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By John Wilson
Among the Believers
Home from work, I sort through the mail and latch on to the latest issue of The New York Review of Books (August 12, 2004). Even in these days, when the proportion of agitprop is lamentably high, there's still plenty to choose from: Pankaj Mishra on the recent elections in India, Alma Guillermoprieto on Mexican scandals, James McPherson on Lincoln, Gabriele Annan on a Gert Hofmann novel which I read and liked, James Fenton on an Enlightenment exhibition, and a good deal more of interest. I'll skip Garry Wills on Clinton's autobiography (I've had more than enough of both of them for the time being) and Russell Baker on Robert Byrd's Losing America (the dial on the agitprop meter is way into the red zone) and a piece on John le Carré by a writer I don't know (ditto on the meter). And I'll skip Dworkin's latest on the Supreme Court. But to read first—to read right now, stretched out on the couch with a tall glass of iced coffee, before I do anything else—I'm torn between Geoffrey O'Brien on Fahrenheit 9/11, Edward Mendelsohn on Auden's anthology of light verse, and Charles Simic on the American South. All three are writers I enjoy, whatever our differences. I end up choosing Simic's essay, "Down There on a Visit," because I'm curious: the subject is outside his usual territory.
Simic is a poet who was born in Yugoslavia and came to the United States in the Fifties, in his mid-teens. He's written a lot—if you read the poetry mags, you are bound to encounter him—and translated (Vasko Popa, for one), and he's a regular in the NYRB. No one poem can capture his variousness, but "Breasts" is a good place to start. (The poem is readily findable on the web; some of the postings, be warned, are likely to include visual aids.) This is the source of the memorable lines, "I spit on fools who fail to include / Breasts in their metaphysics," a poem slightly marred by some huffing and puffing but wonderful nonetheless.
So here is Simic, "driving around Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia" ...