Friday’s poem 4/10/09

I didn’t think I would have the time, but I had the chance to write up the commentary for this and post it this morning.

Charles Simic – “The Initiate”

St. John of the Cross wore dark glasses
As he passed me on the street.
St. Theresa of Avila, beautiful and grave,
Turned her back on me.

“Soulmate,” they hissed. “It’s high time.”

I was a blind child, a wind-up toy . . .
I was one of death’s juggling red balls
On a certain street corner
Where they peddle things out of suitcases.

The city like a huge cinema
With lights dimmed.
The performance already started.

So many blurred faces in a complicated plot.

The great secret which kept eluding me: knowing who I am . . .

The Redeemer and the Virgin,
Their eyes wide open in the empty church
Where the killer came to hide himself . . .

The new snow on the sidewalk bore footprints
That could have been made by bare feet.
Some unknown penitent guiding me.
In truth, I didn’t know where I was going.
My feet were frozen,
My stomach growled.

Four young hoods blocking my way.
Three deadpan, one smiling crazily.

I let them have my black raincoat.

Thinking constantly of the Divine Love
and the Absolute had disfigured me.
People mistook me for someone else.
I heard voices after me calling out unknown names.
“I’m searching for someone to sell my soul to,”
The drunk who followed me whispered,
While appraising me from head to foot.

At the address I had been given.
The building had large X’s over its windows.
I knocked but no one came to open.
By and by a black girl joined me on the steps.
She banged at the door till her fist hurt.

Her name was Alma, a propitious sign.
She knew someone who solved life’s riddles
In a voice of an ancient Sumerian queen.
We had a long talk about that
While shivering and stamping our wet feet.

It was necessary to stay calm, I explained,
Even with the earth trembling,
And to continue to watch oneself
As if one were a complete stranger.

Once in Chicago, for instance,
I caught sight of a man in a shaving mirror
Who had my naked shoulders and face,
But whose eyes terrified me!
Two hard staring, all-knowing eyes!

After we parted, the night, the cold, and the endless walking
Brought on a kind of ecstasy.
I went as if pursued, trying to warm myself.

There was the East River; there was the Hudson.
Their waters shone like oil in sanctuary lamps.

Something supreme was occurring
For which there will never be any words.

The sky was full of racing clouds and tall buildings,
Whirling and whirling silently.

In that whole city you could hear a pin drop.
Believe me.
I thought I heard a pin drop and I went looking for it.

From The Book of Gods and Devils, published by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Charles Simic.

Commentary
This has to be one of Simic’s strongest poems. I am in awe of the way he can weave together the holy and the worldly, the beauty and the anguish of life. There is a certain delicacy in his language and imagery that belies the urban and gritty narrative. I find his voice to be a very strong presence, too; despite the fact that most of modern poetry is written in first person, I don’t get a good sense of the “I” in a lot of poems. With Simic, he’s there, definitely. Or at least, the speaker is.

For today, Good Friday, tomorrow, Black Saturday, and then Easter Sunday, the poems will all have some Christian connection.

Here, the complexity is almost staggering. We have St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, a killer, a black woman (whose name is “propitious”), 4 thieves, a homeless prophet….

I think Simic is going for a sort of “voice-over” effect – I would have said he sounds like the narrator for a play, except that he explicitly talks about the city and his experiences as if they were a movie being played out. And the events and characters do have a certain Hollywood-esque feel to them. (I have no idea what I mean by that – but there it is.)

Yet, there is something dead serious going on here, too. For me, Simic manages to blend the melancholy and profound with the facetious. The speaker describes himself: “I was a blind child, a wind-up toy . . . /
I was one of death’s juggling red balls.” He is but a slave of the physical and of death. The characters are challenging the speaker to join in the drama – to be an “initiate” to overcome this. But what is the solution?

“The great secret which kept eluding me: knowing who I am . . .”

Maybe it’s just my fascination with Gnosticism, but this sounds rather Gnostic; they sought the divine within, did not have a dogmatic Christian belief system, but did strive to know where they came from, who they were and where they were, and where they were going. This was the only way, for them, to achieve union with the transcendent Godhead.

He comes into the church to find the Redeemer and Virgin – of course, this is a common sight in any Catholic Church, but it is also common for Gnostics to stress the importance of the male and female divine, the Christ and the Sophia, Logos and Wisdom. I think it is important that he does not say “Jesus and Mary.” And then he says it is the place where the killer came to hide himself. I didn’t notice this on the first few readings, but is he talking about himself? We have in the next lines:

“The new snow on the sidewalk bore footprints / That could have been made by bare feet.” So simple, matter-of-fact. The speaker seems to be without emotion. Like a killer? And then: “My feet were frozen, / My stomach growled.” Are his feet frozen because he was walking barefoot in the snow? Or is he only identifying with the killer? He is emphasizing the primacy of physical sensation.

He encounters some hoods, one “smiling crazily” (love that phrase). Yet he doesn’t put up a fight and gives up his raincoat – maybe because he’s outnumbered, maybe because something changed him, for there he seems to shift consciousness.

Now he is “disfigured” by thinking of the Divine and Absolute (the abstract or transcendent). He is starting the painful process of realizing the ephemeral and illusory nature of the physical world. It disorients him, makes him lose his sense of self, while others notice something strange about him. The drunk who follows him implies he’d like to sell his soul to the speaker – something that one would do to the Devil, not God.

He has descended to a state of suffering – he is undergoing a traumatic initiation. He was told to go to a certain place, but finds it unwelcoming and seemingly abandoned. Alma becomes his companion; as if her name weren’t telling enough, he makes sure we know it is important. So perhaps she represents alms – charity – and, perhaps in the St. Paul meaning of charity, unconditional love.

I love these lines: “She knew someone who solved life’s riddles / In a voice of an ancient Sumerian queen. / We had a long talk about that / While shivering and stamping our wet feet.” I love that he can go from talking about life’s riddles and Sumerian queens to the concrete and mundane detail of the melting snow and cold.

He reveals that he once saw a man in a mirror who looked like himself but was terrifying. Whether he means he saw someone else’s reflection while he looked in a mirror, or his own, I think he’s getting at the same thing: there were little moments before all this in which he had a brief awareness of the ignorance and horror of his own life. I suspect we all have moments like this; I know I do. Time seems to stop, the world seems to fall away, and I just ask myself, “What the hell am I doing?”

When he leaves her, he feels pursued (just as he felt some invisible penitent earlier). Experience becomes ecstatic; the water of the Hudson River “shone like oil in sanctuary lamps” (beautiful image here). Language no longer applies. Reality itself seems to crumble, “Whirling and whirling silently” (I’m reminded of Yeats’ gyres in “The Second Coming”).

In those last lines, he sounds, to me, like he’s taking on that facetious tone again: “In that whole city you could hear a pin drop. / Believe me. / I thought I heard a pin drop and I went looking for it.” He’s taking a cliche and using it to his own ends. He could be describing the city during the late late hours of a winter night, in which even a busy place like New York City might be silent. But he could also be referring to how the world has seemed to disappear for him, with all but that one pin left, and an imaginary pin at that.

He has been initiated; and with him, so has the reader. There are so many twists and turns, that while I feel disoriented by the poem at times, I’m also moved by the stark, simple, yet powerful images. It’s like a modern day Galilee, filled with the poor and downtrodden, yet swelling with prophets and eccentric characters.

To me, this poem represents the best of Simic’s techniques, of his ability to blend the narrative with the mythic, the concrete with the abstract, the facetious with the profound. Nothing extraordinary, in terms of physical action, happens here (except perhaps the confrontation with the hoods, which only lasts 3 lines). It’s more the journey of images and ideas that makes this work so effectively.

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One Response to Friday’s poem 4/10/09

  1. Angele Ellis says:

    A strong poem, I agree, rife with images of wild urban beauty and ugliness, salvation and damnation, revelation and mystery.

    Let’s start with its title, “The Initiate.” Is the speaker being initiated into the order of the religious or the disorder of the damned? Even the saints are sinister:

    “St. John of the Cross wore dark glasses
    As he passed me on the street.
    St. Theresa of Avila, beautiful and grave,
    Turned her back on me.

    ‘Soulmate,’ they hissed. ‘It’s high time.'”

    St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila were soulmates, 16th-century Spanish mystics and writers. St. Theresa enlisted St. John to help her found the reformist Discalced–or barefoot–Carmelites. (“The new snow on the sidewalk bore footprints/that could have been made by bare feet”)?

    St. John–who was imprisoned and tortured because of his attempts to reform a corrupt religious order–coined the phrase “the dark night of soul” in his poem of the same name. Thus the symbolism of the dark glasses that he wears in Simic’s poem?

    Simic’s city is cinematic and theatrical (as you pointed out), as well as like a street fair, with the cheap thrills and fateful menace of a traditional Lenten Carnival:

    “I was a blind child, a wind-up toy…
    I was one of death’s juggling red balls
    On a certain street corner
    Where they peddle things out of suitcases.”

    Killer sought sanctuary in churches–think of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”–long before there were movies, but this image is a cinematic trope. I recently saw (courtesy of my parents’ American Movie Classics channel) “The Roaring Twenties,” in which the fatally flawed and fatally wounded gangster played by James Cagney staggers up the snow-covered steps of a church–although his “penitent” footprints are not bare.

    “The great secret which kept eluding me: knowing who I am…” Do the Redeemer and the Virgin, “eyes wide open” to evil as well as to good, know the secret? However, “Thinking constantly of the Divine Love/and the Absolute has disfigured me.” Has Simic’s tormented wanderer acquired the Stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Christ? Or has his search rendered him demonic, which is why the drunk looking to sell his soul “apprais[es] me from head to foot”? Even after–as in Christ’s command–the speaker has given up his cloak (in its contemporary guise of “my black raincoat”) to the four hoods, “one smiling crazily” like the unrepentant thief of the Crucifixion?

    “The building had large X’s over its windows.” A sign of negation, destruction, abandonment, mystery–an unknown quantity in an equation–as well as the shape of the cross used to crucify St. Andrew (who as legend has it, claimed that he was not worthy of being martyred on a cross of the same shape as Christ’s). Also called “saltire,” it became in the Middle Ages a symbol of Christian imperial power.

    “Alma” is Spanish for soul (“‘Soulmate…it’s… time…'”) as well as implying a personification of charity, as you pointed out. But why does she speak in the voice of “an ancient Sumerian queen”? Does she represent the ancient Sumerian queen of Heaven and Earth–Ishtar to the Babylonians–calling the speaker back to pre-Christian rituals of harvest and sacrifice? Intensifying, perhaps, the “ecstasy” that he feels after parting from her, his sense that “Something supreme was occuring/For which there will never be any words”?

    I don’t see the last stanza as facetious, or not completely. Remember that the speaker’s cacaphonous city has been transformed into a quiet, mystical place where river waters “sh[i]ne like oil in sanctuary lamps” and “The sky [is] full of racing clouds and tall buildings/Whirling and whirling silently,” like Sufi dervishes.

    The cliche “you could hear a pin drop” evokes a number of images to me: the super-keen acoustics of a place of worship (such as the Mormon Tabernacle, which indeed magnifies this insignificant sound); the age-old theological riddle, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”; the pin as the proverbial needle in a haystack–almost impossible to find–or as the needle analogus to the difficulty of a rich man’s entrance into heaven.

    “I thought I heard a pin drop and I went looking for it”–a fool’s errand, a saint’s task, or both?

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