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 depend less upon the dramaturgy of line and stanza breaks) act as a box. Simic has written some of the finest contemporary poems in some of the flattest English imaginable, part of a general strategy of underresponse to the marvels and terrors his imagination cannot help but bring to light. He is his own straight man, a fixed and static pole around which the abundantly weird citizenry of his mind—gravediggers, sleepwalkers, hangmen—congregates.
That mind is also stocked with the horrors of twentieth-century history. Simic is alone among American poets in having seen, firsthand and with the plasticity of a child’s developing sensorium, his own neighborhood occupied by the Nazis. He was born in Belgrade in 1938, three years before the Nazi invasion. Years later, he met the poet Richard Hugo in a bar and discovered that Hugo been among the pilots dropping the bombs that Simic, as a kid in Belgrade, was evading. Simic tells the story because it happened, and because it consorts with his general taste for the ironies of fate. The hodgepodge impressions of a child, honored in all their incongruity, become, in Simic’s grown-up art, a principle of juxtaposition sometimes misleadingly called “surrealism.” In “Two Dogs,” a mangy dog “in that nameless Southern town” returns Simic to a memory of his childhood:
It made me remember the Germans marching
Past our house in 1944.
The way everybody stood on the sidewalk
Watching them out of the corner of the eye,
The earth trembling, death going by…
A little white dog ran into the street
And got entangled with the soldiers’ feet.
A kick made him fly as if he had wings.
That’s what I keep seeing!
Night coming down. A dog with wings.
The key word in this passage is “seeing”: what the child sees with his own eyes is later “seen” in an endless loop inside Simic’s mind. The difference between straightforward realistic representation and what is labeled “surrealism” is that surrealism simply drops the “as if,” giving the dog wings. This is not part of some grand aesthetic; it is a way of moving between the two meanings of “seeing” and keeping both in play: the child’s affectless registering of horrors and the poet’s transformative second sight.
If we are lucky in this life, we can tell the story of our childhoods without having to mention Nazis, or Stalin, or prison, or blood running in the streets, or men hung from telephone poles; Simic’s childhood was profoundly unlucky in that it involved all of those features, but it made him an unusually bright student of cosmic caprice. If you feel a “you” pulsating inside the external trappings of your life, then the only conclusion to draw is that blind chance put you inside the body and family and country and century it did; throw the dice again, and that same you might have perished in Belgrade, or been a Nazi, or a little white dog, or a fork, or a spoon. Simic’s early poems about objects all suppose that they have hidden lives and histories. Here is “Fork”:
This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around a cannibal’s neck.
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.
These early poems overabound with sentience, transferring the overage from Simic to the objects he describes. Simic’s reevaluation of the object world he’d found in his adopted country was his method of expressing how arbitrary it seemed that he ended up the eater of the meat, rather than the meat, the cannibal, the bird, or the fork.
Only very great poets who combine comedy and tragedy successfully subordinate the latter to the former; in lesser talents, tragedy usually gets the trump card. The comedy of ending up in the unlikeliest of places, your own life, is the dominant note in Simic’s work: the dark contents of that life only make the absurdity of being consigned to it all the sharper. Simic is at his finest when he explores the quite specific historical threats we’re prone to when we regard ourselves existentially, as though apart from, exempt from, history. It makes him one of the great poets of staying up very, very late, of “The Voice at 3 A.M.” that stands in for the unsorted and unedited contents of the mind in dialogue with itself, like two stragglers at closing time. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Who put canned laughter
Into my crucifixion scene?
The laughter spliced into the crucifixion scene is the unconscious, which makes a farce of every solemn thought by undermining its claim to control.
New and Selected Poems gives us fifty years of Simic’s poems: a warped map of a counter-America, and a kind of diary, or really a noctuary, full of run-ins with one man’s unconscious. The early poems introduce Simic’s mind by matching it to common or unsavory or overlooked features of the world—a butcher shop, brooms, a cockroach, some ants:
There now, where the first crumb
Falls from the table
You think no one hears it
As it hits the floor,
But somewhere already
The ants are putting on
Their Quaker hats
And setting out to visit you.
The title of this funny little poem is “Solitude,” a word here stripped of its Worsdworthian echoes, to say the least. How striking to find, in this same cluster of poems, a poem that regards Simic’s anglicized name with the same cool remove:
Charles Simic is a sentence.
A sentence has a beginning and an end.
Is he a simple or compound sentence?
It depends on the weather,
It depends on the stars above.
The poem goes on in this vein, suggesting, as everywhere in this work from the Sixties, that “The Inner Man” (the title of another poem) is deeper than the body, than gesture and intimacy, deeper even than the special language poets often count on to express it:
As I sit
Shuffling the cards of our silence,
I say to him:
“Though you utter
Every one of my words,
You are a stranger.
It’s time you spoke.”
This cunning bit of Moebius strip exists to foil the idea of an “inner” and “outer” man, wearing its secrets on its sleeve. It was only through great strain that his American contemporaries, learning from poets just a bit older (Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and others) released their “inner” lives in poems that (we were meant to believe) overcame the biases of culture against candor. Of course there were no such biases, only a captive audience for the most shameful material a poet could muster or make up.
Simic’s work in the Seventies and Eighties finds a plausible poetry of the self while resisting the idea that private turmoil is sufficient material for poems. The World Doesn’t End, the title of his Pulitzer Prize–winning sequence of prose poems from 1990, about says it all: we use this phrase to mark the difference, forgotten in times of triumph and trauma, between private fortunes and the overall durability of the world. A strain of Wallace Stevens boils down to learning this ratio, as in the refrain of “The Auroras of Autumn”: “an unhappy people in a happy world.” Simic’s book is a series of footnotes to that idea, a kind of autobiography of the absurd:
I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole me right back. Then the gypsies stole me again. This went on for some time. One minute I was in the caravan suckling the dark teat of my new mother, the next I sat at the long dining room table eating my breakfast with a silver spoon.
It was the first day of spring. One of my fathers was singing in the bathtub; the other was painting a live sparrow the colors of a tropical bird.