Sixty Poems, Charles Simic, Harvest Books
Throughout this collection, Simic captures what can be safely encompassed as truly contemporary visions. Socially, Simic’s themes and images range from entertainment with television, film, theatre (“The Devils,” “Cameo Appearance”) and dining, to travel with hotel rooms (“Hotel Insomnia,” “Paradise Motel”), strange cities and night spots, human relations, (“The Secret,” “Mummy’s Curse”) and of the realities and consequences of war (“Empires,” “Reading History”). In addition, Simic focuses on the human mental and physical reactions to these stimuli. Simic’s work is reminiscent of the work of his two U.S. Poet Laureate predecessors, Kooser and Hall. Like Kooser in works such as Sure Signs and Delights and Shadows, Simic demonstrates the uncanny ability to freeze-frame moments in time and render them poetic. That is, many of Simic’s poems such as “In The Library” and “Mirrors at 4 A.M” follow structure around a single incident, thought, or situation.
Where Simic seems to move beyond Kooser’s realm is in the range of emotional weight and connotation associated with his central image. While many of Kooser’s snapshots reveal simple, great-plains kinds of themes and sensibilities, Simic is able to work with a plethora of feelings, including the terrifying and melancholic. Poems like “Late September,” “Unmade Beds,” and “Transport” offer deep ripples of emotion which manifest themselves in fashions similar to a haunting. Because so many of these Simic poems depict a central image and operate through the use of concrete language, the poetic voice approaches that of an analysis or response to a visual photograph. In terms of structure and style, Simic’s pieces in this work are collectively clear. Yet, when we examine several of the poems in detail, a key element is visible in each which carries the weight of interpretation for the entire poem. For instance, in “The Secret,” while the speaker contemplates death and his existence, he catches a glimpse of his white cat “picking at the bloody head of a fish.” (47) This kind of fresh equivocation, something like the Hitchcock swerve perhaps, makes for great possibilities in interpretation and meaning and serves to recharge the poem midway through. In this generally satisfying collection, a few of Simic’s poems appear to suffer from a noticeably overt movement or lack of suspense, particularly at the conclusion, in comparison to many of the other poems. “Country Fair,” for example, ends by following up a rather ordinary set of descriptions with the final stanza: “She was drunk and so was the man / who kept kissing her neck. / The dog got the stick and looked back at us / and that was the whole show.” (33) Read within the spectrum of the other excellent poems in the text, this is a final line which leaves much to be desired. In other words, the unfulfilled feeling in the last lines has less to do with the poem being a failure than with the sheer completeness in the bulk of work which precedes and follows it.
On the other hand, Sixty Poems demonstrates many instances in which Simic is fully capable of blasting his way through an excellent poem with a surcharge of unrelenting momentum. “Club Midnight,” for example, rolls out in a series of questions directed at the reader and through this repetition, formulates a conception that is extremely interesting, literary, and imagistic. Other times, Simic’s diction can create a memory so specific and so quiet, that it demands reader meditation and search for deeper meaning, such as in “The Toy.” What I admire particularly about Simic’s work in this collection and of Hall, Kooser, and some of Collins (much of the latter’s work may not be as applicable to the current discussion as the two formers) is the faithfulness to the simple, plain-speak in contemporary poetry that defies other trends. Interestingly, Simic’s immense popularity forces us to engage in dialogue concerning what constitutes as formal contemporary poetry and what characteristics we can apply to that definition. Though much of Simic’s language is, indeed, simple, it doesn’t lack the ability to be insightful and to bring meaning to the world the poetry depicts. Poems such as “At the Cookout” reveal the intricacy of human relations and the power they have to manipulate emotions and meaning.
“Entertaining The Canary,” which originally appears in Simic’s 1996 collection, Walking the Black Cat, is a poem that exudes a unique personality and layers of interpretation worthy of a focused response. The speaker has a specific name to which he refers to the canary, which makes the address personal and justifiable, as well as adds more weight to the poem and puts more at stake for the speaker. The speaker makes two demands of the canary: desist and sing. There is a connection in the final two stanzas between the three characters in the poem and this relationship is captured by the use of the physical body parts each character demonstrates. That is, the third stanza is comprised of detailed physical descriptions including back, chin, shoulder, breast, and crotch. And it is with the wings that the bird will applaud. In a sense, all communication, verbal, emotional, sexual, is done via the utilization of limbs and attachments. A brief look at the verbs used in the poem reveals a simplistic formula which allows the reader to focus on what is happening inside the moment. Chirp, desist, turn, soaping, putting, sing, flutter, applaud, and throw are very deliberate and specific, meaning the speaker isn’t intended to fool anyone. Instead, through this calling to the reader to turn our gazes inward, we see an urgent plea for communication offered in the scene. Moreover, the speaker ends the poem by making known the consequences for ignoring his plea; that is, a complete and utter shut-off from the rest of the world—a total blackout, as it were.
Ironically, the reading and interpreting of the poem demands an inversion of the title. That is, through the speaker’s marked isolation and want of the bird’s attention, we quickly get the sense that it is the bird that possesses the ability to entertain the speaker. Subsequently, the relationship between poet and reader or artist and audience quickly emerges. As the maker of love, cleanser of the body, and poet of the world, the speaker calls to the canary who serves as the viewer, reader, art consumer in a chillingly honest manner. Further implicit remarks can be made about the speaker’s meaning when we consider the use of “as if you were applauding.” (57) One must wonder what questions Simic might be attempting to raise here regarding audience and entertainment in contemporary culture. Simic’s poem forces us to once again ask ourselves, what is art, specifically poetry? What is the intention and use of poetry in relationship to society and what is the poet’s role within that society? What is the reader’s role? Indeed, Charles Simic’s collection has much to add to this imperative discussion, and through interpretation of the poems therein, we are able to understand more clearly our own specific roles in contemporary poetics. Visually stimulating, metaphysically fulfilling, and artistically mesmerizing, Sixty Poems showcases Simic’s unique poetic gesture.
Rick Marlatt holds BAs in English and Philosophy and a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska, and he is currently pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California Riverside at Palm Desert. Marlatt’s most recent publications include New York Quarterly, Pedestal Magazine, and Poetic Diversity