JULY 4, 2018
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to talk about the first two poetry collections by poet, translator, and essayist Charles Simic, who turned 80 this May, without also briefly mentioning George Hitchcock, California publisher and editor of the intrepid literary magazine Kayak (1964–1984) and the Kayak Press, which brought out What the Grass Says (1967) and Somewhere Among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes (1969), as well as second books by Philip Levine, Raymond Carver, and a host of other poets who were still under the radar. A maverick activist, artist, and editor, Hitchcock helped launch the careers of many mid- to late 20th-century poets in a letterpress venue known for its boldness, eclectic format, and gallows humor (rejection slips often took the form of cards printed with Victorian scenes — beheadings, tragic accidents — and accompanied by blunt statements about the unsuitability of a given submission). To say that in its 20-year run the Kayak Press helped to shape the landscape of American poetry — especially those poetries with leanings toward Surrealism and the Deep Image — would be an understatement.
Poems from Simic’s first two Kayak collections appear later in what might be considered his breakout third book, Dismantling the Silence, published by George Braziller in 1971. In a note to that collection, series editor Richard Howard, nodding to Simic’s Eastern European upbringing, speaks of the poet’s
ancient fooling, which, by its presence, we suddenly realize has been absent from recent American verse — a gnomic utterance, convinced in accent, collective in reference, original in impulse […] “I am whatever beast inhabits me,” he asserts, he exults, and in another place: “it is not only its own life that man’s body has to endure.” Exile as homecoming, then, and the natural world accepted as a celebration, a rite.
Although his early work seems to draw more upon European landscapes and gestures than on terrain and topics specific to America, Simic’s against-the-zeitgeist freshness — “gnomic,” “collective,” “unique in accent,” “original” — puts him squarely in the lineage of the United States’s native innovators, Whitman and Dickinson. The titles of Simic’s first two books alone, with their evocation of grasses and stones, evoke Whitman, and their riddle-like “fooling” allies him strongly with Dickinson. Yet the poems are, of course, very much his own, greater in sum than their obvious influences — French Surrealism, Eastern European oneirism, the physical dimension of the Imagists.
Simic’s second book, written on the cusp of his 30s, is worth knowing (if you can find a copy), not only for its beautiful embodiment by Kayak (hand-set in an edition of 1,000 with quirky anatomical prints by Hitchcock that reflect the dream-like ambages of Simic’s poems), but also for the ways in which, by volition or intuition, the book situates itself in the stream of American innovative poetries. What Philip Levine wrote of the poems featured in Kayak — “wild enough to be truly American” but also “underground” because America’s “official organs […] were too sterile to allow them life anywhere else” — surely applies to Simic’s early work.
Some of the poems for which Simic remains best known and often anthologized are part of this second book — “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand,” “Dismantling the Silence,” and a series of marvelous poems about cutlery and other tools, including “Spoon,” “Ax,” “Knife,” and “Fork”:
This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless and blind.
Refusing to privilege the human over the figuratively reimagined inanimate, Simic conjures a world that doesn’t quite make logical sense, creating an experience of wonder and bewilderment in what often feel like imperfect yet utterly arresting “translations” from and into languages that resist parsing. Indeed, the focus on objects allows the poems to transcend any one language. In an essay on his first years in the United States, “Fearful Paradise,” Simic writes:
One of the great temptations for an immigrant is to go native the whole way, start eating canned soup, white bread, and Jell-O and hide one’s passion for sausages smothered in onions and peppers and crackling in fat. I read Emerson and Thoreau and other New England writers and loved them, but I knew my identity was different. I was already a concoction of Yugoslav, American, Jewish, Irish, and Italian ingredients — and the stew wasn’t ready yet. There were more things to add to the pot. More identities. More images to cook.
“Can one experience nostalgia for a time and place one did not know?” Simic asks in a brief essay on Berenice Abbott’s photographs called “The Life of Images,” and responds: “I believe one can.” It is as though by entering into the silence of objects, armed with a sourceless nostalgia, Simic finds his unique identity as a poet, a process he evokes in “Explorers”:
They arrive inside
The object at evening.
There’s no one to meet them.
The lamps they carry
Cast their shadows
Back into themselves.
They make notations:
The sky and the earth
Are of the same impenetrable color.
There’s no wind. If there are rivers,
They must be under the ground.
Of the marvels we sought, no trace.
Of the strange new stars, nothing.
There’s not even dust, so we must conclude
That someone passed recently
With a broom …
As they write, the tiny universe
Stitches its black thread into them.
Eventually nothing is left
Except a faint voice
Which might belong
Either to one of them
Or to someone who came before.
It says: I’m grateful
That you’ve finally come.
It was starting to get lonely.
I recognize you. You are all
That has eluded me.
May this be my country.
This terra lingua is a natural home for a poet whose early years were marked by multiple languages, violence, uncertainty, and exile. In a United States that to many seems unrecognizable, Simic’s imagination now makes fresh sense. Why not attend to the speech of eternal stones as Rome burns?
In his most recent collection, Scribbled in the Dark (2017), we see Simic continuing to confront what confounds sense in poems like “Illegible Scribble,” “Signs of the Times,” and “Star Atlas”: “The madness of it, Miss Dickinson! / Then the dawning suspicion — / We are here alone ventriloquizing / For the one we call God.” Though it has been some 50 years since Americans first encountered the work of Charles Simic, the ludic absurdity of his vision continues to remind us that his poetry — that poetry itself — is necessary, precisely for its subversive ability to shape-shift and then deliver the goods. Simic himself suggests as much in “How to Psalmodise,” a small but potent “joke” of a poem about poetry from his second volume:
1. The Poet
Someone awake while others are sleeping
Asleep while others are awake
An illiterate who signs everything with an X.
A man about to be hanged cracking a joke.
2. The Poem
Carried by a burglar
To distract a watchdog.
The Costa Rican–American poet Jacob Shores-Argüello is another fabular shape-shifter, whose forays into cross-cultural spaces, fluid identities, and what he calls “magic rationalism” mark him as Simic’s kindred spirit. Paraíso, his second collection — selected by Aracelis Girmay for the inaugural CantoMundo Poetry Prize celebrating Latinx writing and published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2017 — follows In the Absence of Clocks, winner of the Open Competition Award of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2012. Written in part as a response to a Fulbright year in Ukraine, the first book has as a narrative subtext the Orange Revolution of 2004–2005, during which political corruption surrounding a Ukrainian presidential election inspired a series of ultimately successful protests from the people. But as the book’s title suggests, its story is not bound by a single set of circumstances or chronology. Any one unsettling tale of injustice, violence, and usurpation touches all others; time, place, and people change and blend as Shores-Argüello’s pilgrim narrator journeys from Eden to Chernobyl, from the Missouri River to “the Dnieper’s delicate music,” exploring the toxicity of cruelty and the vicissitudes of love, family, and history.
In Paraíso (which is both the Spanish word for “paradise” and a town in Costa Rica), Shores-Argüello brings his pilgrim’s gift closer to home, specifically to his mother’s country, Costa Rica. Memories of spending time there as a child float under and over the details of a journey the adult narrator makes by bus and on foot to the “unholy altitudes” of mountainous cloud country, to a farm he has inherited from his mother after her death. The mythic sensibilities that darken and enchant the Ukrainian turf of the first book also ripple through Paraíso, intensified by the urgency of a profound, seemingly untouchable personal grief.
The book’s first section, a series of prose poems titled “Games,” provides a kind of manual on how to read the book. It offers a breviary of childlike magical thinking: tricks for coping with loneliness, exile, and loss. As the speaker gives instructions for various word games, it’s impossible not to see the connection between games and poems. “You don’t need anything special for these games,” the narrator says in “Joke, Fact, Anecdote”: “no cards, dice, or paper. All you need is someone to play with. Play them separately. Play them all at once.” We also learn a lot about our pilgrim — his sense of humor, his desire to relate with others:
I’ve been told that I like games because I am an only child. People say that only children try to convince the world to play with them so they’re no longer alone. But it’s more than that. My Oklahoma uncle says he feels sorry for me. His idea is that I am half Costa Rican and half not, that I wouldn’t know where to run when shit goes down. I think that’s the reason I like to play games. It’s important to make little connections with anyone you can.
He shares his belief in ancestral and magical powers (“On the Costa Rican version of the Monopoly board there is a silhouette of a witch on the square where my house would be”), as well as his exilic sense of anomie, accented by his mother’s death: “Now that I am thinking about it, I guess my mother was where I’d go when ‘shit went down.’ The kids in the streets of Oklahoma did not want me. The kids in the streets of Costa Rica did not want me. The country I had was her.”
Armed with these “rules” for surviving the deep blue of grief, the reader accompanies the narrator as he ascends into the remote country of his family’s past. A progression of sonnet-like lyrics recounts a dizzying, careening bus ride up “the toothy mountain,” a journey through village paschal parades, orchards burgeoning with “giant milk-hearted” fruits, bird-heavy jungles, the icy condensation and breathlessness of the cloud forest. Inside the bus, a congregation of brother and sister travelers claps and sings. A hummingbird that has slipped in through a window, evoking Bede’s sparrow, “swoops and flutters, hovers / like the Holy Spirit above [their] heads” (“Dove”). The passengers devour “butter-slathered hunks of chicken, / coconut cajeta, bright red jelly / that we suckle from the corners of bags,” washing it all down with “slugs of sinless rum” (“Cerro de la Muerte”).
Yet as the speaker makes his way up into the mountains, he acknowledges that “there’s only so much a passenger can know” (“Holy Mysteries”). It’s not until he arrives that he can truly confront his loss, and the difficult work of re-entry and return begins: reacquaintance with family and place (past and present), a funeral, and, in the book’s last section, an encounter with a witch. She calls herself a “sobadora, // a healer who moves pain with her hands”:
“Looking for Signal”
I finally find the witch. She is branch-
boned, old, with knowing fingers.
She says nothing. Walks me to a tall tree,
a gourd hanging from a long line of jute.
She pulls out a phone, asks me to type
a note to my family. I do it, but can’t see
how a message can be sent from somewhere
so deep. She scolds me, says that only
tourists think the world can be escaped.
The jungle’s green is the wild mind
of God. The witch puts the phone into
the gourd. Hand-over-hand, she hoists
this cradle to the top of our holy canopy.
Despite dosing with tinctures (“Medicine is balance, she says”) and performing other rituals, the speaker learns from the sobadora that “[s]he cannot be my mother / and has no idea if I can be healed.” Finally, in a spell he concocts for himself in “Cure #3: Deciding to Leave,” the speaker conducts an elaborate ritual involving candles, which allows him to take what he can from his journey and return from whence he came:
If the candles point to opposite places, this means nothing. It is recommended, in this case, to go anyway. If you have followed all these steps, it’s because you want to go. Take your candles.
In “Charms and Riddles,” originally a paper read to the New England Stylistics Club at Northeastern University in 1975 and subsequently published in Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society (1976), Northrop Frye writes that the riddle
is essentially a charm in reverse: it represents the revolt of the intelligence against the hypnotic power of commanding words. In the riddle a verbal trap is set, but if one can “guess,” that is, point to an outside object to which the verbal construct can be related, the something outside destroys it as a charm, and we have sprung the trap without being caught in it […] [The poet of charms is] a magician who renounces his magic, and thereby recreates the universe of power instead of trying to exploit it. Riddle goes in the opposite direction, and has to make the corresponding renunciation of the answer or guess […] [R]enouncing it means, again, being set free to create. As Paul says, we see now in a riddle in a mirror, but we solve the riddle by coming out of the mirror, into the world that words and things reflect.
Charles Simic and Jacob Shores-Argüello both work with charms and riddles, not to control or to answer (one ostensible aim of charms and riddles), but rather, as Frye says, to “set [the poet] free to create.” Frye argues that “the real answer to the question implied in a riddle is not a ‘thing’ outside it, but that which is both word and thing, and is both inside and outside the poem.” Shores-Argüello puts it this way at the close of “Cure #4: For Grief”:
Go home. Fix your tea. It is not important that you have picked your plants correctly. It is important that you have walked. It is important that you sit and drink. That you believed.
Humility, vulnerability, and a daring joy suffuse the work of these two poets. Their poems flirt with mortality and chaos by wielding the human imagination’s unique ability to break open the deadlock between word and world.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, was published in 2017.