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This report is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

Laughter in the Dark Martin Caseley

In the poetry and prose of Charles Simic, absurdity and chaos flicker up and flame with sudden recognition. Not just chaos, either: news bulletins chirp away with death statistics, unprincipled decisions, politicians opting for expediency, a public indifferent or filled with hatred…all this might be termed the natural background noise of Simic’s surrealism. Except it’s not tagged and filed as surrealism any more: our still, emptied cities are de Chirico landscapes and it’s just the shrug of ‘new normal’ background ambience, no longer disturbing or even noteworthy.

Catching up on some of Simic’s recent collections – they come thin and fast – one enters a landscape of alienation, desire, park benches and outcasts. Meanwhile those in power rule with their familiar disdain, their barking edicts meriting only a snarled dismissal. In the essay ‘Orphan Factory’, collected in The Life of Images (Ecco Press, 2015) Simic recalls his dying mother enquiring of the wider world: ‘Are those idiots still killing each other?’ This was in 1994, during the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the poet had already in his youth been a displaced person and an immigrant, but her comment also carries the broader punch of a synecdoche, or the widespread authority of a saw or proverb. Yes, we sigh; the idiots are still killing each other; now, let me hear the headlines.  

The humour in Simic prevents this becoming just a depressing experience: there is laughter and recognition in his acceptance of the precise absurdity of this world, a cartoon strip pencilled in by Saul Steinberg. Too much realism dissipates in ...

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