Simko’s Silver Hand of Light

by Dean Robertson


            Language and images flourish deftly while syntax and sound bloom precisely in Daniel Simko’s book The Arrival. Simko’s poetry is like “the painter, who hallucinated/his way across the canvas in hope/ that everything would remain precisely/as he wanted it to happen…” The poems’ surrealism marked with swift line breaks and straightforward language, leads the reader through post-bellum and post-communist Eastern Europe. During the first part of the book, the speaker travels through place seeking a sense of self, a lost language, an identity, and in the process, unfolds a landscape stitched with quiet. It is out of this quiet that Simko is able to explode as his poems “defin[e] everything in precise focus.”


            The Arrival begins with a “Departure” a poem that reads of change, of movement from physical place to spiritual; the speaker is “changing the address” of geographic location, his voice not only revising his physicality but also his identity. Further, the notion of “address” can be taken as a poetic address that shifts from the personal to location; the addressee is no longer a specific person but a place: the spiritual home of the poetic voice. This voice proliferates in “the blunt argument of morning,” a space where “solitude [is found] in place of a body.” These first poems are reticent, written in short, straightforward lines setting the tone for the rest of the book and it is this preciseness that captures Simko’s poetic impulse which enters the reader “like an angel enters a scythe.”


            The title poem of the collection breathes life into the static quiet of post-war Europe. Based on a photograph “almost taken in Berlin,” the poem begins with straightforward description: “Wet slate roof. Pigeons. A light.” The poem reads graphically and drawn: a scene exposed by the words of the poet and the eye of the photographer tensely weaves images into a tight lyrical bomb. “The Arrival” is just one poem that begins like a “silent candle shin[ing] in the dark room.” “Still Life: A Treatment” begins as an ordinary list of breakable objects, yet moves into a space of dislocation, “thousands of miles away [from] the Danube.” The poem builds on absence, distance, and silence; indeed the poem implores “Be silent…Be silent…” and it is this presence-less that only intensifies as images like “frayed poplars…addressing the dark windows” layer the lyrical spheres of the poem.


            It comes as no surprise that Simko finds inspiration in still life and photography; both of these artistic expressions unfold from their inactivity, their reticence and his poems function within this frame: language acts as the objects, hinting at movement and because language is objectified, each word and its definition open-up meaning in deftly precise and new ways. Simko’s ekphrastic poems are haunting and mysterious, reading much like Käthe Kollwitz’s art. His poem “Three Songs” based on three studies by Kollwitz, read much like her accounts of the human condition. The poem begins with literal framework, setting tone and place as “Walls are leaning…A child strokes the mane of a horse…after a run to nowhere.” The sense of missing-ness pervades as silence distills between the lines. A sense of suppression unwinds the poem, especially in the last couplet of the first part when the reader finds “someone is sleeping so deeply/it looks as though he is about to speak.” Death suppresses the voices of the person “learning to speak last words;” dread and unease stitch the human condition together, while silence prevails over the loss of the body. As this song of humanity is “about to end in a nearby grove,” the speaker is able to turn his poem into a lament for the lost, for those who’s “battered clothes [are] longing for a body.”


            Simko’s poems read like hallucinations: surrealism prevails, causing discomfort as Simko’s expressionist lines lend meaning to harsh imagery and concepts. The poems are heavy, gray, and shadowed, marked with the loss of identity and self, language buried like a body underneath snow. But it is this loss and instability of meaning that leads to an ironic personalism within these poems. The words, tone, and images are cold and distant, but precise and intimate. This is the reason why I fell in love with this book: the compounding of these opposites orders a tension that pulls the reader into the book. I found myself shivering with both sorrow and elation: there is a deep Eastern European sensibility, one that is able to illustrate grief and pain in lyric imagery without actually uttering these words. The poems are painted with the past, history “weaving [its] blood through the wrists of the damned” and Simko is able “to freeze into glass” the landscapes of Europe and its bitter past, creating an ethereal tension of living and death. If “the world is a room, growing dark[,]” it is Simko’s poetry that relieves this darkness.