About four months ago I wrote a review of a poem by Charles Simic for an editor, but I have not received word as to its status. So, here’s an abbreviated form of the review.
A couple months ago, my son and I planted seven white pine saplings along the east side of the property. As a three-year old, he doesn’t really “plant” trees but rather roams the near vicinity in search of new wonders to discover. Each dandelion must be plucked and examined and each twig must be picked up and relocated. A chestnut branch, which had fallen during a recent storm, particularly interested his imagination. With chestnut branch in hand, my son defended the homestead from cardinals, squirrels and a trespassing cat.
As I recall my three-year son chasing a yellow rubber ball across the backyard and waving his chestnut branch over his head, I think of how new readers of poetry need to wade into the greater pool of literature by first enjoying what will get their feet wet. This doesn’t diminish the quality of Simic’s work but rather supports the notion that if a poet can speak to the children he will be able to guide them into a broader, deeper appreciation for poetry. The Academy of American Poets recently cited, in their 2003-2004 annual report, that 68% of their active members became interested in poetry before the age of 18.
“Old Soldier” opens with a list of credentials and a storyteller’s wink of wit. The image of this warrior wanting to impishly pull the tail of “a cat lying in the grass” suggests a mischievous tone for Simic’s 22-line poem. The mother figure introduces a contrast of gentleness and the serene garden solitude against the “flying cinders” of aerial bombardment. What’s interesting about the mother figure is that she doesn’t leave the soldier alone but takes him “by the hand.” It’s tempting to wonder if this is a historical account or merely a narrative. Vernon Young, a contributor to the Hudson Review, suggests that Simic writes “by the fable; his method is to transpose historical actuality into a surreal key.“
Simic tells that the soldier’s sword was cardboard and only lacked a horse–particularly a horse which pulled “a hearse/With a merry wave of his tail.” The last lines are striking in that they suggest a ten-year old boy who chooses a funeral horse for his military campaigns instead of a warhorse. Ripe imagery presents numerous literary interpretations.