Simic belongs to no poetic school; his cartoon-like lyrics of myth, statement
and surreal juxtaposition find their precise analogue in the boxes of found
objects created by Joseph Cornell, about whom he has written. Born in Eastern
Europe, transplanted to New York in the 1950s, his vision of America is a
bizarre synthesis of Emily Dickinson, John Berryman and David Byrne: this
career-spanning gathering (with one notable exception) offers an ideal
introduction for the new reader.
But first, a brief word is necessary about how 'selected' this volume,
Faber's third attempt to launch Simic in this country, actually is. In 1995, Frightening
which cherry-picked from four of Simic’s collections during the period
1986–1992: Unending Blues, The World Doesn’t End, The Little Book of Gods
and Devils and Hotel
was a handy collation, became a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, garnered
enthusiastic reviews and, importantly, included twenty pages of prose poems
from the second title listed above, which won Simic the 1990 Pulitzer Prize.
These are nowhere to be seen in this new 'selected' for some reason.
Two years later came Looking for Trouble, subtitled 'Selected Early and More Recent Poems':
the 'early' contents came from the period 1971-82 and the 'more recent' was
represented by generous portions of the 1994 A Wedding in Hell and Walking the Black Cat from 1996. Jackstraws appeared in 1999, but some poems
from it reappear here alongside about 70% of the contents of the two other
complementary Faber volumes. Given this, why has The World Doesn't End now been passed over? Apart from
winning the Pulitzer for Simic (no mean feat for prose-poems) this material
is as vital as any of his recent work and possibly more important. It also
seems like short-changing loyal readers and supporters of Simic, but to
balance this, those nice people at Faber do also include material from Night
Picnic and The
Voice at 3.00 am,
from 2001 and 2003 respectively. Okay, now back to the poems…
Although Simic has questioned elements of the phrase, 'folk surrealism' 
aptly defines his tone and manner. Early 'object poems' such as 'Fork',
included here, or 'Watermelons' (in Looking for Trouble) possess an
almost Imagist impulse: they leap from one association, often visual, to another,
the reader to see it anew. Published in the mid–1960s, they now appear to be
an early strategy. More representative of Simic's developing style is
'Brooms', which, though it begins in this manner, launches off into five
sections involving Bosch, Judas, Copernicus, the syntax of fairy-tales and
a shrugging, panoramic sweep of history:
And then finally there's your
Sweeping the dust of the nineteenth
Into the twentieth, and your
A straw out of the broom to pick his
Long winter nights.
Dawns a thousand years deep.
Kitchen windows like heads
Bandaged for toothache.
The concision and telegraphic shortening within statements may owe something
to Emily Dickinson. Simic's later work, however, was to take the domestic and
the historical sweep and play between them: by the time of 1992's Hotel
knowing lyric called 'Folk Songs' begins thus:
Sausage-makers of History,
The bloody kind,
You all hail from a village
Where the dog barking at the moon
Is the only poet.
This concern with History becomes acute when Simic is creating landscapes
of totalitarian repression and
post-Cold War realism: 'Dream Avenue', a later poem, talks of 'monumental,
millennial decrepitude' and within it, 'a few solitary speck-sized figures'
beside 'the long row of grey buildings and their many windows'. Reading
Simic, however, is not a depressing experience: it is often hilarious. 'Crazy
about Her Shrimp' appears a few pages later, one of the great poems about
cooking and sex. 
Recent poems remain concerned about History: ovens, camps and guards appear
beside barber shops, car graveyards, junk food and motels. For the latter
items of 'American culture'on this list, think of the David Byrne film True
you’re close to Simic's view of his adopted country. Since about 1980, the
year of Classic Ballroom Dance ,
he has been pacing out his recurrent obsessions. Given his stated interest
in chess and the structural limits of blues, this works as a stabilising sense
of form, allowing him to pare away at the same stick over twenty, thirty
years. Another useful parallel, bearing in mind Simic's admiration of
Thelonious Monk, is to the jazz musician's redefinition of a classic ballad:
Chet Baker, Anita O'Day and Rickie Lee Jones all attempt 'My Funny Valentine'– the
essential chords remain but the interpretations differ.
Simic still worries about 'time's invisible penitentiary' and about being 'on
death row' (both from 'Serving Time', 2003), just down the corridor from the
jailors in the condemned cells ('Brooms', back in 1974). His tone,
however,has acquired extra patina and touches of southern gothic within these
landscapes. For a cartoon analogue, try the endless recurrent roads and
cliffs of Road Runner and Wile.E.Coyote, or the constant yet shifting mesa
topography of Herriman's great 'Krazy Kat'.
I have included several illustrative parallels in an attempt to give you a
position from which to approach Simic's poetry,but the essential flavour of
it is highly distinctive. This volume, even without The World Doesn't End,
is the place to start.
© M. C.