White Dawns, Black Noons, Twilit Days: Charles Simic's Poems before Poetry

Article excerpt

"The problem with true history and great literature is that they wallow in ambiguities, unresolved issues, nuances, and baffling contradictions. Let's not kid ourselves."

Charles Simic, The Unemployed Fortune Teller (Simic, 1994:38-39)

IT IS 1907. A POEM OPENING THE SECOND PART OF RILKE's New Poems, concludes: "Du mu[beta]t dein Leben andern," that is, "You must change your life." And yet it is not Rilke who speaks this line, nor a solitary aesthete marveling beneath an archaic torso of Apollo, nor the torso itself, mysteriously animate. Rather, the imperative arises when the speaker engages a torso which "... gluht noch wie Kandelaber,/in dem sein Schauen, nur zuruckgeschraubt,/sich halt und glanzt," which". . . glows like a candelabra,/in which its gazing, just twisted back, holds fast and shines." Engaged, the speaker is struck, even lit: ". . . denn da ist keine Stelle,/die dich nich sieht. Du mu[Beta]t dein Leben andern," or one could say: ". . . for there is no point,/which does not see you. You must change your life" (Rilke, 1955-66:577, lines 3-5 & 13-14).

It is 1989, practically yesterday compared to the distance which separates us from a day in 1907, a day itself some two thousand and five hundred days away from the onset of World War One. Charles Simic writes, introducing the poetry of Aleksander Ristovic:

At times one comes across a poet who strikes one as being absolutely original. There's something genuinely different about him or her, a something that one has never quite encountered in all the poets one has read before. 'I will never look at the world in quite the same way,' one realizes at once, and that's what happens. From that day on, one feels deeply and fatefully changed by the experience of that reading (Simic, 1990c:113).

Simic's tale resonates with Rilke's and countless others. Struck while engaging a work of art, one proceeds differently. One comports oneself differently. One has changed one's life.

In directing us towards the radically transformative power of the work of art, Rilke and Simic enter a field of belief shared by Heidegger who insists that a work of art can:

... transport us out of the realm of the ordinary. To submit to this displacement means: to transform accustomed relations to world and earth and henceforth bring an end to all familiar activities and assessing, knowing and looking, in order to linger within the truth occurring in the work (Heidegger, 1950:52-3).

A remarkable event, one we cannot do justice to here. For the moment, suffice it to say that occasionally works of art retune us such that accustomed habits of action and belief prove idle, appear inappropriate to the truth which has emerged in the work. And thus we begin to change our lives.

Around the work of art, or more specifically, around the poem, a group of names is gathering: Heidegger, Rilke, Simic. To what end? In the least, I want to explain why Heidegger insists: "Poetry--no game; a relationship with it--not some playful, forgetful, self-improving diversion, but an awakening and pulling together of the most proper essence of the exceptional and solitary through which a human being goes back into the ground of its existence" (Heidegger, 1980:8). [1] I want to explore why Joseph Brodsky seems so right to claim, introducing Aleksander Kushner: "Yet I do consider it my duty to warn you that an encounter with poetry in its pure form is pregnant with far reaching consequences, that this volume is not where it will all end for you" (Kushner, 1991:ix). Again, a work of art, it is proposed, can permeate us such that, perhaps slowly, it redirects our lives. But why should we think this? Why should Heidegger say of Holderlin's work: "This poetry demands a metamorphosis in our manner of thinking and experiencing, one regarding the whole of being" (Heidegger, 1984:205). Perhaps this is what poetry seeks. Perhaps poems offer truths, and thus demand, if only implicitly, that we live accordingly. …