Scribbled in the Dark by Charles Simic
Ecco/HarperCollins, 2017; 96 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
Does the Infinite “see us,” asks Charles Simic in his latest collection poems Scribbled in the Dark, “as a couple of fireflies / playing hide-and-seek in a graveyard?” (57). As this image demonstrates, Simic is a master of short, enigmatic poems (all but one of the 60 fit a page). They all juxtapose the everyday with the unexpected to reveal not only a bitter-sweet but an absurd-tragic worldview.
His is the kind of poetic temperament that sees a trail of footprints in the snow and imagines someone lost. Instead of merely entertaining the pathos of such a situation, Simic doubles down on the existential quality. In “In the Snow,” Simic has his fictive wanderer “Meandering blindly…Bereft and baffled” so that by the end this person has “no way out” and is “jinxed at every turn, / A mystery to himself.” Perhaps he is only talking about himself and his “dark thoughts,” which come to him as an “Uninvited Guest” (8), but as small as they are Simic’s poems feel expansive, inclusive, and philosophical.
When a poet compares the sound of peeling tires to a “piglet / Lifted in the air by a butcher”—not just a pig but a piglet—is there more to this than the macabre? Though we all end up there, for Simic, the world is not all cemetery. His use of contrast often jolts with surprise, with humor, and even his tragic insights have a wry wink to them. He can also write delightfully straight surrealism, like “The Lover” which starts: “When I lived on a farm I wrote love letters / To chickens pecking in the yard” (46). The fireflies do play hide-and-seek.
In this book, he seems to lay out his poetic mission in “Birds Know,” which starts off with a man talking about a pond “Far back in these woods, / Birds and deer know about.” It remains secret, except for the wildlife, and maybe some nameless child “Who went missing years ago.” he may have even drowned in that pond. With the final stanza, the whole poem turns into allegory, into parable, into ars poetica. “I better go find out, / This very night” Simic says to himself. The mystery of life may be secret and it may be dangerous. Even if his “mind [is] running wild,” the poet is urgent to seek it out. He does not want some second-hand report. Besides, “the moon out there [is] so bright.”