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Dream time

With invention, irony, and uncanny instinct, three poets show off their mastery of the surreal

(ANDY MARTIN)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Barber
June 29, 2008

Sixty Poems
By Charles Simic
Harcourt, 99 pp., paperback, $12

That Little Something
By Charles Simic
Harcourt, 73 pp., $23

The Ghost Soldiers
By James Tate
Ecco, 217 pp., $22.95

God Particles
By Thomas Lux
Houghton Mifflin, 63 pp., $22

Whenever you hear the word "surreal" these days, it's more than likely to come out of the mouth of a pundit, not a poet. Yet back before the talismanic moniker dreamed up by avant-garde French poet Guillaume Apollinaire mutated into boilerplate lingo for anything more or less out of whack, it was a rallying cry for the liberation of the imagination - championed in Andre Breton's feverish 1924 "Surrealist Manifesto" as nothing less than the next big thing in the life of the mind and a great leap forward for modern poetry. That was then and this is now, but if Surrealism still hasn't outlived its usefulness as a shorthand rubric for the art of conjuring uncanny images and mind-bending visions that slip the surly bonds of the logical and the literal, chalk it up to an eclectic cross-cultural lineage that's sowed all kinds of wild oats and appears to have some real staying power.

Appointed last fall as the latest US poet laureate, Charles Simic has two new books out that should burnish his credentials as the alpha surrealist poet of his generation. Born in Belgrade in 1938, Simic immigrated to the States in his teens and has produced a prolific body of work in his adopted tongue that's a triumph of hybrid originality, combining a vigorous strain of Eastern European fabulism with an indelible brand of American black comedy. Gregor Samsa would feel right at home in a Simic poem, and so would Krazy Kat.

Simic's unfailingly disarming and disquieting poems are expertly staged feats of magical thinking, ushering the reader into a twilight zone of cognitive dissonance and metaphysical bedevilment lit by flashes of mordant irony and deadpan gallows humor. In "Sixty Poems," a compilation culled from his eight previous volumes, and "That Little Something," his 19th collection, all his ludic gifts are on glittering display: a crafty knack for laconic vignettes smacking of gnomic fables and parables, an unsparing attention to the forensic details of traumatic history and memory, and a sixth sense for the psychopathology of everyday life played out against dystopian cityscapes and spectral interiors.

You'd think that by now Simic could churn out this sort of material in his sleep - terse stanzas trip-wired with eldritch imagery, clouds and shadows with minds of their own, "a blur of light between the trees / Like a wedding gown made of cobwebs," and presto, another patented rebus of a poem - but you rarely feel he's just going through the motions, and the ruminative gravity he brings to his runic gambits dispels any whiff of whimsy or gimmickry. His is a surrealism with a conscience, acutely attuned to existential absurdity yet immune to zero-sum nihilism, using elaborate artifice as a delicate instrument to probe everything that makes us all too human.

James Tate began his career as something of a child prodigy, winning the Yale Younger Poets prize at the ripe old age of 23, and ever since has reveled in a life of literary truancy. Forty years on, he still ranks among American poetry's merriest pranksters, with an eternal enfant terrible's incorrigible penchant for rambunctious verbal slapstick, manic Dadaist farce, and equal-opportunity tomfoolery.

That's not to say that Tate's just in it for yucks. He's a thinking-man's screwball, impishly upending all the truths we hold self-evident. "The Ghost Soldiers" continues the trend in Tate's recent books to dissolve the boundaries between verse and prose as yet another means of rebelling against convention: long-lined verse paragraphs that switch between cockeyed soliloquies and helter-skelter dialogues almost as if ghost-written by a dream team of Lewis Carroll, Samuel Beckett, and Groucho Marx. Whether he begins with a perfectly innocuous premise ("Raking Day") or an ostensibly credulous pretext ("What I Learned From the Elves"), Tate remains intent on letting free association have its way with him so that anarchic lunacy will carry the day, proving again that he's in a class of his own as a serial disturber of our peace of mind.

Thomas Lux once described himself as a surrealist in recovery, and odds are he was only half joking: the tricks and tools of the trade employed with such snappy panache in his precocious early poems seemed to come almost too easily for him, and perhaps too often at the expense of intellectual nuance and visceral resonance. Lux might have tossed off such stuff forever if he'd abandoned his mind to it, but he's since evolved into a pensive virtuoso of pithy ingenuity, holding court on heavy topics with a light touch and running rings around humdrum sentiment with affably offbeat aplomb.

"God Particles" won't disappoint readers who relish Lux's acerbic guile and aptitude for the bizarre - witness gonzo titles like "Autobiographophobia" and "Toad on Golf Tee" - but what makes the collection more than a command performance is its concerted effort to press the soul of wit into the service of some honest-to-goodness soul searching. The mock-apocalyptic title piece is but one of a host of poems that deliver jittery little homilies on the tug of war between spirit and flesh, and attempt to squeeze a dram of tonic consolation from hard-boiled introspection. Could it be that Lux isn't just a recovering surrealist but a reformed satirist as well? On the contrary: Brandishing Occam's razor with all the more lethal dexterity has brought him full circle as a true disciple of the poetic gospel according to the charter surrealist master Paul Eluard: "There is another world, but it is in this one."

David Barber is poetry editor of The Atlantic. His most recent book of poems is "Wonder Cabinet."

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