↑ Grab this Headline Animator

Sunday, May 18, 2008

‘One or Two Murderers in Any Crowd’

To open one of Charles Simic’s collections of poetry — this is, incredibly, his 19th — is to enter with renewed delight an instantly familiar neighborhood. Delight may not be the first word you’d associate with his shabby rooming houses, seedy movie theaters, empty restaurants on lonely side streets, dusty stores about to go out of business, bare trees. But if the scenery comes out of Edward Hopper, complete with the aura of loneliness and of ordinary things made strange by odd slants of light, the people who live there are nothing like Hopper’s doughy American depressives. They’re characters from Eastern European folk tales or Kafka, boiling with energy, nicely poised between the comic and the sinister and prone to metamorphosis: an opera singer keeps “a monkey dressed in baby clothes,” a woman “turned into a black cat / and I ran after you on all fours.” Even Grandmother — and Simic’s poems are full of grandmothers — “knitted / With a ball of black yarn.” The fun — and Simic’s poetry is nothing if not amusing — comes from the way he puts together the whimsical, the earthy, the banal and the transcendent. There are a lot of chickens in his poems and a lot of angels, too.

The mingling of American and Eastern European motifs gives Simic’s poetry a kind of natural, effortless surrealism, but it’s also plain autobiography. Born in Belgrade, Simic grew up during World War II and its Stalinist aftermath. (“By the time my brother was born and he and my mother had come home from the clinic, I was in the business of selling gunpowder,” he has written. “Many of us kids had stashes of ammunition, which we collected during the street fighting.”) He emigrated to Chicago at 16 and had a knockabout rebellious youth there and in New York. No wonder the safety and comfort and self-confidence of his adopted country don’t quite ring true for him. As he writes in “Listen”:

Everything about you,
My life, is both
Make-believe and real.
We are a couple
Working the night shift
In a bomb factory....
One can hear a fire engine
In the distance,
But not the cries for help,
Just the silence

Growing deeper
At the sight of a small child
Leaping out of a window
With its nightclothes on fire.

The speaker in that poem lives an American life, but without American innocence: he may have a job in the bomb factory, but as a survivor of war he knows it’s not just another workplace.

The estrangement from place, from the present moment, is part of a more general sense of estrangement between the self and its circumstances — “you, my life” — and between the self and, well, the self. Is it related to the fact that from the start Simic wrote in English, his second language, while drinking deeply from poetry in Serbo-Croatian (he’s translated Vasko Popa and Ivan Lalic) and in French? Simic’s poems are full of abrupt moments, mistaken identities and roads not taken, a sense of other selves one might have been: “The last time anyone saw me alive: / I was either wearing dark glasses / And reading the Bible on the subway, / Or crossing the street and laughing to myself.” In our era of wars and disasters and uprooted populations, someone else might be wearing your life like a suit — or you his.

By Charles Simic.
73 pp. Harcourt. $23.
Charles Simic, Surrealist With Dark View, Is Named Poet Laureate (August 2, 2007)
Times Topics: Charles Simic

‘One or Two Murderers in Any Crowd’


Post a Comment

<< Home