Essays

Touching Time: The Poetry and Performance of Charles Simic

by Austen Leah Rose | Contributing Writer

I saw Charles Simic read in an auditorium at Skidmore College on a balmy summer night. It was part of the New York State Summer Writers Institute, a program at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York that hosts nightly readings by some of the most influential literary figures in the country. I knew Simic was a legend, but I didn’t know his work intimately, so I had no expectations when he walked to the front of room.

It was hard to hear him; he spoke quietly and with a thick Slavic accent. He held his book of collected poems like a photo album, fondly flipping through the pages and smiling, comfortable in front of the crowd but also seemingly unaware of us. I remember him saying something to the effect of, “Who knows how any of these poems come about; they just do.”

Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1938, and the events of World War II, in many ways, defined his upbringing. “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he said in an interview for The Cortland Review. Simic was forced to leave his home several times, temporarily living in France and Italy before ultimately immigrating to Chicago. In his book of essays, The Life of Images, Simic sometimes reveals the horrific scenes of violence that he witnessed as a child, images he has carried with him throughout his life. Many of his poems deal with this past, the disorientation of exile, the absurdity of war, and philosophical notions of history, but they are never heavy handed; in fact, quite the opposite: they are hilarious.

For example, one poem Simic read that night at Skidmore College was called “Mummy’s Curse,” and it ends with this line: “Luckily, in that moment, the mummy sped by / On a bicycle carrying someone’s pizza order / And cursing the mist and the potholes.”

There aren’t a lot of poets who are brave enough to write like that, but Simic is adamant about the transcendent power of comedy. In an essay titled “Cut the Comedy,” he writes:

“Comedy says as much about the world as does tragedy. In fact, if you seek true seriousness, you must make room for both comic and tragic vision… the philosophy of laughter reminds us that we live in the midst of contradictions, pulled this way by the head, pulled that way by the heart, and still another way by our sex organs.”

That night at Skidmore, he shared an anecdote about how a particular poem had come about: he was waiting at a restaurant for a friend who was late to dinner, so he took some time to examine the menu. The poem “Cafe Paradiso” goes like this:

My soup thickened with pounded young almonds
My blend of winter greens.
Dearest tagliatelle with mushrooms, fennel, anchovies,
Tomatoes and vermouth sauce.
Beloved monkfish braised with onions, capers
And green olives.
Give me your tongue tasting of white beans and garlic,
Sexy little assortment of formaggi and frutta!
I want to drown with you in red wine like a pear,
Then sleep in a macédoine of wild berries with cream.

In an essay titled “Food and Happiness,” Simic writes that “One could compose an autobiography mentioning every memorable meal in one’s life and it would probably make better reading than what one ordinarily gets. Honestly, what would you rather have, the description of a first kiss or of stuffed cabbage done to perfection?” Indeed, there is so much joy in the poem “Cafe Paradiso.” Not only does he drool over the dishes, which are delicious and decadent, but he also salivates over the words used to describe them. For me, it’s a poem about the relationship between language and food as similarly sensorial experiences.

At the time of the reading, I didn’t know that Simic had written a eulogy in the New York Review of Books for his friend, and my former professor, Mark Strand. Simic said that he and Strand had once decided to start a new poetry movement called Gastronomic Poetry. He wrote:

Both Mark and I had noticed at poetry readings that whenever food was mentioned in a poem—and that didn’t happen very often—blissful smiles would break out on the faces of people in the audience. Thus, we reasoned, in a country where most people hate poetry and everyone is eating and snacking constantly, poems ought to mention food more frequently.

Food and poetry are similar in that they are both felt in the body. That night, a different kind of listening took over me, the listening I do with my body, not my ears, where the hairs on my arm pick up subtle frequencies not represented in language. It’s what I believe Emily Dickinson, one of Simic’s favorite poets, meant when she said that she can only recognize a poem if it “makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me.”

Roland Barthes might say that I was responding to the “geno-song” of Simic’s performance. In his essay “The Grain of the Voice,” he describes two qualities of song: the “pheno-song” and the “geno-song.” The “pheno-song” includes “all the features which belong to the structure of language” whereas the “geno-song” is that aspect of song which “has less to do with communication” and more with “the voluptuousness of its sounds-signifiers.” Barthes is talking about music, but it works for a poetry reading too. I was having a visceral experience of language that transcended the meaning of words. At one point in the reading, I erupted in laughter, as if being tickled, as if I were literally being touched. The sounds of the words, and the images brought into the room, all lined up exactly with some unnamable feeling inside of me.

By the time Simic’s reading was coming to a close, I felt I could see the night with extraordinary clarity, the way I imagine people in earlier ages must have been able to see the stars. Simic closed his book, was about to leave the stage, then hesitated. He said he loved reading to us tonight, but it could never compare with another time he had read, for this exact same series, in this exact same room, many years ago. There had been a thunder storm, he said animatedly, in the middle of the reading, and the power went out in the whole auditorium. Then someone brought out a flashlight and he kept on reading poetry in the dark. With that anecdote, and no further explanation, Simic left the podium.

We in the audience shifted in our seats, then began to applaud. We had been left not with our own experience, but with the ghostly presence of a prior experience, a seemingly more exciting, and perhaps more moving, experience, one that we never had and of course never would have. We were left with a sense of longing for the past, nostalgia for a time we never knew.

And yet we could see it perfectly: the dark theater, the summer storm, the thrill, the possibility of danger, the childlike delight of surprise, the communal sense that the show must go on. Simic’s reading, like his poetry on the page, granted us access to an earlier time which had disappeared.

But why exactly was it so moving? To answer that question, I think it’s helpful to look at Simic’s reading that night through the lens of performance theory. Peggy Phelan, a founder of performance studies, famously said that “performance’s only life is in the present” and “the disappearance of the object is fundamental to performance.” Indeed, I think Simic’s anecdote felt profound because I recognized it as a time that had slipped away, a moment I would never possess.

In that sense, Simic’s performance reflected his poetry, which so often deals with history as a series of lost and irretrievable events. In one of my favorite poems, “Paradise Motel,” Simic writes that “History licked the corners of its bloody mouth.” History consumes. It takes away and does not give back. Simic’s reading that night was a portal into the sadness of the past, sad precisely because it could never happen again, not in exactly the same way, sad because it had been consumed by history.

Another performance theorist, Richard Schechner, has defined performance as “never for the first time,” calling it “restored behavior” or “twice-behaved behavior.” If we think of performance according to these terms, then Simic’s sign-off that night was a meditation on the notion of performance itself. Simic’s performance seemed to say, every poetry reading has already happened, is happening, and will happen. It is a transmission of voices from the past into the present, a tunnel which allows that movement to flow smoothly and seamlessly if only for a brief period of time. Yes, this was the first time I’d seen Simic read, but at the same time, it was not.

After the reading, my husband encouraged me to go up to Charles Simic and have my book signed, so I did. He sat down while he was signing, and I kneeled beside him. I was Mark Strand’s student, I told him. He turned to me and said emphatically, Mark was my best friend. He used to call me all the time just to tell me about a good meal he’d had or an excellent bottle of wine. I miss him every day.

It was as if Mark Strand’s name had some kind of performative power, as if it were a password that when spoken aloud opened up a secret box locked inside of his friend.

The room shimmered a little, then became transparent. I remembered for a moment the time Mark and I had lunch together at a diner in Chelsea near his house. He ordered soup and offered me his salad. I didn’t know he was very sick at the time and probably had difficulty eating. He would die only a few years later. Eat your vegetables, he said, pushing his salad to my side of the table in a tender gesture. He asked me what my parents did and who I read and told me I must continue to write. At one point, I remember him saying that, when he was younger, he used to drink an entire bottle of wine by himself. And I knew what he meant, or what he was trying to tell me, that there had been times when he had been very lonely, and there would be times when I would be lonely, too.

All of that was in the room when Simic spoke to me. He handed back my book and I followed the crowd to the reception area where people were drinking and talking and schmoozing. Someone wanted to introduce me to the publisher of a well-known poetry press, then quickly got embarrassed when I couldn’t speak. There was a lot of witty banter ricocheting around the room and I felt myself falling away from the scene, like Alice down the rabbit hole. I walked outside into the dark night and cried.

There should be a particular word for the relationship between an older writer and a younger one. Teacher, mentor, friend — they all feel wrong. In her book “Performing Remains,” which focuses on Civil War reenactments, performance scholar Rebecca Schneider writes that performance can challenge traditional assumptions of linear “forward-marching time” and can instead give us the sensation of “touching time against itself.” This certainly describes the appeal of certain historical re-enactments, but I wonder if it also describes the relationship between a young poet and poet-teacher: an embodiment of time touching time.

Joseph Roach says that performance means “to bring forth, to make manifest, and to transmit.” I think I cried that night because felt I had been on the receiving end of that transmission, like a TV antenna picking up signals beaming out from Simic. I was hearing, through his voice, a poetic genealogy. Yes, Simic’s reading was haunted by the previous reading he had performed in that same space, but it was also haunted by all the poets who had influenced him, by the dark comedy of Eastern Europe, the surrealism of France, the lush lyricism of Latin American. I had “tuned into” Simic’s reading at that particular moment, but mine was just one point on an endless continuum of what Barthes has referred to as “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture.” Perhaps the reading had felt so important to me because I sensed a kinship with the particular ghosts being summoned into the room, a familial sense of belonging.

But it wasn’t only Simic’s voice or his presence which made me feel as though I were “touching time” or as if I were the recipient of a fragile poetic heirloom. On the page, Simic’s poetry is also deeply invested in cross-temporality, exploring the liminal space where, as Schneider writes, “the halfway dead” come to meet “the halfway living.” In much of Simic’s work, the past is omnipresent or as Schneider writes, both the past and present “partially and porously persist.” In one poem, “Evening Walk,” Simic writes, “Everything quiet. Light / Of some other evening strolling ahead, / Long-ago evening of silk dresses, / Bare feet, hair unpinned and falling.” Here, Simic’s depiction of the past is perhaps even more alive than his depiction of the present — women in silk dresses, bare feet, falling hair. It’s as if the poet feels most comfortable in a world outside of time.

In Mark Strand’s poetry, too, the past haunts the present. The “Gastronomic Poetry” movement alluded to by Simic was, of course, a joke between friends, but perhaps one of the reasons that both Strand and Simic write about food so frequently is because of the way it can serve as a vehicle for memory. One example of this is Strand’s poem “Pot Roast,” which begins:

I gaze upon the roast,
that is sliced and laid out
on my plate,
and over it
I spoon the juices
of carrot and onion.
And for once I do not regret
the passage of time. 

Here, a slow-cooked pot roast represents the passage of time. Later in the poem, as the poet eats the roast, he’s reminded of the first time he tasted one: in Nova Scotia, made by his mother. Food becomes the talisman, the tactile experience, that allows him to re-enter the past. Schneider writes about “the attempt to literally touch time through the residue of the gesture.” For Strand, this “gesture” is the act of sitting down for a meal. At the end of the poem, Strand calls the pot roast “the meat of memory. / The meat of no change.”

In 1976, Simic and Strand collaborated on an anthology of European and Latin American poetry called Another Republic. The anthology includes work by Polish, Mexican, Italian, German, Israeli, Chilean, and Portuguese poets, along with many others. In their co-written introduction, Simic and Strand say that this selection of poetry “influenced not only the work of the editors but that of an entire generation of American poets.”

The anthologized poets are, in a sense, Simic and Strand’s teachers. They are inhabitants of a borderless country populated by those who share their poetic sensibility. Strand and Simic write that these poets are characterized by a mythological or historical impulse that is not “indigenous to any country or literary movement.” This impulse, or aesthetic, represented by the poets in the anthology, laid the foundations for Simic and Strand, but the two poets also created the anthology. To put it another way, poets do not rise from the ashes of their predecessors but rather find their predecessors after emerging as poets, establishing a history that feels simultaneously constructed and preordained. In this way, a poetic genealogy not only crosses borders, but also crosses temporal registers. At the end of the introduction to Another Republic, Simic and Strand, referring to themselves, note that “the editors chose not to arrange the poets and their poems chronologically…Instead they chose an arrangement that reflects their taste and aesthetic judgment.”

The idea of the past as both constructed and inherited is explored in one of Strand’s long poems titled “The Story of Our Lives.” Here, Strand is interested in the way we simultaneously write our life story and follow a life story that has already been written for us. Strand writes, “We are reading the story of our lives / as though we were in it, / as though we had written it. / This comes up again and again. / In one of the chapters / I lean back and push the book aside / Because the books says / it is what I am doing.” Which comes first, the script or the performance? In this poem, the two seem to be tangled up in each other.

Invention and inheritance, free will and fate, the past and the future — these divisions dissolve in Mark Strand’s poetry. As Schneider points out, “the sense that the past is a future direction in which one can travel,” or that “events can lie both before us and behind us,” is familiar to us because it is the basis of psychoanalytic trauma theory. Indeed, in a therapy session we sit down to discover what has already happened, to retrieve repressed memories, to find out what we already know. Writing is no different. In order to access my own childhood memories, which are often the kernels of poems, I must invent the details first. What were the precise colors of the sunset on a particular night when my parents argued on the back porch? I might ask myself. I imagine in order to remember.

Simic grew up during World War II, a war which is haunted by the anxiety that it might someday be forgotten. Perhaps for this reason, memory as a concept is important in Simic’s work, as it is for other Eastern European poets, like Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz. For Simic, however, memory is accessed through imagination. In his Pulitzer prize-winning book of prose poems The World Does Not End, Simic writes an origin story, presumably his own, but you might not recognize it as such, since it takes place in a distorted and surreal landscape. Simic writes:

My mother was a braid of black smoke. She bore me swaddled over the burning cities. The sky was a vast and windy place for a child to play. We met many others who were just like us. They were trying to put on their overcoats with arms made of smoke. The high heavens were full of little shrunken deaf ears instead of stars.

Here, the feelings of desolation and disorientation associated with war and exile are summoned by means of the mythic imagination. The “braid of black smoke” evokes transience. The “burning cities” conjure images of wartime bombings, but the sky as a “vast and windy place for a child to play” has the vagueness of a fable. The people with overcoats “made of smoke” are nightmarish, as are the heavens filled with “shrunken deaf ears.” As readers we feel situated in a historical moment, but we also sense a universality that’s emotionally powerful.

Simic didn’t read this poem that night at Skidmore College. In fact, I barely remember the poems he did read. What I do remember is that I was rendered speechless. But why? Had I been banished from the present in the same way that the past had been invited in? I felt Mark Strand’s presence in the room, so had I become the ghost in exchange? And why did I step outside to cry in the dark while everyone else was drinking wine and enjoying one another’s company? Was it some kind of Faustian punishment for being allowed to, momentarily, “touch time?”

I felt that in order to answer these questions I needed to go back. I wanted to speak to Simic again and hear his voice. I wanted to ask him about his poetic origins, how his own teachers helped him develop a poetic identity. I wanted to ask him more about his friendship with Mark Strand. I wanted to ask him what he felt while reading that night at Skidmore College. I wanted his voice to become so deeply embedded in my poetic DNA that it would be impossible to forget, the way Mark Strand’s voice is for me.

I decided to write him an email asking if I could interview him. I obtained an email address, although I wasn’t certain it was the right one. I was interested to see that the address included the year of his birth, 1938, but not his name. It felt ghostly, somehow, as if I were emailing a point in time rather than a person, as if history itself would be the recipient of this message.

In the email, I asked if he would be willing to be interviewed for fifteen minutes for an essay on theories of performance and poetic inheritance. My husband and I were driving down Interstate 5 coming home from a friend’s wedding in Northern California when I received a bounce-back message with big black letters that read, “Address not found.”

I stared at my inbox for a while. As the California scenery sped by my window, a blur of blue sky and gold hills, I felt alone, but not necessarily lonely. I was left with my memory of Simic, my memory of Strand, and my own imaginative ability to construct a poetic past by doing what Strand had advised me to do back when I sat down to share a meal with him at a diner in Chelsea: that is, by writing and continuing to write.

Austen Leah Rose

Cover image: Charles Simic. Drawing by Zoran Tucić, from the book of interviews, Razgovori (Conversations, 1999) by Dejan Stojanović (used courtesy of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).