Brute of a poet

Poetry: CHARLES SIMIC Purcell Room, London
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The Independent Culture
There are poets who treat their own books lovingly when they read, hardly daring to open them for fear of doing some violence to the poems inside. And then there are the brutes, the spine-snappers, who don't seem to give a damn. If the poems are robust enough, they'll survive. Charles Simic, over in London from New Hampshire for the first time in many years, is a book-torturing brute of a poet.

Simic emigrated to America from Yugoslavia in 1938, and there is still that growling, guttural quality to his voice. The poetry itself is deliciously weird - a mixture of the jarringly surreal and the domestic - and so is his way of talking about it. From time to time, a few idle words of explanation ooze up from somewhere deep in his throat, but they're often not especially informative. It's almost as if he's nonchalantly talking to himself in the corner of some deserted cafe, reminding himself of some of the many things that he already knows, but not going into too much detail, of course, because - well - he doesn't need to, does he? When he does look up at the audience, he kind of squints through his round spectacles as if he's peering out towards some mildly troubling sea that only stays calm as long as you keep on looking.

"I'm going to read a poem, a late - no, a mid - summer poem now called `Leaves'," he says. "I live in the woods, and so I have a lot of leaves and a lot of trees. I have to be careful about that." Halfway through the poem, he stumbles over the word "unreasonably"; his long body jerks back as if he's just leant into a neighbour's electric fence. Before "Reading History", he tells us: "This is a library poem. I have a few library poems..." A poem about his discovery of the mellifluous verses of Shelley in a second- hand bookstore one rainy evening in New York City pushes him a little way in the direction of eloquence: "This was the night that he blew my mind," he says. But by the time he gets on to reading "St Thomas Aquinas", he's shrouded himself in a cloak of nonchalant enigma all over again. "There's a story why I called it after the name of a medieval philosopher, but I don't think I should tell you what that is."

The poems themselves, bizarre, black-humoured, fabulistic, raggedly anecdotal, are as teasingly open-ended as his mind. The fact is that Charles Simic, with his air of shambolically engaging disengagement, knows more about himself than we will ever know - which seems as good a reason as any to read his tantalising poetry.