Monthly Archives: September 2019
by John Kendall Hawkins
You could be forgiven (but what’s the fun in that), if you were to think. Looking at Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical painting The Death of Socrates, you could believe you’re seeing Socrates giving the bird to democracy and demanding that Crito give him the goddamned chalice full of hemlock, and get out of the way. There are different versions of what Socrates’ last words were. I thought I heard, “Tell my neighbor, Asclepius, he’s a cock, and I owe him one.” But I’d just come off reading The Clouds, Aristophanes’ take-down of Socrates, so I could be wrong. All we know is that he was in a foul mood.
And he had a right to be. All those Ralph Nader-like years of public service, including a distinguished stint as a soldier during the Peloponnesian War, only to be told, like most any vet, that things had changed since his return from his tour of duty. The Thirty Tyrants banned him from speaking in public — his dialectics had a tendency to undermine their reign of terror. He never spoke out against the oligarchy directly, but he did continue to be a “gadfly” for every horse’s arse who came his way: encouraging each to think for himself. When democracy was restored, his influence was not forgotten by governmental leaders.
Socrates famously quipped, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates’ Golden Rule is built into the foundation of American democracy. A life that is not examined is one controlled by the thoughts of others — open to deception, propaganda, and subterfuge. An examined life is built into Thomas Jefferson’s notion of a “well-informed public.” Augmented by the mission of the Fourth Estate, which is to keep the citizenry informed and the Bastards Honest, well-informed, self-examining people are in control of their representative government. Ideally. But there are a lot of Ee-yores, assorted horses arses, and serial ignoramuses out there. Even a Ralph Nader can only do so much.
Ultimately, Socrates was convicted on charges of impiety and corruption of youth. Only the latter really matters (nobody really gave a good goddamn about the other one). At the core of his dialectical philosophy was the directive: Question Authority. He demonstrated his method daily, followed around Athens by youthful acolytes, as he took the mickey out of the Know-It-Alls in power. Even in the heyday of democracy, the vested interests wanted none of that. They laughed at Aristophenes’ parody of Socrates and his tactics as a form of sophistry allowing sleaze-balls to weasel out of debts and obligations by making language itself a series of loopholes without end. Creating lawyers who could con Jesus off the cross. Denny Crane! “Never lost a case.”
Socrates might have gone into exile, but, he argued, it would have been the same thing all over again — his dialectics pissing people off. An endless vista of Apologies opened up. So, he talked himself into the death penalty (which came in record time, BTW). He said, according to the Benjamin Jowett translation, “I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.” Then Socrates was handed the chalice of hemlock. Some say that that was the day the music died for Athens’ exceptional democracy, and by the time it got handed down to we moderns it was already more sound and fury than substance.
And yet, here we are some 2500 years later, historically slap-happy, still trying to work out the broad strokes and nuances of our own Exceptional democracy — like kids playing with dynamite, as Mose Allison might say. There’s something Belén Fernández wrote in her new book Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World that sticks with me, something about patriotism, guarding the O Say Can You See against foreign and domestic usurpers, defending the fatherland (patri) you believe in (ism) no matter how abusive and alcoholic he’s become, until you can’t take anymore. As Fernández observes, you can “ start to view the state itself as public enemy number one,” and you know something’s been lost when you start seeing your country as a “state.” Like Socrates.
And that got me thinking about childhood, and homeroom, and our placing our hands over our hearts and pledging our allegiance to all them stars and stripes, earnestly but mechanically. And at lunchtime, all the goombahs extorting lunches and test answers from the weaklings and nerds in that long lead-up to their grown up years of thuggery and politics, now seen as the first wake-up call in the game called Hide Your Twinkies.
And after lunch, we’re taking turns reading aloud Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man Without A Country,” gasping as Philip Nolan exclaims, at the end of a trial for some unknown treason, “To hell with America,” or something like that. And he gets sent ‘up the river’ for 56 years (gulp) for saying something I’ve felt mosta my life — and I’m a true patriot. No, really.
But then, at recess, as the goombahs started selling ‘insurance policies’, I hung out in the toilet and got to thinking, started examining myself (mentally, I mean), and began to wonder what did Nolan actually do wrong? The story doesn’t really say. Miss Johnson (at least that’s how I remember her name) just said it was a parable about patriotism. But what had he done? My little mind worked and worked to know. Had he done some illicit machine-gunning? Was he a serial philanderer? Had he tried to kill John Lennon and all his love? 56 years! No one once asked him if he’d changed his mind, offered him some fucking parole? I discovered myself without toilet paper. Wrote on the wall: Phillip Nolan was here.
Years later, as I was growing up (still am), I discovered that Nolan’s tale was loosely based on an incident that happened to Peace Democrat congressman Clement Vallandigham in 1863, who, mid-war, openly called for peace; who didn’t believe the battle to end slavery was worth the price of a divided white nation. A draft had been called by Republican president Abraham Lincoln; New York’s white underclass erupted in rage when it was discovered that rich people could buy their way out of serving or find a proxy, and that their jobs refining slave-labor crops (cotton and sugar) could be lost, if the Union won. Vallandigham’s exhortations were regarded as treason — he was court-martialed and sent into exile. Why, Nolan was a patsy!
Many self-examinations later, I thought: Only a Republican would send a man up for 56 years without a chance for parole and call it a parable, while only a Democrat would sue soulfully for peace, but not give a damn about the injustice of slavery or, later, what became known as “economic inequality.” I didn’t know what to think. Toilet stalls don’t grow on trees, and I had nowhere to hide. And it all reminded me an awful lot of the Clinton years, back when Is was Is.
It’s only gotten worse since Socrates and Nolan, IMO — democracy and patriotism, I mean. Some would argue that they are long gone, like a turkey through the corn. 9 Eleven, that was our house of cards, two decks down, freefallin’ at the same time, ‘oh, the humanity’, and like little children who’ve spent all morning building and balancing our catastrophe-in-the-making we raged at physics, as if it were a demon, and looked with extreme prejudice for goats trying to escape.
As Pavlov dingled his bell, and we all broke out in a lip-doodling frenzy of ‘patriotism,’ Susan Sontag seemed to be the only one in the elephant room big enough to call the response for what it was: “The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing…[and] well, unworthy of a mature democracy.” Sontag saw no need to apologize and took her hemlock exile courageously. One day we’ll find the patsy in all this — probably while shaving.
Socrates died in 399 BC — but one could picture, almost 2500 years later, that Democracy has overshot its trajectory, and that Capitalism, not Asclepius, is due a salute. We have our own Cloud issues now; way more than Thirty Tyrants; our hearts and minds still filled with the soothing beats of war drums we’ve heard all our lives (from Korea to the ‘Ghan); thinkers pilloried; a press that mocks and squawks; and instead of a well-oiled Grecian democracy ready to wrassle with Killer “Climate Change” Kowalski, we got us a 1963 Rambler needing a new transmission. Personally, I think that future pledges of allegiance should require not the hand over the heart (that’s got other things to do: why burden it with the gravitas of false patriotism), but a nice big juicy middle finger that says Question Authority. That’s what a mature democracy requires.
Think about it.
By John Kendall Hawkins
In the 1963 horror-thriller, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock wants his viewers to understand the world from the point-of-view of birds. Angry birds. Birds angry at humans. The question is: Why? Why are the birds angry? Why have they gone amok, seeding chaos, and what will be the solution?
My favorite shot in the movie comes when Hitchcock has a seagull floating over a town on fire and in full-flight panic — as if the bird were considering its work below, like a parent determining whether the administered spanking to a brat had been enough. And then another birds shows up in the frame, and another, and another, and then they all descend again. Why are they so angry?
Maybe part of the answer is attitude — hubris — or, as Bobby Dylan once sang, “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please.” In 1962, Rachel Carson released Silent Spring, a cataloguing of Humanity’s catastrophic treatment of the natural environment. Man was shitting his bed regularly and seemed proud of it. The ever-ironical Hitchcock was providing payback for the angered birds: Who’s luffing now?
In Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, the author goes one better than Hitchcock by substituting birds with mosquitoes and providing the creature’s point-of-view going all the way back to the Age of Dinosaurs. As far as Winegard is concerned, mosquitoes have been calling the shots throughout history in the animal kingdom, but especially with human beings, who, seemingly, have seen the decisions of virtually every ‘Great Man’ affected in pivotal moments by contact with the tiny disease-bearing predators.
The male mosquito does not bite and, according to Winegard, lives a Beautiful Life of procuring sex and nectar. When it’s time for the woman warrior to come looking for larval love, the males form a “swarm” tunnel into which she swoons, looking for a “heartbeat boy” on a version of “If You Are the One.” If you’re ‘lucky,’ one of these swarms might occur right over your head — and can extend “1000 feet into the air” — as you’re walking. Writes Weingard, “You are not paranoid, nor are you imagining this phenomenon. Take it as a compliment. Male mosquitoes have graced you with the honor of being a ‘swarm marker.’” Once the sperm is obtained, he says, all they need is blood — yours or mine. Winegard pictures a knocked-up mosquito landing on a patch of human skin. He provides almost an engineer’s description of the mechanical processes involved in biting into and drillin’ for blood:
She conducts a tender, probing, ten-second reconnaissance, looking for a prime blood vessel. With her backside in the air, she steadies her crosshairs and zeros in with six sophisticated needles. She inserts two serrated mandible cutting blades (much like an electric carving knife with two blades shifting back and forth), and saws into your skin, while two other retractors open a passage for the proboscis, a hypodermic syringe that emerges from its protective sheath….
On and on it goes, but, in short, she sucks your blood, and goes off to deposit her blood children in a pool of still water.
There is a cartoonish anthropomorphism that winds its way through the book. It’s clear that Winegard has fun referring to the principal lethal mosquito as General Anopheles — for almost 600 pages. Winegard has a military history background (but reads more like Jeremy Scahill than some swaggering apologist for the Pentagon), and his last book, The First World Oil War, was about the underlying fight to control petroleum during “the war to end all wars.” So, he’s comfortable dressing the mosquito in a general’s uniform and leading him into battle — always the victor, one way or another. General Anopheles is our hateful enemy.
“We are at war with the mosquito,” Winegard declares in his introduction. We’ve been at war for the whole shebang of human time. Almost half of the 108 billion humans who have lived in the last 200,000 years, perished by exposure to toxic mosquito bites. This is a staggering fact, if true (he’s extrapolating from data). But as Weingard indicates, “The biting female warriors of this droning insect population are armed with at least fifteen lethal and debilitating biological weapons against our 7.7 billion humans deploying suspect and often self-detrimental defensive capabilities.” Some of the maladies have been with us for a long time — malaria, dengue, yellow fever — weapons humans have struggled mightily to overcome.
Because Weingard approaches the history from a battlefront perspective involving Big Man confrontations, a lot of time is spent detailing how said maladies are used to advantage by various warriors. As so many battles Weingard describes seem to involve one side drawing the other into literal quagmires of infested mosquito zones, one imagines a briefing of some sort warning soldiers of what to watch for.
Walt Disney put out an especially effective film, The Winged Scourge, in 1943 that explains to soldiers the cycle of infection. (A soldier at the time, Dr. Seuss was also given an opportunity to spread the word to his mates and put out a pamphlet, “This is Ann…She drinks blood,” that likened malaria to a venereal disease delivered by some floozy — seemingly with green eggs and sore hams.) As Weingard repeats, over and over, malarial infections among soldiers had often-catastrophic consequences for fighters.
Winegard’s account of mosquitoes covers millions of years. The best approach to understanding how he proceeds and what the reader can expect is to provide a sampling in, say, four separate historical epochs. I found interesting his speculations on the disappearance of dinosaurs, his alternate take on the comings and goings of Ghengis Khan and the Mongols, Napoleon’s first use of biological warfare, and, probably most interesting (and controversial) of all, from an American’s point of view, the role mosquitoes played in New World slavery.
There was a time when we wondered about the extinction of the dinosaurs, and came to the conclusion, after much debate, that it was all about the fiery spitballs from outer space. That was a long time ago. These days time seems to be speeding up. Is it a natural fact, I wonder, or just old age? I think more about the extinction of great thoughts, The Sixth Extinction, and what, if any of it, mattered. Winegard argues that “that up to 70% of regional species were already extinct or endangered” by the time the asteroids hit. He credits the floozy from the oozy for the greater part of the kill, and we should be thankful: “Aided by her role in eliminating these top-tier dinosaur predators,” he writes, “mammals, including our direct prehominid ancestors, evolved and flourished.”
The Nazis admired Mongol tactics, writes Winegard; they were so similar to Blitzkrieg, encircling “their hapless enemies with breathtaking, unrivaled speed and ferocity.” But “the mosquito sucked dry their dreams of European subjugation,” and as “the mosquito helped prevent the west from being completely overrun. She harnessed her malarial might and held the reins of Mongol conquest, steering them away from Europe.” They returned East.
However, Winegard points out the greatest achievement of the long Mongol reign, stretching from Ghengis Khan to Kublai Khan, is that they opened up a permanent means of communication, transport and commerce between East and West, later called The Silk Road. “The Mongols were willing to allow traders, missionaries, and travelers to navigate their entire empire, opening China and the rest of the east to Europeans, Arabs, Persians, and others for the first time…These new land routes opened by Mongol military expansion created an immeasurably smaller global society by fusing two larger, previously distinct geographical worlds.”
Napoleon had his own Empire-building problems with mosquitoes. The African slaves he hoped to build a sugar-producing colony in Haiti with revolted in 1791. The natural defenses against malaria (such as sickle-cell anemia) that most slaves brought with them from Africa, argues Winegard, allowed them to resist and defeat the French soldiers sent to quell the resistance, but who had their own waterloo problems with mosquitoes. “Although the United States was the first to be born of revolutionary mosquitoes,” writes Winegard, “her battlefield prowess in support of the slave rebellion in Haiti forced Napoleon to sell his North American lands.” As he notes, the Louisiana Purchase that followed saw France give up a quest for American colonies and doubled the landmass of America overnight.
However, Napoleon learned from his defeat in Haiti. And at Walcheren, in 1809, Napoleon drew attacking and superior British forces into a marshland where they perished so miserably from contracting malaria that they couldn’t fight on. But, writes Winegard, Napoleon’s biological tactic also “ushered in the worst epidemic of malaria that Europe had ever seen.” When a defeated Napoleon was sent into final exile in 1815, the British ship Musquito guarded over him.
Perhaps the most compelling portion of Winegard’s narrative is his discussion of African slavery and how it changed everything in the Americas. He tells the story of NFL defensive back Ryan Clark, Jr. who fell ill on a team plane and was later diagnosed with sickle-cell disease. One in twelve African Americans have sickle cell trait, and, according to Winegard, “Advanced by natural selection, sickle cell is a hereditary genetic mutation passed on precisely because it was originally a net benefit to the people who carried it…The evolutionary design that nearly killed Ryan Clark was initially a lifesaving human genetic adaptation.” It provided Africans with the trait with almost total immunity from some forms of malaria.
According to Winegard, such immunity only made the African slave value grow, as it allowed colonists to not only settle in, especially in the Deep South, but to expand empires of cotton and sugar. He notes:
…African slaves were relatively unafflicted by malaria and yellow fever, and simply did not die at the same rate as non-Africans. Their genetic immunities and prior seasoning made Africans an important ingredient of the Columbian Exchange and indispensable in the development of New World mercantilist economic markets.
The slave ships brought wi\th them the anopheles and aedes mosquitoes, which would prove sop lethal to both the colonial and indigenous peoples of the Americas. Winegard’s observations about the interplay of the mercantile development of the New World with slavery and malaria is long and fascinating.
Probably the only white hat Hero introduced in the narrative is the discovery, almost by accident, of quinine. Winegard writes, “Quinine was a New World treatment for an Old World disease. The disease itself, and its vectoring mosquitoes, were born of Africa and the Old World and were transported to the New World, where they flourished.” Coffee, chrysanthemums and, my favorite, gin and tonics, are all known to stave off malaria. And Big Pharma has some cures too. But mosquitoes and malaria are still very much with us.
The murderous disease-bearing mozzies are still with us 200 million years later, driving us nuts at night as we try to sleep, and making us wonder how that 190 million-old buzz, which has us slapping out, could be an evolutionary advantage rather than the taunt it seems. We are still fending them off the same old ways– with smoke, nets, drained swamps, and anti-disease medications. Not only do they still bring malaria in most parts of the world, they now carry the Zika virus, Eastern equine encephalitis, and many other potentially deadly viruses. Scientists continue to remind us that we are overdue for a mosquito-borne pandemic, with amplified effects due to climate change extending breeding seasons.
Some scientists believe that the succubus’ quarter-of-a-billion years reign is enough and it’s time for things to change. Enter CRISPR and the notion that we can genetically modify “humanity’s most dangerous predator.” But there are worries: we’d be messing with nature; we can’t yet guarantee something disastrously unforseen wouldn’t occur. What if we somehow — in our Lamarckian chutzpah — made our most dangerous predator stronger? Or created a real-life Jurassic Park (amber-bound mosquitoes do exist)?
I have mixed visions of Octavia Butler’s “Blood Child;” the recent movie Mosquito-Man (which sucked); and being shown as a child how to make a mozzie pop by squeezing the skin around their proboscis as they sucked — until they exploded, like a gory scene from Scanners. They bring out our latent sadism.
The Mosquito is a fascinating account of a primordial predator — seen almost-empathetically, by Winegard, through the lens of Great Man theory. It is unique in that sense. But it is also overwhelming in its comprehensive claim that mosquitoes were lurking in so many watershed moments of history. You follow his Hum-eric narrative, wowed by the endless stream of Anopheles triumphs that Winegard cites. Then, frankly, scepticism sets in. You seek out secondary sources, and discover that his claims are largely valid. It seemed, at first, a narrative gimmick — the Life and Times of General Anopheles — but ends up a revelation; Hitchcock’s birds eye view..
The Mosquito is yet another reminder to the reader that we live in a world where we don’t really call the shots and never have. We like to tell ourselves sagas of how Men Have Come Seen and Conquered, and sit around vain bonfires telling tales of our Darwinian conquests. But Winegard replaces our historical agents — our manly Caesars and Odysseuses — with female mosquitoes, buzzy little valkyries with a high-pitched nasal drawls. Imagine a civil war won not so much by guns and stratagems, but by reactions to diseased mosquito bites and the requirements of care to ensuing sickness. As Winegard reminds us, half of all human beings who have ever lived suffered “mosquito-inflicted deaths.” Heil Hit-ya, General Anopheles — thwack!
By John Kendall Hawkins
…but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– W.B.Yeats, The Second Coming
Hive-mindedness seems to be growing — at the same time that bees are heading towards kaputzville. DARPA’s got a fix for the bees, they say. Then again, (D)ARPA gave us the Internet, which is where the hivemind is located. On the other hand, Al Gore ‘claims’ to have invented the Internet. Some people say he invented Climate Change, too. Riddle me this: If a guy can be that clever, then how come he can’t win his home state in 2000, without the need to blame Nader? And how come Watergate felon Charles “Dirty Tricks” Colson can be given back his voting rights by Jeb, but not all those Black voters? Is there a koan in a haystack locked up in all this? Or is it all rhetorical?
End Days thinking really, isn’t it? You gotta tamp that bong shit down. Anyway, I was thinking if Christ came back to Earth today, all swaddled again, which three Wise Men would show up in Bedlamhem to report on it. Would it be Old Schoolers like the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post? Or would it be the Upstarts — Amazon, Google, and Facebook?
Some things are certain: they are all pushers, dealing in cut info, trying to slide you into that crystal blue persuasion dream; and they are all in it for the frankincense and myrrh, baby. And all of them are spies for the Mighty Whitey, either directly or in- in- indirectly. And God help us if He came back black: They’d up and lynch Love all over agin’. Eternal recurrence, amor fati, my ass, Mr. Nietzsche.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Back in the ‘70s, when I first learned to write poetry in earnest, I lived in a small country village with two boarding schools. One for the very rich; one for the middle class. At the rich school, where I was a scholarship student, we were favored with lectures from the likes of Dick Gregory and Dan Rather, while we heard that students at the other school were doing things like smoking reefer and watching A Clockwork Orange backwards. We listened to toccatas and fugues in our intimate chapel, while the others brought to life the J. Geils Band. We were an all-boys school; they were coed. On Saturday evenings, I would lay on my back on a circle of lawn and gaze up at the cosmos, while they smashed pumpkins, dated, and drank until they saw stars. Two worlds: two belongings: two visions of “Singing in the Rain.”
My English teacher liked my writing and told me his best advice was to read everything voraciously; and he set me up to correspond with a New York writer, Nat Hentoff, who sent communiques of encouragement to me occasionally. I was restless, insomniac; my mind was full of ideas and lyrical wisps that were sometimes ‘elegant’ visual solutions to problems nobody wanted to hear about. I used to take long melancholy walks at night, through pungent apple orchards, look up through autumn maple leaves lit by a street lamp, recall lines from Frost, think heavy cosmological stuff. In short, I was a struggling poet.
Reading New Yorker magazine, I came across the poetry of Charles Simic, and was immediately blown away by the juxtapositions of minimalistic imagery and an ironic humor that I didn’t quite understand but which made me chuckle. There was humanism that laughed at itself, that seemed to peek out at me from the shadows of what could have been a bleak pessimism. His images were feisty, sometimes like a comic frame in words. I was reading T.S. Eliot for the first time and especially liked his shorter more accessible stuff — like Preludes. I read a vision of human misery similar to Simic’s, but without the humor.
For instance, I read, from Prelude II:
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
I re-read the finality, the heavy chords of the last line. Laughter, not so much. Eliot was steeped in the Anglican, urban fatalism, the kind that sends you genuflecting early in the chapel before the others arrive, and which seemed like a deep, vain thrombosis that crept up toward his heart his entire career.
Charles Simic, on the other hand, can bring you to a similar place of darkness and simplicity, but the illumination that follows is bound in a conceit that is not yet ready to give up. Take these opening lines from his early poem “Butcher Shop,” for instance:
Sometimes walking late at night
I stop before a closed butcher shop.
There is a single light in the store
Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.
Simic’s poem is potent, driven — an escape toward freedom; The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen, rather than the bulldozers of Auschwitz. (I love Eliot, by the way.) It could have gone South: Like the light in which the convict digs his own grave. Say.
Charles Simic has been asked a lot about his past over the years. His English, though coherent and smooth, is delivered as a second language speaker. He is a Serb from Belgrade. He spent his early childhood there during World War II. Bombing and destruction eventually led his family to emigrate — first to Paris, then New York, and, later, Chicago. “Everybody thinks I’m out of my mind when I tell them that I had a happy childhood even with bombs falling on my head. Playing with toy soldiers, I would go boom, boom, and the planes would go boom, boom,” he writes in an essay, “The Prisoner of History,” at NYRB in 1984.
He expected to become a painter, rather than a poet. But love of women drove him to try his hand at ‘pick up’ lines. “When I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems,” he says in an interview. “I found out that I could do it, too. I still tremble at the memory of a certain Linda listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps.” One can almost see her pounding heart.
Lots of male poets and painters would attest to this romantic french benefit — a beauty modelling naked under the sun in the shade of the mind’s eye near the blue lapping sea. One can see why Simic admired Byron’s Don Juan. In an early untitled prose poem from his collection, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, he describes his first Romantic intersection, with the help:
There was a maid in our house who let me put my hand under her skirt. I was five or six years old. I can still remember the dampness of her crotch and my surprise that there was all that hair there. I couldn’t get enough of it. She would crawl under the table where I had my military fort and my toy soldiers. I don’t remember what was said, if anything, just her hand, firmly guiding mine to that spot.
And out of the war years poetry was soon born — boom, boom, boom.
Simic’s poetry has won the Pulitzer Prize (1990) and has been a finalist twice more. If he’s not careful, he might win the Nobel prize one day — his stuff’s that good. In his just released collection, Come Closer and Listen, Simic continues to develop his surrealist survival technique. His images are as sharp as ever, the humor is intact. He cares about the right thing — his poetry — and is not so anxious to hold dear positions of cultural power.
The three qualities I have enjoyed most from reading Come Closer are his humor, his characterizations, and his healthy metaphysical relationship with things unknown. His humor is founded on the wry twists of his surreality, playful surprises, and modest language that overachieves with its humanity. Sometimes it’s so simple that you don’t fully ‘get it’ until you’re moving your eyes to the poem on the next page. “Astronomy Lesson” feels like that:
The silent laughter
Of the stars
In the night sky
Tells us all
We need to know
Similarly, and complementing his winky feel for space is his wry take on time, in “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”:
No one has caught yet.
Space and time, out of which we are ‘evolutionary’ constellations of consciousness, seems to mock us, lugubriously, from the dark side of our own minds.
Simic fancies John Keats’ expressed notion of “negative capability” in his poetics — what Simic calls “the uncertainty of certainty,” of living within the means of what’s knowable (or not), without giant leaps of faith across event horizons, which can leave you absorbed, not in light, but in total darkness. Like the fellow in “Butcher Shop,” Simic uses available light to dig out of the jail of constraining concepts. In his essay, “Negative Capability and Its Children,” he observes, “We could … bring in recent political history, all the wars, all the concentration camps and other assorted modern sufferings, and then return to Keats and ask how, in this context, are we capable of being in anything but uncertainties.” (83)
In contrast, Eliot’s characters proceed through a symbol-laden, even Jungian suffering leading to a pre-supposed “objective correlative.” Simic’s characters don’t seem capable, by disposition, of drowning in an oversaturated consciousness of the world. Like Simic’s childhood itself, Simic’s characters keep on ‘playing,’ even as the bombs of chaos fall all around them. There is a toy poem to play with — in everything.
Simic’s characters thrash in the world, “Like that crazy old woman / With something urgent to say / You couldn’t make sense of.” We’re all on the road to Babel, and if not careful, of being inexpressive selves and inscrutable. This poetic recognition is all the ‘symbolism’ Simic needs. Again in “Negative Capability,” he writes, “The goal in surrealism as in symbolism is a texture of greatest possible suggestiveness, a profusion of images whose meaning is unknown and unparaphrasable to a prior system of signification.” (88) In other words, there is no real translation.
Similarly, in “Sunday Service,” one of my favorite Simic characters, having briefly considered, in three stanzas, a Sunday world seemingly hard at work ridding itself of sin (even a dog is chasing a cat up a tree for religious purposes), our character tells us:
Descartes, I hear, did his best philosophizing
By lazing in bed past noon.
Not me! I’m on my way to the dump,
Waving to neighbors going to church.
Classic Simic. Junk as sin, sin as junk. Out it goes, on Sunday morns.
But he can go further, getting downright farcical with joy, as in the romping “Bed Music.” Four quick stanzas: one to set the scene — lovers in a worn-out bed; another to express the noisy musicality of the coital enterprise; another to introduce mad-driven neighbors downstairs, and then the coup de grâce stanza:
That was the limit!
They called the cops.
Did you bring beer?
We asked the men in blue
As they broke down the door.
If Eliot’s Preludes are Chopin, then Simic goes all Liberace at times. He just doesn’t care.
Without hanging a moral compass around the neck of his perceiving subject, unbalancing his vision like a phenomenological albatross, Simic allows the frame that is seen to be seen for what it is — whatever values (moral, aesthetic) are self-evident and don’t require the intervention of prejudice. Such is the case with his wonderful poem “Among My Late Visitors”:
There is also a cow
Whose eyes the soldiers
Took out with a knife
And lit straw under its tail
So it would run blind
Over a minefield
And thereafter into my head
From time to time
I’ve never considered ‘war’ that way before. Going through Simic’s poems is like going through a mindfield full of IEDs (improvised expressive devices), if you’ll forgive the pun.
There is an upbeat metaphysics at work in Simic’s crooked world, things don’t quite line up right, and he doesn’t even have to try to ‘find’ oddball juxtapositions — they’re just there, and he just needs to wait and observe, as he did with a “Cockroach” early in his career, where he provokes the reader by saying he doesn’t see cockroaches the same ‘icky’ way he presumes the reader does. It’s a playful tactic that makes the reading a kind of agent provocateur’s test.
In one interview, he tells J.M. Spalding of Cortland Review, “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs.” It would still be surrealism in most other places, but, uh, in America, the road of excess doesn’t necessarily lead to the palace of wisdom — at all. He continues, “Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves.”
In “Metaphysics Anonymous,” homeless, downtrodden truth-alkies seek Salvation:
A storefront mission in a slum
Where we come together at night
To confess our fatal addiction
For knowledge beyond appearances.
…we line up with bowed heads
For coffee and cookies to be served.
For Simic, there are only these places we go, lost, to stand up and attest to our powerlessness before our addiction, and tell our story, often poignant, of how the search for Truth has torn apart our lives and left us ruined. People holding up their 3-month or 6-month badges of sobriety smiling, full of genuine support, knowing, though, it’s just a matter of time before they fall off the wagon again — into the gutter, where all truths run in the end.
Simic decided to duck out of re-upping for another year as America’s Poet Laureate in 2008. He noted humorously: “It was just too much. I had at least 50 or 60 interviews and countless number of other things I had to do. I would receive 30 emails every day relating to poetry. It’s enough to make you hate poets and poetry. Enough! You know? I want to do other things.”
He is now a Professor Emeritus in English at the University of New Hampshire, where he is involved in the MFA program. At work and life in a New England setting.Under the table, still playing with toy soldier revolutionaries, being manhandled by beauty. Lucky bastard.
Note: A well-produced short documentary of his life can be found here. Simic reading his “Hide and Seek,” from Come Closer and Listen can be found at Poets.org. “Light Sleeper” and “The Old Orphan” from the collection are also there.