The Magazine

Incongruous Light

Two poets illuminate their separate worlds.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By WYATT PRUNTY
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Master of Disguises
by Charles Simic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 96 pp., $22

C. K. Williams

C. K. Williams

Nancy Zaszerman / ZUMA Press / Newscom

Wait
by C. K. Williams
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 144 pp., $25

Charles Simic knows what World War II and the Cold War felt like in Eastern Europe. We kept the gas oven lit to warm ourselves, Simic says, While mother cried and cried chopping onions / And my one goldfish swam in a pickle jar. These lines are from “Scenes of the Old Life.” The life described here is skewed and meager, and while its inhabitants may deflect from their discomfort, they never escape it. The mother in the poem cries over “onions,” but over more general matters as well. “The Elusive Something” ends, And found myself alone on a street / I didn’t recognize, feeling like someone / Out for the first time after a long illness. Simic is one Who sees the world with his heart, as he says in the same poem, but Then hurries to forget how it felt.

Charles Simic may “forget” an emotion, but he remembers the cause. The poem, “Same-As-Ever,” ends, Nothing ever happens here / Except for these foreign wars / That maim the young boys. And then there are the “girls,” left behind to hustle drinks in local dives. Or there is “The Absent One,” which begins, Someone’s late coming home. In fact, that person never comes home. Instead The lamp left for him in the window / Burns as the day breaks, and this continues for months after.

Of those with power during Simic’s early years, “Sightseeing In the Capital” recalls old buildings / With their spacious conference rooms where people “weigh[ed] life and death / Without a moment of fear / Of ever being held accountable. If anyone today is close to forgetting about the cost of bad government, Charles Simic is here with a reminder.

Much of what the reader encounters in Master of Disguises is the world moving at odd speeds and oblique angles. Sometimes even Simic himself appears to swerve. This is the case in “Old Soldier,” which begins, By the time I was five, / I had fought in hundreds of battles. “Old Soldier” continues:

After the bombing raid, the sky was full

Of flying cinders and birds.

My mother took me by the hand 

And led me into the garden

Where the cherry trees were in flower.

The contrast here—a sky of cinders, a sky of flowering cherry trees—is the reminder Simic has for us that the terror of war persists, spring or no spring. In “Solitude,” two people renting in the same building meet, one wishing to borrow a candle from the other. They stand face to face / Between two dark apartments / Unable to think of anything else to say / Before turning [their] backs on each other.

Simic’s “Sad as a Ship in a Bottle” begins, Sad as a matchbox in a house / Where they’ve stopped smoking, and the poem ends, Sad as a hotdog-eating champion / Having dinner in a fish restaurant. Such incongruities—a home without heat, a light continually on in a window, a bombing raid while trees are in bloom, neighbors with nothing to say—are familiar fare in Master of Disguises. And they can be funny—a pickle jar for a goldfish, a box of matches for someone who has stopped smoking, a drastic change in menu for “a hotdog-eating champion.” Simic’s wry sense of humor speaks to a world always a bit skewed. “Streets Paved With Gold” ends with the description of someone in a tree swing .  .  . Too old to be swinging / And to be wearing no clothes. That person is 

Blowing random notes on a toy trumpet

At the converging darkness,

And the one little white cloud 

Dilly-dallying in the evening sky.

There is an internal resistance to this poem that one finds elsewhere in Simic. Facts are recorded; facts refuse to be resolved. That is the double view readers encounter in Charles Simic. Things are near and far at once, an onion here and the world there, both causing the same tears.

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