Charles Simic, who says that he wants to write poetry that even garbage men will understand, guides us in Walking the Black Cat through a surreal land...moreCharles Simic, who says that he wants to write poetry that even garbage men will understand, guides us in Walking the Black Cat through a surreal landscape inhabited by street side ventriloquists, magicians, ghosts, dwarves and monkeys with the grace and aplomb of a 66 year old Yugoslavian ballerina. But if you ask Simic, he’ll deny that the characters in his poems are surreal. Claiming to be a “hard-nosed realist,” he says that he merely eavesdrops on the homeless and the mad to come up with his poems.
The world is vile and stupid! At least this is what Simic has declared in interviews and what he continues to argue through verse. He mocks fat men and their wives who keep themselves busy at company picnics by trying to stand on their heads and smearing sun lotion on their legs.
In order to protect themselves from this vile world of which they don’t wish to be a part, the characters in Simic’s poems dress themselves up in sequined dresses, black capes, red shawls, white gloves, orange wraparound shades, black slips, powdered wigs, high heeled shoes. Shadows. The night. The moment of most clarity in the entire collection; the one in which we really feel like we understand what Simic is up to, happens in The Preacher Says:
In the dims, the murky dusks, Of your brain on Judgement Day,
It’ll be like 100,000 firecrackers Going off
All at the same time.
Firecrackers, the desert sun, neon signs and all other forms of light threaten to reveal how ugly the world actually is, but Simic’s characters find sanctuary in shadow, darkness, disguise—“the dims, the murky dusks.”
Simic does, however, allow his speaker moments of vulnerability—moments of light and nakedness. These are the moments he’s with his lover, soaping up her “breasts and crotch” in the shower, making love on noisy bedsprings or unpinning her long black hair and undressing her, urging her to
Lie back in my arms
And watch the light fall Golden over us In wordless silence.
But there are also moments when the speaker is caught, literally, with his pants down—such is the case in Official Inquiry Among the Grains of Sand, when he is spied on by the “chief snoop of a previously unknown secret government agency,” who is “tiptoeing importantly.” It seems that, for this set of poems, nakedness is only delightful when you’ve got a partner in crime, someone to defy the terrible light with.
The most successful poems are told by a plucky narrator who, despite the tragedy of his circumstances, is hopeful. In Marked Playing Cards, for instance, a man sets himself up to have bad luck in life, hoping this will guarantee him good luck in love. He loses his TV, bass fiddle, car, and everything but his windbreaker and slippers. Then he says: “but I feel cheerful, even though it’s snowing.” Simic, too, is a cheerful poet, using humor as his own protective cloak against the abrasive world. His cheeky tone is also successful in What the Gypsies Told My Grandmother While She Was Still a Young Girl. After the gypsies tell her that she will “chop onions and pieces of your heart into the same hot skillet,” they claim that the devil will call her a “little cutie” and that, although she will pray to God, “God will hang a sign that He’s not to be disturbed.” Although Simic warns us in the collection’s first poem that the landscape will be hellish, it’s kind of a cute hell—one that endears him to us.
His set of images is so restricted, however, that by the end of the collection we feel as though we have read these poems before. They seem to be the poems from the first half, simply shuffled and recombined. The black cat that has been slinking in and out of the poems continues to slink, birds and chickens still squawk, and we’ve still got in inexhaustible supply of ghosts, dark windowpanes, mirrors and disguises. The same cast of magicians and Orange County deities still wander aimlessly through the desert. Perhaps if Simic had written more poems like Shadow Publishing Company, in which a woman mourns her dead husband—an eye doctor whose surgical instruments are preserved in a glass case—his weird and eerie images could have sustained his preference for simple language until the bitter end. I find this scene of mourning far more provocative than the merely sensational dwarf who gets out of a cab with his monkey in Hot Night.
Simic has compared his poetry to jazz music, the energetic rebel up against centuries of classical music, and I admire—indeed, adore—his daring in defying what he considers to be the elite language and subject matter of much contemporary poetry. But at times the poems in Walking the Black Cat, with their repetitive and sensational imagery, feel like they’re being performed by a jazz musician who could stand to learn a few more riffs. (less)
I think this is a book that some people would really love. I'm a big fan of Forrest Gander's poetry, and like I was expecting, "As A Friend" is kind o...moreI think this is a book that some people would really love. I'm a big fan of Forrest Gander's poetry, and like I was expecting, "As A Friend" is kind of like a 100 page free-form poem. Gander's language is gorgeous (the sort of thing that should be read out loud if you can), and as you're reading you're filled with the sensation of looking for buried treasure. Like, if you read it closely and carefully enough, a whole subterranean story would emerge that would be absolutely beautiful and brilliant.
When I was doing that English Undergrad thing where I was writing papers on close readings of 20th century American poetry, maybe this would have excited me a little bit more. But I guess that's not really my cup of tea these days. Anymore, I prefer writers who are emotionally accessible; direct, honest & forthright: Alice Munro, John Steinbeck, Doris Lessing, Flannery O'Connor... (In fact, I think there's something a little snobbish and elitist about an author who is intentionally obscure!) And so Forrest Gander's book was just kind of ok to me. Brilliant, beautiful passages, fantastically tense homoeroticism, nostalgia and longing ~ but ultimately the story feels like something buried too deep in the earth.(less)
This book has one of my favorite lines of poetry ever. It's from Pound's poem about the river-merchant's wife. Observing pairs of butterflies as she t...moreThis book has one of my favorite lines of poetry ever. It's from Pound's poem about the river-merchant's wife. Observing pairs of butterflies as she thinks of her departed husband, she says simply, beautifully:
"They hurt me. I grow older."
Oh, Ezra Pound, you were such a kook. A stodgy old brilliant kook. I never would have wanted to know you in real life. But I guess I can say that about a lot of crotchety old writers.(less)
I bought this copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses when I was living in Rome. It's the book I was reading on the plane when I left Rome, as the realization su...moreI bought this copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses when I was living in Rome. It's the book I was reading on the plane when I left Rome, as the realization sunk in that an awesome and strange adventure was drawing to a close, and it's the book I was still reading when I moved back to Minneapolis and attempted to readjust to life as a Midwestern college undergrad.
I was reading Metamorphoses at the cafe a few blocks away from my apartment when a strange man gave me that little terror of a kitten, Monster. And Monster used to bite my toes when I was reading Metamorphoses in bed.
I was in love, so much in love, when I read Metamorphoses, with someone I would surely never meet again. And I was so lonely. And Metamorphoses was just beautiful, all the forlorn humans going up against the gods, only to be transformed into plants, animals, birds~
To read the great Roman poet while living in Rome, and to continue reading him while you are in mourning for the city once it's gone ~ was outrageous. In the best way. Grand. Epic. Eternal.(less)