Thursday, January 15, 2009

Poetry Review: "Listen," Charles Simic

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Charles Simic's 2007 poem "Listen" is bewildering at first. One doesn't know what to make of the key simile, which at first glance seems both eccentric and undeveloped. It reads:

We are like a couple
working the night shift
in a bomb factory.

One doesn't see the relevance to the rest of the poem. The succeeding stanzas describe a couple going up to a rooftop late at night to view the city from above. They can hear a fire truck in the distance, its sirens blaring, but they cannot see or hear the fire or its victims. Simic's notion of the couple seems odd as well. One infers that they are a man and a woman from the rooftop passage, but the poem's opening line identifies them with the paradox "make-believe and real."

Upon reflection, though, one realizes that the couple is a metaphor that builds upon the simile of the bomb factory. The experience of working in the factory is analogous to the couple's experience on the rooftop. The poem then begins to make sense. Simic is likening working in the bomb factory to being aware of a fire without seeing it or its consequences. An employee in a bomb factory knows, at least in theory, what bombs are used for, and that people in the midst of a war are grievously injured or even killed by them. But the awareness of a conflict and its attendant casualties is entirely abstract. It has nothing to do with the direct experience of making the bombs.

In short, consciousness is divided between abstract awareness and the knowledge of direct experience--the "make-believe and real." One's sense of this dichotomy is heightened by tonal contrasts in the poem . The opening sentence has the air of a romantic pronouncement, and the feeling of romance--a state of mind shared between two people that excludes the surrounding world--is further emphasized by the nighttime visit to the rooftop to look out upon the city. In a place like Manhattan, if one is high up enough, the feelings the view gives are ones of awe and delight; the spectacle overwhelms one's consideration of the human dramas the city provides a stage for. And those dramas can demand one's engagement; it's hard to imagine anything that could demand one's attention more than Simic's image of a child in burning bedclothes. There's nothing more difficult for most than idly standing back in response to such a thing. However, unless one is right there, the situation becomes less real, and one can be so far removed that one's only awareness of it comes from the metonymy of a fire truck's sirens. It's a trope that, for Simic's rooftop couple, lacks a tenor. And a trope without a tenor means nothing.

Simic highlights, but he does not judge. One might think there would be a question of complicity on the part of the factory worker with a bomb's devastation, but Simic doesn't develop it. The worker seems as innocent of the bomb's destruction as the rooftop couple is of the suffering of the fire's victims. The poem appears to ask that one simply be aware that there is a larger world beyond one's immediate concerns. One needs to recognize that life is a marriage between what happens in our mind and what goes on outside it. What people do with that knowledge is up to them.

"Listen," by Charles Simic, was originally published in the May 14, 2007 issue of The New Yorker. It is included in The Best American Poetry 2008 anthology, and in Simic's book collection That Little Something. Click here for the poem's text.

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