Yesterday it was announced that Charles Simic will be the new Poet Laureate. In honor of the occasion I devote this blog entry to one of my favorite poems of his, “Eyes Fastened with Pins.”
The scenario for the poem is vintage, quirky Simic: Death is personified as a hard working family man whose job takes him away from home at unsociable hours. Where other poets might respond to an upsurge in their sense of mortality by, for example, raging against the dying of the light, Simic has chosen instead to calm fear by humanizing death, an ambitious ploy which nevertheless succeeds in engaging me as a reader and gaining my sympathy.
Roughly the first half of the poem functions to set the scene, with Death not appearing as a character in person until line 11. Then for the next eleven lines, the surreal narrative builds with Death’s burdens becoming greater and greater until we reach the climax with the repeated tugs at our Hallmark channel consciousness: “Death with not even a newspaper/ To cover his head, not even / A dime to call the one pining away.” Focus then shifts back to Death’s home where we end with the image we can all identify with—Death’s wife “Undressing slowly, sleepily/ And stretching naked / On Death’s side of the bed.”
At the risk of sounding like an apologist for concrete poetry, I’d be tempted to describe the emotional arc of the poem as being shaped like a scythe—there’s the long, slow build up the handle, followed by a trenchant swift descent which curves back toward the point of departure (Death’s home.)
In an unusual choice for a narrative poem, verbs are not just in present tense throughout, but also often continuous or passive in tone, as indicated by the string of participial phrases used as sentence fragments: “Ironing Death’s laundry”, “Setting Death’s supper table.” The effect of this is to make Death seem less threatening: “looking for someone with a bad cough” is much less purposeful than if Death actively looked for that someone.
The voice of the poem is another interesting choice—an omniscient narrator who begins at a certain distance from his characters, but slowly and gently, so as not to frighten us, brings us closer in to Death until at the climax of the poem “Long windy night ahead” perhaps we feel ourselves there with Death, lost in the rain-soaked street. Instantly, Simic pulls back away (Who, after all, wants to identify with Death that closely?) and we return to referring to Death in the third person: “Not even a newspaper to cover his head.”
The personification of Death is a common trope in poetry. I am immediately reminded of Emily Dickinson’s majestic Death figure in “Because I could not stop for Death” and John Donne chastising Death in “Death be not proud, though some have called thee.” Death is of course one of the great subjects of poetry, and poems that personify Death often unfold like arguments, persuading our logic that our fear of mortality is in error. Simic’s poem, on the other hand, works not with our logic but our emotions. How dreadful can Death be, after all, if he works thankless hours and his wife misses him? That is the genius of our new Poet Laureate.