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Two Views of a Prose Poem

By Carrie Cooperider.

Simic Collage (Magic & Merchandise), copyright Carrie Cooperider 2017

 

The stone is a mirror which works poorly.

Nothing in it but dimness. Your dimness or its dim-

ness, who’s to say? In the hush your heart sounds

like a black cricket.

(untitled prose poem from Charles Simic, “The World Doesn’t End”, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989)

In this very short prose poem, there are four sentences, the first a metaphoric proposition: The stone is a mirror which works poorly. It seems straightforward enough syntactically, if a bit startling as a concept, but notice the definite article: why not “a stone”? I think there are three reasons. First, “the” sounds better; there would otherwise be two instances of “a,” pronounced, I think, “uh” and not long “a”, lending assonance to “the” (thuh) and “a” (uh). Second, the repetition of “a” would be clumsily reminiscent of a stammer (“uh…uh”), and, third, oddly, “a stone,” if used in this case, would seem to imply a particular stone, not any stone.  “The stone” refers to a kind of ur-stone, or the idea of “stone,” much like “the ocean” expresses the idea of ocean, not only one discrete body of water. I say oddly because normally the implication would be reversed; “the stone” would be “that specific stone” and “a stone” would be one undifferentiated from other stones. But because the second object referred to in the sentence, “a mirror,” is one type of mirror among other possible categories of mirror, it makes more conceptual sense to proceed from the general to the specific. But then, wouldn’t the sentence be, “The stone is a mirror that works poorly” to indicate the restriction of the category of mirrors to those working poorly? Probably that’s more “correct”, yes, but sonically, the initial “w” of which and works is more pleasing, and it readies us for the next duo of exhalations: the “h” in hush and heart in the final sentence.

Let’s return, though, to the second sentence, where Simic gives us the reason why stone is not the best at reflecting light: it has nothing in it but dimness. The terseness of that statement reflects (if you will) the relative uncommunicativeness of the stone-as-mirror; there’s nothing voluble about it, and the sentence begins with the nihilism of the word “nothing” leading the way. “In it,” the next two words, posit the stone/mirror as a container—possessing depth beyond its surface, and already filled, brimming with dimness, perhaps, and incapable of holding anything more. The metaphor of stone/mirror as a (possibly solipsistic) container (that is, it contains only itself) is intriguing, but let’s turn back to the syntactical strategy of omitting the verb “to be” from the sentence, because Simic leaves it out again in the third sentence.

Similarly clipped of its verb, the third sentence turns our attention—or, you could say, reverses our gaze—from faulting the stone/mirror to suggesting that the dimness, may in fact, be a property possessed by “you,” rather than the mirror. This pivot is accomplished quietly; those two taciturn sentences have the effect of silencing whatever response one might have. Their tenor is conversational, but it’s a conversation with someone unwilling to say more than what’s absolutely necessary. The final clause of the third sentence, which asks “who’s to say?” is a rhetorical shrug, unanswerable except by the unspoken acknowledgement of mystery. Who, indeed, is to say? The reader shrugs back.

Perhaps it’s this feeling of the unsayable that produces the “hush” in the fourth sentence, which is interrupted by the beating of “your heart”, which “sounds like a black cricket.” A number of things occur in this sentence that interest me: there is a parallel between the two inert objects in the beginning of this piece with two live, sentient beings at its conclusion. The sound the heart-cricket makes is anticipated in the middle two sentences by the repetition of “dimness…dimness…dimness”—a surprisingly effective sonic approximation of the sound of a heartbeat. “Hush” and “heart” share an initial, slow glottal h, (and, as mentioned earlier, parallel the pair of exhaled “w’s” in the first sentence) and “black” and “cricket” enjoy the consonance of the quick plosive ck. Because their sounds are related, the paired words in this final sentence “stick” to one another more easily both in the ear and in the memory.

Other than to give sonic pleasure, why would a heart sound like a “black cricket”? Crickets are short-lived and tend to dwell in places where they can’t easily be seen, so in that respect they are both a reminder of mortality and of the difficulty in seeing that we encountered at the start. Some crickets are black, and so is obsidian, the stone that has historically been polished to a reflective sheen to serve as a “dim” mirror wherein highlights may be discerned but not shadows. The shadows that are apparent on the body of the person gazing into obsidian can not be seen on its surface; it reflects only light. Perhaps this is the stone Simic had in mind at his prose poem’s start, and which his black cricket is meant to conjure.

*

The question “What do I make of this writing?” has always an array of possible answers, physically producible. My response to Simic’s prose poem resulted in the corollary piece of writing that you read above, as well as in the visual/verbal collage at the top of the page. The former is analytical and speculative in nature; the latter is synthetic. The collage was prompted by a desire to see at a glance the mirrored symmetry I found in Simic’s prose poem, and I arranged some of Simic’s text atop a page from a discarded auction catalogue on which were pictured a pair of mirrors. I thought, afterward, of the sculptor Christopher Wilmarth’s statement “If [art’s] not magic, it’s merchandise.” Unblemished by its brush with stuff so blatantly for sale to the highest bidder, the magic of Simic’s prose poem prevails, and the dead auction lot gets a new life to boot.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Carrie Cooperider is a writer and visual artist who lives on the southernmost island of New York City.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 15th, 2017.