Psychic Discontinuity: the Poetry of Daniel Simko
Ekphrasis is an occasion for meditating on mediation and deferral, since it offers a warning to the reader who would seek out the “real” object beyond the poem or artwork: all that you will find there is another piece of art, and then another, and so on perhaps ad infinitum, like an Escher engraving. Svetovar Daniel Simko, in “Still Life: A Treatment,” reminds us that the still life about which he writes is always already an ekphrasis, and that the composition upon which it is based is itself made up of art objects:
Vase, plate, picture, and cup:
places of darkness, places of kindness.
Clothes once touched hanging over a chair.
If Simko’s world and his art were a business of repeated deferment, it may have been because he had been removed, by dint of a physical distance and a linguistic one, from whatever he considered home, a place figured repeatedly in this collection as the Danube, Simko’s version of Heraclitus’ ever-changing river. “But what’s the use? Thousands of miles away / the Danube is a sketch of glass against the mined woods” (“Still Life: A Treatment”). That already beyond-fragile “sketch of glass” is here made unmanageably vulnerable by nearby mines, a vulnerability to loss that leads the poet to compare the recalled landscape to a remembered “face.” We all know how sadly difficult it is to keep an absent face in memory.
Simko left Bratislava, his city by the Danube, at the age of ten, soon after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. As a child, Simko’s role in resisting the Soviets was rearranging the Bratislava street signs, or so the story goes; it is at least an appropriate myth for a poet so concerned with displacement. The family came to America, where Daniel Simko’s father took a position at Cornell and Daniel grew up to be the critically acclaimed translator of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl. As Carolyn Forché points out in her introduction to this volume, Simko in his own poetry shares with Trakl “a sense of past and present selves as severed,” but, for Simko, that former self remains an inescapable ghost. Theorizing about our innate understanding of identity, Noam Chomsky has described Locke’s concept of “psychic continuity” in terms of Sylvester the donkey, who gets turned into a rock but is still Sylvester. Any child can grasp the idea behind that story. But for an emigrant like Simko, who speaks and writes in another language from that of his child-self, the concept of a continuous identity is perhaps not as straightforward. It might be for this reason that there are wide spaces between many of Simko’s lines, waiting to be read or written, like the gaps in a jigsaw — these are gaps in the make-up of a lyric “I,” in an identity unevenly woven:
I am already changing the address.
The one hung, pinned, or crucified against the wall, the one broken over a shrub.
For the reader, Simko’s is a voice woven with holes. At other times in this collection, the gaps feel like places where Simko is deliberately withholding information, as though he cannot quite trust the reader. In all of the many examples of ekphrasis — poems after artistic or literary works by Kathe Kollwitz, Balthus, Gunter Eich, Sandoor Csoori, Lori Reidel, as well as a poem after a photograph “almost taken” — none makes it possible for the reader to easily look up a specific art piece on Google Images and compare it with its poem: the natural desire to judge the “success” of an ekphrastic poem in this way, by mimetic standards, is thwarted. As his fellow poet and friend Nicholas Samaras has recounted, Simko was a devotee of Stephen Dobyns’ The Balthus Poems, one of the great modern works of obsessive ekphrasis — but Dobyns’ “The Guitar Lesson,” for example, hardly needs its explicit title — it could never be about any other painting:
Hand gripping the girl's thigh, pressed nearly upon
what her Bible calls her loins, the girl's music teacher
tries to make her sing.
Simko’s Balthus prose poem, “The Room,” on the other hand, could be about any Balthus painting at all: “. . . I would sit, or stand. It no longer matters.”
Since poetic ekphrasis is often understood as giving voice to a silent picture — Anne Carson quotes Simonides in Economy of the Unlost: “that painting is silent poetry while poetry is painting that talks” — Simko’s use of it, with the gaps left in, is paradoxical. Why speak at all, keeping so much back? It may seem odd to compare Simko to the Irish poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin — the two have nothing obvious in common — but reading these two poets offers a similar experience: a feeling that the poet is trying to communicate some urgent information, in a code to which I have no access but to which I find myself returning compulsively.
Like a visual artist who must pay attention to the places around and between things (“Between your breasts there is a space so small that all maps / are reduced to a whisper”), Simko is fascinated by darknesses and blanks:
And if this is a poem of childhood,
then it’s also the darkness within a glove.
Or in a trumpet, that the man playing the circus all night
finally puts down.
He has been unable to push it out.
As “Still Life: A Treatment” suggests, Simko’s is a poetry that sees art as a way of talking around something, never looking it full in the face. “Against Our Forgetting” warns the reader that, in these poems, words stand in for other words, things stand in for other things: “Writing back in code, the word for home is August.” One must not jump to conclusions; what appears to be waving could be drowning:
In the photograph, presented under dubious circumstances,
you appear to be waving,
I mean holding your hands up.
This tone of fear and suspicion is fretted with repeated references to surveillance: names written down on lists or filed, photographs taken, plots, lies, uniforms, false identities, evasions of the police. The body, an anonymous object, most often used without any possessive pronoun, is described as an empty shirt; it is something for which “battered clothes” long. Poems dissolve into songs or prayers: “daily bread” recalling the Lord’s Prayer, “Answer” segueing into a Leonard Cohen couplet so catchy it overwhelms Simko’s own voice: “I need you. I don’t need you.” Ciphers accumulate resonance without surrendering any meaning: August, maps, poppies. Simko’s world is an unnerving one.
Daniel Simko died in 2004, in his mid-forties, and The Arrival is published only posthumously. Only the first fifty pages of the volume is a collection proper, while the last third or so of the book is entitled “fragments and abandoned verse.” The first part is beautifully arranged: it would be helpful to know whether it was Simko himself who envisioned this arrangement, or his editors Forché and Reidel. But it was a dubious decision to publish the latter section, of “fragments.” Lines repeated from poem to poem make clear not only that Simko considered them unfinished but that he may well have considered them not worth finishing — and, to make matters worse, the publishers accidentally included a poem by Nicholas Samaras in the edition I received (omitted in the first printing). Yet, it is hard to fault the desire to gather together as many traces as possible of this pacing, mistrustful intelligence.
That same Nicholas Samaras, a poet as well as a close friend of Simko’s, has penned a book-length collection of poems dedicated to Simko’s memory since his death. In his poem “The Balthus Poems,” published in The Cortland Review, Samaras tantalisingly describes a fruitfully obsessive friendship:
But don’t we all learn by imitation, first? We spent months
with that book, writing our own versions, our descriptions
of the paintings, the parlours and lives, the education
we received in return. Yes, the picture was a room to die in.
We agreed it was Sunday. The air looked like Sunday.
Anyone in the picture could have been the partisan.
Simko’s death was a loss indeed, not only to his friends but also to the reader ready to be haunted by this strange, compelling voice.