Master of Disguises by Charles Simic
Every poet has a list of all time favourites. You know, those guys that made you want to write poetry in the first place. There are names like T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and e. e. cummings (incidentally the reasons I chose to write under my initials when I started out) and there are other giants like Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens that came a little later and confirm how crucial poetry can be to us and why it’s worth all the difficult devotion poetry asks of those that want to write it.
Charles Simic is a poet of this order but it still amazes me that he’s actually a contemporary poet. Of course he’s been a Poet Laureate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and an Editor of the Paris Review, so I don’t mean to say he’s some hip, obscure dude tearing up the world of poetry as we know it (though he’s relatively unknown in Australia) but it really does blow my mind, that not only is he still writing but that in October of this year, he may have just released his best collection of poetry, Master of Disguises. Which for me feels like T. S. Eliot coming out with a collection that betters The Waste Land.
What Simic does so well is balance a vast, breathing world, on very delicate and defined particulars. In a poem like ‘Nineteen Thirty-Eight’ he juxtaposes Nazis marching into Vienna with the debut of Superman in Action Comics, the first Dairy Queen opening in Kankakee with himself in Belgrade, peeing in his diapers. A lesser poet might list the events of a given year but there are choices made that open the world up for its absurdity, monstrosity, beauty and deformity, poignant nostalgia and a kind of sadness that feels redeeming to those that can share it.
In another poem, ‘Our Salvation’, Charles Simic finishes a profound but impressionistic meditation on Winter with the stanza:
‘It breaks my heart to go to bed
Every night in a room without heat
With the one who still has strength
To Pray to God for Salvation.’
The reader is left to imagine those cold nights in a New York winter, where the soulless poet is forced to move his body closer to that one source of heat as it mumbles prayers to the falling snow. It rewards the reader but it also inspires the writer finding these spaces opening up on a page, curiously filled with both an intimate salvation and an insistent hope.
In the poem, ‘Dead Season,’ Simic writes about how a landscape must have fallen in love with Edgar Allen Poe, which is just a stunningly good line, but he doesn’t leave it at that. He’s able to return to that somewhat sombre evocation of a landscape shaped by merciless fear and ruthless death, and finish the poem with:
‘For Poe — Beauty could be the cause of sudden death.’
What marks out these kinds of poets, whether we’re talking about T. S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, or indeed, Charles Simic, is not a genius for language (and it’s simply mind-boggling to note that Simic moved from Serbia to the United States when he was sixteen) not only a mastery of craft, insight into the human condition or a unique feeling for a ragged beauty, but it’s actually the long investment of poetry in a man’s soul that has made him as vast and fragmented as the world he’s describing and as delicately poised on such sublime particulars as these poems.
A. S. Patric is featured in Best Australian Stories 2010 and has published widely, in magazines such as Overland, Blue Dog, Going Down Swinging, Wet Ink, The Lifted Brow, and in The Australian Poetry Centre’s publication, Dear Dad. He’s co-editor of Verity La and has a collection of poetry published by Black Rider Press called, Music For Broken Instruments. You can read more of A.S. Patric’s work at his blog and you can check out his prose picks of the year at Laurie Steed’s blog, Gum Wall.