Book Review: Simic and Gaspar Twenty Years Apart

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I recently read two books, published twenty years apart, and both are works of genius. My first question to myself: How did I miss the one published in 1992, by an author whose work I have loved since the beginning? Somehow I did miss it— and then, after buying it, even lost track of it on my own shelf, among the stacks.

Dime-Store Alchemy by former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic is a collection of prose poems (some call them short essays but I disagree) about the life and work of the surrealist collage artist Joseph Cornell (who also influenced Elizabeth Bishop.) Beginning with a preface that details Simic’s own fascination with Cornell and a short “chronology” of Cornell and his evolution as an artist, the
poems that follow, while exploring Cornell’s life and work, also serve as a memoir of Simic’s own travels through time and space. “I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970.” (p. ix)

As we read we understand that Cornell’s obsessive and inspired use of collage, his reliance on “chance operations” (p. 30) also grounds Simic’s poetic approach.

…A pebble becomes a human being. Two sticks
leaning against each other make a house. In that world
one plays the game of being someone else.
This is what Cornell was after too. How to construct a
vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination
of the viewer and keep him company forever.

(“The Truth of Poetry”)

This book is so wise, so rich, so surprising that I often find myself thinking I could spend an entire year on one sentence alone. And there are so many sentences like that! —far more than the number of years left to contemplate them. “All art is a magic operation, or, if you prefer, a prayer for a new image,” Simic tells us in the poem, “A Force Illegible. “

Below is a poem in its entirety that speaks to the quote above:

Our Angelic Ancestor

Rimbaud should have gone to America instead of Lake Chad. He’d be a hundred years old and rummaging through a discount store. Didn’t he say he liked stupid paintings, signs, popular engravings, erotic books with bad spelling, novels of our grandmothers?

Arthur, poor boy, you would have walked the length of Fourteenth Street and written many more “Illuminations.”

Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a
dark alley.

“Since the beginning” almost describes my following of Frank Gaspar’s poetry. His first book, The Holyoke, won the Morse Poetry Prize (selected and introduced by Mary Oliver) in 1988. I came across the book a few years later and began using it for my poetry workshops (Gaspar has published four more books of poetry and two novels since then); I have used his poetry collections in my classes ever since, and always the students are blown away by his work.

But: Back to the twenty years apart: His most recent poetry collection Late Rapturous (published by Autumn House Press) came out in 2012. It is a widely and wildly visionary collection. Like Simic, Gaspar has become a master of the prose poem form, though the poems in Gaspar’s book are generally much longer and more densely packed. Cornell would have loved them, for, like Simic’s poems, they are masterful and ingenious constructions—poetic collages “in which objects are renamed and invested with imaginary lives” (Simic, “The Truth of Poetry,” p.46).

In fact, the poems here seem like a culmination of all Gaspar’s previous work. And if you look at Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death, his second collection, you will find a poem a little past midway into the book, called “Love is the Power Which Impels One to Seek the Beautiful”—a poem which seems to foreshadow, to predict where his poetry will go in the future (beginning as he did in The Holyoke, with poems using stanza breaks, free verse lineation, a more open narrative, before he developed/discovered an ever richer, ever denser, prose poem form.)

Here are the prophetic last lines of “Love is the Power…”:

…Now, after all these years of reading
poems, I may finally understand certain questions
of form. There is the line with its heartbeat, and
there is language with its catalog of figures, and
there is symmetry and breath. Every beginning
demands an end, every curve a consummation, and
the world and our lives must locate themselves in
image or cease to exist. This could be a kind of
Longing or a kind of Will. In seeking beauty it is
sometimes necessary to reject a familiar or even
an attractive form. If a symmetry is broken, we
begin again. In some things failure is impossible

Yes, Gaspar’s new poems radiate wildly. They encompass. They refer. Like Simic’s book, they’re not afraid to exist in several dimensions or in several layers of existence at once—each poem a kind of “Cornell box”— “finite infinity,” as Dickinson said.

Now, to set something down in
the midst of folly, one true word, one simple cry out of the black arroyos
and dangerous washes, the canyons, the granite redoubts, but the lone sob
of the desert hen is not enough, the television’s mangled voices creeping
through the drywall and stucco are not enough…

(“June/July—Eleven Black Notebooks at the Desert Queen Motel”)

If the roof of the world is a wheel, if the heart of the world is a heart.
then you have another poem about truth, and if that’s the case
you had better not trust it, not trust its voice or its knowing vowels
or its perfumed arrogance. We’ve all been down that road, and it
leads to the edge of a town with one broken-down gasoline station
and its pile of yellowed ledgers, and one sad ghost wondering where
the glory days have slipped off to.


Now I am reading a book that tells me every raindrop falls to earth
exactly as it’s supposed to. That there are no errors. Therefore,
there is no therefore. Nothing to do then except go out to
the porch and listen to birdsong, listen to the prevailing
wind up in the leafless branches. Do no harm, I told myself.
Look for the small miracles. Already the moon was crisp in the east.
Already the moon was faultless behind the naked limbs, following
the black notes of the huddled birds, shining, and it wasn’t even dark yet.
(“Do No Harm”)

The moment one begins to read Late Rapturous, one feels Dickinson’s “top of one’s head flying off,” the test, for her, of a true poem, a work of true genius.


Filed under: Book Review, Poetics, Prose, Susan Kelly-DeWitt