Cracking a whip is a two-part process: first, the casting-out motion, a sinuous arc slicing through space — followed by a sharp snapping-back, a reversal so acute the sound barrier shatters, shocking us awake. When Charles Simic is writing at the height of his powers, the effect is very much the same, only punctuated with an explosive silence. We are quietly entranced as he unreels his playful, sly, sometimes nightmarish situations. But then something shifts, veers off-course, swells with intensity. And what had been merely curious, even whimsical, suddenly feels dire, psychologically volatile and more than a little thrilling.
Simic is not only one of the most celebrated contemporary poets (a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “genius” grant and a term as the U.S. poet laureate top his numerous honors), he is also among the most prolific, with more than 30 collections of poetry and nearly that many volumes of essays and translations to his credit. “New and Selected Poems, 1962-2012” gathers nearly 400 signature pieces spanning the full range of his career, and it offers readers the chance to experience and reassess one of the more unique voices in contemporary literature.
Often called a surrealist, Simic writes poetry that is a far cry from the more provocative expressions of Andre Breton and the early practitioners of the French movement. Though quietly hallucinatory, his verse somehow feels strangely familiar and essentially American (as only an outsider can portray his adoptive homeland). Born in Belgrade, Simic immigrated to America when he was a teenager, but the young man was instantly entranced by the bright bustling energies of Chicago and New York. He developed a writing style with a simple diction even “a dog can understand” (as he once commented in the Paris Review), trusting his stark images and startling juxtapositions to make their mark on the reader’s imagination.
Though literary criticism tends to ignore biographical data as a key to interpretation, I can think of few poets whose early histories so clearly formed their artistic temperament and creative technique. A child in war-ravaged Yugoslavia, the poet remembers how, while the grown-ups were consumed by the struggle for simple survival, the children would be left to their own devices, the bombed-out streets of Belgrade becoming their fantastical playground. Wild pleasures and flights of the imagination side-by-side with sudden destruction and the proximity of grief: How could this not help produce a sensibility that delighted in the stunning ephemerality of the material world?
From his earliest poems, objects and conventions were simply toys that his mind could, with a child’s ruthless sense of play, dismantle and reconfigure. Thus a pair of shoes becomes “secret face of my inner life:/ Two gaping toothless mouths. . . ./ What use are books to me/ When in you it is possible to read/ The Gospel of my life on earth?” In Simic’s vision, a simple knife and fork appear as strange talismans of some primitive civilization only a poet can unearth. Wandering the tangled byways of his imagination, we discover in our own workaday streets a phantasmagoria of the ordinary. The closed butcher shop contains “knives that glitter like altars/ In a dark church”; the tailor’s dummy in a dusty window almost winces from its ordeal, pins skewering the dark cloth. And the character of the poet? “Tattooed City” begins:
I, who am only an incomprehensible
Bit of scribble
On some warehouse wall
Or some subway entrance.
Heart pierced by an arrow,
Scratch of a meter maid
On a parked hearse.
Although I’ve been an admirer of Simic’s poetry for many decades, I’ve noticed a troubling change in his work over the last few books. The sense of fevered surprise has quieted, those whip-smart metaphors wielding less of a bite. Instead, we find a curious wistfulness, a more somber tone. Perhaps it’s simply aging and its attendant weathers (he’ll be 75 in May ), which only highlight how youthful and brash his spirit has been for so long.
Yet who else but Simic could topple us from our safe perch with something as simple as a two-line juxtaposition? Here, in its entirety, is the poem “The Voice at 3 A.M.”:
Who put canned laughter
Into my crucifixion scene?
To Simic’s mind, the world should be disturbing and delightful, worthy of our pained laughter and grateful tears. His surrealism is not the fanciful landscape of a Dali or Magritte; his are the dim avenues and barren squares of a de Chirico painting that bear a striking resemblance to the city we call home. After exploring the Simic universe, more than a few of us may find ourselves walking home some evening, haunted by our own echoing footsteps, and suddenly feeling the prickling of those tailor’s pins on our tender necks.
Ratiner’s interview collection, “Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets,” has recently been reissued in paperback.
By Charles Simic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 355 pp. $30