Reviewed by Ryan James Wilson
Charles Simic's newest collection, Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek Under Your Skirt, revisits themes familiar to his work. As the title suggests, the self-proclaimed “mystic of the frying pan” endeavors in this collection to glimpse the mysterious and erotic within the mundane. And, as usual, Simic's eccentric metaphysics serve as passport, allowing these poems to travel freely into bizarre and stunningly beautiful places. Consequently, while these poems address the hackneyed subject of romantic love, the reader gathers the sensation that he is sightseeing in his own home amidst the familiar but overlooked. Indeed, Simic's collection transforms the familiar into something wonderfully strange and metamorphoses the small kindnesses of loving relationships into actions of mythological proportion.
Dionysian in nature, these poems bask in the light of ephemera, ignoring the great shadowy forms of philosophical or aesthetic systems. For instance, in the poem “Beauty,” the speaker describes an interaction with a simple countergirl. “Beauty,” itself an indefinable abstraction, has been identified as an inauspicious clerk; however, it is of more importance that the speaker is contented when he rushes “home to unwrap and kiss the / pink ham [she] sliced for [him] with [her] own hand.” By finding the ham capable of providing sustanence on more than the physical level of alleviating hunger, the speaker reveals something uncommon in our consumerist culture: the ability to be momentarily satisfied and free of the desire for something more.
Nevertheless, this momentary contentment is indicative of Simic's work. Delighting in “the squabbling of philosophers” and the frustration of those who promote long-views of the world, these poems focus on extracting the latent joy from the immediate. In “The Invitation,” Simic writes:
And if some bird graciously assents
To chirp for us after the grilled lamb,
The cheese and the wild blueberries,
We'll raise our glasses and toast
The golden light between the leaves,
The shadows lengthening,
And keep them raised till the song is over.
In these lines, the speaker faces the “shadows” of reality outside the moment, but he is not inclined to cower before them. Rather, he enjoys himself, enjoys the food around him and the birdsong. Furthermore, that the speaker toasts implies that he is also enjoying his company, the other half of the earlier “we.” Because on a larger level the symbology suggests a fearlessness of failure, of loss, and of death, the reader finds through microcosm that love provides man with the strength to look into the proverbial abyss without flinching.
Despite the yawning expressions that might stumble out in dishabille to describe the traditional themes of this collection, Simic nevertheless keeps his poems sharp. For instance, the short poem, “Small Feast,” describes a man and a woman sitting together naked at a table, eating squid. The last stanza reads:
Eat some bread, I say.
She just laughs at that,
A hot pepper flake stuck
On the tip of her tongue.
The last lines evoke a Christ-figure offering fish and bread. Furthermore, the “hot pepper flake” creates associatively an image of Satan and Christ eating together as lovers, an image which forces the reader to contemplate a literal representation of Blake's “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Furthermore, the poem “Martha's Purse” nicely incorporates Biblical allusion. The speaker, remembering make-out sessions with the pragmatic Martha, recalls how her purse was constantly in the way, preventing the consummation of their relationship. Appropriately, this practical object, the handbag, serves as a barricade, barring the fruition of impractical love.
Concomitantly, while stigmatizing practicality, Simic exalts the imaginative and the non-sensical with poems such as “Venus in a Bath with Cockroaches.” In this poem, the narrator is walking the streets, looking at “windows either dark or lit” when his imagination takes over, allowing him to see through a drawn curtain
one already undressed
Who waits for a tub to fill with hot water,
Imagination, that devil's helper,
Showed me her heavy breasts
And her narrow hips as I hurried by
With my head tucked into my coat,
Because the wind had chilled me to the bone.
Freeing him from the cold that “chill[s] to the bone,” the speaker's imagination allows him to transcend circumstance and to grasp briefly the duality of beauty and horror.
Of course, Simic's referring to imagination as “that devil's helper” is tongue-in-cheek, as it is his imagination which makes the majority of his poems exquisitely entertaining and amusing. Poems such as “Pretty Picture,” “Touched By Something Higher,” and “St. George and the Dragon” are all bawdy works, simultaneously nudging the reader's ribs and pointing out earthy subjects as worthy of contemplation. Appropriately, the collection's second poem, “Love Flea,” pays homage to that earlier metaphysician and sensualist, John Donne.
Howie Michels' skillful renderings underscore Simic's humor. Nude women romp on men's shoulders playing “horsey.” Shriveled couples make love inside goblets and salad bowls. Children on a museum tour become voyeurs, peeping at ecstatically writhing nudes. However, the drawings ultimately distract the reader because they disallow full imaginative range.
Finally, this collection has its foundation in the quotidian: in kitchens, bedrooms, and back-yards. And from this base, Simic erects a monument to love, sensuality, and humor. Comedic in the classical sense, these poems are triumphant.