Reviewed by Ryan Teitman
In his newest book, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, Charles Simic manages to squeeze between the cracks of traditional genre. The blocks of prose in this collection look like prose poems (most are only a paragraph long, or even a single line), but read like nonfiction. These pieces are Simic’s notebooks, and they give the reader an intimate and funny insight into the brainwork of one of the most formidable poets at work today.
The first of the book’s five sections is the most explicitly organized: very brief scenes of Simic’s time in Belgrade and Chicago. The dense language gives these short, essayistic recollections the feel of prose poetry:
Beneath the swarm of high-flying planes we were eating watermelon. While we ate the bombs fell on Belgrade. We watched the smoke rise in the distance. We were hot in the garden and asked to take our shirts off. The watermelon made a ripe, cracking noise as my mother cut it with a big knife. We also heard what we thought was thunder, but when we looked up, the sky was cloudless and blue.While these sketches may lack length, they provide a vivid portrait of a childhood and a family, whether Simic recalls finding the lice-infested helmet of a dead German soldier, or his father buying him an expensive suit (which he can’t afford) after they’ve been long settled in America.
The second section shifts gears abruptly—the swiftly-told stories of the opening give way to a barrage of aphorisms and pithy notes. Simic often presents the reader with a single, beautiful image: “Utopia: A rich chocolate cake protected from flies by a glass bell.” But other times his work riffs on and challenges conventional wisdom: “‘You can not shoe a flea,’ Russians say. Whoever coined the proverb forgot about poets.”
Simic devotes the middle section of the book to a kind of ars poetica: his poetic views are laid out in witty dictums that convey a strong faith in poetry, including the belief that some of what makes poetry great is mystery. “God died and we were left with Emerson,” Simic writes. “Some are still milking Emerson’s cow, but there are problems with that milk.” There’s no elaboration on the specific defects of that transcendental brand of milk, but Simic slyly notes a few pages later (with a single line that reads like gospel truth): “Most poets do not understand their own metaphors.”
The final two sections of the book are the least defined, which, in part, makes them the most compelling. The viewpoints and history Simic builds in the opening sections become intertwined. He jumps from vignettes about his father to bold philosophical statements about poetry. And those leaps are some of the most intriguing moments—when we can see the notebook as Simic’s mind at work. A paragraph can work as a poetic manifesto and character sketch all at once:
It is possible to make astonishingly tasty dishes from the simplest ingredients. That’s my aesthetics. I’m the poet of the frying pan and my love’s little toes.
And while Simic may run roughshod over the notion of making a definable point, that isn’t his project. The lyricism of the brief—the moment—is the maze he wants to get lost in.
Simic thrives in this particular genre, which reads like a hybrid of poetry, essay, rulebook, and fable. His notebooks deftly sketch scenes from his childhood, then ably make declarations about the nature of poetry. At the beginning of the book, Simic recalls his teacher giving him chocolates after a violin lesson in Belgrade during World War II:
“Poor child,” she’d say, and I thought it had to do with my not practicing enough, my being dim-witted when she tried to explain something to me, but today I’m not sure that’s what she meant. In fact, I suspect she had something else entirely in mind. That’s why I am writing this, to find out what it was.
Simic never discovers what mysterious insight his violin teacher made after that lesson. But he applies that sense of urgency to the entirety of The Monster Loves His Labyrinth. Simic astutely—yet playfully—interrogates poetry, politics, and his own past. We may not ever find out why Simic wrote these notebooks, but we get to see the strange and wonderful workings of one of the great contemporary poets.