Saturday, April 9, 2011

Poetry Review: "Carrying on Like a Crow," Charles Simic

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This gathering of powerfully desolate imagery overtly challenges the reader to recognize the limits of words and interpretation.

“Carrying on Like a Crow,” by Charles Simic, is featured in The Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler & David Lehman. It originally appeared in the 20 November 2008 issue of the London Review of Books and is included in Simic’s own collection, Master of Disguises.

Charles Simic once described poetry as an “orphan of silence.” In a way, that’s a good description of the tropes that make up his 2008 poem “Carrying on Like a Crow.” The images are ones of desolation, abandonment, and ill portent. They include dead leaves floating on a pond, a swing set with no children to play on it, and dark clouds hanging overhead. Most of the imagery is very still, and even when there is movement, such as in the reference to laundry flapping in the wind, it speaks of something that has ostensibly been forsaken or otherwise left to itself. The exception might seem to be the dark clouds, and even those are a trope for a place where no one would want to be. The imagery’s only eloquence is of a despairing solitude.

But this characterization is only adequate at best. It is a description that speaks of its inadequacy. That acknowledgement illustrates Simic’s more suggestive definition of his “orphan of silence” trope, which is that the “words never quite equal the experience behind them.” Truth be told, the juxtaposition of the various images creates a meaning that can only be approximated by efforts to summarize it. And Simic explicitly defies the reader to recognize that his tropes are too replete with meaning to be properly and fully unpacked. Every one is introduced with challenges such as “Are you authorized to speak,” “Are you able to explain…,” and “What do you know about…” The poem’s final sentence begins with “Ask yourself, if words are enough…”

Simic closes by likening the act of interpretation to “Flapping your wings from tree to tree/And carrying on like a crow…” (He actually implies that emulating this obnoxious bird would be preferable.) I suppose the analogy is apt. A critic does noisily scavenge a work of art for both sustenance and to create his or her own meanings. But I’m not offended. Simic effectively admits he does the same with the world around him and the writers who preceded him. The writer is always trying to describe an unsullied ideal. He or she will invariably travesty it, but perhaps they will create a new ideal in the eyes of others. A crow becomes an eagle when it steps away from the mirror.

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