I have just returned from an overnight trip to a town in the state of Washington, relatively close to the Canadian border. At that latitude, the night fell dark earlier, which I felt was appropriate for reading a collection of poems by my favorite modern poet, Charles Simic. His poetry feels dark, with much imagery focusing on death, spiritual isolation, insomnia; yet the darkness is overwhelmed by his refreshing insights. The Harvard Review put it this way: “There are few poets writing in America today who share his lavish appetite for the bizarre, his inexhaustible repertoire of indelible characters and gestures. …Simic is perhaps our most disquieting muse.”
So perhaps it was appropriate that I discovered Charles Simic while riding on a TriMet bus in Portland, Oregon. Posted inside the bus, at approximately head-height, were several placards containing excerpts from different poets. This public-transit program was called something like “Poetry In Motion.” This is the excerpt by Simic that I read:
Lovers hold hands in never-opened novels.
The page with a recipe for cucumber soup is missing.
A dead man writes of his happy childhood on a farm,
Of riding in a balloon over Lake Erie.
This excerpt is from his poem, USED BOOK STORE – the titles of his poems are always all-caps – which is published in his collection entitled, My Noiseless Entourage.
Soon afterward, I found myself on an Oregon beach, with a cigar, reading through My Noiseless Entourage. I immediately realized that I had to read the book backwards; that is, from back to front, the last poem first, in the order exactly reversed from that which is published. Simic’s style demanded this; and I think he would appreciate that I read his collections this way.
Also I discovered that many times Simic uses the title as the first line of his poem. Here are a few examples:
OUR OLD NEIGHBOR
Who hasn’t been seen in his yard
Or sitting on his front porch
For what seems like forever, …
HE HEARD WITH HIS DEAD EAR
Your prayer. The one you offered
On behalf of someone ailing.
Little candy in death’s candy shop,
I gave your sugar a lick
When no one was looking,
Took you for a ride on my tongue
To all the secret places, …
All of the above are from My Noiseless Entourage, yet his prose poems don’t have titles at all in his collection entitled The World Doesn’t End (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990). Instead, each prose poem is listed in the Table of Contents by the words of its first line.
And so to Charles Simic I dedicate the following, which was inspired by him. I composed it on that dark night near the Canadian border after I had been entranced by his verse and followed him into some of his shadows and unlit corners.
A carpenter, handyman, craftsman
Now fifty years old
Toils in his solitary workshop
With hand-tools beside a house
he may inherit someday.
Or drives his van to a grand house
where he labors,
And then at night retires to
his own apartment
and his spouse.
But how do they occupy
their evenings together?
It is better to get up in the morning
and go to work again
Five and a half days every week.
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