The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic reminds me of Anne Carson’s 45 Short Talks. Simic makes reference to a mother, a grandmother and other people he may know. When he refers to family members I have the feeling that these people could be related to me, as if the grandmother is a universal grandmother. I’m interested in the names Simic uses, like Emily. Subject matter is family, but also myth and history. He draws on Hermes and Napoleon.
The pieces are small and precise. I found the entry point to the writing narrow. Once inside the writing opens out onto a vast space. Simic twists fragments of memory in a surreal way. By tweaking reality slightly, he creates a dreamlike effect.
The World Doesn’t End begins with the narrator’s birth. It is otherworldly. In terms of a first sentence to begin a story, let alone a collection, ‘My mother was a braid of black smoke’ is outstanding A short sentence written using the past tense. It is curious writing and yet the voice is believable.
‘The high heavens were full of little shrunken ears instead of stars.’ Simic’s sentence is short, past tense and contains an intense image. ‘High heavens contrasts with ‘little shrunken’. There is an absence of sound in this place. Is this why the ears are shrunken? Simic encourages me to observe and process the world and its possibilities in new and different ways. I notice the majority of Simic’s first sentences are short and snappy. He uses past and present tense: ‘She’s pressing me gently with a hot steam iron, or ‘she slips her hand inside me as if I were a sock that needs mending.’ Simic experiments with scale. Objects take on an enormity and the ‘me’ is small in comparison.Scale: ‘A hen larger than the barn pecking the other chickens as if they were kernels of white corn.’
Inversion: Simic tips things up.
Simic’s descriptions are beyond brilliant. There is frugality in the language he chooses to use and still the images are vivid. ‘The broad brimmed hat he was wearing had bullet holes.’ This image makes me think of Cornelia Parker’s sculptures. Why are Simic’s descriptions successful? I wonder if he takes memories and distils them. Perhaps he removes the unnecessary emotion to leave space for the reader to insert themself. The language is simple and accessible. He touches on ideas and images lightly until they’re almost ready to bloom. Once the process is underway, he moves on to allow the reader to take over.
‘The flies in the Arctic Circle all come from my sleepless nights.’ How does Simic arrive at this line? A poem about flies, but is it about flies? Simic surprises me by drawing a comparison between the droning fly and the postage stamp that moves a letter from place to place.
‘Everything’s foreseeable. Everything has already been foreseen.’ Simic’s writing has a philosophical depth that feels natural. He entertains the possibility of a pre-ordained destiny. He brings in his grandmother, who doesn’t believe, and finishes with ‘burn her as a witch’.
Simic writes with humour and a playfulness that I admire. I want this for my work. Dialogue like, ‘“Tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul,” writes Nietzsche. I always felt that, too, Friedrich!’ I imagine ‘tropical luxuriance’ led to Amazon jungle and birds. Why do the lizards wear ecclesiastical robes and speak French in the Amazon? Maybe French colonialism.
Simic concludes The World Doesn’t End with an ending that is and isn’t an ending. It is a death. The leaving open of the window reminds me of my grandmother’s instructions to my mother, that when she died my mother was to open the window, as if life continues in another way and that there will be more stories to tell.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catherine Russ is a writer and artist who lives in Nelson. She completed the MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2018.