The images evoked by the title of Charles Simic’s newest collection of poems, My Noiseless Entourage, serve as an effective introduction to this book, suggesting the silent, perhaps even invisible followers that haunt many of these poems. Such presences will seem familiar to readers of Simic’s earlier work; they could appear in many of his settings, silent except for their breathing witness to things which can scarcely be named. Simic’s readers have often noted a sort of central European sensibility in his work; part of that sensibility rises from the vague sense of threat such noiseless watchers create.
Often Simic’s poems hint at violent events which are about to take place just outside the viewer’s sight. “Shading Exercise” from the first section of this volume sets a typical scene. It begins with a sun-baked street on which a child plays, alone except for his shadow. Indoors, his parents sit in a darkened room in a house where the cellar stairs are rarely used anymore, the speaker says, as if they have earlier been put to some unspeakable purpose and now must be avoided. When evening’s shadows arrive, they are “like a troop of traveling actors dressed to play Hamlet [pr. c. 1600-1601],” a play by William Shakespeare marked by unspoken suspicions, madness, and death. In the poem’s last quatrain, the speaker introduces an aesthetic issue: “What to do with the stones in the graveyard?” The graveyard has not been mentioned before, perhaps because, as Simic notes, it seems incompatible with the sun’s glare that opened the poem. “The sun doesn’t care for ambiguities,” Simic says, “But I do. I open my door and let them in.” Those ambiguities, shapeless terrors, nameless threats, insistent graveyards create the world of Simic’s poems and perhaps hint at central Europe’s history of dark events.
These settings are both familiar and always new. In “To Dreams,” the speaker says that he is “still living at all the old addresses,/ Wearing dark glasses even indoors.” They are addresses where neighborhood shops are open into the night for solitary shoppers, where shabby theaters show “grainy films” of the speaker’s life. In “The Alarm,” this is an urban world where windows are filled with faces of those who seem to see an invisible disaster. Although some cover their children’s eyes, their voices are calm when they call out, as if they live somewhere in a past time “less violent than ours,” as if the bloodshed of the times has inured them to crisis.
“Fabulous Species and Landscapes,” as its title suggests, is a series of glimpses into nightmarish settings and events. An arm rises from an undertaker’s basement to steal a watch. A birdcage holds only a disembodied tongue which asks how long the restless night will last. In a dream, the sea is like a trinket peddler and the moon, a pork butcher. In the poem’s last section, “you sit/ Like a rain puddle in hell / Knitting the socks/ Of your life” while the world itself dreams that you are turned on a spit like a roasted pig. Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film director, and the fifteenth century painter Hieronymus Bosch seem to have joined forces to make the images for these poems, whose appeal rises from the ambiguities which Simic has invited in (what sort of life can be knitted out in mere socks?) and from the sense of impending threat they carry with them, perhaps the very threat one senses in today’s headlines.
Simic’s poems carry more than a sense of growing doom, however, and this volume offers the reader a generous sample of his humor, which sometimes surprises the reader with outright joking. In “Used Book Store,” for example, the speaker examines first a novel, then a memoir about growing up on a farm and a balloon ride over Lake Erie, even a tome of theology. At last his imagination is fired by a guide to Egypt. He examines it for sand and then finds a dead flea, thinking that it might be the very flea “that once bit the ass of the mysterious Abigail,” the woman who used an eyebrow pencil to...
(The entire section is 1669 words.)