Monday, July 28, 2008

Inside a Poet's Notebook: Charles Simic, THE MONSTER LOVES HIS LABYRINTH

Yes, there is a difference between a relaxed writer of poetry and a poet who resolutely hones his work to the finest standard. And it's not just in the number of books sold.

THE MONSTER LOVES HIS LABYRINTH, just released by Ausable, is a startling, stunning, exhilarating look at Charles Simic's own notebooks of memories, comments, in turn cynical, amazing, and funny. Some of these fragments -- rarely more than three paragraphs long, and many just a sentence or two -- have appeared earlier. But now there are 109 pages of them. Some are tight little anecdotes, like the one that opens the book:

Late night on McDougal Street. An old fellow comes up to me and says: "Sir, I'm writing the book of my life and I need a dime to complete it." I gave him a dollar.

But the swing of the second half of this anecdote, whether true or not, is pure Simic, because it moves to the woman who proclaims herself Esther, the goddess of love, and who threatens to put a curse on the giver if there is no gift forthcoming. Want to guess how much she received for her words? ...

There are snippets of childhood in wartorn Europe here too, vivid enough to each spawn a story, a poem, a novel. How the boy ended up with a German helmet infested with lice. What it was like to have the maid offer a feel under her skirt. Bits of father and grandfather stories.

This is a book to keep handy for repeated readings. With so many surprises interleaved in its pages, it's never going to grow "too familiar." Here's a final sample, two separate entries from page 99:

They were cutting someone's throat in a field across the road. "Can I go and watch?" I asked my mother, God forgive me.

A poem is like a bank robbery. The idea is to get in, get their attention, get the money and get out.

What good fortune for us that Simic has slipped away from the distractions of being U.S. poet laureate, and has returned to his writing, with its delicious combinations of America and Europe, love and war, tongue in cheek and lifted eyebrow.

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