Charles Simic, “Tattooed City”

Tattooed City (from A Wedding in Hell)
Charles Simic

I, who am only an incomprehensible
Bit of scribble
On some warehouse wall
Or some subway entrance.

Matchstick figure,
Heart pierced by arrow,
Scratch of a meter maid
On a parked hearse.

CRAZY CHARLIE in red spraypaint
Crowding for warmth
With other unknown divinities
In an underpass at night.

Comment:

Three types of markings manifest themselves in the city. “An incomprehensible bit of scribble” could be on a warehouse wall, a subway entrance. More defined figures, like one resembling a matchstick or a heart with an arrow through it, might be a meter maid scratched onto a hearse or the scratch a meter maid put on the car. Finally, some words speak boldly to no avail: CRAZY CHARLIE is unmistakable and unknown.

The speaker identifies primarily with the bit of scribble. It cannot be comprehended but is linked with transience. At some times he’s stored away, at some times he’s moving about. He does explore the city, but it feels like he’s going backwards despite where he started. My own thought is that he’s giving an autobiography of sorts. The “matchstick figure” reduces to an arrow-pierced heart: he may be lovesick and disappointed. There’s an even further reduction to the scratch on the hearse. Yeah, that scratch could be vandalism and thus a drawing with form. But it is unmistakably destruction.

Simic’s images are very well chosen. A “matchstick figure” is the most defined of the three in the second stanza, but one has no clue where it came from or whether it was created with purpose. The heart pierced by an arrow has a purpose, but still remains vague. Only the scratch of a meter maid on a parked hearse shares in material, formal, and efficient cause. What we understand best, what makes itself most concrete, is pain.

He ends with words that might refer to the author himself: CRAZY CHARLIE. Still, these words distance the author and speaker from what he witnesses. His pain is real, he is homeless in a sense. Graffiti and tattoos can be thought marks of a cult, signaling and calling to another world. Yet it would be crazy to place the speaker with huddled homeless under the highway. He describes them as “unknown divinities;” he is merely a scribble. They are human beings who suffer every moment of every day. His words, his scribbling, his markings only echo them. He cannot do them justice. His own pains cannot do them justice.