charles simic will bring his stealthy surreal pleasure to this year's mpf

by Jacquelyn Malone

What is it that I love so much about Charles Simic’s poetry?

For one thing, he often puts me in the dream-like world—not the woozy, charmed land of whimsy but a strange land, at once familiar, but peculiar. It’s a dreaming that pulls me into complete attention, placing me in a timeless reality. For some strange reason—maybe it is Simic’s childhood in war-torn Europe—his poems make me think of scenes from Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which was filmed in post-World War II Vienna when the streets were still littered with the bomb-strewn rubble of buildings. The camera is occasionally tilted so the framed shots are off-kilter, not so that it consciously draws your attention to the camera angle, but so that the viewer feels slightly disoriented, a feeling that something you can’t name is wrong.

Simic’s poems often do the same. Take, for example, his poem “Eyes Fastened with Pins,” a poem in sympathy with hard-working Death. On a cold windy night when Death is out struggling to find someone with a bad cough, his family works to keep things going: “little/Wife always alone/ ironing death’s laundry.” There’s something so mundane about the picture of Death’s down-trodden family that the poem is both ordinary and at the same time downright freaky.  And Death, poor Death, doesn’t “even have a newspaper/ To cover his head, not even/ A dime to call the one pining away.” But this sympathetic picture of Death is introduced by the poem’s title, which opens a separate reading. Nowhere is there a description of what happens to the one Death seeks – except in the title, that gruesome reminder of the physicality of life’s aftermath.

“Eyes Fastened with Pins” is a poem from Simic’s Charon’s Cosmology, which was published in 1977, but through the years his poetry has retained its dark humor, its dislocating features, with meaning always there, always a little out of reach. A poem from his most recent book The Lunatic exhibits the same features. Here is “Eternities” in its entirety:

A child lifted in his mother’s arms to see a parade
And the old man throwing bread crumbs
To the pigeons crowding around him in the park,
Could they be the very same person?

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.

I love the concrete placement of the child and the old man, but, oh my, all the suggested dualities in this poem! The incongruities in the information are: the gargantuan ship sails just past the window; the old man and the small child as the same person; the woman who knows whether the man and the child are the same is blind, which creates a curious tingling that suggests more than a search for the identity of the two characters in the first stanza. Again, it reminds me of the early part of The Third Man, when the naïve American is trying to understand the mystery behind the death of his friend, and he stands bewildered in the cobblestone street while faces in the windows above him stare down, studying his every move. The blind woman saw and knows, but her blindness suggest an inability to know. So what is true? Somehow she sees an enormous ship sailing just past the kitchen window on its way to a vast and forbidding ocean. And finally there’s the title, “Eternities.” By the end, the movie has solved its mystery, but Simic indulges the riddle.  His poems seldom allow you to nail down an absolute meaning, but by leaving the answer trapped in a perplexing quandary, he has made the poem indelible in the reader’s mind and suggested the enigmatic elements of timelessness.

So, yes—I’m excited to know that Simic will be at this year’s festival in Salem, April 29 through May 1! I’m waiting for his mysteries to once more envelope my imagination.