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Simic, Charles

SIMIC, Charles


Nationality: American. Born: Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 9 May 1938; immigrated to the United States in 1954; naturalized, 1971. Education: Oak Park High School, Illinois; University of Chicago, 1956–59; New York University, 1959–61, 1963–65, B.A. 1967. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1961–63. Family: Married Helen Dubin in 1964; one daughter and one son. Career: Proofreader, Chicago Sun-Times; member of the department of English, California State College, Hayward, 1970–73. Since 1973 distinguished professor of English, University of New Hampshire, Durham. Editorial assistant, Aperture magazine, New York, 1966–69. Awards: P.E.N. award, for translation, 1970, 1980; Guggenheim fellowship, 1972; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1974, 1979; Edgar Allan Poe award, 1975; American Academy award, 1976; Harriet Monroe poetry award, 1980; Poetry Society of America di Castignola award, 1980; Fulbright fellowship, 1982; Ingram Merrill fellowship, 1983; MacArthur fellowship, 1984; Pulitzer prize, 1990. Address: Department of English, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

What the Grass Says. San Francisco, Kayak, 1967.

Somewhere among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes. San Francisco, Kayak, 1969.

Dismantling the Silence. New York, Braziller, and London, Cape, 1971.

White. New York, New Rivers Press, 1972; revised edition, Durango, Colorado, Logbridge Rhodes, 1980.

Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk. New York, Braziller, 1974.

Biography and a Lament: Poems 1961–1967. Hartford, Connecticut, Bartholomew's Cobble, 1976.

Charon's Cosmology. New York, Braziller, 1977.

Brooms: Selected Poems. Barry, Glamorgan, Edge Press, 1978.

School for Dark Thoughts. Pawlet, Vermont, Banyan Press, 1978.

Classic Ballroom Dances. New York, Braziller, 1980.

Shaving at Night. San Francisco, Meadow Press, 1982.

Austerities. New York, Braziller, 1982; London, Secker and Warburg, 1983.

Weather Forecast for Utopia and Vicinity: Poems 1967–1982. Barrytown, New York, Station Hill Press, 1983.

The Chicken Without a Head. Portland, Oregon, Trace, 1983.

Selected Poems 1963–1983. New York, Braziller, 1985; London, Secker and Warburg, 1986; revised edition, Braziller, 1990.

Unending Blues. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1986.

The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1989.

In the Room We Share (includes prose). New York, Paragon House, 1990.

The Book of Gods and Devils. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1990.

Hotel Insomnia. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1992.

A Wedding in Hell. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1994.

Frightening Toys. London, Faber and Faber, 1995.

Walking the Black Cat. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1996.

Looking for Trouble. London, Faber and Faber, 1997 Jackstraws. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Selected Early Poems. New York, Braziller, 1999.

Recording: School for Dark Thoughts, Watershed, 1978.

Other

The Uncertain Certainty: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1985.

Wonderful Words, Silent Truth. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Dimestore Alchemy. New York, Ecco Press, 1992.

Unemployed Fortune Teller. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Orphan Factory. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1998.

The Fly in the Soup. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Editor and Translator, with C.W. Truesdale, Fire Gardens, by Ivan V. Lilac. New York, New Rivers Press, 1970.

Editor and Translator, Four Yugoslav Poets: Ivan V. Lilac, Brank Miljkovic, Milorad Pavic, Ljubomir Simovic New York, Lillabulero Press, 1970.

Editor and Translator, The Little Box: Poems, by Vasko Popa. Washington, D.C., Charioteer Press, 1970.

Editor, with Mark Strand, Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers. New York, Ecco Press, 1976.

Editor and Translator, Homage to the Lame Wolf: Selected Poems 1956–1975, by Vasko Popa. Oberlin, Ohio, Oberlin College, 1979; enlarged edition, 1987.

Editor and Co-translator, Selected Poems of Tomaz Salamun. New York, Ecco Press, 1988.

Editor, The Essential Campion. New York, Ecco Press, 1988.

Translator, Key to Dream According to Djordje. Chicago, Elpenor, 1978.

Translator, with Peter Kastmiler, Atlantis: Selected Poems of Slavko Mihalic. Greenfield Center, New York, Greenfield Review Press, 1987.

Translator, Roll Call of Mirrors: Selected Poems, by Ivan V. Lilac. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

Translator, Some Other Wine and Light, by Aleksandar Ristovic. Washington, D.C., Charioteer Press, 1989.

Translator, Bandit Wind, by Slavko Janevski. Takoma Park, Maryland, Dryad Press, 1991.

Translator, The Horse Has Six Legs, An Anthology of Serbian Poetry. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf, 1992.

Translator, Night Mail, by Novica Tadic. Oberlin, Ohio, Field, 1992.

Translator, Devil's Lunch, by Aleksandar Ristovic. London, Faber and Faber, 1999.

*

Critical Studies: "Immanent Distance: Silence and the Poetry of Charles Simic" by Bruce Bond, in Mid-American Review (Bowling Green, Ohio), 8 (1), 1988; "Writing Things: Literary Property in Heidegger and Simic" by Kevin Hart, in New Literary History (Baltimore, Maryland), autumn 1989; "An Interview with Charles Simic" with Andrew Liebs, in Single Hound (Portsmouth, New Hampshire) 2 (2), 1990; "The Secret World of Charles Simic" by Marci Janas, in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Oberlin, Ohio), spring 1991; "The Poet on a Roll" by Ileana A. Orlich, in Centennial Review (East Lansing, Michigan), spring 1992; "Simic's Cabbage " by Philip Miller, in Explicator (Washington, D.C.), summer, 1993.

Charles Simic comments:

Simic has been called a surrealist, magic realist, and plain old realist. Although born in Yugoslavia, he thinks of himself as a New England writer in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

*  *  *

At the opening of Charles Simic's book-length poem White, the author hesitates before the blank page, poised for another "raid on the inarticulate":

Out of poverty
to begin again
 
With the color of the bride
And that of blindness,
 
Touch what I can
Of the quick
 
Speak and then wait,
As if this light
 
Will continue to linger
On the threshold

This passage aptly summarizes Simic's poetic project as it voices his desire to articulate a mythic primeval world existing in a silence beyond speech, a world that he has elsewhere described as being "one notch below language … that place of original action and desire … a world where magic is possible, where chance reigns, where metaphors have their supreme logic, where imagination is free and truthful." In the figure of the bride the passage hints at the fulfillment, at once ritual and erotic, that the approach to this archetypal realm promises. Yet the poem, in the rigor of its terse, minimalist lines no less than in its open acknowledgment of the poverty of the poet's language and imagination, promises no shortcut to transcendence. If the mute world is to speak, the poet must listen as much as he talks, and if illumination is to come, it is likely to pass in a moment. More ominously, the mention of blindness hints that it may not come at all.

In the mid-1960s, when he first began publishing poetry, Simic's obsession with this silent world, with what used to be called the sublime, effectively bracketed him with the group of American poets loosely known as the deep imagists, the most prominent of whom were Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin. Like them, Simic could point to the influence of Theodore Roethke and the surrealists on the visionary, dreamlike structures of his poems. (Like Bly and Merwin, Simic also would become a prolific translator of his influences, especially eastern European poets like Vasko Popa and Ivan Lilac.) Following the deep imagists, much of Simic's early verse seeks to reach toward a realm of pastoral stillness through a concentrated effort of attention. In "Evening" he writes,

The snail gives off stillness.
The weed is blessed.
At the end of a long day
The man finds joy, the water peace.
 
Let all be simple. Let all stand still
Without a final direction.
That which brings you into the world
To take you away at death
Is one and the same;
The shadow long and pointy
Is its church

Yet the successful rapprochement with such a blissful silence is comparatively rare in Simic's work. There are other elements in his poetic voice: a sense of humor at once dark and playful, an unflinching recognition of the political horrors of the twentieth century that was acquired during the poet's childhood in wartime Yugoslavia, and a consequent suspicion of the very cosmos he would interrogate. These elements give Simic's poems a jaggedly ironic edge and save him from the occasional complacencies of his deep imagist counterparts.

This ambivalent tone is well captured in the title poem of Simic's first major collection, Dismantling the Silence, wherein the archetypal poetic encounter with the sublime is rendered as a clinical, macabre dissection suffused with dread:

Take down its ears first
Carefully so they don't spill over.
With a sharp whistle slit its belly open.
If there are ashes in it, close your eyes
And blow them whichever way the wind is pointing.
If there's water, sleeping water,
Bring the root of a plant that hasn't drunk for a month.
 
When you reach the bones,
And you haven't got a pack of dogs with you,
And you haven't got a pine coffin
And a wagon pulled by oxen to make them rattle,
Slip them quickly under your skin,
Next time you pick up your sack,
You'll hear them setting your teeth on edge...

It is this dread, concentrated around the ghostly, disembodied objects of an unpeopled universe, that defines the world of Simic's early poetry. It is a landscape that seems at once lost in a distant past—the anthropomorphic world of primitive folklore—and curiously contemporary—the stuff of postapocalyptic nightmare. Through this landscape Simic's detached, precise voice picks its ironic way, interrogating one discarded artifact after another, searching for an answer to the bloody riddle of modern history. Often, as in "Fork," the answer seems to point to a primal ignorance and violence shared by humans and animals alike:

This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell
It resembles a bird's foot
Worn around the cannibal's neck.
 
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless and blind.

Such poems, balanced as they are between a terse, matter-of-fact narrator and a stark, surrealist imagery, carry a tremendous visceral jolt. But they run the risk of burning out their reader, who may be able to endure only so many of these metaphoric shocks before becoming jaded. Hence, in later works Simic has moved away from the hypersurrealist image, the mordant one-liner, which in his early work was expected to carry the weight of the entire poem. Simic's later verse is quieter, more relaxed, and if it is no less pessimistic, its despair seems diffused throughout the poem rather than concentrated in a single moment of shock. For the Kafkaesque slaughterhouse of wartime Europe a poem like "The Partial Explanation" substitutes the curious emptiness and alienation of postwar America:

Seems like a long time
Since the waiter took my order
Grimy little luncheonette,
The snow falling outside.
Seems like it has grown darker
Since I last heard the kitchen door
Behind my back
Since I last noticed
Anyone pass on the street.
 
A glass of ice water
Keeps me company
At this table I chose myself
Upon entering
 
And a longing
Incredible longing
To eavesdrop
On the conversation
Of cooks

Though the settings of these poems remain strangely anonymous, virtually unplaceable in place or time, Simic's universe has gradually acquired a sprinkling of human occupants, and his later poetry has seemed to reach out to such characters in gestures of genuine, if somewhat muted, empathy. In a poem like "Toward Nightfall," from the 1986 collection Unending Blues, all of the familiar elements of Simic's verse are assembled—the scaffolds, the bare trees, the smell of spilled blood, the monsters (this time on movie posters)—but the poem ends by reflecting the weight of these elements upon a human center:

The old man never learned
To read well, and so
Reads on in that half-whisper,
And in that half light
Verging on the dark,
About that day' stragedies
Which supposedly are not
Tragedies in the absence of
Figures endowed with
Classic nobility of soul.

With their spare, even tranquil, movement these poems bring a new, intersubjective dimension to the silence that has never been far from the surface in Simic's work, offering an alternative to the minimalist rigor of his earlier verse.

Simic's 1989 collection of sixty-seven prose poems, The World Doesn't End, won him the Pulitzer Prize. In paragraphs that stun through their suddenness of juxtaposition, these poems feel fresh, characteristically bizarre, and simultaneously logical and illogical. The world of these poems is like "the old river … [that] in its confusion sometimes forgets and flows backwards." Heaven is full of "little shrunken deaf ears instead of stars." With echoes of Rimbaud and Socrates, these are among Simic's most dynamic and extreme poems: "It's so quiet in the world. One can hear the old river, which in its confusion sometimes forgets and flows backwards."

At times Simic's particular surrealistic clarity pushes the very boundaries of consciousness to verge on the terrain of the sleepless. His 1992 collection, Hotel Insomnia, invites us with this accord: "Sleeplessness is like metaphysics. Be there." Once inside, we find an labyrinthian atmosphere charged with symbolic resonances, "the infinite number of lines / That join to me things and beings, / so that a diagram / Of any moment in my life / Looks like a child's scribble." Simic's is a blasted world in which poems can easily resonate as prayers. Fragmented dreams, melancholy, and bleak humor color the poems in A Wedding in Hell, in which some images—a blackened window, a cockroach, a stopped clock—recur with a grim and unsettling staccato even as they are saturated in the soft infinities of imagination. His poetry in this collection resounds "like the wind / Between the cold winter stars. / A creaky door / Way out in the darkness. / Some kind of small bird / Trapped by a cat / And calling on heaven to witness."

In Walking the Black Cat Simic focuses on the way in which chance and luck infuse the commonplace world, even with its illusions. Disorientation is still his guiding state, but the juxtaposition of life and death via allusions to authors—most notably, in the title, Edgar Allan Poe—sets the poems in a populated sphere. In "Relaxing in a Madhouse" Moses, Socrates, Lincoln, and Adam and Eve all share a space with the "general who was busy with the ant farm in his head." For Simic the charm of the black cat, archetypally one of bad luck, is its constancy, its potency, its necessity. He is as happily aligned with superstition as Eliot's Madame Sosostris, and in "My Magician" he masquerades as the magician's dummy: "Through a row of wooden teeth / We spoke of God the Father. / Then we vanished into a deck of cards."

Jackstraws persists in this manner of injecting the ordinary world with the temper and tension of emotional storms, sometimes with a cryptic sense of play. Although Simic's staid persona is one of a tortured survivor, he can be strangely, almost whimsically, compassionate toward such minutiae as the dramatics of insects. Life for Simic is random guesswork, a precarious world in which vulnerabilities are so intense that the self shimmers like an eerie, perpetual, and mildly consoling storm.

—Anthony G. Stocks and

Martha Sutro

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