The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Charles Simic’s “Butcher Shop” is a poem of four four-line stanzas that shows how the poet and subsequently all humans are caught in a solitary existence. However, through a poet’s perspective, people can reach across the distance of solitude toward communication.

The poet (someone who may or may not be the autobiographical Simic) stops before a closed butcher shop where a single light shines in the dark. Accoutrements of the butcher shop—a bloody apron, glistening knives, and a wooden butcher’s block—can all be seen inside the store. The light and the other objects serve as images that metaphorically summon further images. The light is “like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.” The apron’s bloody smears appear to make a map of continents, rivers, and oceans of blood. The polished knives shine like the altars “in a dark church,” where supplicants bring victims of physical and mental infirmities to be healed. The wooden block, “where bones are broken,” has been cleaned, but fruitlessly, because it still shows the remnants of the “river” of blood “dried to its bed.” In this final image, the poet recognizes that this source nourishes him. That feeding is not physical, however; the poet claims that it is from this dried river that “deep in the night [he] hear[s] a voice.”

As in much of Simic’s work, the poem operates on a minimalist level. Not much seems to happen within the scene itself. Instead, the action takes place in the poet’s act of making poetry—in turning the simple though gruesome effects of the butcher’s shop into something surreal. This transformation allows the poet and the reader to speculate on the worldly phenomena that allow humans to reach across the distance of space, time, and language to speak to each other.