July 2003

Tim Walker

incomplete education

Dining Out with Charles Simic

A few months ago in this space, I wrote, "The poet I'd like to take on a road trip to all the best rib joints in the South is, without competition, Charles Simic." I was led to this conclusion by Simic's terrific essay "Food and Happiness." In it, he recalls the burek (a sort of dumpling wrapped in phyllo dough) he ate in his youth in Yugoslavia, the school food he ate as a teenager in France (his French classmates scoffed at it, but he loved it), and his introduction to both junk food and serious Italian home cooking when his family moved to the United States in his adolescence. For whatever reason, I encountered Simic's essays before his poems; forced to choose, I might still give the nod to the prose, but now I've come to be a fan of both.

As the loving reflections of "Food and Happiness" suggest, Simic is comfortable with life's voluptuary pleasures. In his memoir In the Beginning..., Simic relates the great restaurant binges he would go on with his father, a dapper engineer who was a spendthrift and a gourmand in equal measure. They might spend the rent money on dinner at a restaurant, but at least it would be a really good dinner.

Simic's inheritance from his father seems to include an appreciation for life's enjoyments and a lack of hang-ups about partaking of them. He is comfortable smoking strong cigarettes and drinking good wine and commenting upon his lover's naked breasts. (Indeed, as poems like"Crazy About Her Shrimp" and "Paradise" show, women's breasts are a fond image of his.) Simic has his touchstones, his fascinations, but not, apparently, many hang-ups to weigh them down. Best of all, he conveys his enthusiasms and his wonderfully skewed view of the world in a great black-comic voice.

Make no mistake, Simic has seen life's underside. He was born in Belgrade in 1938, and has written extensively about his youth in Yugoslavia during World War II. As Yugoslav society was pulled to and fro by war and its aftermath, Simic's own family was repeatedly separated and uprooted. He recounts these days - and his own juvenile-delinquent tendencies - with great humor, but also with genuine pathos. He opens the poem "Cameo Appearance" with these lines: "I had a small, nonspeaking part / In a bloody epic. I was one of the / Bombed and fleeing humanity."

Simic's mother took him and his brother from Yugoslavia to France in 1953. During his year there, he re-entered school (he had dropped out for a while in the chaos of post-war Yugoslavia) and tried to learn as much as he could about the family's ultimate destination, the United States. Once again he hung around with the wrong crowd from school, though now he was also acutely aware of his new role as an outsider in the society at large: "After a couple of weeks in France, I knew I had a new identity. I was a suspicious foreigner from now on." As he did in Belgrade and would again in America, Simic spent many hours in cinemas, absorbing the images of films whose words he could not yet understand.

A year later, the family's dream came true when they boarded the Queen Mary and sailed for the U.S. Once in Manhattan, they rejoined Simic's father, who had emigrated years before. Thus began the American part of Simic's surreal odyssey, a part which has lasted almost half a century and taken him from New York to Chicago and back again, and most recently to New Hampshire for a couple decades of college teaching.

Simic's poems usher us into a surreal, darkly comic world illuminated by his curious and kaleidoscopic mind. In "Paradise", Simic's narrator encounters a man and a woman walking naked at dawn in the side streets of Hell's Kitchen:

I must be dreaming, I told myself.
It was like meeting a couple of sphinxes.
I expected them to have wings, bodies of lions:
Him with his wildly tattooed chest;
Her with her huge, dangling breasts.

It happened so quickly, and so long ago!

His poems juxtapose found objects drawn from his memory, his voracious reading, and the world around him. He describes the process of composing them in his essay "Notes on Poetry and Philosophy":

My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one's walks: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely shaped root, the corner of a tornphotograph, etc. ... where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships, which hint at meanings, begin to appear. These objets trouves of poetry are, of course, bits of language. The poem is the place where one hears what the language is really saying, where the full meaning of words begins to emerge.That's not quite right! It's not so much what the words mean that is crucial, but rather, what they show and reveal.

This passage is apt in at least three ways: First, Simic's poems are physically populated by "interesting things" that he returns to again and again - chickens, wine, spiders, clocks, the aforementioned breasts, and so on. Second, he describes more than once his method of putting different items - real or notional - alongside one another to see what surreal poetic possibilities may arise. Third, he contradicts himself in mid-flow. Simic is much more interested in getting the words down honestly than in sounding wise or infallible. In fact, I'd say that he ends up sounding wise (not to mention worldly-wise) because he eschews the myth of infallibility.

Simic's poems have been compared to "tiny jewel boxes." Indeed, short pieces are his forte in both poetry and prose, and many of his poems are built of short lines on a single page. Rather than beating a subject to death with long theses or reams of poetic speech, he delivers an incisive take on some aspect of life. It's usually a take that bears repeated reading.

The permanent outsider doesn't take himself too seriously: In one poem he describes himself as "a minor provincial grumbler on holiday." But he does take his pleasures as they come, and he passes them along as he finds them in the oddest places. A fragment of his aesthetics may be found in the closing stanza of "The Altar":

An altar dignifying the god of chance.
What is beautiful, it cautions,
Is found accidentally and not sought after.
What is beautiful is easily lost.

The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems by Charles Simic Harcourt ISBN: 0151008426 192 Pages