(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Night Picnic continues to explore the area Charles Simic has set out for himself: the surface of the ordinary, and the dreams and nightmares beneath. Few contemporary poets have had as much influence as Simic on contemporary poetry, and yet he writes superficially quiet poems, dwelling on simple, recognizable scenes. The technique by which landscape or still life turns to nightmare is subtle and full of tricks. The poem often seems to be about one thing and may have a friendly, even nostalgic tone, yet the uncanny has been admitted as early as the first line. The weirdness grows with the poem and takes over by the end. The effect is often similar to looking for the first time at a painting by René Magritte. Even the title suggests Magritte’s sort of surrealism, where the light and dark are reversed, and where the expected is balked at every turn.

Simic grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and his early childhood experiences included wartime evacuations, anxiety, and sudden changes of plans. “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he said in an interview for Cortland Review. He spent time as a troubled young teenager studying English in Paris, then sailed for America while still in his teens to rejoin his father, who had left the country earlier. By young manhood he had experienced war, dislocation, family separation, and poverty, and these experiences are present directly and indirectly in his work. That stability is illusive, that what you see is usually not what you get, serves as a major theme in his work.

However, the poems do not present broad, sweeping statements. The trademark Simic poem is cryptic and elusive, focusing intensely on what appears to be a small scene or even a trivial item that turns out to have massive reverberations. It is part of Simic’s style to be small, separate, enclosed. His poems do not pile up into an epic or reach out through myth and history to make some summary statement. Each poem is itself, and can be read and appreciated independently, although reading them all together does give the reader more of a sense of what Simic is doing. There is a sense of perverse haiku, haiku gone mad, to some of his work, as if the haiku writer had looked at the subject so long he had looked right through it or maybe melted it with the heat of his gaze. Hard parts bend, soft parts are frozen and glazed. Shadows fall far from their source. There is a constant sense of doubleness in his ironic suggestions that what is most beautiful is ugliest, what is desirable is repellent, the dark cloud and the silver lining are really one substance. Sometimes this implication is obvious, as in his tale of the window decorator who is putting a Christmas tree and lights in the window of a funeral home, with cotton snow “From the same stash . . ./ You plug ears and noses with.” Sometimes the suggestions are more subtle, and might even be missed except for the context of his other poems. Whether subtly or obviously, the poems assert that the surface is a lie.

Simic’s quirky vision does not seem to alter much throughout the body of his work. “Fork,” one of his earlier poems, perhaps the most frequently anthologized, sets the tone for his oeuvre. The poem begins: “This strange thing must have crept/ Right out of hell./ It resembles a bird’s foot/ Worn around the cannibal’s neck.”

The estrangement of the ordinary, the linking of daily routine with chaotic nightmare, appears in much of his work, including many of the poems in Night Picnic. In addition to Magritte, some of his poems may make the reader think of the photographs of Diane Arbus, whose photographs of gritty detail surrounding her subjects turned ordinary clutter and trivial disorder into pathology. Yet while Arbus’s photographs tend to evoke sadness, even despair, there is a positive element—as there is in Magritte—to Simic’s work. There are sometimes suggestions of transcendence in the darkness and jumble, although certainly not always. The grotesque is sad and comic; weirdness can be a relief.

Some of the poems in Night Picnic are more superficially coherent than is usual with Simic, yet there remains an element of oddness in even the most unified poems. “Book Lice,” for instance, begins with the lice: “Dust-covered...

(The entire section is 1749 words.)