Charles Simic and I both grew up in Belgrade—then Yugoslavia and now Serbia—he later and harder than I. Immigrating, he has become a notable American poet and prosaist, winning numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship. He has published 20 volumes of poetry and several of prose, as well as verse translations from diverse Yugoslav dialects. Until recently, he taught at the University of New Hampshire. He appears now with The Lunatic, a volume of verse, and The Life of Images, selected prose. The former has on its cover two suited male figures shaking hands, but headless and with knobs at the joints, marking him as a surrealist, which he concedes only to his earliest efforts.
Now, it seems to me that surrealism was useful in arousing poetry and art from the doldrums created by epigones of symbolism. But it has outlived its uses in our times, where all barriers are down. Yet Simic, denials notwithstanding, seems to have persisted in this mode. Let us inspect a couple of poems that, though short, differ from the longer ones only in length. Here is “Our Gang.”
Around a street lamp
One and all.
Return to sender.
We know neither who our gang were, nor who their sender is or how they can be returned. How, then, can we empathize? Still, if hell has street lamps, it cannot be all that bad. Here is “Passing Through.”
Smaller than a flea
Snuck over my pillow last night,
Unbothered by me.
Abject and humble,
And in a rush, I bet,
To get to a church
And thank his saints.
This has the absurdism of the surrealists, but does not amaze, amuse, or challenge the imagination. Some people may think it funny, although I find it inferior to a man slipping on a banana peel. And much more pretentious. There are altogether 70 poems, none of them drawing us in.
So let us move on to the prose of The Life of Images, which is happily antithetical. It offers insight and wit, thoughtfulness and relevance, and lively communicativeness. And a style that, idiosyncratic yet conversational, is literary in the best sense of that word. It is true that many of these pieces are book reviews; but even if assigned rather than solicited, they are nevertheless highly individualistic, transcending the merely occasional. There is to everything a kind of Balkan vitality reminding us that the words “enthusiasm” and “inspiration” are essentially synonyms for gifts of the gods or muses.
What are Simic’s enthusiasms? Poetry and philosophy, food and wine, the arts, good company, cities, family, but also sympathy for well-observed strangers, even animals, and hatred and contempt for those who deserve it, even if they are the powers that be—especially then. Eroticism is also enjoyed, but not in excess: “Honestly, what would you rather have,” he asks, “the description of a first kiss or of stuffed cabbage done to perfection?” Accordingly, two of the most glowing essays are “Fried Sausages” and “The Romance of Sausage.” Sometimes the loves of poetry and food coalesce: “Out of the simplest and often most seemingly incompatible ingredients and spices, using either tried and true recipes or concocting something at the spur of the moment, one turns out forgettable or memorable dishes. All that’s left for the poet to do is garnish his poems with a little parsley and serve them to poetry gourmets.”
Simic is, like so many artists, a bundle of flagrant contradictions.
Times Square on a Saturday night is the place to be. A city with its crowds, traffic, movies, saloons, jazz clubs, beggars, muggers, and yes, the smell of fried sausage, has always been more attractive to me.
Nature is where yokels lived, idiotikos, as ancient Greeks used to call the unfortunates outside the polis. . . . [I]dealized nature has always struck me as a fool’s paradise.
But then, also: “My most original achievement may very well have been my odd insistence that the only way to tell human beings about angels is to show them a blade of grass.”