Thursday, May 08, 2008

Charles Simic: SIXTY POEMS and a Departure

This evening, US Poet Laureate Charles Simic gives a lecture on poetry translation in Washington, DC: "The Difficult Art of Translation," it's titled. The lecture concludes his year as poet laureate, and unlike many of his predecessors, he's declined a second year, saying he wants to now spend more time writing poetry.

During Simic's tenure, Harcourt brought out a slim paperback of his work called SIXTY POEMS, to celebrate. It draws from nine of his better known collections, but not the one that earned him a Pulitzer Prize -- the collection of prose poems THE WORLD DOESN'T END. It's a bare-bones book: no commentary, no bio, not even an introduction. On the other hand, it's dandy for tucking into a beach bag or placing next to a comfy chair, to nibble on a poem now and then. I'd recommend against trying to read the entire selection in one setting, because almost all of the poems assert a surreal balance of observation and eccentricity. Even the love poems tilt darkly. One that particularly tickled my fancy is "At the Cookout," a loose, looping poem that paints secrecy and desire like pastel shadows over a suburban scene, and wraps up with:

The husbands drinking
And saying nothing,
Dazed and mystified as they are
By their wives' power
To give
And take away happiness,
As if their heads
Were crawling with snakes.

Twists like this finale have given Simic a reputation for darkness and for being something of a curmudgeon, but in fact, poets who study with him often retain a loyalty and affection that has good basis in the careful attention that he offers to his students.

Tomorrow, May 9, will be Simic's seventieth birthday. He's now spent more than half his life as a U.S. citizen and, despite the urbanity of many of his poems and the sophisticated music of their composition, he lives in the small town of Strafford, New Hampshire. It's a good reminder not to place poets into a Robert-Frost-nostalgia box just because they're living "in Frost's landscape." As Simic pointed out in an interview in The New York Times, Frost explored the dark side of New England life, too, probing the eccentricities of backwoods families and rocky farms. Simic adds a dash more of European background to the mix, shakes it up, and offers a cocktail for sophisticated tastes. Here, from "The Lives of the Alchemists":

In the meantime, the small arcana of the frying pan,
The smell of olive oil and garlic wafting
From room to empty room, the black cat
Rubbing herself against your bare leg
While you shuffle toward the distant light
And the tinkle of glasses in the kitchen.

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