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What the Grass Says by Charles Simic

06/04/2010

What the Grass Says
by Charles Simic
kayak (1967)

What the Grass Says, Charles Simic’s first book, is an unpaginated smörgåsbord of different-colored paper (white, green, and pink), eye-blurring block prints by Joan Abelson, and what certainly amounts to some of the best poems published in 1967. This combination of disparate elements is the trademark of kayak guru George Hitchcock (aka Jorge Hitchcock)–poet, painter, political dissident, publisher, editor. If you don’t know kayak magazine, then head to your local library or antiquarian bookseller to look at some old copies of what is undoubtedly the best postwar literary magazine to come out of the United States.

Here are just a few samples of Hitchcock’s handiwork from What the Grass Says:

Hitchcock’s style as a painter, poet, and publisher is equal parts irreverence, folk art, surrealistic escapade, and earnest meaning-making, all of which are twinged with a deep sense of political skepticism. Hitchcock published some truly visionary books during his tenure as judge, jury, and executioner at kayak. Clicking on the above images will give you a sense of Simic’s incredible first book, as well as an insight into the kinds of poetry Hitchcock sought out for both his magazine and book series.

One of Simic’s most famous poems, “Stone,” appears in What The Grass Says:

STONE

Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill–
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

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All of this from a poet for whom English is a second language. No surprise to the The Olives of Oblivion that Simic was recently bestowed the honor of Poet Laureate of the United States (formerly called the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). Unless you’re willing to shell out 60 to 200+ dollars, you’ll be hard-pressed to find What the Grass Says. Many of these poems, however, were reprinted in Simic’s full-length collection Dismantling the Silence (Braziller, 1971) as well as his subsequent Selected Poems: 1963-1983 (Braziller, 1985), which was revised and expanded in 1990. Dismantling the Silence is floating around on abebooks for between 10 to 30 dollars, and Selected Poems is available in numerous inexspensive editions at abebooks.

If you really get a wild hair, seek out Charles Seluzicki (Olives of Oblivion Bookseller Hall of Fame) at Trace Editions. He has worked with Simic for several years and has printed exquisite fine-press limited editions of Simic’s finest writing. In addition to editing Trace Editions and working as a full-time antiquarian bookseller, Seluzicki has also gone through great pains to compile a bibliography of Simic’s early career as a poet, translator, and editor.

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The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.

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