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Books

Jeff Beck and Charles Simic, R.I.P.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Jeff Beck and Charles Simic, R.I.P.

I never met Charles Simic, but apparently he somehow had a copy of a magazine I edited back in the 1970s in his hands long enough to sign his name in the proximity of a review I wrote of his first three books. As I glance at the review, in issue number four of MOMENTUM, I am rather embarrassed to be so rudimentary in my comments, but by 1975 I had almost completely lost the ability to write essays.

https://www.abebooks.com/signed-first-edition/MOMENTUM-4-Mohr-William-Charles-Simic/30561531520/bd

MOMENTUM 4
Mohr, William (ed.); Charles Simic (signed by)
Published by Momentum Press Spring 1975, Los Angeles, 1975
CONDITION: VERY GOOD SOFT COVER
Yellow printed wrappers; 8vo. 58 pp. Charles Simic has signed this copy where the editor Mohr has very favorably reviewed Simic’s first three books. Wanda Coleman and James Grabill are among the contributors. A bit spine toned, dusty, otherwise shows little use and about very good. Seller Inventory # 14666

I wish I had done a better job, of course, especially given that I admired his work quite a bit back then. In fact, I remember that he was one of the few poets that made me feel actual excitement when I heard that a new book of his poems was now in a bookstore. It was akin to hearing that a new album by one of one’s favorite bands was in the stores. I haven’t felt that way about any poet for several decades. Is there any poet whose work I am impatient to read? I’m curious about quite a few poets and what they might be up to, but impatient? Well, I suppose Kit Robinson is a poet whose next book can’t get to my home library fast enough. Tom Lux, if he were still alive, is one of those poets. Alicia Ostriker. Sarah Maclay. Marilyn Nelson. Ellen Bass. Will Alexander. It’s not a long list, though at the very top is PAUL VANGELISTI. In my next post, I will talk about his new collection, which arrived just after the New Year.

In the meantime, I’ve been saddened to learn of the death of a guitarist who made “things as they are” distressed enough to begin urgently mutating into hemispheres of intriguingly hypnotic, patterned chaos. Jon Pareles wrote a prose poem of an obituary for Beck and it deserves your attention. The youngest members of the Beatles and the Stones were a year older than Beck, but by 1966 the textures of sounds he was punctuating with gliding reverberations made listeners able to appreciate “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Paint It Black” all the more: it was a moment in music history when sheer willingness to improvise met guileless inspiration.

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/12/arts/music/jeff-beck-songs.html

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Simic’s death brought him to the foreground in several newspapers, too. The New York Times mentioned his childhood experiences of World War II, but missed a chance to give readers an expanded view of what Simic was was enduring. Richard Hugo has a great poem called “Letter to Charles Simic from Boulder,” and I doubt you can fully appreciate Simic’s poems unless you also read this poem by Hugo.

My poet friend Larry Goldstein has a writing prompt in which the rules include providing an account of meeting a famous person only once. Brooks Roddan, another of my poet friends, has written a poem about Simic, which he has given me permission to publish in my blog.

*. *. *. *. *

Charles Simic, 1938-2023, Teacher at the State University

He smoked Salem’s, one after another
as if he couldn’t wait to become
his obituary
because he knew as a poet
he would find
much humor there.

I applied for his class, briefly.
When I handed him some poems
he liked me and disliked them,
taking a puff and then another puff of his Salem
which he possessed with the two fingers
of a lover.

He said very quietly that I wasn’t quite ready for his class
but to come back and see him
next quarter.
So I did, but he already wasn’t there,
he’d gone to Chicago or New York
in search of his poems and Joseph Cornell.

The squires of academia, a place which must have felt so comforting
and pleasant to him, a place where he could
put up his feet and read and write,
a kind of sofa,
were dazzled by his metaphors,
which came courtesy of Stalin and Hitler.

Charles Simic and I lost touch by the time
I was accepted into his poetry class.
He was long gone, and a poet named
Arthur Gregor had taken his place.
I met Mr. Gregor once and he gave me his book
which had a first line, ‘Humming, humming and an empty bed.’

— Brooks Roddan

*. *. *

As for Jeff Beck, his guitar feedback ecstatically hums its oozing mantra of metamorphosis: “Over, Under, Sidways, Down.”