Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Charles Simić

•Charles Simić: A Fly in the Soup..
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 182 pages.
ISBN 978-0472-08909-9.
Eastside Road, January 27, 2015—
ALTHOUGH A STUDENT of English literature when at university, I have never developed the habit of reading poetry. Oh, there are many poets I love to read: Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore (lordy how I date myself); later Anselm Hollo, Kenneth Koch, the San Francisco Beat poets to an extent, my friend Andrew Hoyem; abroad certain poets in French and Italian. But I don't read verse habitually.

And here is why: when I read short lines my mind wanders. Perhaps my mind is attached to my eyeballs. I like, in spite of recent musings here about a dislike of narrative, I like a long sentence, even a long paragraph. Nothing more beautiful than a block of text on a page, a nice big rectangle of letters, justified top, bottom, right and left. And where does the mind wander to? Why, to writing poetry of my own, of course — it always looks so easy — and of course I can't write poetry, not worth a damn. If I want to get that far from prose, I'll keep going just a bit farther: to music. Or, more likely, to total mindlessness.

One of the few regrets I have is having lived all those years across the street from Ron Silliman, and virtually never having had a conversation with him. Well, we were both busy, with marriage, and children, and bill-paying work; there wasn't a lot of time, it seems, for conversation. But I do regret that; it would have taught me to transform my latent appreciation of poetry into an abiding passion, I think; would have taught me to come to terms with poetry's tendency toward universal perfection, and its generous overlooking my my uniquely individual flaws.

All this occurs to me as I consider a marvelous book I've just finished, Charles Simić's memoir. Born in then-Yugoslavia in 1938, he left that country, with his mother and brother, when he was sixteen, joining a father he hardly knew, spending his adolescence in Chicago, settling in New York, working at a number of casual jobs, reading reading reading, finally turning to professional poetry and literature, teaching at the University of New Hampshire, editing poetry at The Paris Review — you can read all this stuff at Wikipedia, where I got the funny thing on the final letter of his name.

The memoir is beautifully written to the reader, in short sentences and chapters, often very funny, full of improbable anecdote and memorable events and characters whose unlikeliness seems to puzzle the writer as much as his reader. There are rural peasants in Simić's past, but his was essentially an urban childhood and youth; and his story often mediates The Bicycle Thief (which he fondly discusses) and Down and Out in Paris and London (which he doesn't mention).

Thanks to the accident of birthplace and year, Simić knows things most of us have only heard about, or seen in movies. And he doesn't take long to make note off that:
I knew something they didn't, something hard to come by unless history gives you a good kick in the ass: how superfluous and insignificant in any grand scheme mere individuals are!
A Fly in the Soup, p.4
And, always with humor and a degree of wonder, Simić leads us through petty crime, corruption, espionage, jails, dangerous border crossings, petty scams, ineptness at love, and always a great zest for life.

Until you get to the final five chapters, when the book takes a very profound turn, harvesting all the fruits and sweetmeats the author had been artfully concealing in his jokes and escapades, the overheard profundities at drunken parties, the improbable everyday beauty of vacant lot or neighboring window.

Although not directly stated, these chapters center on Poetry, God, Society (and bad language), and Philosophy. (The final chapter is about Mozart and fire, but I'll leave that for you to discover.) On Poetry:
The poet sits before a blank piece of paper with a need to say many things in the small space of the poem. The world is huge, the poet is alone, and the poem is just a bit of language, a few scratchings of a pen surrounded by the silence of the night. … Words make love on the page like flies in the summer heat, and the poem is as much the result of chance as it is of intention. Probably more so.
Ibid., p.160-61
On God, a marvelous anecdote about a visit to a monastery, a nuns' monastery in Mesić, Serbia, near the Romania border, where he is struck by the combination of silence, tranquillity, intelligent conversation, and discipline. "Every poem, knowingly, or unknowingly, is addressed to God," he remembers a friend telling him long ago. At that time Simić, an atheist, objected.
No more. Today I think as he did then. It makes absolutely no difference whether gods and devils exist or not. The secret ambition of every true poem is to ask about them even as it acknowledges their absence.
Ibid., p.169
Finally, on Philosophy, which is to say still about Poetry:
The pleasures of philosophy are the pleasures of reducction— the epiphanies of hinting in a few words at complex matters. … In both cases, that need to get it down to its essentials, to say the unsayable and let the truth of Being shine through.

History, on the other hand, is antireductive. Nothing tidy about it. Chaos! Bedlam! Hopeless tangle! My own history and the history of this century like a child and his blind mother on the street.

Ibid., p.180
It is a lively and beautiful book, because it records the immediacy, the pleasures, the zest of life fully lived, and arrives, at the end, at insights, even vision.

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