Daniel Simko, The Arrival.
On the night of August 20, 1968 troops of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies began marching into Czechoslovakia. Within a few weeks, around 70,000 Czechs had abondoned their country. Among them were Drs. Valdimir and Mary Simko and their nine-year-old son Svetozar Daniel, who left Bratislava, a lovely city that straddles the Danube River, for the United States, where Valdimir, now Valdo, would become a Visiting Professor at Cornell University, and later head of the gastroenterology department of the Brooklyn VA Medical Center. (Mary Simko died in 2003 from a rare blood disease.)
Because of his accent and limited English, Daniel was bullied at school. Having to interpret new symbols and assimilate foreign sounds, along different routes that his neurons had recently developed, drove the future poet into a liminal area where his family's adopted country vied with the many cultures [Germans, Hungarians,, Czechs, Jews, Austrians, Serbs, and, in particular, Slovaks] that had populated his childhood. Thus, his mature poems tend to contain a sense of floating on dark waters between continents, in an exilic mode that can only be resolved in the depths of the poet's imagination. This state of mind can also be felt in his celebrated translations of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887–1914) (1):
I am reminded of a photograph of Alberto Giacometti taken within a year of his death, in which the artist is crossing a stormy street in Paris with his raincoat pulled over his head, "like a cowl." Art critic/novelist John Berger wrote: "He has the air of a survivor. But not in the tragic sense."(3) An artist survives the darkness not by seeing himself as a tragic figure trapped within its miasma, but by seeing in it what is not visible to anyone else.
Ten years after emigrating to the United States, the Simko Family was living in Ohio, where Valdo was an Associate Professor at the University of Cincinnati, and Daniel was attending Oberlin College. Daniel's original plan was to be a Visual Artist. James Reidel, his friend and later editor, wrote, "Simko took art classes in college, and when he did not take that path he seemed to be always looking back to it, looking longingly, lingering around its people." (4) However, after graduation he moved to New York and earned an MA in Poetry at Columbia University. In 1995, he received an MA in Library Science from Pratt Institute, and used his degrees for employment with the New York Public Library. His East 27th St. apartment was "full of books, where all the walls, table, and floor, were covered with books —only in a few spots interrupted with artwork and souvenirs from his travels. Sveto would jokingly say that he would wake up dead one morning buried under his books."(5)
Carolyn Forché's memoir of her friend gives us further insight into his life. "Yesterday, in the bronze light of late afternoon, in a wild March wind I walked from West to East Berlin, retracing the steps I took eighteen years ago with the poet Daniel Simko..." (6) Slowly, a picture emerges of a man whose imagination was displaced; who kept the memories of his childhood alive like a "world within a lost glove."(7); who, after trying to assimilate, realized that melting into the Americian pot meant dissolving the language of his soul. Thus, Forché' writes that Simko's poetry is "of exile and of exilic being: the past is irrecoverable, the present elusive, and the self so protean that it can never be grasped.”(6)
When we are exiled from a place, it is from the whole place, not just its people; but its streets, buildings, and trees, the colors and scents of its plants are all connected and reprogrammed in our memories and dreams. This poet recalls how a field of red poppies, and "remind you of your childhood, / or of someone who is not there." (9) "'I used to [bicycle with him] through the lush forests near the Danube bend where the wild garlic had a pervading smell,' his father recently wrote, '…and through the corn fields on the outskirts of the town where the paths were strewn with wild poppies.'"(10)
As he does in many of his poems, Daniel Simko addresses himself, or a revenant of himself that haunts a past lost betwixt and between. Or perhaps he is speaking of a lost love; maybe Tania Taubes, the daughter of Jewish sociologist/philosopher Jacob Taubes (1923-1987) with whom he had had an affair. Could she be the "Anne Frank" to whom he dedicated "A Poem in Your Name"?
In any case, The Arrival assembles the book Daniel Simko refused to publish, complaining that there are "too many books (which), as in the case of some celebrated poets leads to self-parody.
Was he afraid that, like Giacometti with his work, his poems were not, can never be, finished? Or that some critic would complain that, although he wrote in fluent English, that language was not the one in which his soul spoke to him?
This is a poet who was completed by what was missing from his life. His homesickness is a harbinger, in that there is no place on this planet that is not is becoming poisonous to our dwelling there.
The Arrival's working title was White Keys, Dark Keys: "...and now, it is white keys, dark keys, instructed to type something into / memory."(11) Instead, it was named after one of the collection's poems, "The Arrival—after a photograph almost taken in Berlin." Like an imagined photograph, so much of this poet's life was the day-dream of an elsewhere from where he actually lived. A poem of Simko's, one that I first read in a 1993 anthology,(12) is "Thinking of My Father / On a Bus to Baltimore.":
To my ear, echoing Imagists such as James Wright (who also translated Trakl), the bus speeding through the Midwestern landscape, present blurrs into past. Why is he going to Baltimore? We don't know. Where is 80 miles from the ditch? We don't know. What we do know is that crows are an old symbol for death. (Notice, too, that he uses the image of a knife in several poems.) Then he changes gears, and remembers how his father's pants rustled when he walked; and perhaps when he was a recent emigre, his pockets were empty:
In an odd, rather beautiful, reversal of generations:
When doesn't break are the shadows cast by oneriric branches of our ancestral tree:
Then the poet awakens to the white noise of the bus. And in a momentary flash of light:
Published after Daniel Simko's death, the arrangement of the poems was probably made by the editors, who added an addition twenty-three poems under the heading, "Fragments & Abandoned Verse," to the original thirty-five. As some are fragments, a few critics have complained about publishing these. However, do we value Sappho's poems less because we only have fragments of them? Or Michangelo's last, "unfinished," sculptures? Some of these"abandoned" poems are Simko's most beautiful, one of which reveals his ability to cleave soul from embodied self:
Valdimir Simko returned his 45-year-old son's ashes to the land of his birth, where Svetozar Daniel's dear friend, Carolyn Forché, wrote: "I will place a stone on his grave in Bratislava, that he, as well as his poems, will not be forgotten."(6)
References and Notes:
1- Trakl, G. (1989) Autumn Sonata: Selected Poems. Mt. Kisco, NY.