Book Review: The Lunatic: Poems

The Lunatic:  Poems, by Charles Simic

It is hard to know what the author means in his title.  Given the generally symbolic nature of the author’s poetry [1], something that is pretty easy to understand, who exactly is the author referring to as a lunatic?  Is the author saying that the artist is a lunatic for being sensitive enough to what is going on to wonder about the private life of fleas and rats and the more unseemly aspects of the world that fill the attention of the author here?  Is it the world that is made up of lunatics, or the reading audience?  It is hard to say.  This is not a book that makes all of its layers explicit, but seems to revel in presenting a somewhat skewed look at the world and a deliberate choice to pay attention to things that are usually ignored or swept under the rug, and that quality is noteworthy enough to think that the author is attempting to forestall at least a little bit of that criticism by passing himself off as a harmless lunatic rather than someone who really wishes to threaten the world order around him, which would be a far more dangerous role to play.

Like many books of poetry, this is a fairly short one, divided into four parts.  The poems are, in general, pretty short, but although the book is less than 100 pages, the poetry is certainly well worth reading and reflecting over.  The author muses on death often, reflects on memory and the problems that it brings, and has an intriguing look at creation, whether dealing with plants or animals or even the weather.  In the titular poem a brave snowflake is viewed as a lunatic for trying the same thing over and over without success, and night is personified as trying to see what is going on.  Some of the poems here, like the excellent and gloomy “Scribbled In The Dark,” are shared with other volumes, and the poems in this collection are reprints from previously published work in other publications.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the present age and its preoccupations, the poet spends a fair amount of time reflecting on matters of sexual intimacy, as is the case with the flea who enjoys biting naked lovers in bed, but the author also dwells time on issues of damnation and salvation, a characteristic concern of his but one that is usually not phrased in a joyous or celebratory way.

In reading this book it is easy to get a sense of the nature of the author’s deep melancholy.  It seems as if the author would like to enjoy the simple intimacy that comes with love but cannot stop thinking about it, cannot stop being made miserable by reflections on death or time or the ravages of other beings or even the fear of being watched.  The author seems aware of larger spiritual forces at work in the world but draws no comfort from his awareness of them, instead being tormented with the feeling that he is a lost soul suffering damnation rather than enjoying the pleasant sleep of the blessed.  And it is this unhappiness, this anxiety, this lack of confidence that haunts so much of his work.  Certainly many poets, and many writers in general, are fairly tortured souls, and this author is no different.  Yet this is an author that one would wish to know peace, even if it meant that he would write less in the future, because it is not evident that the author draws any enjoyment from his anxiety, or that his anxiety springs from being a truly hardened and wicked soul, although he is clearly an unfortunate one.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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