Themes and Meanings

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Central to understanding much of Simic’s work is realizing his belief that poetry can be a way to think. By starting with the certainty of the physical, the poet moves into areas that are more uncertain, intangible, and transitory. Simic wants to emphasize that all one knows of the imaginative, intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual worlds is gained from observation of surrounding things. As this poem begins with the certain objects of a butcher’s shop and progresses into less tangible considerations, it may symbolize the poet’s wish for readers to proceed in the same manner, from the material things of this world into a place that provides less certainty but more insight into the things around them. Thus, on one level, this poem does not supply a meaning as much as invite the reader to create one out of the objects found within it. However, this approach does not mean that a poem by Simic can mean anything that anyone wants. The poet has sent the reader in a specific direction, and that direction has been influenced by the person who is already experiencing the butcher shop.

In a setting typical of much of Simic’s work, the speaker finds himself alone in a place that is dark and poorly lit. The scene retains an Old World atmosphere, one that is not often found in modern America. Part of the scene’s imagery may be attributed to Simic’s own childhood in Belgrade and Paris and his young adult life in the ethnic neighborhoods of New York City and Chicago. It also serves to summon a time before people selected their meat from rows of shrink-wrapped products in well-lit grocery aisles. In both time and condition, the scene calls to mind humans’ physical connection to the earth.

The poet’s mentioning that “I am fed” refers to metaphysical nourishment. In this way, the objects take on a metaphorical meaning. The single source of light provides the only light in the poet’s solitude. Because it is “Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel,” Simic suggests that this small but sufficient light provides a hopeful exit from an otherwise dark perspective. As the poem’s first image, the light suggests that observation—the illumination of the scene and the interplay of that illumination upon other objects—provides a way out of darkness. Likewise, the map created upon the apron and the dark church’s altar suggested by the shining knives both create a sense of hope that comes from escape. That escape is neither guaranteed nor easy, but it offers hope.

These images may promise escape and comfort, but their connection to the violence that has created them makes them disturbing. The apron’s map is drawn with smeared blood, and the church is imagined from the glint of knives that drew that blood. Blood is an ambiguous image here, as it is both a necessary part of life and yet often a sign of violence. One is not usually aware of the source of life—blood—unless the body is wounded or unless one considers a scene such as the butcher shop. Metaphorically, it is through a similarly difficult act of thinking that those things surrounding one all the time are wrested from their “unmeaning” state and made to mean.

The poet seems to be escaping from solitude, from the inability to connect with others. The people referred to individually are distant and alone: the convict in his tunnel, and “the cripple and the imbecile” brought to the altar. Only the “they” who bring these afflicted people to the dark altar are mentioned in the plural. The word “they”...

(This entire section contains 851 words.)

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often refers to everyone and no one at the same time. This nameless and faceless group serves as the assumed voice of authority; it is the group most often referred to in casual conversation (such as “well, you know what they say. . . .”). In desiring healing for the cripple and the imbecile, “they” seem to want these differences wiped away, to bring same homogenous identity to the entire population. Therefore, the presence of the “they” contrasts with the individual’s identity that allows one to truly communicate with another.

In the final stanza, the poet is freed from this subsuming force through a momentary hope of a single “voice” (the last word in the poem). This voice comes from the “river dried to its bed,” which has been imaginatively created out of the “wooden block where bones are broken”; again, the violent imagery suggests that this wresting of meaningful communication will be difficult and even painful. Yet just as the block has been “scraped clean,” the poet can scrape away the inauthentic identities of the faceless and blinding mob. In doing so, he can reach that single voice that calls to him from the solitude. The poet’s wish is for the reader to hear this voice as well. The voice that the reader hears might be the poet’s call from this poem; likewise, it may be the reader’s voice that the poet himself heeds.