WHY DO POETS write what they write? Or not write what they don't write? What if a poet was born in Yugoslavia just as World War II began to swallow Europe? What if he survived the terror of Nazi occupation, then, as a teenager, fled the Communist stronghold with his family, in pursuit of an American dream?
Although this biography fits Charles Simic, for 30 years his poetry has sidestepped such dramatic memoir material, rarely retreading the minefields of his youth. Instead his work has inhabited a metaphorical world, a place where stark, slippery images rub against one another to produce weird revelations, as at the conclusion of "Happy End": "And even a stick used in child beating/Blossomed by the little crooked road/My hunch told me to follow."
If you've never been to this realm before, a fine overview exists in Selected Early Poems (Harcourt Brace & Co.), which follows the first half of Simic's publishing career in roughly chronological order. Those who've been there already will find fresh stimuli in these pages: many poems extensively revised (including an overhaul of Simic's classic micro-epic, "White") and poems published previously only in small-press editions. Still, the poetic landscape is largely the same--a spare, quiet, and clear place shrouded in a kind of otherworldly strangeness.
If Simic's poems don't mirror his actual life, they do carry the strains of his native European Surrealism, which tends to arrange familiar things in funny ways. So Simic turns his shoes into "gaping, toothless mouths," in "My Shoes," and the eyes of his beloved into "flies in milk" in another piece. To ease the fear of the dark, Simic at one point prescribes "infinity," which is available at the "well-lit,/All-night drugstore/In the sky."
In transplanting this bizarre metaphor-making skill to the United States, Simic left behind a penchant for effusive, spontaneous digression, and by the late Sixties, found himself (along with folks like W.S. Merwin and Mark Strand) forging a distinctly American surrealism marked by compression, lucidity, and silence. Simic's earliest poems often fixate on a single familiar object--fork, broom, bird--and explore hidden layers of metaphor within. As these odes inch down the page, our object is increasingly abstracted--the speaker poking fun at its possible histories and futures.
Meanwhile, there's a serious, sacred undercurrent welling up--devotion to the thing as mysterious, spiritual icon. One poem about stone, for example, ends with the discovery of "star-charts/On the inner walls." Simic's complement to this strategy is to focus on a single abstraction and draw out its physicality: "Dismantling the Silence" tells us to search for silence's heartbeat by crawling "far into the empty heavens."
The most pervasive mode in this gathering, and in Simic's entire corpus, is the compressed story-poem. His are frequently narrated by, or trained sympathetically on, some marginal character--village idiot, stripper, prisoner--or some unnamed everyman who's never quite certain about his position in time and space. A poem called "Midpoint" begins: "No sooner had I left A./Than I started doubting its existence." The speaker then recalls with gusto the details of that place (a woman buying "the last casaba melon"), until his mind shifts to his current destination, B., which also doesn't seem to exist, despite his intimate knowledge of it.
Simic knows how to make more from less, and miniature narratives like "Midpoint" radiate huge, mythic energy. His personas may be seedy or peculiar, but they find themselves in the most essential human dilemmas: Where have I been? Where am I going? And despite the absurd happenings, there's often a nagging familiarity in the air: Haven't I been here before?