Where It Says Snow, Read Teeth-Marks of a Virgin

Where It Says Snow,
Read Teeth-Marks of a Virgin

The name of this poem is “Errata,” written by the Serbian-born poet Charles Simic, who in 2007 was appointed as Poet Laureate of his adopted country. As an Eastern European myself, I find myself drawn to poets like Simic, Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, and Joseph Brodsky. Perhaps it is because, in their struggles with the vise-grip of Communism, they found a way out.

Errata by Charles Simic

Where it says snow
read teeth-marks of a virgin
Where it says knife read
you passed through my bones
like a police-whistle
Where it says table read horse
Where it says horse read my migrant’s bundle
Apples are to remain apples
Each time a hat appears
think of Isaac Newton
reading the Old Testament
Remove all periods
They are scars made by words
I couldn’t bring myself to say
Put a finger over each sunrise
it will blind you otherwise
That damn ant is still stirring
Will there be time left to list
all errors to replace
all hands guns owls plates
all cigars ponds woods and reach
that beer-bottle my greatest mistake
the word I allowed to be written
when I should have shouted
her name

“This Hint of an Unhappy Ending”

Serbian-American Poet Charles Simic

Serbian-American Poet Charles Simic

Born in Belgrade, Serbia, Душан “Чарлс” Симић (better known today as Charles Simic) is probably one of our best poets. There is a simplicity and strength in his lines, which are usually blank verse. He received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990 for his collection The World Doesn’t End, and was a finalist in both 1983 and 1986. In 2007, he was appointed Poet Laureate.

Below is his poem entitled “Clouds Gathering,” which takes a romantic setting and sees beyond it the threats to happiness that all men face:

It seemed the kind of life we wanted.
Wild strawberries and cream in the morning.
Sunlight in every room.
The two of us walking by the sea naked.

Some evenings, however, we found ourselves
Unsure of what comes next.
Like tragic actors in a theater on fire,
With birds circling over our heads,
The dark pines strangely still,
Each rock we stepped on bloodied by the sunset.

We were back on our terrace sipping wine.
Why always this hint of an unhappy ending?
Clouds of almost human appearance
Gathering on the horizon, but the rest lovely
With the air so mild and the sea untroubled.

The night suddenly upon us, a starless night.
You lighting a candle, carrying it naked
Into our bedroom and blowing it out quickly.
The dark pines and grasses strangely still.

I love the last line, which reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Subalterns,” in which nature apologetically admits to its unfortunate role as contributing to man’s suffering.

“A Web of Cigarette Smoke and Revery”

This Could Have Been the Place

Could This Have Been “Hotel Insomnia”?

I have just finished reading a strange surrealistic novel—one which made me want to find a poem to match. Here it is: “Hotel Insomnia” by Serbian-American poet Charles Simic.

Hotel Insomnia by Charles Simic

I liked my little hole,
Its window facing a brick wall.
Next door there was a piano.
A few evenings a month
a crippled old man came to play
“My Blue Heaven.”

Mostly, though, it was quiet.
Each room with its spider in heavy overcoat
Catching his fly with a web
Of cigarette smoke and revery.
So dark,
I could not see my face in the shaving mirror.

At 5 A.M. the sound of bare feet upstairs.
The “Gypsy” fortuneteller,
Whose storefront is on the corner,
Going to pee after a night of love.
Once, too, the sound of a child sobbing.
So near it was, I thought
For a moment, I was sobbing myself.

He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1990; and, in 2007, he was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

Charon the Boatman

Back and Forth Across the River Styx

Back and Forth Across the River Styx

I haven’t printed any poems lately, so I paid a visit to the work of America’s Serbian-born poet, Charles Simic.

Charon’s Cosmology
By Charles Simic

With only his dim lantern
To tell him where he is
And every time a mountain
Of fresh corpses to load up

Take them to the other side
Where there are plenty more
I’d say by now he must be confused
As to which side is which

I’d say it doesn’t matter
No one complains he’s got
Their pockets to go through
In one a crust of bread in another a sausage

Once in a long while a mirror
Or a book which he throws
Overboard into the dark river
Swift and cold and deep

Now, why, I wonder, would Charon toss books into the Styx? God knows, if I were one of his fares, I would probably have a book on me. Eternity lasts a long time, and there’s plenty of time to read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and everything else. There exists some doubt, however, that at that point it would do me any earthly good.

Fragments of Eternity

Joseph Cornell’s Hotel Eden

Joseph Cornell’s Hotel Eden

Sometimes even a fragment can set one’s mind a-roving. Today while eating lunch at the Attari Persian Sandwich Shop in Westwood, I started reading an article about the poetry of Charles Simic in the July 11, 2003 issue of The New York Review of Books. Because I was almost finished with my iced tea, I stopped reading the article and got up to make room for other diners. Before I folded up the issue, I saw an intriguing comparison between the poems of Emily Dickinson and the bricolage art of Joseph Cornell (1903-1972). Now who was this Joseph Cornell? I got back to the office and looked at several samples of his work, two of which I include here. I also read a poem by Emily Dickinson entitled “A Bird Came Down,” which I present below in its entirety:

A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,—
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, splashless, as they swim.

Everything is fairly clear until we come to the last two stanzas. At this point, Dickinson compares the bird’s wings to oars and butterflies, whose movement suggests to her a resemblance to swimming in the air. Now, let me ask you this: Did the bird accept the proffered crumb or not? Did the bird suddenly take to flight and suddenly remind the poet of butterflies diving, as it were, into the air?

You may notice: I do not present answers, merely questions. I am not such a tyrant as to wish to impose my interpretation (which, in any case, I have not yet arrived at and probably never will) on you. To me, poetry that is great suggests a multiplicity of questions, and no dogmatic answers. Poetry leads you to strange places and makes you see strange relationships. But, if it’s great poetry, it leaves the answers up to you. So, too, does the following box by Joseph Cornell:

Joseph Cornell’s Medici Boy

Joseph Cornell’s Medici Boy

What is it with that thing in the lower center that looks like a small fan? And what about those photos and drawings along the sides of the main image and the blocks at the bottom? Then there are those numbers that look like something taken off an oversized railroad schedule.

Eventually I’ll read the article about Charles Simic’s poetry. Perhaps tomorrow. In the meantime, certain fragments have made me see things that set my mind reeling. Even if my conclusions are different from those of the reviewer, I will have taken an interesting little journey.