Reviewed by Chris Faatz
Any new book by Charles Simic is a cause for celebration. He's had a long and illustrious career as poet, critic, and memoirist, and his weird, sometimes funny, often disturbing insights on the human predicament are always rewarding. Now, in celebration of his status as our new(ish) Poet Laureate, Harcourt has issued a selection of poems from his last several collections.
Sixty Poems is a careful and loving distillation of the most recent phase of Simic's work. While still clearly influenced by the heady surrealism which dominated so much of his early work, these poems increasingly reflect a preoccupation with the terrible events of our times. They are deeply moral, while not being cloyingly so; where Simic can use a word, a phrase, an image to subtly explore or delineate a particular circumstance or event, he does. Do not expect to be beaten over the head in these poems. They are exquisitely beautiful as well as timely, yet it's the beauty that remains.
For those who haven't read Simic already, you're in for a treat. His poetry is ebullient and bizarre, rife with breathtaking images, and cultured allusions to both the arcane and the mundane things that make up the daily trafficking of our lives. You're as likely to meet a loquacious insect in Simic's poetry as you are the philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas or a dilapidated volume of Shelley's verse, and all of them have equally mesmerizing and opinionated insights into the give and take of our days and ways.
Take this passage from "Evening Walk":
You give the appearance of listening
To my thoughts, O trees,
Bent over the road I am walking
On a late summer evening
When every one of you is a steep staircase
The night is slowly descending.
Or this from "Grayheaded Schoolchildren":
Old men have bad dreams,
So they sleep little.
They walk on bare feet
Without turning on the light,
Or they stand leaning
On gloomy furniture
Listening to their hearts beat.
You can get caught up in these poems, haunted for days by an image, torn asunder by a line. This is the mark of a great poet, that he or she can speak so directly and so poignantly to our realities, even when the words chosen come from the realm of the wonderful, the magical, the surreal, the thoroughly unexpected.
Having said all this, there are shortcomings to this book. One is that it doesn't include any of his utterly fantastical and bizarre early poetry, the work that was overtly influenced by classical surrealism, albeit with a compelling central European twist. The long poem "White," shorter poems from books with titles like Classic Ballroom Dances and Charon's Cosmology are ignored completely. This is a shame, since to follow in a retrospective collection the entire development of a poet's work is a joy and an education. Plus, they're just damned good, challenging, exciting poems in themselves.
The more serious oversight that comes immediately to mind is the absence from this book of any poems from Simic's Pulitzer Prize-winning The World Doesn't End. This volume of prose poems, among the first of his books published by Harcourt, is incredible. The poems are otherworldly, incantatory, incandescent. Indeed, they inch right up to the hoary edge of being revelatory; their absence is a shame.
Nevertheless, it is with joy that I receive Sixty Poems into my bookshelves. It's a great book, a companion in the many journeys yet to come, and a collection that will, I feel sure, give me both pleasure and succor as the years progress. Here's to Charles Simic as Poet Laureate, and here's to his work as an essential moment in the imaginations of our lives.
Books mentioned in this post