Lifesaving Poems: Charles Simic’s ‘My Shoes’

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It was the best of times. Jean Sprackland and I were tutoring the dream group at Totleigh Barton for a week. As anyone who has done an Arvon course knows, the talk was all about writing poems, how we went about our writing, where our ideas came from, who we were reading and who we knew or had worked with. This went on pretty much continuously, over breakfast, coffee and dinner.

Only recently I said to one of the participants I am still in touch with that I am still learning from it eight years later.  This was not meant flippantly.

I remember the last workshop Jean gave, right at the end of the week, on four of Charles Simic’s poems. I had read Simic before, in anthologies and had also come across him at workshops. Though I did not know why, I didn’t really feel I had got him yet. Happily, Jean’s workshop changed all that.

She handed out a photocopied sheet with four of Simic’s poems on it, all taken from a back issue of the LRB. I still have my notes from the session. They say things like ‘secret objects’, ‘personal’, ‘speed→cutting through’ and ‘everyday’. Looking at them from this distance, they have the shock of appearing as a kind of shorthand ars poetica.

Via Jean’s careful explication I now felt I had access to Simic’s strange merging of the language of religion (‘inner life’, ‘Gospel’, ‘existence’, ‘humility’, ‘church’, ‘altar’, ‘patience’ and ‘Saints’) with that of earth (‘shoes’, ‘face’, ‘mouths’, ‘skins’, ‘mice’, ‘birth’, ‘earth’, ‘oxen’). The chiming assonance of several of these (‘patience’ with ‘Saints’; ‘shoes’ with ‘face’ and ‘mice’; ‘birth’ with ‘earth’) is persuasive and seductive.

‘My Shoes’ is also deeply political. In an era when we share the minutiae of ‘inner lives’, directly and indirectly making them available to all who would listen, Simic implicitly seems to argue for a core self which is irreducible and which cannot be known or ‘read’.

I find this bizarrely hopeful.

My Shoes

 

Shoes, secret face of my inner life:

Two gaping toothless mouths,

Two partly decomposed animal skins

Smelling of mice nests.

 

My brother and sister who died at birth

Continuing their existence in you,

Guiding my life

Toward their incomprehensible innocence.

 

What use are books to me

When in you it is possible to read

The Gospel of my life on earth

And still beyond, of things to come?

 

I want to proclaim the religion

I have devised for your perfect humility

And the strange church I am building

With you as the altar.

 

Ascetic and maternal, you endure:

Kin to oxen, to Saints, to condemned men,

With your mute patience, forming

The only true likeness of myself.

 

Charles Simic, from Selected Poems 1963-2003 (Faber, 2004)

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