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Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and translator Charles Simic adopts a highly peculiar tone in interviews. It’s clipped and aphoristic, verging at times on the flip. It leaves the impression that Simic has chosen to string together cerebral one-liners both to serve as a biography and to explicate his art.
Three years ago, for instance, the Cortland Review asked Simic how his birth in “war-torn Europe” influenced his work. (Simic is a native of Belgrade who was 3 years old when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941; he fled the country in 1953.) Simic quipped, “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin.” He responded to a question about whom he showed his work to before he sent it out with “I show it to Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson.” Asked about surrealism’s mark on his work, Simic replied that he was, in fact, “a hard-nosed
realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs.”
There’s a neatly edited cleverness to Simic’s public persona that, in many ways, matches that found in his verse. Simic’s poems and prose poems pull much of their power from the grand European tradition. He relies not only on various stripes of surrealism, but French symbolism as well, and his poetry’s formal tautness resembles the economy of Serbian poets (most notably Vasko Popa and Novica Tadic) whom Simic has translated. Yet for all his European leanings, one can’t help but label Simic, who has lived in this country since 1954, an American poet. His diction and subject matter are American through and through. He’s dead serious when he cites Stevens and Dickinson as poetic ancestors. (Stevens, in fact, often seems more consciously European than Simic.)
It was with some trepidation, then, that I opened Simic’s recently published memoir, A Fly in the Soup. The book traces the poet’s life from his European childhood through a vaguely bohemian youth and a stint in the U.S. Army to the point where he began publishing poems. I wondered if the book would merely ape the extended intellectual stand-up routine of his interviews.
I was relieved to find that that was not the case. Simic employs his tendency to aphorism to construct an altogether more generous and complex picture of his life than one might expect from his interviews.
And the poet’s sense of playfulness has not disappeared in the effort. A Fly in the Soup’s narrative persists in doubling back on itself, yet it never loses its forward momentum. Picaresque episodes from Simic’s years as a military policeman and his time in New York City as an aspiring poet and intellectual circle back to Belgrade and family, his time as a “displaced person” in Paris, and his American adolescence.
A Fly in the Soup is studded with incident and image. The passages on Simic’s childhood in Belgrade and as a refugee, for instance, take on a bittersweet patina. His pat calculation in interviews that Hitler and Stalin were “travel agents” blossoms into something at once more moving and terrifying:
It’s hard for people who have never had the experience to truly grasp what it means to lack proper documents. We read every day about our own immigration officers using and misusing the recently acquired authority to turn back suspicious aliens from our borders. The pleasure of humiliating the powerless must not be underestimated. Wherever there are bureaucrats, the police state is an ideal.
Because Simic is a Serb by birth, and a fervent promoter of Yugoslav poetry via translation before that nation’s implosion, it’s difficult not to read some current affairs into his memoir. Yet the poet handles such topics elliptically until the very end of the book, touching them through personal experience rather than polemic.
One piquant moment arises early, when Simic describes a meeting with fellow poet Richard Hugo in San Francisco in 1972. Simic tells Hugo that he’s just returned from a visit to Belgrade, and Hugo proceeds to draw a map of the city for Simic on a napkin.
“Without a clue as to what all this meant,” writes Simic, “supposing that he had visited the city as a tourist at one time, I inquired how much time he had spent in Belgrade.
“‘I was never there,’ he replied. ‘I only bombed it a few times.’”
The 1972 encounter resulted in a wonderful poem in the form of a letter, written by Hugo for Simic. The author reprints Hugo’s poem in its entirety, allowing the reader to descry the distance between the deep, if largely hidden, scars of his youth and his more relaxed and capable adulthood. Yet Simic also uses the encounter to distinguish between the dangers of war in Hugo’s time and what he dubs the “risk-free war” of today, exemplified most recently by the aerial bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. The personal widens out inexorably into the political, without getting didactic.
A Fly in the Soup’s finest moments, however, are found on the pages where Simic trains his formidable, yet gentle, wit on himself. It’s rare that a writer can dig into the pretenses adopted by his immature younger self and relate what he finds with humor and compassion. Simic does so masterfully. Take his description, halfway through the book, of a moment shortly after his arrival (in the guise of a young vagabond poet) in New York from Chicago, where his family had settled after fleeing Europe:
On the advice of my mother, I went to visit an old friend of hers. She served me tea and cucumber sandwiches and asked about my plans for the future. I replied that I had no idea. I could see that she was surprised. To encourage me, she told me about someone who knew at the age of ten that he wanted to be a doctor and was now studying at a prestigious medical school. I agreed to come to a dinner where I would meet a number of brilliant young men and women my age and profit by their example. Of course, I failed to show up.
Instead, as he relates over subsequent pages, Simic was finding his own way without the guidance of family or formal education, writing poems, reading voraciously, working odd jobs, drinking in the Village, and eventually being drafted by Uncle Sam. The last event, along with his subsequent military career, offers Simic another chance to indulge in self-mockery:
I have no idea why the army picked me to be a military policeman. They did the same with my brother a few years later, so it must be some psychological trait the battery of tests we were given brought to light. It was bizarre. I always hated cops and professors, and I ended up being both in my life.
The memoir ends its account of Simic’s life after his time in the Army; its final chapters take up topics such as food and human freedom, interspersed with the occasional memory. In these final pages, there are hints of both the cop and the prof in the clipped crankiness and pedantry of the writing.
The lack of a fitting grace note for Simic’s memoir doesn’t vitiate the effort, however. A Fly in the Soup succeeds in drawing a portrait of the poet as an exceptionally well-traveled young man. Indeed, it is a book that young poets would profit greatly from reading. In Simic’s gentle and humorous recollection of his own life, there is inspiration, along with doses of worldliness and sobriety to place it in useful context. CP