At night some understand what the grass says.
The grass knows a word or two.
It is not much. It repeats the same word
Again and again, but not too loudly . . .
The best poems by Charles Simic harbor an enigmatic simplicity, contain an evasive weight to them. Influenced by riddles, parables and nursery rhymes, Simic populates the folk world of his poems with simple objects and puzzling omens. His poems have the atmosphere of a Bruegel feast day, without any of the people.
Born in Yugoslavia in 1938, Charles Simic spent his childhood watching Europe turn into rubble: "It's always evening/ In an occupied country./ Hour before the curfew./ A small provincial city./ The houses all dark./ The store-fronts gutted."
In 1949, he emigrated to America, eventually working as an editorial assistant at Aperture, a photography magazine.
The fact is significant. For Simic's best poems share a quality with good photographs, the unceasing attention to objects in an effort to see them anew. At his best, it is the intensity of Simic's imagination as it attempts to animate the objects and renew itself that interests us. For example, in "Fork":
This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird's foot
Worn around the cannibal's neck.
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless and blind.
Specifics, such as the fork, give the poet's surrealism the focus it needs. His catalogues of imagination improvise the souls of our most everyday objects, bringing them back to life and light as if from the world of our dreams.
His first two books, "What the Grass Says" and "Somewhere Among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes," were published and championed by George Hitchcock's Kayak Press in the late '60s, and then combined with new poems into Simic's first Braziller volume, "Dismantling the Silence" (1971).
Here, "Selected Poems" gives us some of his best work, including the famous "Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand."
When Simic's metaphors are good, the disparate things they yoke together are both contradictory and strangely appropriate. His achievement in these early poems is maintaining that tension of the suspense between known and unknown, object and spirit.
But, of course, a poet cannot perform the same trick ad infinitum --even if it is his best. So, in his later books, Simic's task has been to branch out, to grow into the tree his acorn promised.
Simic's third book from Braziller was "Charon's Cosmology." There is less zip, more speculation on death, more pessimism here. Many poems, like "The Prisoner," seem derivative of an earlier self:
It's been so long. He has trouble
Deciding what else is there.
And all along the suspicion
That we do not exist.
But "Classic Ballroom Dances" (1980) announced the rebirth of a sort of classic Simic, lean, mystical, authentic again. Many of the poems are about the poet's childhood in war-torn Yugoslavia.
The last 20 or so pieces in this "Selected" volume are from Simic's 1982 book, "Austerities." Less dark, both literally and figuratively lighter, these are mostly too cute, too pat. Bordering on self-parody, many poems indulge what Auden called "the Dada giggle": "Pascal's own/ Prize abyssologist/ In marriage./ On her knees/ Still scrubbing/ The marble stairs/ Of a Russian countess."
The tired symbols are recycled again--gravediggers, their spades, mirrors, bones, utensils. But they are no longer unnerving.
So what is the verdict? Has Simic's achievement amounted to automatic, clever writing that must forever sacrifice its future breadth and seriousness to remain its present self? Is this poet finally ensnared in his own cleverness? This collection of "Selected Poems" might make it appear so.