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The Voice at 3:00 A.M.
The Voice at 3:00 A.M.

The Voice at 3:00 A.M.
Charles Simic
Harcourt
177 pp.
ISBN: 0151008426

Available from Powell's Books.

Charles Simic came from Yugoslavia, absolutely obsessed with American jazz. Lester Young and Bessie Smith were the forbidden fruits of his childhood, and he bites into their spirit when he writes. Each poem has the muscle to stay erect, and the passion to fall apart at your feet. His poems are friends of the night; they occupy a space between reality and dream, and capture Simic "playing at two o'clock in the morning in a dive holding a saxophone and playing for a bunch of drunks".

Simic keeps words to the basics, and humor at a prime, making him an easy sell to anyone. When I worked with high school drop-outs at a chicken factory, his were the books that people borrowed. They thought Hart Crane was shit, but they dug Simic. His phrases are worked-over like Crane's or Wallace Stevens's, but they're not stuffy. They invite, as they speak to our bafflement. His lines are a charming, contemplated cluelessness:

We'll have to run for it, I said
And had no idea what I meant.
The coming of the inevitable,
What a strange bliss that is,
And I had no idea what she meant.
To read Simic is to read an original the way that Kafka was, the way that Seuss was, the way that dead people (on recollection) are. If he writes about the Statue of Liberty holding a sword, it owes less to his politics than his recklessness to describe the world as half-closed eyes often see it. Given the structure of his poems, you can tell that the abstractions are apparent to him, but they hit the reader like a staggering drunk:
When you tapped me on the shoulder,
O light, unsayable in your splendor.
A lot of good you did me.
You just made my insomnia last longer.
To understand objects, Simic says, you need to look at them with eyes open, then with eyes closed. His poetry follows these beliefs.

The Voice at 3:00 A.M is grounded in consistency. Simic's fiction follows through on the assertions he makes in his essays and interviews; he connects the dots from his past and future by finding a way for the foundations of his childhood (like the animals of Serbian folklore) to face the issues he has struggled over:

In the hallway, the old mutt
Just now had the honesty
To growl at himself in the mirror,
Before lumbering off to the kitchen
Where the lamb roast sat
In your outstretched hands
Smelling of garlic and rosemary.
Isn't this stanza from "Sunday Papers" incredible? A dog growls at his reflection, then marches to his grub: that's the plot. But in this scene, Simic also mirrors the relationship between Man and God. You get the sinful, unworthy Man going to his Maker, and you get the Man on the Other Side who plays Master, and who feeds us this bullshit about God like God was meat. It's such a serious poem, and yet it reads like a Far Side comic; that's why Simic is special.

"Late Call", another rant against organized religion and God, will makes it obvious that Simic's humor is often used to make his politics more palatable:

A message for you,
Piece of shit:

You double-crossed us.
You were supposed to get yourself
Crucified
For the sake of Truth...
I'm not blown over by the profundity here -- Simic is no Hans Kung, and his anger is mostly non-specific or simple (i.e. anger over evangelists) -- and the end of the poem sure doesn't hold a candle to the beginning... but what a beginning! The third line ("You double-crossed us") is so good, it needed a home, and that's what this poem is -- home to the third line.

More often than not, though, Simic's poems are trimmed of fat. The titular poem, composed of just two lines ("Who put canned laughter / Into my crucifixion scene?"), summarizes his outlook on life, and gives us a good idea as to why his poetry will continue to be read over the years while other poets (like Stanley Kunitz) will likely be forgotten. His humor gives his poetry a stability that allows you to enjoy it when you're angry, amused, or just looking to kill time. He is also so creative with his wordplay ("Birds of a feather, listen / Pay attention to me") that he raises the stakes on what your eyes and ears demand. He gives even the discontented stoner ambition.

-- Theodore Defosse

· · · · · · ·

About the Publisher:

Harcourt publishes about three billion books a year. This Simic anthology is one of their best.

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