LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Charles Simic “Empire of Dreams”

On the first page of my dream book / It’s always evening / In an occupied country./ Hour before the curfew. / A small provincial city. / The houses all dark./ The store-fronts gutted. // I am an a street corner / Where I shouldn’t be. / Alone and coatless / I have gone out to look / For a black dog who answers to my whistle. / I have a kind of Halloween mask/ Which I am afraid to put on.


FRAME OF REFERENCE There is a dangerous doubleness, promising ennoblement but liable to generate corruption. The intimate universal is porous to heaven, but it can also be porous to hell. For, of course, the danger is there with the idiotic intimacy. It is daimonic in the double sense of being able to be turned to the diabolical side, as well as to the divine. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 58.

In these “investigations” we are discovering how lyrics appeal to our desire to grasp an underlying story that confirms our mastery of our conceptual world. Things occur to us in experience, aspects pile up into images, coherence emerges. We make poems of these. But by virtue of making the poems, we expose the figures — similes, metaphors, analogies, sound patterns of all sorts— and the otherness of these techniques create the cracks in the sense of wholeness, the cracks, so goes the song, that lets the light in.

Paradoxically, this doubleness is the appeal of lyric. Charles Simic, Serbia-born American poet, much celebrated (see google), has written extensively on the strong appeal of poetry to our sense of self. Czeslaw Milosz chose one of his wry little poems for his anthology A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, and prefaced it with a rather literal explanation about the persistence of childhood memories in dreams. In public conversations Simic often tells about being awakened to consciousness by a bomb that went off in his building when he was a child. There is a literal basis for his lyric “Empire of Dreams.”

With the title the reader becomes aware of a doubleness. Is it a metaphor that frames this memory of a dream? Whose empire is this? Whatever the technique used to get control over his conscious experience, his conceptual take on his dreams seems organic to his self-expression. The experience couldn’t be expressed without self-consciously interrogating its otherness, its givenness as dream but also its demonic sense of the possibilities of self-hood. (See FRAME OF REFERENCE.)

We are bewitched by the mode, the photo-realism of the noir narrative. We play along. It moves through the lyric narrative, from outer to inner, from lower to higher, with the whole complex story exploding conceptually at the end, the black dog, the mask. It’s as if the pretenses of the poem stood revealed as pretenses. Is the poem then not just a personal expression of deep-seated self-awareness as dream but an analogy for something else to be discovered? Or not? There is an intimacy to this final scene. The dog comes to the poet’s whistle. The poet questions the use of his mask. If we must accept the figure of analogy as the ultimate form or shape of this poem, we must accept the darkness of the light at the end of the tunnel. Analogies represent subjects in their plurality and doubleness. X is ti Y AS A is to B. The poem is to the dream as the dream is to … empire? The other to empire?

Tha sense of mastery we get when our conceptual world CLICKS with a poem. But CLICK is the sound too of a dead CLICHE. Cliche is the sound of a molten figure being cooled into shape by the touch of water. But there’s more this time around. That mask, suspended between poet and the cracks letting the light in.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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