Courtney Johnston's Reviews > Frightening Toys

Frightening Toys by Charles Simic
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Apr 27, 12

bookshelves: borrowed, poetry
Read from April 06 to 28, 2012

I read this collection the weekend that my life changed. It is due back at the library today, and it feels like a good time to be doing this again.

The thing I noticed about Simic's poems was how he drops you into them. This doesn't happen with all of them, and it is not a harsh or jarring experience, but often your eye falls on the first line and suddenly you are in the poem.

('A Letter')

Dear philosophers, I get sad when I think.
Is it the same with you?


('To Helen')

Tomorrow early I'm going to the doctor
In the blue suit and shirt you ironed.
Tomorrow I'm going to have my bones photographed
With my heart in its spiked branches.


Often, I would find myself liking half a poem, and not the other half, and then discovering that the two halves were necessary to each other and could not be considered alone. (This sounds obvious, yet it is with poetry more than anything else that I will happily cling to a couple of lines that have meaning and assign all the other words to oblivion.) 'Frightening Toys' for example: the last four lines kill me, while the beginning of the poem repulses me a little. But you need them all:

History practicing its scissor-clips
In the dark,
So everything comes out in the end
Missing an arm or leg.

Still, if that's all you've got
To play with today ...
This doll at least has a head,
And its lips were red!

Frame houses like grim exhibits
Lining the empty streets
Where a little girl sat on the steps
In a flowered nightgown, talking to it

It looked like a serious matter,
Even the rain wanted to hear about it,
So it fell on her eyelashes
And made them glisten.


I don't find Simic to be a beautiful or endearing poet - he's more coolly intellectual for me. Yet he has a way of phrasing images that puts them straight into my mind. This was especially the case with 'William and Cynthia' (again with that great parachuted-in opening):

Says she'll take him the the Museum
of Dead Ideas and Emotions.
Wonders that he hasn't been there yet.
Says it looks like a Federal courthouse
With its many steps and massive columns.

Apparently not many people go there
On such drizzly gray afternoons.
Says even she she gets afraid
In the large exhibition halls
With monstrous ideas in glass cases,
Naked emotions on stone pedestals
In classically provocative poses.

Says she doesn't understand why he claims
All that reminds him of a country fair.
Admits there's a lot of old dust
And the daylight is the color of sepia,
Just like this picture postcard
With its two lovers chastely embracing
Against a painted cardboard sunset.


And I am puzzled and intrigued by 'The White Room'

The obvious is difficult
To prove. Many prefer
The hidden. I did, too.
I listened to the trees.

They had a secret
Which they were about to
Make known to me,
And then didn't.

Summer came. Each tree
On my street had its own
Scheherazade. My nights
Were a part of their wild

Story-telling. We were
Entering dark houses,
More and more dark houses
Hushed and abandoned.

Therew as someone with eyes closed
On the upper floors.
The thought of it, and the wodner,
Kept me sleepless.

The truth is bald and cold,
Said the woman
Who always wore white.
She didn't leave her room much.

The sun pointed at one or two
Thinfs that had survived
The long night intact,
The simplest things,

Difficult in their obviousness.
They made no noise.
It was the kind of day
People describe as 'perfect'.

Gods disguising themselves
As black hairpins? A hand-mirror?
A comb with a tooth missing?
No! That wasn't it.

Just things as they are
Unblinking, lying mute
In that bright light,
And the trees waiting for the night.


Casting about online when I first read the collection, I found Simic's poem 'The North'. I have been wanting to share it as I have been sharing other poems, but for various reasons I have not. And so I have decided to put it here, to bring the time I have spent with this book to a close, and to open up new books and new times in its place.

The ancients knew the sorrows of exile:
If you weren't hanged, they'd pack you off
To the far ends of the Earth,
To go on grumbling, writing endless petitions
That would never reach the Emperor.
The North always the place of punishment:
Unforgiving cold, rags on your back,
And the company of a few sullen barbarians
At day's end when the wind parts the clouds
And the stars seem to be mocking.
Every few years a garbled message from home.
Memory paying a call in the wee hours:
A mother's face; the company of merry friends
At the long table in the garden;
Their wives baring their throats in the
afternoon heat…
"The sages suffered, too, exiled from truth,"
That's what you tell yourself…
Not many are meant to retrace their steps
And behold the splendors of the capital
Even more seductive than when you knew them.
The North always the place of punishment.
Deep snow. Blue-veined trees and bushes
Rising against the pink-colored morning sky…
So that briefly, in that one spell,
Your heartache hushes at the beauty of it.
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