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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Simic's Poems Layer Humor Over Horrific Images

Author: Kate DeForest

After luminous opening words by D. E. Axinn Professor of Creative Writing Jay Parini, Charles Simic, a Pulitzer-winning poet and past recipient of a MacCarthur Grant (the so-called "genius grant"), quipped, "Well, I probably shouldn't read too many poems after an introduction like that." However, the poems that followed proved themselves worthy of Parini's praise.

Simic's reading last Thursday spanned most of his career, no small feat as he straddles three decades, but the bulk of the poems seemed to come from the earlier part of his career. His poetry is succinct and horrific, but most often with a light comedic touch overlaying the terrible imagery. He gives the readers a sense of being crystallized in the moment, whether he is describing a fly in a temple or the place of daily tragedy put into the context of the Vietnam War.

Poems with an urban focus seemed to be popping up throughout the reading, as Simic gave anecdotal background of the cities in which he had lived. In the poem "Midpoint" he describes the act of leaving one city for another. Originally, he told the audience, he had begun to name all the cities he had been in, but doing so became overly tedious and he noticed that he had experienced the same phenomenon during every move to a new city, so the cities became the anonymous "A" and "B."

The poem details how place does not become real to one until one has been there, until one is there. In Simic's words: "B. at which I am destined/ To arrive by and by/ Doesn't exist now. Hurriedly/ They're building it for my arrival." Within a few short lines, Simic captures an acute sense of dislocation: "No sooner had I left A./ Than I started doubting its existence." The poem ends with the acknowledgement that B. shall "vanish forever/ Just as A. did."

Another poem with this urban focus was "Eastern European Cooking," which Simic introduced as inspired by the Hungarian restaurants at which he used to eat, populated, he said, by "whispering émigrés…in suits made in 1932." The poem, while grounded in the details of a meal, bean soup, pig's feet and wine, transports one with a sense of encompassing time, as he refers to Goethe, the Marquis de Sade and the actions of their contemporary Turks, later relating them and the events of their time to his own.

Shifting gears to segue into his newer poems, Simic read poems inspired by everything from beds ("Freshly made beds are also interesting," Simic said of one of his newer poems "Unmade Beds," "but unmade beds are pretty good too.") to a classified advertisement he had read for "Past Lives Therapy," directed towards people who couldn't fix what was wrong in their current lives.

The reading showcased pinpoints along the line of a body of extremely impressive work, indicating Simic was, as Parini had asserted at the very beginning of the talk, one of the "finest poets now writing in North America…maybe the finest poet."


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