetery’’ his speaker remembers ‘‘Dark nights’’ when he was a boy and ‘‘there were lovers / To stake out among the tombstones.’’ Then he and a friend would lie, flies unzipped, ‘‘Straining to hear the hot, muffled words / That came quicker and quicker,’’ but that was before he himself became a specter, ‘‘Back then when we still could / Bite our tongues and draw blood’’—which last phrase makes us look anew at the phrase ‘‘stake out.’’ A neighbor takes off her shirt in the backyard next door and the would-be voyeur at the very point of erection shudders ‘‘At the sight of a long white worm / Crawling out of the roses.’’ The disabused poet sees that a landscape of meadows and hills is just ‘‘A working slaughterhouse prettied up / By the evening sunlight’’ and that behind the scenery ‘‘one hears nothing / But the wind gusting in the dry leaves— / Like a baby rattle / Shaken by an undertaker?’’

Darkness, emptiness, futility, and sterility, blank faces and blank pages, are everywhere.

One hears ‘‘nothing’’ throughout this book. Indeed it is here as a sort of ineffable ground of being, like God—an association that Simic surely wants us to make in ‘‘The One to Worry About,’’ where he offers that ‘‘Nothing in the whole wide world is sacred’’ and admits that he has ‘‘failed miserably at imagining nothing.’’ The problem for this quasi-Buddhist is that in his meditations on nothing ‘‘Something always came to keep me company: / A small nameless bug crossing the table, / The memory of my mother, the ringing in my ear.’’ In other words, he claims, ‘‘A hole is invariably a hole in something.’’ But the claim is disingenuous. In the poem’s last lines, the antimuse of ‘‘Night Picnic’’ appears from the back of a bakery: ‘‘she placed a muffin in my hand, / As if all along she knew what I was thinking’’—and the emptiness of the rest of the page suggests what, at bottom, that was. As P. L. Heath points out in the course of a brilliant and funny entry on ‘‘Nothing’’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it is possible to imagine, not that holes are in things, but ‘‘that everything (and everybody) is in a hole.’’

To be anything (or anybody) is to be bounded, hemmed in, defined, and separated by a circumambient frame of vacuity…The universe at large is fringed with nothingness, from which indeed (how else?) it must have been created, if created it was; and its beginning and end, like that of all change within it, must similarly be viewed as a passage from one nothing to another, with an interlude of being in between.

This is the nothing Simic’s poems sound out in; this is what he has in mind when he says, out of both sides of his mouth, ‘‘There’s nothing to worry about.’’ ‘‘The nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is,’’ in Wallace Stevens’s phrase. In such ways these grim, concrete little lyrics (this last one is called ‘‘Madge Put on Your Teakettle’’) tease us out of thought.

If some of these poems slip over the thin line into simplism or banality (‘‘Stand-In,’’ ‘‘Sleepwalkers,’’ ‘‘Book Lice,’’ and ‘‘Roadside Stand’’ strike me as thin), that errancy is perhaps the expense of Simic’s extreme minimalism. Meanwhile we gain such minor tours de force as the ostensibly flip song entitled ‘‘Burning Edgar Allan Poe’’:

O the late days of autumn,
The wind’s blowing
Charred book pages
Out of a neighbor’s chimney
Scaring the blackbirds.
They can’t tell their own
From the flying soot
In the saffron-colored sky,
And neither can I.

Just a species of joke, isn’t it, with the punchline heightened by the couplet? So with its blackbirds the poem might be even more effective if the title were ‘‘Burning Wallace Stevens’’? But then we would not call up ‘‘The Raven’’ and would not have either Simic’s implicit criticism of Poe’s prolixity or the earlier poem’s sense of foreboding. Given that foreboding, we might rethink the last four lines and wonder whether they don’t resolve the poem in a sort of frisson of equivocation. If the blackbirds ‘‘can’t tell their own’’ kind from the soot, it looks as though the poet can’t tell his own kind from them and it. At the end of ‘‘The Raven’’ the speaker’s ‘‘soul from out that shadow [of the bird] that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted—nevermore!’’ His soul to the raven, Poe to his pages, his pages to soot, the soot to the blackbirds, the blackbirds to Simic, Simic to his page on Poe: ashes to ashes. The more pertinent Stevens poem would be ‘‘Domination of Black,’’ with its birds and leaves, fire and fear.

And then there are such miniature masterpieces as ‘‘Past Lives Therapy,’’ ‘‘The Grand Casino’’—and ‘‘Street of Jewelers’’:

What each one of these hundreds
Of windows did with the gold
That was melting in them this morning,
I cannot begin to imagine.

I act like a prospective burglar
Noting the ones that are open,
Their curtains drawn to the side
By someone stark naked,
I may just have missed.

Here, where no one walks now,
And when he does, he goes softly,
So as not to tip the scales
In the act of weighing
Specks of dust in the dying sunlight.

The precision of ‘‘melting,’’ which recalls the luster of the jewelry even as it eases its disappearance; the little semantic rhymes of the withdrawn gold with the absent figure and of that figure with the ‘‘no one’’; the conversion of the ‘‘no one’’ into the ‘‘he’’ who is the ‘‘I’’ already becoming a ghost; the use of the dependent clause to keep us weighing the phrasing in the final stanza, which is centered exactly on ‘‘not to tip’’; the reverse alchemy that transforms the gold into the dust that everything is, from us to the sun: these touches are evidence of fretwork of the first order. The work, that is, of someone who truly worries about nothing.

Stephen Yenser is a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA and the author or The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill. With Langdon Hammer, he is the co-editor of A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill.
Originally published:
April 1, 2002


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