Ali Alizadeh Reviews Charles Simic

28 July 2008

That Little Something by Charles Simic
Harcourt, 2008

An interesting aspect of Serbian-born Charles Simic's being chosen as the United States' 15th Poet Laureate is that Simic, partly due to his experience of a European childhood during the Second World War, has often been something of an 'anti-war' poet. What makes this dimension of Simic's work somewhat odd is that the United States is, of course, currently engaged in an interminable 'war on terror'. As such, Simic's poems and his becoming the country's current Poet Laureate testify to the complexity of contemporary American culture, a culture that is both militaristic and pacifistic, selfish and compassionate.

On the one hand, there's something imperial about Simic's approach to the sort of political issues and preoccupations that might seem anything but frivolous outside of the United States. In this sense, some of the poems in his latest collection That Little Something convey an evidently privileged, 'superpower' perspective. In 'Labor and Capital', for example, Simic seems dismissive of the miserable conditions of low paid workers in Third World factories:

The softness of this motel bed
On which we make love
Demonstrates to me in an impressive manner
The superiority of capitalism.

At the mattress factory, I imagine,
The employees are happy today.
It's Sunday and they are working
Extra hours, like us, for no pay.

Simic's voice is undeniably unpretentious and ironic – even 'cheeky' – yet the speaker's sympathy is arguably not with the unpaid manufacturers of the bed but with the bed's self-absorbed consumers. This voice, while certainly good-natured, is nevertheless that of a self-assured, affluent, and solipsistic, citizen of the First World.

It can be said that to some extent That Little Something as a whole suffers from a degree of solipsism. At times, Simic's inward gaze becomes indistinguishable from navel gazing – as in, for example, some of the poems in the book's first section that represent rather banal childhood memories: 'My mother sang opera all day long. / She made beds, scrambled eggs' or 'Father is on all fours / Looking for a cat' – but, at its best, Simic's introspection produces moving depictions of love and intimacy. In 'Eternity's Orphans', for example, the speaker recounts walking with his beloved in transcendental, even mystical, terms:

Do you remember telling me,
'Everything outside this moment is a lie'?
We were undressing in the dark
Right at the water's edge
When I slipped the watch off my wrist
And without being seen or saying
Anything in reply, I threw it into the sea

A rejection of temporality and all that time implies is a recurring theme in much of That Little Something's poems, but this 'throwing away of the watch' is not always shown as an uplifting renunciation of the encroachment of the end. In the collection's powerful second section, the image of the eradication of time (and timekeeping devices) is presented as a feature of tyranny. In 'The Lights Are on Everywhere', for example, Simic describes the perverse attempts by an allegorical Emperor's cohorts as they try to suppress the reality of the passage of time:

In the capital, they go around confiscating
Clocks and watches, burning heretics
And painting the sunrise above the rooftops
So we can wish each other good morning.

This poem is one of the most effective and memorable pieces of the 'political' section of the collection which, for this reviewer, elevates Simic's collection above the occasionally tepid and self-centred sentimentality of the book's other parts. In this part of the book, Simic is unflinching in expressing his (measured) outrage at humanity's penchant for oppression and cruelty, and relentless and at times explicit in his criticism of the United States' current rulers. In 'Dance of the Macabre Mice', for example:

The president smiles to himself; he loves war
And another one is coming soon.
Each day we can feel the merriment mount
In government offices and TV studios
As our bombers fly off to distant countries.

The first stanza of 'Dance of the Macabre Mice', as quoted above, is one of the more direct, even prosaic, instances of Simic's treatment of the theme of military power. Further on in the poem, however, Simic displays an extraordinary knack for using seemingly abstract, potentially (but deceptively) surreal imagery, to convey an unsettling portrayal of tyranny and state-sponsored terror – for example: 'Dark-clad sharpshooters on rooftops / Are scanning the mall for suspicious pigeons'. Simic's ability to create poignant, and at times devastating, evocations of war and violence has been demonstrated in the past (as in, for example, the 1980 poem 'Prodigy', or the 1997 poem 'Cameo Appearance'); but his abhorrence of war and his volition for communicating this revulsion through a disturbing Ars moriendi reaches a new level of drama and darkness in That Little Something.

In the superb 'Encyclopedia of Horror', for example, the terrible event of the aerial bombing of an unnamed city is conflated with the rather common image of an after-dinner conversation:

That smoke-shrouded city after a bombing-raid,
The corpses like cigarette butts
In a dinner plate overflowing with ashes.

At first reading, this association of two very different notions makes for a peculiar, even offhand, simile; the poet's likening the civilian victims of an air-raid to mere 'cigarette butts' seems callous, to say the least. However, if the progression of concepts is read backward, it is the safe and detached possibility of smoking cigarettes in peace while a city burns elsewhere that is brought into question and destabilised. In other words, the horrific reality of people being burnt as their city is bombed is brought home and is literally placed in front of – in the dinner plates of – potentially apathetic readers.

As such, Simic's most effective poems seem intent on confronting his readers' complacence and their distance from the atrocities being committed in faraway lands. In 'Listen' he addresses – and aims to subvert – precisely this safe distance between his readers and the world's horrific realities:

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.

Here, the sequencing of statements – the gradual movement towards the shocking conclusion – is nothing if not masterful. Simic guides his unsuspecting readers, step by step (or, more appropriately, line by line) toward a scene straight out of hell.

It would be reasonable to assume that Simic, as someone who has had personal experience of 'hell' (the Nazi occupation of his homeland during his childhood), is trying to tell his fellow Americans – and other Anglophone readers – about the infernal truths of war and military occupation. He seems acutely aware of his readers and their limitations, and speaks to them as a visionary, and at times infuriated, prophet. If this reading of his latest collection is anything to go by, Charles Simic's becoming the United States' Poet Laureate last year is a welcome development indeed.

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About Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh is a Melbourne-based author and scholar. His literary interests include Marxist theory, Horror, Continental philosophy and history. Among his favourite authors are Shirley Jackson, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Richard Matheson, Alain Badiou, H.D., and Bertolt Brecht. His books include the collections of poetry Towards the End and Ashes in the Air, the novels The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc and Transactions, and a work of aesthetic theory, Marx and Art. He is a Senior Lecturer at Monash University, Melbourne.

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