Charles Simic’s Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell was reissued in 2011 and now is followed by the publication of his New and Selected Poems: 1962–2012. The two books together give us a rich picture of Simic’s art: like Cornell’s boxes, Simic’s poems are little rectangles full of surprising juxtapositions, optical illusions, effects of scale, dreams, riddles, jokes, demurrals, boasts, all framed arbitrarily and rather impersonally by Simic’s manner, which finds an eerie evenness no matter what his poems contain.
Simic, who emigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia, via Paris, when he was sixteen, has long been associated with the Eastern European writers he has translated so beautifully, especially the Yugoslavian poet Vasko Popa. Popa’s sequence “The Little Box” (which Simic translated) immediately suggests Cornell, but once we put Cornell and Simic side by side we can see what a fundamentally American character Simic is, with his noirish love of alleys and jazz clubs and cinematically bleak interiors. Here is Simic on the affinities between Cornell and another of his heroes, Emily Dickinson:
Cornell and Dickinson are both in the end unknowable. They live within the riddle, as Dickinson would say. Their biographies explain nothing. They are without precedent, eccentric, original, and throughly American. If her poems are like his boxes, a place where secrets are kept, his boxes are like her poems, the place of unlikely things coming together.
Of course Simic exaggerates, a little, the futility of biography: Dickinson’s biography explains a lot about her reclusiveness and perhaps something about her work (Lyndall Gordon has argued, persuasively, that she was an epileptic, and therefore afraid to leave the safe haven of her household), and Cornell’s suggests that the great recluse of Utopia Parkway may have had a late affair with the young Susan Sontag. But the point is precisely the exaggeration: Simic, all too burdened by his own past, returning again and again to the nightmare environment of his wartime childhood, dreams of the kind of purity and existential nakedness he attributes to Dickinson and Cornell. His work is a great search for sites and subjects where such innocence is plausible; it almost never works, but the high tension in his work—which has seemed to some too cool, too composed—is to watch him erect edifice after edifice, all almost certain to fall, against his past.
A poet doesn’t have the benefit of actual boxes, glazed and left out in the sun, or baked in the oven (as Cornell’s sometimes were) until they look antique, nor does he have actual clay pipes and taxidermy birds. He has to do the work of the box with language, language that also has to do the work of the contents of the box. This is the brilliant split in Simic’s work. His temperament (cool, bemused, curious) and his own formal measurements (few poets of his caliber …