The Monster Loves His Labyrinth will be one of the final titles published by Ausable Press, whose ten-year run as an independent poetry house ends in 2009, in a merger with Copper Canyon. It is an attractive volume, from the Varujan Boghosian collage on its front cover, to the reproduction of Saul Steinberg’s sketch of Charles Simic on the back. Inside is a selection of undated memories, aphorisms, observations, fragments and dreams from Simic’s notebooks. The entries afford us a glimpse of Simic’s preoccupations and passions, in a more elemental form than in his finished poems. There are moments of rare beauty and insight throughout.
The Monster is divided into five untitled sections whose organizing principle, I confess, largely eludes me. The entries in the first section tend to be longer, up to half a page or so, and center, though not exclusively, on Simic’s childhood in Belgrade during the Second World War. In the second section, Simic collects briefer entries, often an imagistic sentence or two, suggesting the raw materials of his imagination. The final three sections begin with Simic’s observations on poetry and art, but move outwards to politics, social life, and history. By the end, a picture emerges of Simic as an individual and artist (it’s an attractive one; if he’d lived in the neighborhood I’d have tossed the chops into the pan, uncorked the wine, and invited him over for dinner). He’s skeptical, funny, a little bawdy, and, notwithstanding his recent stint as poet laureate of the United States, suspicious of the governing narratives of nation and church. He is also intimately concerned with the aesthetics of poetry.
When he writes about the war of his childhood, Simic evokes the upheaval and indignities suffered by those on the margins of great events. One entry describes “a baby carriage, pushed by a humpbacked old woman, her son sitting in it, both legs amputated.” The carriage rolls away from the woman while she haggles with a grocer. While the woman screams, passersby laugh as if they were at a slapstick film: “One laughed because one knew it would end well. One was surprised when it didn’t.” In another entry, Simic describes how as a child he gathered the courage to take a helmet from a dead German soldier, only to become the object of his relatives’ mirth when his prize turned out to be infested with lice.
The boy who survived conflict and displacement remained unconvinced by the wars of a later age: “The occupiers everywhere, I note, are outraged by the bad manners of the occupied who do nothing but complain about being mistreated.” His vision can be as dry as it is bleak: “Finally a just war; all the innocents killed in it can regard themselves as lucky.”
But Simic reminds us that personal life makes its quiet claims too, no matter the madness outside. The Simic household had a maid who, when little Charles was five or six years old, would join him under the table where he kept his toy fort and soldiers. She would guide his hand up her skirt: “I can still remember the dampness of her crotch and my surprise that there was all that hair there. I couldn’t get enough of it.” He can suggest a novel in three sentences: “A life of vice starts in the cradle. He loved crawling under the skirts of his big sister’s friends. One of them let him stay there till he was an old man.” Or just one: “‘God has a plan for America,’ the preacher on the TV said just as you came to bed carrying a bowl of cherries against your naked breasts.”
The notebooks are most valuable when Simic meditates on his art. He considers how the lyric poem marries time and space through language and image, notes that every folk poem contains a weather report, and explains that poetry liberates the individual from the closure of history (“Only through poetry can human solitude be heard in the history of humanity. In that respect, all poets who ever wrote are contemporaries.”) And even this great writer knows he can never fully succeed: “The poem I want to write is impossible. A stone that floats.” No wonder the author of Hotel Insomnia and The Voice at 3:00 A.M. is up at night.
The poet cannot escape his obsessions, but he can name them, and we can peek over his shoulder as he does so. Perhaps The Monster Loves His Labyrinth will be a minor entry in the catalog of Simic’s work, but it is no less lovely for that.