Any Simic reader knows he is a collector of images: when stored they become memories. His poems depend on arrangement like Joseph Cornell’s boxes. Luke Bloomfield reviews Charles Simic’s Master of Disguises.
In Charles Simic’s Master of Disguises we have a poet returning to his beloved subjects: breasts, silence, want, terror, doom, the shadow of pain, flat-out pain, feeding pigeons. Many of the characters in this book seem aware of their wretched conditions in a plain, unromantic way, and it doesn’t seem to prevent them from doing the things they do. A heavy feeling of gloom pervades this book which Simic deftly choreographs into an artful tableau of the everyday turned inside out.
Short-lived wonders crop up throughout the book, and they are no less ephemeral than the act of reading them. Perhaps ulterior meanings lurk in the wings, but the reader can only speculate. In “Summer Light,” light pours through a church window, and we follow it because that is what we are trained to do, and our reward is the image of a crucifixion. The eyes of the crucified/Staring down from the cross/As if seeing his bloody feet/For the very first time.
In reading Simic, the payoff is often subtle. His punch lines are the opposite of punch lines. His comedies are of the un-comedic sort, parallel to humor, almost humorous, but not actually humorous. He lets you know in what direction he’s leading you, and you trust him. His images build upon each other like the elements of a joke, but by the end of the poem, you learn that God has completely ignored you.
Any Simic reader knows he is a collector of images: when stored they become memories. His poems depend on arrangement like Joseph Cornell’s boxes. Memories become one memory as they join to make each poem. Simic spent his childhood in Belgrade where the streets evoked a horrible kind of surreal anarchy. He immigrated to Chicago, then the Lower East Side, writing and painting in a basement apartment. He lived at street level, seeing New York from the ground. To this day his poems still see at street level, though perhaps they are now only the streets of his memory.
Master of Disguises is an archive of curios, maybe more deliciously bleak than ever. Much of this book plots a meandering passage into hell—or perhaps a synonym—yet there is still that stray poem that lifts one up with a lightness, a recognition of a greater beauty. In “The Toad,” life in the city is left behind for early rising and sounds of birds and wind blowing through leaves in the country:
God never made a day as
beautiful as today,
A neighbor was saying.
I sat in the shade after she left
Mulling that one over,
When a toad hopped out of the grass
And, finding me harmless,
Hopped over my foot on his way to the pond.
In one way this book is harmless. When pitted against the forces of circumstance, everything is harmless. The people in this book are turtles, and the book is the intersection where madmen drive fast cars.
Maybe Simic has grown more minimal over the years. Much of the work his lines do is no greater than the images they conjure. They are complete in themselves, and the work required from the reader is only to read with the eyes: Only the leaves tell the truth./They rustle darkly,/Then fall silent as if listening/To a dragonfly/Who may know a lot more of the invisible.
There’s a Japanese short story by the writer Akutagawa that begins with the Buddha walking through paradise and peering through the lotus pond where he catches a glimpse of hell far below. There, unfortunate people who made bad decisions in life are perpetually drowning in a pond of blood or being impaled on a mountain of needles. The Buddha sees them, but they are far away.
When I read this story, I thought about Simic. When you reach a certain level of material comfort, when life is rosy and your biggest concern is waking up on time to catch the farmer’s market before it closes, you may forget that bad shit still goes on for other people. However, it doesn’t take much, just a glance in the lotus pond, to see all the miserable lives being tossed around in the swill of misfortune. Which is, after all, a mirror as well. Simic manages to acknowledge this without dwelling on it, to walk the tightrope between grace and damnation, joy and horror. A rare feat of acrobatics, and this particular poet’s particular talent.