Saturday, November 1, 2008

"Eyes Fastened With Pins"

Well, it’s Día de los Muertes, an eerily beautiful festival—sugar skulls, & skeletal Catrinas, & shrines laden with marigolds. I wanted this week’s poem to somehow reflect this. It’s a piece by 2007 U.S. Poet Laureate, Charles Simic.

Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938, & emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager; in fact, Simic didn’t speak English until age 15. His poetry is often darkly comical, & he could be termed a “minimalist surrealist”—an odd combination, since one way surrealism often works is by an energetic accumulation of detail. Simic’s work typically contains startling & seemingly incongruous details & images, but they are presented in plain, matter-of-fact terms. As is the case with “Eyes Fastened with Pins,” Simic’s poems displace a mundane reality in such a way that it’s no longer familiar—an effect that is “dream-like” in a literal sense, though not the sort of “reverie” one usually associates with that term; it also strikes me as Kafkaesque—interestingly, another writer with Eastern European origins.

The “death” of “Eyes Fastened with Pins” isn’t the flower bedecked figure of Día de los Muertes, but he is connected to the way in which death becomes a quotidian figure in Day of the Dead ceremonies. A number of cultures celebrate festivals that bring death & the dead into the sphere of everyday life; this isn’t only true of the Mexican Día de los Muertes, but is an important force behind All Saints Day celebrations throughout t
he Christian world; these customs (e.g., visiting graves of dead relatives) are still quite strong in Eastern Europe. A fascinating non-Christian variant of this occurs in Madagascar, where on one day each year, people remove their dearly departed from the tombs in a ritual known as “famadihana” or “turning over the dead.” Celebrants actually remove dead relatives from their tombs & wrap them with new silk shrouds. Celebrants also interact with the dead by carrying the bodies over their heads while dancing & singing. This is vividly portayed in the documentary Like a God When He Plays; you can find out more about this film here.

Obviously, such celebrations are alien to our own culture, in which death is typically made invisible, or else is depicted in the movies & television i
n spectacular & sometimes titillating images—it’s not a natural occurrence in these depictions, but recontextualized as some horrific or alluring otherness. There does seem to be some sanity in a cultural “normalization” of death, since it is the lowest common denominator for us all.

At any rate, hope you enjoy this poem by Charles Simic, from his 1977 collection, Charon’s Cosmology:

Eyes Fastened with Pins

How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death’s laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death’s supper table.

The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address is somehow wrong,
Even death can’t figure it out
Among all the locked doors ...

And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked

On death’s side of the bed.

Charles Simic
© Charles Simic 1977

Pic is by Phillip Simic


  1. I find this poem of Simic's really rather funny. Can you imagine what went through his head to conjure this? It's very like the sort of thing I would imagine. I like it.
    Thanks for the links too - I didn't watch the clip for the film, but am I right in assuming that's Paddy Bush, brother of Kate (I'm a huge fan of her earlier work).
    What an unusual feast! Do they continue to do it with the same dead each year, or only once? I suppose decay would prevent it being an annual ritual with the same bodies.
    It would certainly be something to see, wouldn't it?


  2. I think a lot of Simic's poems are like very witty & wry jokes; I like his work a lot, & had a good friend who studied with him at Uiversity of New Hampshire in the 80s.

    As far as the Madagascar ritual goes: from watching the film, they keep it up for a long time-- apparently as long as there's anything left in terms of remains. It is a remarkable remembrance ritual. I believe you're right about Paddy Bush, but honestly don't know 100%.


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