Charles Simic’s poetry is and always has been gnomic. His poems read like little messages containing clues—though often, at first sight, clues too cryptic to be put to use. It both pleases and puzzles that at just the moment when a poem seems to approach a newly discovered center of gravity, Simic is likely to twirl his cape, avoid meeting our eyes and disappear, a mime slipping through a dark curtain. His art is an absolute determination to transform into language the endless contingencies of consciousness, especially as these are colored by memory and dream, and always to do so in the guise of a nimble (and at times indifferent) magician.
With That Little Something, his 18th collection, the Pulitzer Prize winner and poet laureate, who turns 70 this year, continues. Here we see over and over again the poem as an act that sets the stopped moment against the flowing of time, sets this next to that and situates on the page the act of thinking, “that little something,” which wasn’t anything until...just now! Such transformations are accomplished through high culture and low, bold insight and cliché, the real and the surreal (though less so than in earlier volumes), gravity and comedy, wakefulness and dream. “Poems,” Simic observed several years ago, “are other people’s snapshots in which we recognize ourselves.”
Born in Belgrade in 1938, and thus into a childhood darkened and broken by war, Simic immigrated to the United States at the age of 16. His poetic voice, which is a quite different voice from the one that appears in his frequent and meticulous contributions to the New York Review of Books, is the voice of one who is ever so slightly always the outsider—a cryptic, shrewd, on-to-something voice, but one darkened by an unwillingness to assume human goodness. It is the voice, in short, of someone to whom difficult things have happened and even greater heaps of difficulty seem likely, though this is not to say that the voice is without humor. Anything as mundane as extracting straightforward meaning, however, like pulling a hefty blood orange from a small grocery bag, is discouraged. What we ordinarily construe as meaning is as elusive in Simic’s work as justice in Kafka’s or cause and effect in José Saramago’s. In the title poem he writes,
The likelihood of ever finding
it is small.
It’s like being accosted by a
And asked to help her look for
She lost right here in the
Simic’s verse is consistently marked by an informality, by a range of diction, by surrealist statements, and is almost always located in precise, minor moments of attention. In his collection of prose pieces published in 1994, The Unemployed Fortune Teller, Simic asserts that “the secret wish of poetry is to stop time.” Not surprisingly then, individual poems become small acts that set the present against not the past itself but the passage of time:
In a city where so much is hidden:
The crimes, the riches, the
You and I were lost for hours.
We went in to ask a butcher for
He sat playing the accordion.
The lambs had their eyes closed in
But not the knives, his evil little helpers.
Come right in, folks, he said.
Ezra Pound asserted more than once that “the image is not an idea.” Simic knows this. For him, the image is that trace of the mind finding (or stumbling into) a code that represents it, the mind, at work. “The poem,” he writes, “is as much the result of chance as of intention.” A line such as “The lambs had their eyes closed in bliss” or lines like “Raised as I was by parents/ Who kept the curtains drawn,/ The lights low, the stove unlit” give us something much more than just an image or just an idea. Such lines compel us to conjure, through feeling, a brief knowledge of a particular sensibility, the way the artist Joseph Cornell’s boxes (about which Simic has written with deep interest) compel us into a minor version of an imagined world, a world in which symbolic structures are personal, but not private. Clocks, watches and other artifacts of time, for example, figure largely. This language, which desires desperately to make the moment live, causes reverberations among the past, the present and eternity. At times, Simic can sound like Dickinson, first among American poets with an ear to the music of mortality:
Playing golden oldies
In the sky
Strewn with stars.
When I ask God
What size coin it takes
With stunned silence.
That Little Something has no pretense to great weight or social polemic. Simic imagines the poem not as an act of critique or outrage but as a gesture of intimacy. The finest poems in the volume appear at first simplistic, but the language is keen, and the unstated relationships among the strands of thought—memory, observation, imagination—alert us to a consciousness that emerges in us as we assemble these lovely poems. These two stanzas from “Memories of the Future” illustrate the power of such relationships:
The animals in the zoo don’t hide their worry.
They pace their cages or shy away from us
Listening to something we can’t
The coffin makers hard at work hammering the nails.
The strawberries are already in season
And so are the spring onions and radishes.
A young man buys roses, another rides
A bike through the traffic using no hands.
The reliable and instructive American poet and teacher William Stafford used to refer to the writing of poetry as riding a bicycle in the dark; for Simic, the trick is riding that bike through traffic, hands up, managing to balance a delicate movement of thought through a world of dangerous and ceaseless distraction.