One endless question in the world of poetry and fiction is who will be granted prestige. Which poets will consistently publish in the most respected journals and win the biggest awards and be granted great honors as they age. It is a truth that there are often gifted, important poets and other writers who are never admitted into that elite. Today, when it seems every college and university has an MFA program, many of which exist primarily to bring summer income into smaller colleges, it has become near impossible for a writer without the MFA to be granted teaching positions or to be treated with the same level of respect from journals.
There have always been reclusive writers who die before they have work discovered after their death. Is it possible for a reader of serious literature to not know the stories of Emily Dickinson in the Amherst, Franz Kafka in Prague, and Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon? Looking back, from the vantage point of our few years being alive, it is easy to assume these writers, and others, were content, or at least accepted that posterity would discover their work. But what about the writer who is active in his or her time, who publishes occasionally in some of the most prestigious journals, and consistently produces work of a quality that measures up to the best writers of his or her generation, but is left in relative obscurity?
Roughly twenty years ago, Library Journal made the following statement in print, which has been reprinted and repeated so many times it has become a badge of honor for Perchik, who is entirely democratic in his submission process: L.J. wrote: “Simon Perchik is the most widely unknown poet in America.” By that time, thousands of his poems had been published in the most prestigious journals and magazines, as well as the smallest zines. His friends tell how he was totally flabbergasted to get a phone call thirty-some years ago from a woman stating she was Alice Quinn, Poetry Editor at The New Yorker. He didn’t believe it was actually Ms. Quinn, and asked the woman on the phone if his friends had put her up to this gag. Finally she had him phone her back to confirm it was all legit!
Simon Perchik lives in East Hampton, New York, where he still writes every day and his poetry continues to be published. Ten new books in the past two years. A phenomenal achievement for any poet, let alone one who is 98 years of age. He was born in Paterson, New Jersey, the city William Carlos Williams carved onto the map of American literature, in 1923. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a pilot of a B17. After the war, he studied to be a lawyer at New York University and continued to write the poetry he had been writing since 1943. After graduation, he practiced law until 1980, ending his law career as Suffolk County’s first Environmental Prosecutor.
His first few books were chapbooks he put together himself. They were filled with many of the poems that make up much of his early work and some have been included in his recent collection, Dreams I’ve Held. This new book also includes poems from the first book The Bomber Moon. The volume serves as a solid introduction to his early work and allows the reader to travel along as his poems develop over a decade. The first poems are from the volumes Perchik published under the pseudonym Lambert Castle, which is an actual castle that exists in Paterson, NJ, his birthplace. Perchik’s great sense of humor played into that decision, and the somewhat grandiose name befits this early work. The pleasure of reading them is to be allowed to experience not only Perchik’s early work but to anticipate the themes and hints of the style that will continue into his later work. A style that has evolved for decades. He clearly is not a poet who is content to create one method, one vision or means to relay a vision, and be content. Although many of these early poems work a little too hard, their abundance of images and naive enthusiasm are indications of a young poet eager to move on to stronger and more intriguing poems.
It isn’t very long into the newest book, Dreams I’ve Held, page 80 to be exact, that we encounter a different Simon Perchik on the page. Now he is a poet who has been changed, perhaps by his war experiences, into one more aware, but also baffled by the world humans have made. Perhaps all great poets are baffled by what humans have wrought. In these poems, the necessary revelation that maturing seldom brings clarity to many is beginning to be realized by Perchik. He has made this bafflement into a necessary aspect of his work. He is becoming a wiser man with time—and the style of his poetry reflects it.
The introduction to Dreams I’ve Held informs us that Perchik resisted republishing The Bomber Moon, which has the subtitle War Verse and makes up the majority of the book. We are grateful he was convinced to do so. Not only do these poems demonstrate how he has grown since the Lambert Castle poems, they also provide us with a mooring post between this volume and the much later Fourteen Poems.
The first poems in The Bomber Moon are lyrical and drawn from his war experience. In “AAF Pilot Recruiting Poster” there is a clash between what the enlistee sees and thinks early on and what a veteran knows:
Vertigo trembling pilots earthward
and precision plans collide,
past me falling skyward, catching
young men of poster size
gripped ’round in uniform
grinned in with wings and silver
or this opening from “Lying in Wait”:
My guns are formal wear,
four-in-hands knotted on
the freshly laundered undercast.
They are business men
and business is bad.
The precision of insight here is matched by the precision of language. The young poet that began to emerge in the Lambert Castle poems now sees the world with a more mature and slightly more cynical eye.
The greater part of The Bomber Moon is taken up with “The A Poems,” a section of over two hundred pages. The poems range from “A1” to “A215.” The numbering is reminiscent of how the Army Air Corps cataloged a pilot’s life. It’s an organizational numbering system. That doesn’t mean there is no change through the 274 poems. There is a process here that tightens the point-of-view and the language and in that process a new, stronger poet emerges, one that sees intently and uses images and fragments of images from his vision to reveal both what the outside and the inside see. Take these lines from the opening of “A120”:
Under the snowfall, under crates
stacked into rooms, the hoboes
have a fire in a battered can
—a carriage, the mother
bent on the back wheels: two spools
empty their burnt threads, the park
Feel how hard my teeth are!
Under this winter the sidewalk
Now look at these that open poem “A121”:
There’s nothing to leak.
What’s a bee doing—?
These windows closed
are the language: headstones
—Who makes out the word: bee
filled with rooms, my crouch
closer, each sill
each dried word.
Elizabeth Bishop, an older contemporary of Perchik, wrote that watching a poet’s mind work in a poem was necessary for her to truly appreciate the work. She would certainly have been intrigued looking into these poems. Each poem moves with the intense energy of an active mind. Watching the movement, and the startling images and words that emerge, is perhaps the ultimate joy of reading these poems. His use of the colon, which reminds me the work of A.R. Ammons, a 20th century poet whose reputation has woefully declined since his death. Both men are supremely intelligent poets that challenge the reader to see and think at the same time. A type of unconscious method necessary to create the frisson in the reader’s mind that great poetry offers. Perchik’s use of the colon reveals the rapidity of his mind presented on the page. Dreams I’ve Held ends with a short section of prose poems that open up Perchik’s perceptions to a wider light, and a long poem, “Mischa’s Funeral,” with its imagery and longer lines and perceptions, is in the mode of that greatest of all New York poets, Walt Whitman.
Perchik’s chapbook Fourteen Poems is slightly more recent, selected by Ted Wojtasik of St. Andrew’s University Press. Each of these poems hovers in the mind after reading. These tend to be longer and bring forward a more romantic lyricism crafted with a lighter touch than the poems in The Dreams I’ve Held. There is also, as befits an aging poet, more reflection on the end:
Face up and the urn
watches how this staircase
changes shape so the dead
can see and though its stone
is stained a green
nothing holds together
except the dirt
Many of the fourteen poems in the book of that title have only one period, placed at the end of the poem with a finality that casts the sounds and imagery of what came before in a slightly darker light:
with what’s broken from my eyes
in pieces, still warm, deeper, deeper
and my ear thrown to the ground
—you didn’t hear
or when the sky comes at night
to make room for birds and overflowing.
Other times Perchik uses syntax to make a rhythm that is almost formal. He often does this by adding phrases at the end of lines that fall with a nearly syncopated beat: “In the mouth of this fire, its shadow / grows enormous, swallowing the sky” or
You’d walk the same, always
to a window, the shade held close
fluttering, tries to fly
—don’t cover yourself.
All of the poems in this tiny volume Fourteen Poems are luxurious, hard, soft, and strong. They are the type of poems in which you experience the movement and imagery with no concern to whether it seems actual or imagined. This is simply of no importance.
How does a poet as gifted and productive as Simon Perchik write for over seventy years, publish in many of the most prestigious journals in America, including The New Yorker, Poetry, Partisan Review, and The Nation, and still remain largely unknown (in the grand scheme known as The Poetry World, with its stars and parties and big name presses)? These poems are evidence that when a poet is outside trends or groupings or paths, that person is working on a plane beyond the grip of our understanding. Art produced with no focus on recompense.
But we are fortunate. We can be grateful that Simon Perchik was driven to write throughout his long life and did not let the vagaries of the literary world trip him up. There are many other books of his poems. Reading them will be an adventure. For that, I am grateful.
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