Master of Disguises
by Charles Simic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 96 pp., $22
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.
The poems in C. K. Williams’s Wait are written in the long conversational lines we now expect from this poet. Like Simic, Williams reports upon childhood during World War II and the Cold War. But for Williams, meaning is more affective than ironic. He, too, has an eye for oblique and isolating situations, but he stands closer to his subjects. Wait opens with a poem, “The Gaffe,” that is about a child’s innocent mistake. Out in the yard of a house where a boy’s brother has just died, the speaker, a young Williams, asks without thinking first, How do you know when you can laugh when somebody dies, your brother, dies? The rest of the children go quiet, the backyard goes quiet. And the speaker wonders why that someone in me who’s me yet not me let me say it. And, he adds, Shouldn’t he have told me the contrition cycle would from then be ever upon me, / it didn’t matter that I’d really only wanted to know how grief ends, and when? There is a gentle insistence to Williams, a kind of wised-up hope—a cast of mind that Henry James might summarize as “American,” especially were James contrasting this with Charles Simic’s understanding.
In “Thrush,” Williams reports such things as the mothering by a thrush who takes care of one healthy baby but also cares for the one that will not make it. Or he describes the anxiety of a young mother hurrying by with her Down’s syndrome infant in a stroller. For Williams, these situations are alike in terms of the care they demonstrate. In a poem entitled “Cows,” Williams sees a related situation in the coincidence that occurs between a girl / on the road from the village who stands brokenheartedly crying and some heifers, / each with a numbered tag. The cattle are destined for market, one assumes, but for now they stand bawling over “the fence,” expressing what Williams imagines to be “Feed me!” but also “Save me!” / Save me! Save me! Save me!
The girl cries and the cows bawl from alien universes, but Williams lends a sympathetic ear that places everything in one location, where the reader is to “wait,” in the sense that a poem requires we stop to consider, start to care. As the title poem puts it, we are to “wait” for the “Chop, hack, slash; chop, hack, slash” of time but also, mysteriously and generously, for the happiness of being alive. Or as Williams says, I should tell you too how happy I am, / how I love it so much, all of it, chopping and slashing and all.
“The Gaffe,” “Thrush,” and “Crows” open Wait. Each describes a situation requiring that we pause. Williams is keenly aware of the evil humans can do to each other, but he also acknowledges the good. Williams is the product of modernism’s refashioning, but he is of romantic stock, too, in that the power of experience derives from something at once external and internal, objective and subjective.
The half-line quoted above comes from “Jew on Bridge,” the last piece in Wait. This is a poem that ranges from Dostoyevsky to Chekhov to Celan to understanding today, especially as we review the troubled 20th century. How does one respond to our recent history, cross the bridge or jump from it? Where is the good to be found here? The answer, in part, is that one waits.
"Teachers,” “Steen,” “Rash,” and “Clay” are poems that report their worlds as follows. “Teachers” catalogs “Sleeping halls” populated by those like shades of lives never to be lived. “Steen” describes predation / inherent in . . . vehement need. “Rash” cites generalizations that clog one’s heart, foliating / from I dare not entertain what stony, nettled soil. But then there is another aspect to all this, as the poem “Clay” argues. What continues, we are told, is the need to stay / in the fire, and wait, not knowing if the waiting will end, if you might / waste what you have. The positive outcome, when it occurs, results thanks to the fire of a kiln in which two / figures in terra-cotta have been hardened, and thanks also to the maker’s ability to wait for the fire to do its work. The good end here results from patience.
In “Among the Exiles” Charles Simic says that On the use of murder to improve the world, / They had many vivid memories. And in “The Invisible” he tells us of vast terrors concealed / By this costume party, such a party being made of things vulnerable and beautiful, Of flowers and birds / And children playing in the garden. Or in “The Toad” Simic concludes:
God never made a day as beautiful as today,
A neighbor was saying.
I sat in the shade after she left
Mulling that one over.
Soon Simic is “hopped over” by a toad that has found him harmless, as for a moment at least the beautiful and the unexpected join in the shade of Simic mulling.
In “Assumptions,” Williams begins, there is an entity, vast, omnipotent but immaterial, inaccessible to / all human sense save hearing. And, he concludes, all this will continue, go on and on, the same formulations, same / unfaltering faulty logic. The way we will go on is by a
claim of truth extracted from the tricks of good or bad, yes and no,
these binomial mental knots we suffer and destroy for, and which go on
and on, on and on and on.
Williams, too, will mull things over, though he acknowledges the limits to “mulling.” What Williams presses, however, is the value of such contemplation. That is the way we attend to others, and such attendance forms a counterbalance to time. This is the means by which Williams is able to say how “happy” he is, and how much he loves his life, the chopping and slashing and all. The poems in Wait demonstrate many admirable properties. Patience and generosity of spirit head the list.
Charles Simic’s characteristic stance maintains some distance from his subjects, while C. K. Williams stands nearby. Reading these two together is like attending a debate in which differences highlight a shared concern. While the methods for reportage differ, Simic and Williams possess a similar understanding as to the way things go, and the same strong wish that they go well.
Wyatt Prunty, Carlton professor of English at University of the South (Sewanee), is the author, most recently, of The Lover’s Guide to Trapping.