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Tucson Weekly Messiahs and Mouse Turds

Charles Simic's wry surrealism is still steady as she goes.

By David Penn

APRIL 6, 1998: 

Orphan Factory: Essays and Memoirs, by Charles Simic (University of Michigan Press, 1997). Paper, $13.95.

Walking the Black Cat (poems), by Charles Simic (Harcourt Brace, 1996). Paper, $13.

My first poems were published in the winter of 1959 issue of Chicago Review, but other publications came slowly after that; the mail brought me rejection slips every day. One, I remember, had a personal note from the editor that said: "Dear Mr. Simic, you're obviously an intelligent young man, so why do you waste your time writing so much about pigs and cockroaches?

--Charles Simic, in an essay called "New York Days, 1958-1964"

UNLIKE MANY OF his contemporaries, Charles Simic, who went from the Chicago Review to a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for his collection of poems The World Doesn't End, has continued to play to his strengths. "The folk surrealism, the mysticism, the eroticism, and the wild flights of romance and rhetoric," he's called it, referring to the French and German modernists who discovered in the rise of behavioral science new ways to mix the subconscious, the visionary, and the strange into the foundation of creative work.

Simic was in Manhattan when this epiphany hit him, decades ago, listening to early bebop jazz in the back room of a nightclub. Having been run around in circles by his friends back in Chicago, accused of writing poems that were nothing more than "crazy images strung arbitrarily together," or worse, poems that "don't mean anything," Simic was amazed to hear so clearly stated in the melodies of American jazz something he'd been struggling to understand about how his poetry worked: "(Rollins) was playing 'Get Happy,' twisting it inside out, reconstituting it completely, discovering its concealed rhythmic and melodic beauties, and we were right there with him, panting with happiness...The lesson I learned was: Cultivate controlled anarchy. I found Rollins, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk far better models of what an artist could be than most poets."

For years, Simic's poetry has been the poetry of the wry surrealist gesture, the lucid, hallucinatory image; and language, with its careening, abrupt movement from perception to perception. Whereas many of the older generation of poets have abandoned the deeply metaphoric leaps of imagination and feeling for narrative odes on society or morality (as in Galway Kinnell's sad devolution from The Book of Nightmares to When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone)--poets who, in effect, have abandoned the notion of style--Simic's work continues to call upon readers to crack open their own imaginations, the better for his macabre, gently twisted visions to filter in:

They had already attached the evening's tears to the windowpanes
The general was busy with the ant farm in his head

The holy saints in their tombs were burning, all except one who was a prisoner of a dark-haired movie star

Moses wore a false beard and so did Lincoln

(from "Relaxing in a Madhouse").

Simic's surrealism is the neatly clipped, almost figurative, surrealism of André Breton, the French writer and founder of surrealism as an aesthetic school of thought. Along with James Tate and a few others in the United States, Simic has been able to thrive in an artistic tradition which, long ago, exhausted itself in the visual arts.

While Simic's poems are popular largely because of the directness and lucidity of their imagery, it's also true that Simic has continued to succeed as a surrealist poet by not relying solely on "the weird image" to deliver the altered state of surreal experience. Equally, Simic's poetry resides within the language of wonderment and emotional nakedness, the spontaneity early surrealists like Breton and Robert Desnos sought in their automatic writing experiments.

Poems like Simic's "An Address With Exclamation Points" put exultation itself on display. Far from avoiding the sort of bombast that makes political pronouncement the object of satire and ridicule, Simic embraces the elevated rhetoric--the mythologizing of self, and the obsessions with loneliness and isolation--that encourages us to make fetishes of love, fear, devotion, grief: "The kitchen is closed, the waiters shouted!/No more vineyard snails in garlic butter!/No more ox tripe fried in onions!/We have only tears of happiness left!"

In this, Simic's work somewhat resembles other Eastern European poets like Andre Codrescu, who grew up in Eastern Europe but emigrated to the United States in time for the West's cultural revolution. Their poetry represents a sensibility in which a constant undermining of assumptions, of the perceptions that tell us "the way things are," is necessary to ward off those who Simic calls "enemies of the individual."

These, for Simic, are people who believe "there is not such a thing as an autonomous self, and if there is, for the sake of the common good it is not desirable to have one." Against this conformism, the bureaucratic collectivism of "the East" and the emerging National Safety State of "the West," Charles Simic's celebration of the individual takes place in the romantic, lushly animated universe of dust particles on old pianos, panhandling messiahs, mouse turds, and Thou.

...A universe in which the inherent uniqueness of all things is observed, recognized, and known.

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