One of the first book reviews I published, as a graduate student nearly 25 years ago, was a rapturous appreciation of Charles Simic’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End. I marveled at the way Simic was able write so clearly and yet so strangely. You entered his worlds much the way you entered a Joseph Cornell box, knowing you would be surprised and mystified, but that you would leave feeling the artist knew what he was doing, even if you didn’t. (A Cornell collage, not surprisingly, was the book’s cover art.)
Here’s a fairly typical poem from that book, also included in New and Selected Poems:
My mother was a braid of black smoke.
She bore me swaddled over the burning cities.
The sky was a vast and windy place for a child to play.
We met many others who were just like us.
They were trying to put on their overcoats with arms made of smoke.
The high heavens were full of little shrunken deaf ears instead of stars.
Many of the hallmarks of Simic’s style can be found in these six sentences: a surrealistic playfulness—a child playing with others in the “vast and windy” sky—combined with a looming sense of dread—the child, his mother and their compatriots are, after all, no more than braids of smoke. Simic was born and raised in Serbia, and that country’s violent history is threaded throughout his work. Are the people in the poem made of smoke because they were killed in a war? Does the poem allude to the Nazi concentration camps scattered across Eastern Europe? The final image, of the night sky full of “little shrunken deaf ears instead of stars,” is bizarre and possibly horrifying, yet also something we might expect to see in an amiably unhinged painting by Magritte.
Remarkably, this amalgamation of fabulist fun and fear is compressed into 64 words—none them fancy. Like it or not, it’s quite a feat, and over the course of 50 years, Simic’s tone and method have remained astonishingly consistent. Readers who enjoy the work may find themselves a bit bewildered by the riches in these hundreds of mostly short poems.
Being a poet in America is bad enough, but being an avant-garde poet almost certainly consigns one to obscurity. Yet Simic has served as United States Poet Laureate, and his work is nearly as popular at that of fellow Laureate Billy Collins. Indeed, readers familiar with Collins’s work will find Simic’s poetry fairly easy to enter. The voice is welcoming, even when, as often happens, the poet feels bound to disclose some uncomfortable truth: “God’s refuted but the devil’s not”; “The pages of all the books are blank”; “I thought I heard myself cry for a long, long time”; “Savageries to come, / Cities smelling of death already, / What idol will you worship, / Whose icy heart?”
Moments of despair, however, are generally outweighed by the poet’s evident joy in writing about them. If Simic is something of a nihilist, he’s the sort of guy you’d want to be palling around with at the end of the world.