Welcome to My World

The Life of Images: Selected Prose
, Charles Simic
(338pp, $27.99, Ecco Press)

If you haven't dipped your toe into the world of the former American poet laureate Charles Simic, then I would recommend first investing in Unending Blues or the 1995 Faber Frightening Toys, a selection from several of his recent collections. Therein you will find a surreal world, but one which is also very funny and full of distinctive, disturbing images: Simic can move from the tragic to the humorously banal in a line. The essay 'Poetry and History' in this collection quotes 'Cameo Appearances', a typical Simic poem:

    I had a small, nonspeaking part
    In a bloody epic. I was one of the
    Bombed and fleeing humanity.
    In the distance the great leader
    Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,
    Or was it a great actor
    Impersonating the great leader...

Born in Yugoslavia, bombed, as he tells us, by both the Germans and the Allies, longtime resident in America, Simic's work collages together the wry shrug, the stupidity of war and the strange illogic of everyday life. His own identity was itself heterogynous: 'I was already a concoction of Yugoslav, American, Jewish, Irish, and Italian...' Displaced, aware of the futility of mass political movements, when he comes to view the great leader, then why wouldn't it be an actor he sees in the distance?

Unsuprisingly, some of the best pieces in this collection of prose, itself mostly taken from earlier volumes, appraise the work of artists like Saul Steinberg and Buster Keaton, fellow-travellers in the bizarre. The former's surreal cartoons, one of which adorned the cover of Simic's 2010 collection Master of Disguises
, and the latter's stoical face, pitched against a sea of troubles, belong to the Simic universe. The Keaton essay, especially, is a gem: 'he was both strange looking and perfectly ordinary' and his attitude towards the world is Simic's, too - 'reality is a complicated machine running in mysterious ways whose working he's trying to understand.' This phrase concisely sums up the basic machinery of Keaton's best films, and it is an attitude Simic shares. A radical individualist, he is drawn to others of that stamp: the box-collagist Joseph Cornell and the Romanian philosopher E.M.Cioran are also discussed.

Several other essays here shed a little more light on Simic's own working methods: he values paradox and impertinence in poetry, he is insomniac and often writes in bed - none of these insights surprise those familiar with his work. We just smile and nod sagely. Uh-huh, we think, just as I suspected. Simic likes the playfulness of prose poems, and he writes hilariously about his love of food: the essay here entitled 'The Romance of Sausages' is
actually about the allure of eating different lip-smacking different varieties of these.

When he turns to the more ostensibly serious matters of tyranny, history and war, experience has often rendered these, too, absurdly familiar and funny: in Chicago, he finds 'poor people, trash-strewn streets and laundry hanging from fire-escapes' and concludes 'This I understood. I immediately felt at home.' 'Orphan Factory' deals with what Simic precisely terms 'the dismemberment of Yugoslavia' and the 'neofascist imbecilities' uttered by intellectuals on both sides. America buys into this kind of mass behaviour, too, and 'In Praise of Invective' skewers 'the enemies of the individual' who are the slaves of ideology. These are not heavy-going ideological tracts, however: the sense of righteous disgust is leavened by absurd examples and Simic's felicitous use of anecdote, often involving members of his own family. Additionally, a serious, uncollected piece, 'Oh, what a lovely war!' dissects the war crimes of 1945 in a more sombre manner.

Simic has published several extensive collections of essays and memoirs in the past, and this anthology selects a few examples from each. This handsome volume, therefore, provides a guide to his thoughts, his obsessions and his highly individual voice. Readers of his poetry won't need any more persuading; those new to Simic could start here.
     M.C. Caseley