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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Number 28: Charles Simic "Fork"


This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.

As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.

-- Charles Simic

Hap Notes: Charles Simic (born 1938) is one of the few poets whose poems you can read by the handful. If, that is, you can bear to hold a handful of the dark, spiky things in your hand. They will be glad to pierce your flesh if you hold too many of them. Well, sometimes just one will do it.

His childhood in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), was a nightmarish progression of moving from town to town to escape the constant bombing of of WWII. It is often said, in Simic biographical notes, that he wasn't a particularly good student when he was a child but I find this to be a strange thing to impart about any child who grew up around that kind of tension and grim reality. Name me a ten-year-old who could be a good student, watching his country literally go to pieces, hearing bits of terse frightened adult conversations, feeling fear and hunger. We broadcast public service announcements on the television/internet telling people that their kids can't study without a decent breakfast! His poetry is marked with the indelible scars of a scattered and shredded childhood landscape.

His poetry is intriguingly bleak with little patches of black humor. Have you ever seen Slavic or (former) Eastern block cartoons with their images of tenderness, grey cities and shockingly cruel events flickering through them? Now mix that with images of Marc Chagall's mythic, folkloric, surreal paintings, a couple of Francis Bacon paintings and throw in a Neil Gaiman book or two and you've got a sort of roadmap of Simic's imagery. It can be delightful in a shadowed grim way-which is a very strange thing to feel as you read a poem. Its charm, by the way, is mostly based on how much easier it is to read it than to live in the brain that wrote it.

Simic's style is not particularly conversational. It's more taut than that. In the above poem, look at the images of a bird that he gives us for a common fork. Aren't birds supposed to be lovely little creatures of the air? It's hard to get the image out of your head of your hand, attached to that fork, as a bald, beakless, mute creature stabbing for dinner. I suppose it's no coincidence that residents of hell are usually depicted with pitchforks, either. Cannibals eat their own kind, do they not? I'll let the rest of the poem drain you by itself.

Simic often writes about familiar common objects and it's interesting to contrast his fork with, say, Oldenburg's "Spoonbridge and Cherry" in the Minneapolis sculpture garden. Even Oldenburg commented that there was a reason he did not use a fork.

Simic's family came to America when he was 16. He served time in the army, got a degree, started getting his poetry published and has taught at the University of New Hampshire for many years. He's won lots of awards. Can't get away with the word "lots" huh? Okay, like the Pulitzer Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award and McArthur Fellowships. He was Poet Laureate in the U.S. in 2007 (they call them "consultants" now- which always sounds entirely too much like politics or business but maybe that's just me.)

Simic's poetry is refreshingly easy to read on the surface but will eventually drag you down to the dimly-lit underworld barely hiding beneath the words.

Here's a good Simic quote: "When you start putting words on the page, an associative process takes over. And, all of a sudden, there are surprises. All of a sudden you say to yourself, ‘My God, how did this come into your head? Why is this on the page?’ I just simply go where it takes me."

Here's another: "Little said, much meant, is what poetry is all about."

You can find more Simic here:

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