Wednesday, August 26, 2020


Charles Simic's poems appeal to me for the same reason you might like a wisecrack someone makes as they recall an incident that  turns into one of  life's little lessons:  whether lost car keys, spilled milk, or walking around a department store with you fly open, a terse, casual summary, vaguely self mocking, with an odd detail tossed in for texture, makes the phrase memorable . We can each supply our own example of things a friend has said we wish we could claim as our original wit. Simic, here, has a poem, The Red Alarm Clock, I wish I'd written.

Red Alarm Clock
I want to sail down the Nile /At sunsetBefore I die, /"You said once, Cleopatra./The room, I recall,/Had a plank floor,/A narrow bed, and a window /Facing a brick wall,/Plus a chair where I kept /A pint of bourbon, /The coffee cup we used as an ashtray,/ And a red alarm clock.
This is a perfect snippet of a longer conversation, the start of something that makes you lean closer for the juicier parts, the contrasting accounts of what was said and done and how both the narrator and the "you" remember each other's response. It is a vivid, brief, alluring tease of a poem that does not drift off as would a conversation between two people fade as the couple walked further up the sidewalk from where you stood. It is cut off, rather, bright, loud, full of hard things, a tangible place. A room with a skinny bed, a window that gazes upon the grain of brick wall, a chair used as night stand to hold pint of bourbon. Simic has the particulars of a James M. Cain novel, he all but suggests a lustful reunion before and the beginning of a bittersweet dissection of an ended affair in the rumpled afterglow. 

 It's not unlike some smooth camera work; you can feel the lens slowing panning the stark room,  ending up in on the coffee cup --the additional bit of it being "used as an ashtray" is a precisely brilliant fit for the situation evoked here--and the red alarm clock,  uncluttered with poetic language, it's color alone setting the tone of  an urgency both these characters would rather ignore. The clock, though, is enough to bring home the fact that the clock is ticking all the same and that  time runs out for everything, even regrets and reunions. Simic  concerns himself with neither the back story nor the tale that continues after the last line, he focuses on this slice and creates, I think, a set of particulars that create a mood, if not a meaning.

The feeling of  that time has expired is made more tangible even by the way the narrator says, lastly, at the end of his sentence, as throw away detail "...and a red alarm clock ."  Unfreighted with meandering metaphors or latch key similes to ham handedly imbue the object with intangible qualities  a less evocative poet would mistake as essential and useful guesses as to the invisible and indivisible nature of things beyond their waking world expressions (and so hang themselves with empty language and trapeze like hurling to a rope that isn't there, Simic prefers the physical over the literary and lets the situation as described create the mood from within it's parts; the phone is mentioned,the color is emphasized, like something remembered , suddenly, brutally, an intrusion of truth that seeps into a conversation that reminds you that yes, whatever was the case before is done with and now is the time to move into respective horizons.While a good many , too many, poets have gone the way of trying to solve foundational problems with what poets are supposed to be doing-- deigning what the corrupted spiritual essence of a world overtaken by banal materialism, the gender stratification that lock us into ideas about the meaning of the world and the kind of warfare that can be waged to restore to a utopia no historian can point to?--Simic works in a way that is a method not unlike William Carlos Williams or, let us say, A.R. Ammons, other poets who remind us that for all our mental pyrotechnics, an object is sometimes, more often than not, still an object, and as an object it has a relationship among other objects and things in the waking world that we negotiate in a habits and gestures often too minuscule to notice . These are matters these poets take on, and with different styles and habits of mind, create a poetry that amounts to an investigation of a world that does not care what anyone thinks . Love and personal paradises will go away and become things of memory and personal mythology, but the red alarm clock will always be red until it rusts to a stop, and the time will always be right now until we stop asking .

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