June 5, 2008


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That Little Something, by Charles Simic (Harcourt, 2008, 73 pages)
By Dan Szczesny dszczesny@hippopress.com

There’s something a little different about Charles Simic.

At a recent uber-poetry reading in Concord, Simic, of Strafford, the country’s current Poet Laureate, read last behind two other Granite State powerhouses and former poets laureate, Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall.

All three are leading voices in English-language poetry. All three have won major literary awards. And all three are well known in their home state. But Simic stood off a bit. Speaking in a high accent that betrayed his Belgrade-born roots, and keeping slightly more to himself than the other two, Simic seemed less at ease with the crowd, more ethereal and bemused at being there than his two colleagues.

Hall and Kumin live at the two ends of Mt. Kearsarge and write earthy meditations about farm life, mortality, loss and love. Their dry wit and deeply experiential prose aroused long ovations and oohs and ahhs from the crowd, like they were a fireworks display. Simic read quickly, seeming ill at ease, and received polite applause, and later at a three-way signing, was often left alone at his table watching Hall’s and Kumin’s line extend out the door.

The reaction seems absurdly unjustified, as Simic’s impact on modern poetry and thought in many ways runs even deeper than that of any other contemporary poet. I was unable to puzzle this out until now.

Simic’s first full new book of poetry since he’s been laureate, That Little Something, is a perfect lesson on why Simic is both important as a poet and difficult to appreciate on a regional level at the same time.

Simic’s foundation, and dark, moody humor, can be traced back to war-torn Europe, where as a child he was displaced for most of his young life before immigrating to the United States when he was 16. His views and metaphorical tone have little to do with stone fences, farms and church suppers. Simic may be from the Granite State, but he is not a New Hampshire poet.

His minimalist, sharp prose flings itself at the reader, with an abruptness that is instantly, identifiably global in imagery and thought. There’s very little story here, mostly stylistic metaphor and word play that is sometimes amusing, often melancholy and almost always terse.

Lines like “Father is on all fours / Looking for a black cat” from “Murky Memories” or “A single tree in the yard / leafless and misshapen” from “House of Cards” seem defiantly unfinished and raw. And indeed, one of Simic’s defining trademarks is fast, hard explosions of prose designed to jar the reader and force them to pick up the pieces.

In interviews, Simic has said that the very act of writing is the creation of art that goes beyond the creator, a kind of hands-off approach that by definition makes the poetry bigger than the poet. That kind of methodical distance between the poet and the poem is illustrated in the collection’s one long piece, “Eternities,” a beautiful ten-part marathon of disconnected but rich images such as “The sprawling meadow bordered by a stream / Naked girl on horseback” and “The air rich with the scent of lilacs / And banked fires of backyard grills.”

The challenge of Simic’s poetry is, of course, accessibility and relatability. He demands your attention, and when he has it, he pretends he doesn’t care. That kind of icy distance can be off-putting, and certainly That Little Something has its share of frigid prose. But even the coldest, most barren of landscapes can be beautiful in the right light. A —Dan J. Szczesny