Charles Simic, America’s barnyard insomniac, our modern-day beatnik, the only poet equal parts Robert Frost and Charles Baudelaire, has written some of the strangest, most opalescent poems of the past half-century, many of them collected in his new book, “New and Selected Poems.’’
Beginning with the Belgrade-born poet’s earliest work and ending in the near present — with Simic, post-US poet laureate, edgily ensconced in New Hampshire — it is a marvelous and punishing assembly. Here is the poet in purgatory, as a witness, as a sensualist chum. Here is the poet, estranged from himself, consuming a new American identity, one poem at a time.
Like Frost and so many other American greats, Simic writes in prosy rhythms. He began publishing at age 21, and his early poems arrived, line by line, as if machine stamped. The sentences are short, and their rough syllabic rhythm seems to strike an oracular tone, until you realize many of the poems have to do with the certainty of the uncertainty of things. Especially of thoughts: “At night/As I sit/Shuffling the cards of our silence,” he writes in “The Inner Man,” one of the finest poems he has written to date. “I say to him:/‘Though you utter/Every one of my words,/You are a stranger./It’s time you spoke.’ ”
Simic took his time in allowing this man to speak. In his first couple books, he flaunts an almost occult virtuosity, bringing brooms, stones, shoes, knives, churches, not to mention a bevy of animals to life. His menagerie of insects and animals and objects tilts to the fallen and forgotten — ants and mice, worms, rats and flies — nature’s janitors, basically. The working poor. In the astonishing poem, “Ballad of the Wheel,” he proves how a homely subject can be holy with the right kind of lyricism and repetition. “[S]o that’s what it’s like/to be chained to the wounded rib of a wheel/to move as the hearse moves/to move as the lumber truck moves/down the mountain at night.”
In his 30s and 40s Simic finally allowed this inner man to speak, if through the lives of imagined others, and the glimpses of the poet’s past strike ground in poem after poem like bolts of forked lightning. Simic was, after all, born in the former Yugoslavia in 1938, witnessed the Nazi march across Europe, and remembers seeing hanged men dangling from street poles. “We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap,” he writes in the extraordinary sequence, “The World Doesn’t End,” which moves with the deep refractory weirdness of Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum.”
Simic has many registers. He can write tightly carpentered, short-lined stunners as well as Kay Ryan, but he is also comfortable in quatrains, using a looser syntax, and a longer line.
His poems about New York City in “Hotel Insomnia” seethe with romantic visions of a sort sadly missing from so much contemporary poetry. “Happiness,” he writes in the appropriately named “Romantic Sonnet,” “you are the bright red lining/Of the dark winter coat/Grief wears inside out.”
There are a great many happy accidents at work in Simic’s peculiar aesthetic. His poems have the sound of American vernacular, but they have the discursive oddness of European poetics. As he describes in the memoir, “A Fly in the Soup,” Simic and his mother were jailed in Belgrade for a year before they could emigrate to Paris in 1953. He read poetry in French, memorizing work by Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Verlaine. He lived in New York, and finally Chicago. He was a refugee, but in “New and Selected Poems” it’s possible to chart what an unusual capacity he’s had to live in the in-between states of existence.
Unlike Adam Zagajewski, Simic does not obsessively map his past.
If anything, his poems circle a constant sense of imposture. Even on the most serious topics, like his survival of the war. In “Cameo Appearance,” he writes, “I had a small, nonspeaking part/In a bloody epic,” story-boarding his own past as if it were a big-budget Hollywood film. “I was one of the/Bombed and fleeing humanity.” Simic has a gimlet-eyed view of power and violence and writes against it rather than toward a reader’s sympathy for his once-former self, partly because he doesn’t believe in that self. “I’m Charles” he writes, “My mind’s a ghost house/Open to the starlight./My back’s covered with graffiti/Like an elevated train.”
This is how the spirit travels through space: paint-splattered, full of echoes, destination mysterious. In “New and Selected Poems,” Charles Simic arcs out into the mysterious depths of his own life only to circle back. He finds himself, across all these decades, bewitched by the same tableaux: stores at night, churches in the gloaming, a door left ajar. He is asking the same questions, only with the stakes rising. “Time’s hurrying me, putting me to the test/To picture to myself what comes next.” It’s not the road less traveled, he knows, but the road everyone travels. This is a poet who won’t blink.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review.