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Seeing Things

"Images, images, images"—for the émigré poet Charles Simic, they're the story of his life

January 10, 2001

Whether they own up to it or not, most memoirists are trying to pull a fast one—to create, from an ungovernable clutter of recollections, the illusion of a coherent "Life." Not so the Yugoslavian-born poet Charles Simic, who declares that he believes in "the deep-set messiness of everything." A Fly in the Soup, which chronicles his earliest memories through his young adulthood, is a refreshingly digressive and elliptical memoir. "Mine is an old, familiar story by now," he writes. It is the book's first sentence and only deception.

A Fly in the Soup
A Fly in the Soup:

by Charles Simic
University of Michigan Press
144 pages, $20

Even in such rare moments of modest falseness, Simic isn't falsely modest. A wartime upbringing punctuated by indiscriminate airstrikes relieved him at an early age of self-importance, replacing it with a sense of "how superfluous and insignificant in any grand scheme mere individuals are." He might be the only Pulitzer Prize-winner who still thinks of the time he faced down a neighborhood bully as "the most triumphant moment of my life." And to call his opening sentence misleading is itself a bit misleading. What he means is that one man's tale of displacement, as the sun sets on the Century of Displacement, hardly stands out. Born in Belgrade in 1938, Simic spent his early childhood hunkering through the bombing campaigns of both the Nazis and the Allies, and immigrated to the United States when he was fifteen. That's the old, familiar story. But the real tale of A Fly in the Soup—and what makes it truly memorable—hangs on the telling details.

Here's a telling detail: Simic's Uncle Boris, a character so crazy he rates his own chapter in a book brimming with crazy characters, once took his girlfriend for a joyride in a truck he'd stolen from the Nazis—a stunt that brought the Gestapo to Simic's father's door. Boris mellowed with age, and restricted his troublemaking to correspondence with the letters editor of The New York Times (Bobby Kennedy was "a Russian agent") and the occasional practical joke. One night, as Boris and Charles were dining in a New York restaurant, "a nice, old, silver-haired lady" approached their table and asked, on behalf of three other silver-haired ladies, what language they were speaking.
Boris, who never missed an opportunity to play a joke, made a long face, sighed once or twice, and—with moist eyes and a sob in his voice—informed her that, alas, we were the last two remaining members of a white African tribe speaking a now nearly extinct language.

That surprised the hell out of her! She didn't realize, she told us, now visibly confused, that there were native white African tribes.

"The best kept secret in the world," Boris whispered to her and nodded solemnly, while she rushed back to tell her friends.

It was part of being an immigrant and living in many worlds at the same time, some of which were imaginary. After what we had been through, the wildest lies seemed possible. The poems that I was going to write had to take that into account.
They have. The events of Simic's early life could keep an autobiographical poet permanently in clover, but Simic would rather be an oracle than an archivist. If someone else will handle the humdrum liturgy, he'll happily handle the snakes. In his collection Jackstraws, for example, the elegy for deceased parents—to contemporary poets, almost as much a rite as the funeral itself—becomes a harrowing collision of dream, memory, and movie.
Midnight Freight

Mannequins once employed to gauge
The effects of the atomic blast
Seated on my living room sofa
Looking like my dead parents
The day they eloped to be married.

There is an old newsreel of them
In the Nevada desert: Dad's tie is askew,
Mother's Sunday hat is about to slip off,
His gray suit and her dress are rumpled,
The two of them are smiling faintly.

By the streetlight on the corner,
I can see their white Buick parked
With its doors thrown wide open.
Three blind mice is what we are
Coming together like this at midnight.

Their heads slumping in reply,
Pressing closer against their hearts'
Heavy silence. It could hardly
Be spoken of, the grand dummy-up
Of it all, and here I keep talking.
A Fly in the Soup, much of which draws from Simic's three previous collections of personal essays and memoirs, makes occasional detours into this phantasmagorical territory. But for the most part his prose is as factual as his poetry is fanciful—no doubt because the facts need little embellishment. "Immigration, exile, being uprooted and made a pariah, may be yet the most effective way devised to impress on an individual the arbitrary nature of his or her own existence," he writes. "Who needs a shrink or a guru when everyone you meet asks who you are the moment you open your mouth and speak with an accent?" Simic knows what it is to be a fly in the soup—uninvited, out of his element, imperiled. He also knows something few flies realize: that his options, along with drowning, include doing the backstroke and even some feasting.

Simic's numerous volumes of poetry include, most recently, Jackstraws (1999), Walking the Black Cat (1996), A Wedding in Hell(1994), and Hotel Insomnia (1992). In 1990 he received the Pulitzer Prize for The World Doesn't End, a book of prose poems. Simic has also published several translations of poetry from the Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and other languages, and has edited a volume of poems by the Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun, Feast, which was released last fall.

Since 1973 Simic has taught English and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire. He lives with his wife, Helen, in a house overlooking Bow Lake near Strafford. Eric McHenry spoke with Simic at his home in mid November, in the company of Pépe, probably the world's most personable cat, and Samson, certainly the world's largest golden retriever.


audioear pictureHear Charles Simic read from his new memoir, A Fly in the Soup. (Requires RealPlayer.)

Charles Simic
Charles Simic  

There is something wonderfully suggestive about the final anecdote in the memoir being one of your earliest memories. You're about four years old, and your mother has brought you to a performance of an opera. The female performer rises at some point and has a long, trailing scarf that runs over a lit candelabra, and the scarf catches fire. The fire begins to engulf her—

It's Figaro. It's the Countess. And the guy who sang Figaro just very calmly pulls the scarf off her, throws it on the ground, and kind of rhythmically stamps on it while continuing to sing!

Just a few pages earlier, in a passage about Buster Keaton, you refer to poetry as "superb serenity in the face of chaos." You talk about Keaton stepping aboard a floating billboard and beginning to fish even though he's being shot at by submarines. That quality seems to pervade the entire book, and closing with the Figaro incident serves as a kind of exclamation point.

It struck me only years later how incredible that anecdote was. This was 1943, I guess. The Second World War is on. The Nazis are in Belgrade. There's this blackout, this curfew at ten o'clock at night. The opera performances start early, so that we can be home by that hour. It's a very, very dangerous place. People are being arrested, disappearing. There's a civil war going on in Yugoslavia. And in addition to everything else, I guess they're using these candles because they don't have the electricity or something. I loved Mozart's music—I'd heard it all before, my mother being a music teacher, and I really, really liked Le Nozze di Figaro. And then the horror of this woman in flames. I remember my mother gasping—AAAAAHHH—along with everyone else. And this baritone serenely removes the scarf, stamps it out, and continues singing as if nothing were wrong with the world. That's how art exists in the world—in the face of calamity, of everything terrible that happens to human beings.

In your essay collection The Unemployed Fortune Teller, you quote Camus to that effect—creative lucidity in the face of calamity is all we really have. Are lucidity and serenity related in your mind?

Serenity is the outside appearance of lucidity. This man was very clear-headed. He understood right away that it wasn't a big deal, that he could pull it off. Luckily, he had high boots on—Figaro is a servant. It's a clear-headedness and a calm, and there must have been a certain feeling of pleasure, brio. I remember my mother telling me later on that the woman was just aghast. It took her a while to recover herself. So there must have been a great pleasure.

I'm wondering about how this frame of mind informs your poetry. Do you find yourself moving back and forth between lucidity and calamity as two different ideas of poetry—or are those two different ideas of poetry? Do you think it's valid to set Robert Frost's definition of a poem as "a momentary stay against confusion" against the persistence of confusion itself?

I think they're two different ideas that sort of play off of each other. The stay against confusion implies a moment of clarity, a moment when you see through the maze. But on the other hand, it's that wonderful confusion of images, the multiplicity of images, which one cannot reduce to a single idea, that makes one's life and experience interesting. The most haunting moments or memories in one's life are not those one can explain or reduce to some theory. It's when that sort of puzzlement, the sheer oddness of how all these events occurred, remains with one—when one is still under that spell.

Near the end of A Fly in the Soup, you suggest much the same thing: so many of the moments of one's experience are absolutely ineffable. Yet there's an ineffable attraction in trying to find the words to fit them.

Of course, of course. Language constantly fails me. That's why I continue writing. I'm completely convinced that language cannot convey adequately the deepest of our experiences, but that's no reason one shouldn't keep trying.

You write that when you'd encounter people who were certain of themselves and of the world, who'd never undergone the experiences you'd undergone at a very early age living in Belgrade, you would resent them on the one hand and pity them on the other. They had not yet internalized, as you had, how superfluous and insignificant every individual is—that at any moment it could all be turned on them.

Yeah, the idea that we're all walking on thin ice is more apparent in unhappy places, places of endless war, suffering, injustice. You get an idea very early on that we're just lucky to be around. But I don't know. Learning early about death and destruction certainly doesn't make people wiser. There was horrendous death and destruction in Yugoslavia between 1941 and 1945, and forty-five years later they couldn't wait to get back to death and destruction. What surprises me is that history, clearly, is not a lesson. You don't learn a thing.

Have you ever surprised yourself with feelings of nostalgia for moments that were horrifying at the time you experienced them?

It's the most perverse of all things, because after all, it's your own life. I'm sure if you spent part of your early life in a penitentiary, you would look back and say, "Ah, that was a great day. We were all out in the yard. The sun was shining, and I was sunbathing, and I said to myself, 'God, I feel so good!'"

You only have one life. One very foolishly grows nostalgic about days that were clearly, for others, days of horror. As I describe in the book, the first days after the Russians liberated Belgrade were pure hell for a lot of people. There was great danger, because there was the settling of political scores. People were being shot. There was nothing to eat. You name it. But for me, it was a glorious period. I was alone on the street with the kids, free. As I said in one of the essays in The Unemployed Fortune Teller, a review of two photographers' books of Sarajevo kids, all the adults look miserable. They just look worried, you know. The kids, on the other hand, are all beaming. Kids enjoy wartime—unless a bomb is falling on your head and you're really scared. The rest of the time, all this other stuff that looks awful to everybody else is paradise. A building that has been bombed becomes the ultimate jungle gym.

I wonder if from a very early age, without realizing it, you were getting a sense of the built-in absurdity of everything, a sense that continues to animate your poetry.

I think that's very well put. Now when I look back, that building across the street that we used to climb was dangerous, terrifying. Bad things happened there. I mention some of them: the kid who fell down and was never the same afterward. I mention that we were finding all this live ammunition, gathering it, selling it to older kids, and so forth. There were little grenades of some sort. One of the kids on our street lost both hands, up to his elbows, dismantling a grenade. It was a frequent occurrence that someone would suffer badly. But when you're young, thank God, you're stupid. You don't think about it. My poor mother was working and couldn't really keep an eye on me, and I had a grandmother who was kind of old and sickly, and so I did things that if I knew my kids were doing them when they were little, I'd go crazy.

But yeah, the total absurdity of things: if you're young, you can simply accept and adjust. So there was a building across the street; now it's a ruin. For grownups, an awful thing. They keep talking about it. It missed us by only yards. It could have fallen here instead of there. But for us kids, wow! What a terrific place!

Poets always talk about their influences, and they name chains of other poets. Was there ever a moment when you were coming into your own as a poet at which you recognized that as much as Apollonaire or Borges, your poetic influence was the blown-up building across the street?

No, it wasn't until I started writing memoir. When I wrote my first memoir, Wonderful Words, Silent Truth (1990), some of these things became apparent to me. I just hadn't thought about it before. Occasionally I would tell my children or friends some story about those days, but I didn't systematically try to reconstruct it. And I was very happy that I was asked to do it, because it forced me to start from the beginning and to remember, and I wanted to be accurate. I wanted to be sure I got things more or less right, for the sake of my children. My father had just died, and my mother was old. There would be nobody left to remember this. And it was only slowly that I began to realize what the biggest influences in my life had been: that building, and that crazy life.

There's this startling passage early on in your memoir, "We ran down to the same cellar, where today some of the original cast of characters are still cowering." As you were writing these essays, did you feel spurred on by the knowledge that history was repeating itself?

Yeah. In this century Belgrade was bombed four times. The first time was by Austrians in the First World War. Then in 1941, when I was there, by the Nazis. Then in 1944, the Allies, and in 1999 by NATO. And I still have an aunt who lives there, and an uncle, and a cousin, in the same building, and some of the other people in the building were there when I was there. I don't mention it in the book, but my uncle actually died of a heart attack when a NATO bomb hit a TV studio close by. He was old, and he could have died in his bed of a heart attack, but certainly when a bomb hits.... My aunt said that the whole building seemed to levitate. So yeah, it's incredible. I know that cellar so well. I know what it looks like. You watch CNN here, and you can call them up—I mention this—you call them up, and they say, "Uh oh, listen," and they stick the phone out the window and you hear the sirens.

Politically, your feelings about the Balkans must be very ambivalent. You said that your father believed in fighting for a just cause, and your mother, on the other hand, never abandoned her belief in the absolute stupidity of any sort of fighting. What goes through your mind, seeing a Milosevic who's wreaking terror, but then watching NATO bomb Belgrade?

Well, I was both against Milosevic and against the bombing. I don't think bombing accomplished what they think it accomplished. What they did—when, after a week or so they'd hit any military target that was worth hitting, they went after infrastructure—just destroyed the country economically. Anyone who's been bombed knows how the innocent suffer in any kind of bombing. I just don't have a stomach for that sort of thing. I don't believe in aerial bombardment as a cure-all. But as far as Milosevic goes, I've written a lot about him. He's a truly evil man. There's nothing good to be said of him.

In one of the essays in The Unemployed Fortune Teller, "The Minotaur Loves His Labyrinth," which consists of a series of journal entries, you wrote that when people talk about mnemonic devices in poetry, they always talk about rhyme and meter. But there's rarely discussion of juxtapositions that are so startling, so compelling, that they sort of burn themselves on the memory. It seems like the poetry you're writing is a poetry that seeks those images: you mention James Tate's "wheelchair butterfly," Bill Knott's "razorblade choir," two words that become unforgettable simply by standing next to each other. Maybe it's a shade of the old argument: Is poetry what's lost in translation, or is it what survives translation? It sounds as though you might be of the mindset that great poetry is what survives translation.

Mark Strand and I made that argument once in an introduction to an anthology. It's really not entirely true. Most generalizations about poetry are only partially true. There's always an exception. There are poets who rely so much on the sound of the language—the melody, the music of the words—that they cannot be translated. Or if they're translated, they don't sound like themselves, because hearing is so much a part of experiencing their poetry.

I can't imagine trying to translate, say, Wallace Stevens.

Well, Stevens has a lot of imagery and interesting words. They can work in translation. But someone who really depends so much on music—Hart Crane, maybe—it doesn't come across. Images are easiest to translate. If somebody has a red apple on a white plate, piece of cake. Where it gets a little tricky is when you deal with idiomatic language or complicated metaphors, where you realize that literal translation will not work, but some sort of equivalent can perhaps be found. But you can't find an equivalent in the dictionary; if you're looking for an idiom, it just has to pop into your head. But to come back to the original point, images have always been very important to me—movies, you know, I'm a twentieth-century kid. I wanted to be a painter when I was young, loved the movies, art, photography—it was images, images, images. And I really think of my life, my experience, as a story of images. Images juxtaposed. Images that tell their story by being brought side-by-side.

Was part of the appeal of writing poems in English—not your first language—a sense of an absolute clean slate, a fresh beginning?

I didn't think about it. It was just that I had a couple of friends who were writing poems, and I noticed that they were very successful with young women. And I said, "Well, let me give it a shot." Young women were all interested in literature, and talking about books all the time, so that seemed like an additional seduction technique or option. People say to me, "Why didn't you start writing in Serbia? What did you think at the time?" I didn't think anything. I didn't have a thought.

So when did the impulse to write poetry really set in?

After a while it becomes an obsession, or an extension of obsession. You need it for your own daily existence. Then it becomes an intellectual obsession. Like any other art, you're thinking of your contemporaries, and your very strong feeling, especially when you're very young, is that your contemporaries don't know what the hell they're doing. So you have to straighten out the world. And eventually you also have all kinds of aesthetic theories. So it gets complicated. It becomes an ongoing complication, and the literary world, happily, is unfriendly. It's not like, when you're young, people are jumping up and down, saying, "Oh, my God! Another poet! Aren't we lucky!" Essentially, it's, "Get away, creep! Out of my sight!" And this all fuels a kind of passion and soul-searching and obsession. It's a true obsession. At that point, you can't help yourself. You just work.

From time to time in the book, you'll begin to tell a story by announcing that you're going to tell a story. You'll actually set aside a sentence for it, and it helps create a feeling of intimacy by replicating something that really happens around the family table. People say, "I have a story about that," and all the attention is then drawn to them, and then the story proceeds. Was that a conscious effort, when you were writing—to simulate the sense of dinner-table conversation?

My grandmother on my father's side—not my father's mother, because she died when he was young, but the woman whom my grandfather married—she was an amazing woman and lived to be quite old. She lived in Switzerland and used to come to see my Uncle Boris. If you asked her a question like "Do you remember when the Germans bombed Belgrade, in 1941?" or "Do you remember seeing Gone With the Wind when it came out?"—any question about anything that had happened to her—she would say, "Yes I remember. The night before, Grandfather said to me, 'You know, Mitza, it's been a long time since we had veal chops. Why don't you make some veal chops tomorrow?' So I'm thinking to myself, Well, let's see, veal chops, I used to go to so-and-so, but last time the veal was so tough. Maybe I'll go and see this other butcher." So you have a 35-minute preface. Finally, she's leaving the butcher with the veal chops. It's very early in the morning—it's five o'clock in the morning on April 6, 1941, and the bombs start falling, and she has to retreat back into the butcher's.

I adored that in her—that she would connect every event, in her memory, with some sort of eating: "I was making pancakes when Stalin died." She had a large family. There were a number of small children, and they always had a full house. Her life consisted of constantly cooking large meals, and she was around the stove all the time. Anybody else would jump on her, and say, "Grandma, cut it out. Get to the point." And I would say, "No, wait, talk! Let her talk." She'd get more and more absurd. You could make her digress even more. Let's say she was going to make veal chops with sautéed mushrooms. If you asked her, "What kind of mushrooms? Where'd you get these mushrooms?" she'd say, "Ah, that's another story." And off we'd go! These stories of hers were epics of the ordinary. That's where I learned to tell stories.

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Eric McHenry's poems have appeared in Harvard Review, Northwest Review, Orion, and Slate. He writes for Bostonia magazine.

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