[(essay date fall 1997) In the following essay, Doreski studies Simic's representations of space, both interior and exterior, and the ways his poetry swerves away from modernist poetic conventions.]
Around 1970, readers of contemporary American poetry became aware of a strange new presence. Charles Simic's first small press books introduced a fresh idiom and voice to readers of American and British poetry. Differing from Surrealists, Dadaists, Futurists, Imagists, and their postmodern descendants, Simic had devised an immediate and accessible poetic, one that is socially alert, political, totemic, and sometimes puzzling. His sensibility felt European, and his translations of Vasko Popa and Ivan V. Lalic revealed influences unfamiliar to most American readers. Popa and other mythographic writers, as Simic describes them, are "literal-minded in the world of multiple metaphors, and fabulous in the face of the literal" (Uncertain Certainty, 92). Simic shared their myth-making power but wielded a familiar language. His poetry spoke in the plainest of English, combining fabulous imagery with simplicity of syntax and dramatic narration to produce fresh sensations and emotions we hadn't before experienced: for instance, this 1971 lyric of self-discovery and self-location:
Every morning I forget how it is. watch the smoke mount In great strides above the city. I belong to no one. Then, I remember my shoes, How I have to put them on, How bending over to tie them up I will look into the earth.
Among the many sources of strangeness, one that strikes me as consistent and central over thirty years of Simic's work is his depiction of space. His exterior and interior settings embody a sense of displacement rather than presence, and he explores them in subjective rather than pictorial terms. In Simic's world, urban and rural landscapes and interiors become transparent to human perception and cognition. This is not Surrealism, since the poems usually locate these places in the exterior world, not in the unconscious; but it is a process that recognizes and embraces the irrational. Because the poems occur in such permeable settings, their language respects no boundaries between the human and nonhuman worlds. The common literary term "personification" cannot begin to define the enormity of Simic's deviation from ordinary Anglo-American modernist poetics. The comic or tragic emotional crises of these poems, depicted in verse of extreme rhythmic and rhetorical simplicity, implicate the setting, or occur because the setting allows, suggests, or cooperates in the emotional difficulty. In the most extreme instances, the landscape and the speaker become one, as in the verbless opening fragment of "Tattooed City":
I, who am only an incomprehensible Bit of scribble On some warehouse wall Or some subway entrance. (Wedding in Hell, 6)
And appropriately, in the opening sentences of The World Doesn't End the speaker finds his origin in the conjunction of human and nonhuman worlds: "My mother was a braid of black smoke. / She bore me swaddled over the burning cities" (3).
The titles of many of Simic's books, from What the Grass Says to Hotel Insomnia,...