CHARLES SIMIC’S The Life of Images: Selected Prose could really be said to begin with the cover, with the Helen Levitt photograph that is so apt to both title and book that it almost begs to be taken as a point of entry. Though the locale is not identified, it is almost certainly one of Levitt’s celebrated New York City scenes. In the background we see a solid mass of brownstone buildings, and just in front of these, a street busy with cars and pedestrians — an effect of urban purposefulness recalling the opening shots of any number of films from the period, which, judging by the look of the cars might be the early 1950s. The foreground, though, making up three-fourths of the image, is a vast open sidewalk, sectioned with large rectangular blocks of pavement, deserted except for the single figure who claims our attention.
A man in suit and fedora has been captured in the most striking of poses. He is paused mid-stride, his head tilted down so that the brim of the fedora covers his face. He has brought his left arm around so that it looks as if he were fixing his fly or tugging up his pant-leg at the thigh. A hint of Mr. Bojangles, the possibility of an impromptu dance. But no, the angle of the head suggests otherwise. The man is looking a bit too far to the side. Has he stepped on something, spotted a coin? We just don’t know. But how distinct and singular he is against all the activity behind him — he is entirely out of step with the world, in the grip of something unexpected, surprised by chance.
Of course I’m stacking the deck here, projecting what I need to find. Having read the essays in the book, along with the poems in the The Lunatic, concurrently released, I’ve let myself imagine Simic combing through archives in search of appropriate images and coming to rest on this one. Surely he saw the off-kilter figure as stand-in for himself, the poet; the man’s overall aura of hapless disarray would have sealed the deal.
Simic, a Pulitzer Prize winner, MacArthur Foundation fellow, and one-time poet laureate, has published over 30 books of poems and eight previous works of prose. He has also translated and co-translated a rich array of poetry from what is now sometimes called “the former Yugoslavia,” where he was born and where he lived until his teens. What a welcome but also daunting abundance, and how am I to do it justice through the lens of these two latest publications — especially the essays? For The Life of Images selects from across the range of the prose to give a sense of Simic as philosopher, prankster, polemicist, aesthetician, gourmand, and memoirist. Taking inspiration from the man himself, I’ve decided to make my way forward by way of inklings — to see just how this might lead to that — and then, at the end, maybe tell a little story about sausages.
Chance, and Simic’s own ideas about chance: a good place to start. In fact, in one of the earliest essays in the book, “Note on Poetry and Philosophy,” the poet lays out the ground of his own practice, giving us his metaphysical bona fides. He invokes Martin Heidegger with the idea that “it is not the poet who speaks through the poem but the work itself.” The philosopher famously affirmed that “language speaks,” and Simic echoes the idea: “This has always been my experience,” he insists. “The poet is at the mercy of his metaphors. Everything is at the mercy of the poet’s metaphors — even Language, who is their Lord and master.”
Though Simic is clearly conversant with Western philosophy — the essays in the first part of the book draw amply, but never stuffily, on his readings in this vein — the poet is too much a phenomenologist, too much a lover of the particularity of things, to trade off concreteness for abstraction. In the same essay, a few paragraphs on, he writes:
My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one’s walks: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely shaped root, the corner of a torn photograph, etc. […] where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships, which hint at meanings, begin to appear.
These objets trouvés of poetry are, of course, bits of language. The poem is the place where one hears what the language is really saying, where the full meanings of the words begins to emerge.
Voilà! (Quite literally.) Two profound concepts have been brought together: the operations of chance (in this regard Simic is very much a follower of the surrealist ethos), and the belief that in fortunate, but not entirely accidental, circumstances, a work gets produced that expresses something deeper than the artist’s own ego. The process is not, however, a repudiation of the self. For Simic then goes on to say:
The poem is an attempt at self-recovery, self-recognition, self-remembering, the marvel of being again. That this happens at times, happens in poems in many different and contradictory ways, is as great a mystery as the mystery of being itself.
The poems themselves, in The Lunatic as in his many other books, embody, maybe even arise from this coming together of effable and ineffable, from these trouvés that are always being strewn in front of us, had we but eyes to see. I could give instances in abundance, but a quick sampling will have to suffice:
Maybe there is a word in it somewhere
To describe the world this morning,
A word for the way the early light
Takes delight in chasing the darkness
Out of store windows and doorways.
Another word for the way it lingers
Over a pair of wire-rimmed glasses
Someone let drop on the sidewalk
Last night and staggered off blindly
Talking to himself or breaking into song.
That sidewalk … Maybe it was the man with the fedora himself who dropped his glasses; maybe the photo showed him about to go on with his muttering — in the realm of chance you just never know. What Simic achieves in the confined space of these two stanzas is an atmosphere of the elusive daily mystery, the undercoat of the ordinary, and he gets his effect in part by having the morning’s first light coming into contact with the earthly particular. Not just any earthly particular, though, but a pair of glasses — the very object that was invented to help us with our seeing. Nor, notice, is it a moment’s mere sparkling glint that happens. No, the light lingers. Of the poem’s various personifications — the taking delight, the chasing — the one that tells is the almost reverent hesitation before the light goes on in its encompassing sweep.
Given that both chance and tactile particulars are central elements in Simic’s work, it makes perfect sense that the poet should have fastened onto the work of the eccentric collage-artist Joseph Cornell. Indeed, Simic published a book, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell to honor the influence. The kinship is deep and complex, and what a delight to have included here an essay that was first published, like so many of Simic’s essays, in The New York Review of Books (where he also contributes a regular blog on his musings). He moves in with care, imagining the collagist’s enterprise: “He shuffled trinkets within his boxes for months and years on end until he found an image that pleased him, without previous knowledge about what that image would turn out to be.” (I had to page back to check: this was written more than a decade after Simic’s passage about the poet and his table-top.) “A box,” Simic adds, “is a place where the inner and outer realities meet on a small stage.” (And in the margin, I wrote: “poem, too.”)
Of course this collection is not, as my selective quotations might so far suggest, only a manifesto of artistic process. There are many salient strands. As much as these essays address poetry and poetic seeing, for example, they give an equally strong voice to history, both personal and collective. The two overlapped profoundly in Simic’s early life. Born in 1938, he lived through the war years in Belgrade, suffering bleak privation along with everyone else, and he has certainly witnessed far more than his share (if anyone can be said to have a “share” of atrocity).
The experiences were profoundly formative and they infuse both the poetry and the prose. All these years later, for instance, Simic describes in an essay watching news footage of an old woman hobbling in a line of refugees from Serbian assaults. “I only catch a glimpse of her on TV,” he observes, “but she moves me as much as that woman suicide we all saw hanging from a tree did.” He then goes on to remember his own flight from Belgrade:
Of course, she reminds me of my mother and me carrying our heavy suitcases in 1948, through pitch-dark Slovenian woods, while sneaking across the border illegally into Austria. The suitcases contained, besides our clothes and a couple of salamis, the yellowed family photographs, the dog-eared diplomas, a few letters, a few other documents covered with rubber stamps, and finally my baby spoon. I wonder what that poor woman is carrying in her suitcase? I’m afraid it would break all our hearts if we found out.
For all the sad (but also black-humored) weight of witness these essays contain, however, they compensate with steady confessions of sensory delight. Simic does not pretend away the barbarism he has witnessed — we can hear him rail freely against Milosevic, against all imperialism and aggression in the name of whatever “ism” — but he cannot stop loving the world: its cities and their people; its music, especially the blues and jazz in which he is impressively schooled; its food, the soups and sausages (more about those sausages soon); and always the delights of love, present and remembered. All of that lives in his work; and what a light touch he has and what an easy line he sketches, as here in this poem:
THE NEW WIDOW
Weren’t you to be her prisoner for life
In her father’s woodshed once?
Didn’t she make you strip your shorts
And cover your eyes with one hand,
So she could touch you with the other,
Till both of your knees went weak
While a rooster kept crowing in the heat
And deep slumber of the afternoon.
The compression looks so effortless, and then there is the artful progress of the images. How deftly Simic conjures confusion and desire, and what a recoil we feel when we glance back at the title. How often do three plain words convey as much as they do here?
Among the other bounties of this gathering of essays are Simic’s various reflective considerations — of the Italian writer and scholar of mythologies, Roberto Calasso; of the tragic Russian poetess Marina Tsvetaeva; of Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran; of the sui generis artists Eva Hesse and Odilon Redon. He does his homework, gets deep and thoughtful access, though in these pieces — written mainly for The New York Review of Books — he looks to repress his more free-spoken irrepressibility, proving that nothing is impossible. It is an extra pleasure, then, to come upon his thoroughly playful re-description of Saul Steinberg’s drawings and cartoons: “A man carried a huge heroic portrait of himself down the sidewalk.” And: “He made a thumbprint on a sheet of paper and then drew a shirt and a tie to go along with it.”
But let me not forget about those sausages. In Simic, it’s safe to say, the sausage, that shapely staple of many cultures’ cuisines, has found its Homer. We really need read no further than the opening sentence of “The Romance of Sausages” to understand the nature of his appreciation. “Even their names are poetry to me,” he all but swoons, “chorizo, merguez, rosette, boudin noir, kielbasa, luganega, cotechino, zampone, chipolata, linguiça, weisswurst — to name just a few.” Is the reader getting hungry? Shall I quote some more? “Sausages are sociable. A hot Tunisian lamb sausage will get along just fine with a potato from Idaho. A good-looking chicken leg, tentacles of a squid, and green peas from the garden are equally swell company.” But that’s enough for now: I’ll leave the pleasure of further gustatory elucidations for the reader to find for herself and close with a personal anecdote.
You see (“full disclosure” as they say), though I do not know Charles Simic (and hence can offer up my praises with clear conscience), I did some years ago attend a conference in Chicago where he was one of the featured presenters. And so it happened that a small group of us, the poet included, decided to share a cab from a dinner party to our hotel across town. It further happened that the poet, who had once lived in the city (about which he writes in several of these essays), suddenly remembered a place, a hole in the wall in some dominantly Polish neighborhood, where sausage of the rarest savor and succulence could be obtained. And this place, this shop, was sure to be open — it had to be on this street or right around that corner (this was all before the locating technologies of smart-phones and GPS) … and after an escalatingly hilarious circuit of loops and swerves — the cabbie had at this point fallen in with the adventure — Simic did find the place, and, having found it, insisted that he would buy all of us, cabbie included, a rope of this most fantastic sausage to take home.
Which he did. It was a scene from his beloved Buster Keaton (about whom he also writes), all that cleavering and wrapping. I wish I could recall details of the conversation between Simic and the owner, for it was the most freewheeling sort of interchange between experts. What I do remember is the whole group of us back at the hotel, humping through the lobby with our separate brown-paper packages, all of us — I’m pretty sure of this — wondering just how to get our portion to keep overnight, never mind how to bring it onto the plane the next day.
THAT WAS SOME NIGHT
A small troop of merrymakers,
Most likely shown the door.
At some party in the neighborhood
Or an after-hours dive,
Still whooping it up
As they stagger down the street
With a girl in a wedding dress
Trailing after them on bare feet
Carrying a pair of white shoes
And walking as if on eggshells,
While calling out to someone ahead:
“Hey, you! Where the fuck
Do you think you’re going?”