The Lunatic, poems by Charles Simic, reviewed by Sarah Katz


I’d be hard-pressed to tell you that our former US Poet Laureate’s The Lunatic—so apt a title for a new collection from him that it’s almost criminal—differs thematically from his many other books. As in his other collections, the poems of The Lunatic collectively tightrope between divergent brands of madness, challenging us readers to contemplate the inherent value of the “lunatic’s” perspective.

That said, The Lunatic functions as a distinct and unified collection, and it moves through meditations on consciousness as it applies to the peculiar character of Time—beginning with an inquisitive but somehow wry sadness, and then ending with Bly-like romanticism. It’s a collection wherein sound plays a bigger part in both the book’s individual poems and its cohesion.

The Lunatic begins with a skillfully placed two-quatrain poem, “Today’s Menu,” which features only “an empty bowl and a spoon / For you to slurp / Great mouthfuls of nothing.” It’s a poem that suggests the noise of clinking spoons, and yet it’s replete with silences—it’s just one sentence enjambed into mainly four- to five-syllable lines—thus reading as a quite serious missive to the reader. But by the time you get to the end, Simic’s black humor rears its head by commanding us to act:

And make it sound like
A thick, dark soup you’re eating,
Steaming hot
Out of the empty bowl.

By the time we get to the end of the poem, it’s as if Simic’s asking us to break the punctuated silence with some maniacal laughter or some other such thing—however we can move against or around the silence in which we’ve been reading. Oh … well, I suppose I will try, one thinks.

Speaking from the broader perspective of the book’s journey, however, the poem also suggests that the rest of the book could very well be meaningless—noisy, but conveying nothing overall. It could very well starve our brains of the necessary meaning-sustenance and thus be evolutionarily untenable. But, hey, Charlie says, aren’t we always brain-starved?

Another similar but more subtle gravitas pervades the title poem (also in the first section), which depicts a snowflake that “Kept falling out of the gray sky / All afternoon, / Falling and falling / And picking itself up / Off the ground, / To fall again.” Once again, Simic counts on the reader to question what she knows. By anthropomorphizing the snowflake, he’s saying, “Let’s set aside the laws of physics and ask the snowflake what he’s doing.” Indeed, what does it mean if snowflakes have an agency in the matter—that is, as to whether they’d like to be on the ground or not? And if snowflakes do have an agency in the matter, who’s the mad one: the snowflake or the observer? Are we creating these rules about existence to keep our lunacy at bay?

Simic’s prophetic-like silence appears in other poems, too, the more impressive ones of which include “Late-Night Inquiry” in the first section; “Sinbad the Sailor,” “The Missing Hours,” and “In my Grandmother’s Time” in the second section; “The Medium,” in the third section; and “The Horse,” “With One Glance,” and “A Quiet Afternoon” in the fourth (and final) section.

Simic’s occasional stringency in his cleaving to rhyme and assonance also sets this collection apart from any other that I can think of, and it reinforces the silences. The sibilance of “The Medium,” for example, befits the poem’s subject matter and intimate tone:

This round table belonged to a woman
Who used to summon ghostly visitors
And transmit their cryptic messages
To her guests holding hands in a circle,

Their faces dimly lit by a candle

[italics mine]

This poem commands that it to be whispered rather than yelled, and as a narrative whose sentences carry over across many lines, it has the aura of a confession. It’s more intimate than some of the other poems, and, if I’m being honest, it’s a welcome reprieve from some of Simic’s hard-rhyming and rhythmic pieces in the book, such as this stanza from “About Myself”:

I’m the uncrowned king of the insomniacs
Who still fights his ghosts with a sword,
A student of ceilings and closed doors,
Making bets two plus two is not always four.

The self-conscious noisiness’s a little rough here and there, but Simic’s still my silly and brilliant “uncle” no matter what. Although I can’t say that this collection conveyed the depth of the Pulitzer prize-winning The World Doesn’t End, The Lunatic’s still one that juggles its images and themes in a winningly unified manner. And anyway—any poet committed to “annoying God and making Death laugh” has my support.

The Lunatic, by Charles Simic. New York, New York: Ecco, August 2015. 96 pages. $22.99, hardcover.

Sarah Katz writes poetry, book reviews, and short fiction. She studies poetry in the MFA program at American University in Washington, DC, reads poetry for Folio, and works as Publications Assistant for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), where she reads and edits essay submissions to The Writers Chronicle. Her work has been published in Ploughshares, jmww, Deaf Lit Extravaganza, and others. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia, with her husband, Jonathan.

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