Charles Simic’s Memories: Real and Unreal

In an interview, Charles Simic said, “My early life seems like a dream…There’s an element of unreality about it.”[i] Simic’s early life was spent attempting to flee World War Two bombs in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he “could easily have been a casualty of war.”[ii] The “unreality” of his circumstances tainted Simic’s innocent experiences of childhood, which were affected by violence and fear at the hands of unyielding political forces. In his poetry, Simic translates his early life into a subtle blurring of the realities of war and of common life, and in doing so, seeks to subvert the power structures at the root of suffering. In “Cameo Appearance” Simic writes, “In the distance our great leader/ Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,/ Or was it a great actor/ Impersonating our great leader?” A politician is compared to an animal and a fraud. This gives a harshly critical political commentary in a simple manner. Simic conveys complicated feelings in an accessible, visceral language that urges the questioning of the true nature of a person, object, or action. In his poetry, a grandmother is a killer, toys are senseless soldiers, and an infant cries for the tragedies of the world. Drawing upon his childhood, Charles Simic uses surrealistic and realistic images of memories to convey the paradoxical unreality and reality of war.

Charles Simic’s wartime childhood had a large influence on the composition of language in his poems. The experience of scarcity led to a fascination with the few items available to entertain an imaginative child. He describes his life thusly: “When you’re being bombed and you live in a place where there’s not much to eat, one lives in a kind of solitary confinement…Inside your room, there’s not much. You keep seeing the same things over and over- the same walls, the same chair. It’s a kind of minimalist art.”[iii] During war, the scope of reality narrows. The “minimalism” of his life in Belgrade vaulted simple items into the realm of the extraordinary as they took on new importance. Simic said that “[he had to] reimagine the object daily in order to make life bearable. As far as being a child- a child plays with these objects.”[iv] This experience directly influenced his poetry, as it trained him to view small sections of reality as closely and unflinchingly as possible. Additionally, his concise and direct use of language could be called “minimalistic” in its construction. The constant refiguring of objects in relation to himself led to a fascination with the possibilities such objects hold. In “The Big War”, cheap toy soldiers become surreal personifications of the real war happening on Simic’s doorsteps. “I used to lie on the floor/ For hours staring them in the eye./ I remember them staring back at me in wonder.” The clay figurines are given emotions as they contemplate the power their “leader”, the boy Simic, wields over their lives. In the poem, Simic goes on to break the figurines, symbolizing their futility and the ultimate lack of power they have over their lives, much like real soldiers in war. The surrealistically portrayed figurines are ultimately grounded in reality. When confronted with reality, Simic is wary of it. Simic was a witness to the horrors of World War Two and other atrocities of the twentieth century, and was given the sense that true reality is unbearable. When discussing the intersection of poetry and history, Simic writes: “I am beginning to worry that history is not the right word here, that I am describing the pressure of reality on the contemporary poet…On one hand the multiplication of the images of suffering and atrocity, and on the other hand the unreality they bring to our lives with the accompanying suspicion that all life is meaningless…It is the irrationality of history that is our experience.”[v] Even as he writes about true events, he knows they lack a sense of reality, and that unease translates to his writing. The “irrational” is most evident in the surreal dream-world of “Nineteen Thirty-eight”. In the poem, the dramatic events of that year unfold alongside a baby’s surreal self-awareness as he crudely pees, cries, and breastfeeds. The arrangement of images and references borders on comedy, as Stalin’s murderousness and Dairy Queen’s ubiquity are mentioned in the same breath, blending politics and popular culture. The involuntary actions of Simic’s baby-self mirror the powerlessness of an adult unable to act as an individual as irrational events both terrible and miraculous occurred around the world. Most telling is the abrupt line, “People worried the world was about to end,” inserted about halfway through the list of events and communicating the sense of unfathomability people faced. The Simic-baby’s experience ends as he writes, “I thought I heard myself cry for a long, long time.” As a baby would have no concrete memories, this awareness is yet another surreal image. It is an image of a child grieving for a world he has yet to discover or participate in, underlining the absurdity both of history and of the poem’s imagery itself.

In reference to the surrealistic index of imagery in his poems, Simic likens himself to the Northern Renaissance artist Peter Brueghel: “We hear of Brueghel turning the eyes upside down by looking at the landscape through his legs. He didn’t do that the first time. He did it when he realized that the only way to see what is there is to be upside down in the world.”[vi] The act of seeing upside down, paradoxically, makes the world clearer. In Simic’s poems, surrealism and strangeness are the only logical imageries that make sense when referencing war as war itself is so surreal. “Slaughterhouse Flies” offers surrealistic images in the two-stanza poem recalling his home. “Evenings, they ran their bloody feet/ Over the pages of my schoolbooks.” Though he is referencing insects, the immediate association is of soldiers in the street, trampling a child’s book with their violence. The trees speak, and cows grow suspicious of their own sudden death. Simic’s assignment of human thoughts and feelings to other organisms lend a startling sense of urgency to the scene, and associations of blood and violence are tangible connections to war. Even as Simic’s early memories have a sense of the unreal, much of his language and imagery is rooted in stark reality. He states that reality itself is often the basis of his poems: “Everything begins with the rock-bottom reality, which is the reality in front of my nose….It’s always some kind of experience- an experience which is tied to a physical place, some object, some image- they’re the ones that make the poem begin to be written.”[vii]

A real memory usually inspires a poem, and is often object-oriented. As much as Simic’s poems operate in the fantastical, a chilling vein of reality is present in all of them. “Prodigy” seems to be a mythic tale of learned wisdom coming from the ‘heavens’ as “A retired professor of astronomy/ taught me how to play [chess].” Simple details about the objects and setting establish the reality of the poem and highlight one of Simic’s signature styles. What seems to be a simple repartee leading to more information about the game itself is interrupted with the following stanza: “I’m told but do not believe/ that that summer I witnessed/ men hung from telephone poles.” The poem is no longer a surrealistic childhood game; the reference to executions, mortality, and violence vault the poem into the realm of war seen through the eyes of a child. Even though he mentions the “planes and tanks” in the scene, it is with the passing interest of a bored child. It is not until Simic mentions the hangings that the tone of the poem shifts completely into the realm of realism. Simic himself doubts the veracity of these events, questioning if the moment ever happened, and thus including a vein of surrealism in his realist memory. The combination of both realism and surrealism in “Prodigy” make it a powerful, effective poem that instantly fascinates even as it repels. Ultimately, Simic is capturing and writing about a sense of timelessness in his poems. Whether experiences or images are real or imagined, they are suspended in the weightless space of memory. “…To translate, in a sense, that whole different world [of war], it takes a long time. I wish to make them in some way timeless…it seems to me that all those events still go on, and if you look at people who have come out of the War, that part of their life goes on. I think every tragedy, every event, some place on some scale continues. Is still current. Is still present.”[viii]

Unlike other memories, memories of war are so visceral that they never truly end. There is a sense, in Simic’s poems, that the reality and unreality of his words are an attempt to keep a moment alive so as to never forget it. In “Lingering Ghosts”, Simic writes: “Give me a long dark night and no sleep,/ And I’ll visit every place I have ever lived.” In these two lines, Simic desires an element of magic to transport himself to the past in order to bear witness to it. He effortlessly blends the desire for something unreal and the desire to access the real. ‘Timelessness’ is desired not to relive the past but to honor it. Simic’s war poems try to create that ‘timelessness’, however strange or shockingly real it may seem. Simic confesses that he hopes “to restore strangeness to the most familiar aspects of existence, all that for the sake of living more intensely.”[ix] By becoming comfortable with the reality of wartime surrealism, like Simic, one is able to live a life of deeper awareness.

[i] Simic, Charles. “The Toy of Language.” Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. Steve Ratiner. University of Massachusets Press, Boston. 2002. Print.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Simic, Charles. “Notes on Poetry and History.” 1984. The Uncertain Certainty. Ed. Donald Hall. The University of Michigan Press, 1985. Print.

[vi] Simic, Charles. “A Retired School Teacher in Galoshes.” 1982. The Uncertain Certainty. Ed. Donald Hall. The University of Michigan Press, 1985. Print.

[vii] Simic, Charles. “The Toy of Language.” Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. Steve Ratiner. University of Massachusets Press, Boston. 2002. Print.

[viii] Simic, Charles. “With George Starbuck.” The Uncertain Certainty. Ed. Donald Hall. The University of Michigan Press, 1985. Print.

[ix] Simic, Charles. “With Rod Steier.” The Uncertain Certainty. Ed. Donald Hall. The University of Michigan Press, 1985. Print.

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