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The Monster Loves his Labyrinth: Notebooks
Ausable Press, $14 (paper)
That Little Something
Harcourt, $23 (cloth)
Absent introduction, editorial annotation, or any explicit chronology, Charles Simic’s collection of notebook entries initially feels a bit puzzling. As the pages flap by, though, we enter the beguiling labyrinth of the poet’s sinular imagination. Variously scintillating, witty, and refreshingly aimless, this book throws welcome new light on Simic’s familiar roles as artist, epicure, aesthete, and witness. Simic on literary criticism: “Gombrowicz, too, used to wonder, how is it that students understand novels and poems, while literary critics mostly talk nonsense?” Or: “God died and we were left with Emerson. Some are still milking Emerson’s cow, but there are problems with that milk.” Simic on genre: “The lyric poem is often a scandalous assertion that the private is public, that the local is universal, that the ephemeral is eternal. And it happens! The poets turn out to be right. This is what the philosophers cannot forgive the poets.” Simic on American foreign policy: “The President says: ‘Let’s drop bombs on some country until they start loving us.’” And Simic revealing his own interior landscape: “With its bloodshot eye, the window searches the evening sky.” “Here’s the first rule of insomnia,” he tells us. “Don’t talk to the heroes and villains on the screen.” Every page of this book provides a remarkable glimpse into the mind of one of our essential poets—the spooky strangeness of his imagery, the pithy exactness of his observations, and his sensual devotion to art, music, and his own literary forebears. Invaluable, also, is the reward of turning to Simic’s latest poems in That Little Something after the notebooks. Simic has often been labeled a surrealist, and indeed no one can deny the dreamlike quality of the juxtapositions in his poems. But this poetry is no portrait of subconscious disorder or suspension of technical control. In fact, what remains interesting is how tightly composed and deliberate his poems appear, especially after the staccato flashes of the journals. “The likelihood of ever finding it is small,” the title poem begins. “It’s like being accosted by a woman / And asked to help her look for a pearl / She lost right here in the street.” This nagging chagrin, this skeptical search for what’s lost and precious, follows the speaker: “And why, years later, do you still, / Off and on, cast your eyes to the ground / As you hurry to some appointment / Where you are now certain to arrive late?” Packed into square stanzas, the language of this volume is expertly measured, melodic, and declarative. Rarely do we see a “perhaps” or “could.” Wonderment and doubt feel insulated inside the stark, strange specificity of objects and awareness. The book’s final virtuosic section meditates on eternity, mortality, and the ineluctable movement of time. Simic anchors his subjects firmly to the symbolic gravity of the tangible: “I come with an expiration date. / My scissors cut black cloth. / I stick silver pins into a tailor’s dummy, / Muttering some man’s name / While aiming at its heart.” Readers will find in these books not only new access to Simic’s omnivorous and eerie awareness, but also a stronger sense of how that awareness takes and makes form.
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