BOOKS: THE SUNDAY POEM

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 27 Charles Simic
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The Independent Culture
As the world holds its breath about Yugoslavia, here is the American- Yugoslav master. Simic, a Pulitzer prizewinner, is an American citizen who came to the US from war-torn Yugoslavia aged eight. He writes in English; his spare, unpretentious words elide downtown America with an anonymous East European city whose rules are unknowable. "Kafka in Manhattan", he has been called. The sinister, surreal details have a silent-screen realism in the midst of bareness - engendering a wide-angle, unspelt-out compassion. His poems are tiny fables of strangeness, often set in an urban landscape where meaning somehow hangs behind, out of sight, just round the corner. Many American collections, two British amalgamations: a key figure in Emergency Kit, Faber's recent anthology of contemporary poetry.

If the title were "War," "Shadows" or "Death Going By," the poem would still be about the same thing: our vulnerability to darkness, cruelty, death and the blows of fate (creeping shadows, going blind, sun beating down), which the second stanza makes specific in the German invasion (marching, death going by, kick). But by homing in on dogs, in a kind of film-like metonymy (taking one detail to stand for a larger whole), Simic places his general point, drawn on a global scale through three quite different scenes (a woman telling a story on a New Hampshire summer evening, the blazing Southern town of her story, the poet's trembling home town), in precise, small-scale, narrative focus.

The dogs carry the emotion. The first stanza is full of anxious intimations of mortality: old dog, woman going blind, shadows creeping out of the woods. Never mind the New of New Hampshire: woods are an old European source of danger and terror. Fear comes at the outset with a dog afraid of shadow, worried in an empty street with just a couple of chickens. This frightened dog foreshadows the real terror in the second stanza: a street with soldiers in it, earth trembling, death going by, and another dog, white (image of purity, antithesis of the darkness in shadows, woods and blindness) and little (therefore vulnerable), kicked by soldiers' feet. The kick stands for everything these soldiers will do to this town, this country.

This rhyming couplet, street to feet, has a trotting four-beat nursery- rhyme rhythm; the climax of the poem's fearfulness is seen through a child's eyes and leads into fantasy, as if he had wings - which produces the Chagall- like surreality of the last line. This is the only line strongly broken in the middle (though its rhythm and structure reflect the earlier one earth trembling, death going by followed by sinister dots which indicate the death and carnage to come). Its break at the full stop turns the emotion round. Everything has been coming down on us (like the soldiers): blindness, shadows, worry, sun, and Night. But the winged dog is going up. This is a scene of an end (many Yugoslav villages were razed to the ground in the occupation and resistance to it), but the last half-line becomes a vision of unending flying. The first line had a fearful dog; the last has a dog with wings, image of victory, escape, imagination.

Poets today "use" rhyme all the time, but not always in a predictable pattern or at the end of lines. The street-feet couplet, marking the one action-shot in all this fear, is only the most obvious in a web of rhyme and vowel-harmonies. Old has echoes in shadow, told, shadows. Town is answered by the first stanza's last couplet, down and town; blind has fine, street has beating, Southern has summer, sun and Southern. Wings, repeated at the end, distils the ing sound dominated, all the way through, by present participles (evening, creeping, chickens, marching, watching, trembling, going, seeing). As if those participles incarnate the human condition - creeping, trembling, going blind, death going by - and this sound, the thing itself, soars above the threat they represent.

And consonants? The D of the static first stanza - old dog afraid, shadow, told, blind, shadows, woods, worried dog, down - reappears in the second, again in a static context: the watching villagers, what they feel (everybody stood ... death). But D is active now too: from made me remember to the new dog who triggers the action and is made to fly. D is left behind as Night comes down and the dog escapes - on wings. He is the movement out of the poem's tension between action and standing still - a tension summed up in a tug-of-war between present participles and finite verbs (told, made, stood, ran, got, made), and resolved when the two are brought together in the compound I keep seeing. The accented long syllables here, following the pattering rhythm of the kick line (keep echoes the street/feet jingle), prepare for the turnaround of feeling. I has been surprisingly absent in this poem about remembering a major historical trauma. As the poet becomes the subject rather than the object (told me, made me) of his own verb, I picks up the vowel-sound running through the second stanza (eye, by, fly). From eye to fly: the effect of I keep seeing ... a dog with wings is of something saved, a new vision, active and valued. Something positive, like the poem itself, has come or been made out of a dark, cruel time.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

'Two Dogs' is taken from Frightening Toys (Faber).

Two Dogs

An old dog afraid of his shadow

In some Southern town.

The story told me by a woman going blind,

One fine summer evening

As shadows were creeping

Out of the New Hampshire woods,

A long street with just a worried dog

And a couple of dusty chickens,

And all that sun beating down

In that nameless Southern town.

It made me remember the Germans marching

Past our house in 1944.

The way everybody stood on the sidewalk

Watching them out of the corner of the eye,

The earth trembling, death going by ...

A little white dog ran into the street

And got entangled with the soldiers' feet.

A kick made him fly as if he had wings.

That's what I keep seeing!

Night coming down. A dog with wings.

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