Charles Simic

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Charles Simic 1938–

Yugoslavian-born American poet and translator.

The common objects Simic chooses as the subjects of his poetry are imbued with a strangeness, a surrealism, revealing the influence of the folk poetry of his native Yugoslavia. His poetic style is one of austere simplicity.

(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Michael Benedikt

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Charles Simic's first book, What the Grass Says, has a kind of rock-bottomed simplicity, a simplicity that is spiritual enough to qualify, I think, as a unique clarity of heart. Most of Simic's poems are about looking at small, modest things and seeing the sense in which they are, indeed, compounded of the stuff of poetry….

The completeness of Simic's commitment to inwardness [evident, for example, in his poem Stone] strikes me as very impressive. Subjects seem chosen for unpromisingness, according to the usual terms of both poetry and Life On Earth. There are poems about waking up, rivers, the poet's own hand,… extinct species, a roach, etc. Yet these simple subjects are always falling open, to reveal other trapdoors to other worlds. It is almost as if Simic were setting up as clear a horizontal area as possible, preparatory to his leap into vertical, lyrical space. The poems often have the same general structure, beginning quietly and even prosily, and closing with miraculous insights that break down simplistic vision. (p. 196)

[Despite] Simic's explorativeness, the work is, with few exceptions, of very high quality. (p. 197)

Michael Benedikt. "The Shapes of Nature," in Poetry (© 1968 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXIII, No. 3, December, 1968, pp. 188-215.∗

Diane Wakoski

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I have not yet decided whether Charles Simic is America's great living surrealist poet, a children's writer, a religious writer, or simple-minded. My decision in this matter is irrelevant actually because, whatever he is, his poetry is cryptic and fascinating…. [One of his poems called Poem] contains all the elements which I admire in Simic's work. He begins the poem with his father writing and when he says he "writes in his coffin" the poem has been transferred into a metaphor perhaps for the poet himself…. Then Simic adds, "I, too, would get lost but there's his shadow / On the wall", and I start thinking the poet is writing about God, perhaps death…. This kind of poem you can turn inside out, make symbolic, make metaphoric, make religious, make aesthetic, and still have a beautiful cryptic little piece, written as if it were a folk poem or perhaps a child's verse that wasn't intended to be complex at all. I like those qualities in poetry. They always restore my faith in the poem; make me feel that we should all stop talking about poetry and sit down and memorize some of the poems we love. (pp. 357-58)

Diane Wakoski, "Songs & Notes," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. 118, No. 6, September, 1971, pp. 355-58.∗

Geoffrey Thurley

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[The most distinctive quality of Simic's poetry] (I hesitate to say straight out its strength) seems actually to be its most signal limitation. This is a brilliant fluency of invention that enables him to sustain a uniform texture through a whole poem and a whole collection of poems—Dismantling the Silence —without its ever offering much substance for the mind to feed on. One would call it a natural metaphysics, except that the word suggests the essentially knotty poetry of the English seventeenth-century poets, and of their modern imitators, poetry which rewards the reader's intelligence with flight, and his diligence with release. The metaphysical conceit detonates in the mind at some...

(This entire section contains 562 words.)

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depth from the surface, and the labour taken to unravel its complexities generates a light which is logically but mystically related to the substance of the figure chosen. In Charles Simic we have something totally different. He was born in Yugoslavia and in a very material sense has remained a Slav rather than become an American. If we opened his bookDismantling the Silence at random, knowing nothing of the author but the verse offered, we could be forgiven for supposing it the work of some unimaginably brilliant translator, whose Balkan originals were blessedly free of the machine-age and of Americanization. For even the substance of his verse—its material referents—are European and rural rather than American and urban. Simic has 'taverns', 'fabled highwaymen', 'hermits', 'gallows', and so on. He speaks significantly at one stage of 'my migrant's bundle'. Otherwise, the world his poetry creates—or rather with its brilliant semantic evacuation de-creates—is that of central Europe—woods, ponds, peasant furniture (even the word 'table' has an archaic ring in Simic). We could say that he de-creates his world in an effort to forestall its non-existence: he makes mysterious the actual (America, now) and then de-materializes the mystery. So, his basic modus is the fairy-tale or skazka. There are faintly Audenesque allegories (in 'Explorers', especially), but in the main Simic practises his fabulous transmogrifications of the real after the fashion of the European poets he so often recalls—Juhasz, Kocbek and Popa. The peasant simplicity (which can comprehend so much subtlety) from time to time brings Sergei Esenin to mind…. The difference is that Esenin's metaphors are guaranteed by a basic, simple Christianity, where Simic's serene hedonism owes no allegiance to any creed or Church. It is the mid-century natural religion that breathes through [a poem like 'Summer Morning']…. (pp. 225-26)

Yet at the same time as the verse breathes … the beneficence of the grass, it is strangely hellish, almost as if it is expecting at any moment to break into the black-and-white horror film to which it is the technicolor contrast. In poems like 'Marching', Simic writes as a European in a more than technical sense…. The modus is that of Bosch or Dali. Simic creates a world in which only emptiness finally exists: it is a world of silence, waiting for the unspeakable to happen, or subsisting in the limbo left afterwards…. The dimension of menace in Simic becomes metaphysics in itself…. (pp. 226-27)

Geoffrey Thurley, "Devices among Words: Kinnell, Bly, Simic," in his The American Moment: American Poetry in the Mid-Century (© 1977 by Geoffrey Thurley; reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, Inc.; in Canada by Edward Arnold (Publishers) Limited), Edward Arnold, 1977, St. Martin's Press, 1978, pp. 210-28.∗

David Ignatow

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[The poems in "Charon's Cosmology" show] that it is possible to write intensely personal poetry without openly placing oneself at the center. In certain poems, though, [Mr. Simic] allows us to believe that he is writing to us directly. In "Charon's Cosmology,"… Mr. Simic does not write in a face-to-face confrontation with his subject and yet the effect is [direct and immediate]…. His poems echo and re-echo in the mind, as of memories of lives, impulses and cataclysms long since buried within us. (pp. 14, 34)

Mr. Simic achieves his successes with the use of symbolist and at times surrealist techniques, but beyond the mere triumph of method lies something far more urgent for him, as can be sensed in "The Prisoner." He is under siege of an anxiety that expresses itself in a highly tangential manner. We all walk around with hints and allusions that flash upon us to a life we rush past in our hurry to bury ourselves in a routine away from fear. Mr. Simic's anxiety is real for us, but his way of handling it is to reveal it to himself completely and, consequently, reveal it also to us. Mr. Simic finds his release in contemplation and in writing of it. This is by now the classical approach among contemporary poets, but he does it differently. In fact, he is quite explicit about its connection with a received religion, as expressed in the last lines of "The Cure":

               They say of St. John of the Cross
               That he would sit,
               Just the way I'm sitting now
               in a small dark place,
               and through a window
               gaze at a distant landscape.

The meaning of this passage is inescapable: that the association is with suffering contained and made sacred through contemplation and, for Mr. Simic, in the act of writing about it. It is his solution to the mystery of living that all of us confront. That he does it often brilliantly is to our benefit as well. (p. 34)

David Ignatow, "Three Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 5, 1978, pp. 14, 34.∗

Alan Williamson

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Charles Simic's poetry … has often urged on us the importance of the pre-civilized, even the pre-human, portion of ourselves, in a voice ranging from the beguiling spookiness of Eastern European folk tale, in Dismantling the Silence, to an all too modishly American brand of earthiness ("I piss in the sink / with a feeling of / eternity") in parts of Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk. Neither of these extremes is characteristic of Simic's grimmer, more diffident third collection [Charon's Cosmology]. The otherness of bodily existence, in relation to the mapped world we think we inhabit, is still the theme that draws forth Simic's most virtuoso conceits…. (pp. 103-04)

[Often] in this book, the reduction of civilized illusions is accomplished by suffering, rather than by the strangeness of inward powers. Childhood memories of war and poverty seem to lie behind many of these poems…. There can be richness as well as reduction in these memories, witness the beautiful lines in which the mother's brooding becomes a kind of predigested nest of "bones and coals," and "Only its familiar weight / Will make us fall asleep." But often, lingering over beginnings—in a literary sense as well—Simic becomes unconfident that there is anything worth saying ("Ode," "Euclid Avenue"), that "Description" accomplishes anything either for the describer or the described. The resulting poems seem at once attractively tough-minded, overly abstract, uneasily self-mocking ("In a ring of / Compassionate, melancholy / Something or other …"), and—whether Simic chooses to give them a positive or a negative twist at the end—unresolved, transitional.

These difficulties of intention deserve to be emphasized, because, a good deal of the time, Charon's Cosmology is not a very well-written book. Question-begging intensifications like "incredible longing," "unimaginable weight," "An eternity / Around that simple event," and "ultimate bakery" abound. Metaphysical clichés ("all the empty spaces," "maternal dark," "a child crying in the night") mix with the common or garden variety ("that evening / When I held you in my arms"; or the river Styx, which turns out to be "Swift cold and deep"). Beyond this, there are the clichés of cynicism which have for too long, in too many languages, been allowed to pass for either surreal or politically significant:

          And of course, right now in some cellar
          They are working over a poor guy who's got nothing to confess

I cannot see that any of these flaws are indispensable to the toughness, the distrust of decorative beauty, that Simic seems to be cultivating. I only hope that Simic does not take his own anti-verbal pronouncements so literally as to think they are; for the fulfillment of his promise—the greatest, probably, in the second generation of so-called American Surrealists—"to find an equivalent / for the ineffable" may hang in the balance. (pp. 104-05)

Alan Williamson, "'Fool', Said My Muse to Me," in Poetry (© 1978 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXIII, No. 2, November, 1978, pp. 100-07.∗

Charles Molesworth

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The writer of parables must know what he's about, even if they're Zen or surrealist parables, for the reductive logic of plot will otherwise turn into false profundity. Charles Simic has written many surrealist parables, and ["Classic Ballroom Dances"] … shows him trapped in his own style. Those who admire his work (and he has many imitators) praise its bizarre and startling freshness. But the persistence throughout several books of this mythic, folk-flavored simplicity can turn trifling and even cute. The uneven poems, of which there are a large proportion, cast a spell on the others, and Mr. Simic seems to be working out of habit to such an extent that finally the style is everything or nothing. He is not a poet who offers the promise of a new subject or a changing music….

[The images in many of his poems] are drawn neither from life nor from any but the tritest literary forms. If we read [a poem such as "Theory"] (and most of the others) humorously, as a send-up of its own portentousness, it has a saving, winsome slightness. But too often Mr. Simic has other designs, and then the false profundity comes to flood, as in the title poem:

       And the ancient lovers, cheek to cheek,
       On the dance floor of the Union Hall,
       Where they also hold charity raffles
       On rainy Monday nights of an eternal November.

The easy irony of the third line, and the hackneyed qualifiers "ancient" and "eternal," lead right back to the realm of genre painting. In Charles Simic's poetry one has constantly to distinguish between eternal verities and shopworn stylizations. (p. 36)

Charles Molesworth, "Fondled Memories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1980, pp. 14, 36-7.∗

Stanley Plumly

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Charles Simic is almost unique in American poetry. He was born in another country, into another language. His middle European, Yugoslavian origins still make him an immigrant, an outsider to formal and experiential assumptions that most American poets are not even aware they have. Not that Simic is not an American poet. In fact, Classic Ballroom Dances … is more in the American grain of [William Carlos] Williams than any recent collection one can call to mind. It is a question of sensibility. Simic's profoundly ironic and gnomic distance, his gallows humor, his implacable sense of the absurd come from a source at one remove from the popular, sometimes sentimental attitudes about what we call experience. His taproot runs to something older than social culture, deeper than the social sources of the individual. The real figures in his poems are from primitive folklore, tales, a medieval shadow-world of the literature of memory. He makes a contemporary of the archetypal by treating it as part of the condition of the moment. It is a rare existential discipline, this treating the temporal as if it were eternal, the eternal as if were temporary. His antagonists live in the present as they likely lived, we realize, in the deep past. Simic does not write so much in deep images as he writes from the depths of imagination….

His perceptions read like distillations, which is why he seems just a shade this side of the allegorical. Even his voice is surrendered to the medium, the correlative, the primary object of the poem itself—whether it be paradigm or parable, or a thing simply beautiful, like "December Trees."

Never has Simic been so vulnerable to the human needs of his material; never has he been so willing to let his method open to the pauses and pacing of the whole page, to the resonance of the phrase and the image. Poems such as "The Stream," "Elegy," and "Like Whippoorwills," move with a grace of understanding and evocation and feeling reminiscent of the movement in the best of Williams' "simple" poems….

It is as if an idiom had changed for Simic, as if he could allow his inherited language to absorb the fuller, the more direct report "of the particulars / and their true / magnitudes."

Stanley Plumly, "Of Lyricism, Verbal Energy, the Sonnet, and Gallows Humor," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), November 2, 1980, pp. 10-11.

Robert Shaw

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It is too simple (and simply wrong) to say that poets tailor their styles to gratify their critics. But critical demands, even if they do not force a poet to alter his style in a specified way, encourage him to change it in whatever way he will. An American myth of progress, a pioneer faith in Manifest Destiny, still shapes the preconceptions of many critics and poets in our literature. The absence of change, of visible movement, suggests failure. We expect each collection of poems to advance beyond its predecessor. Paradoxically, we often harbor with our demand for development and novelty, a conflicting desire for continuity, a wish to hear once more a voice we recognize. Hard to please, we want Simic to change, but not so much that his poems sound like those of someone else.

On the whole, Simic seems to have met such pressures in a measured and discerning way. He confidently begins Classic Ballroom Dances with a "Table of Delectable Contents," that shows not only his love for lists, but also his delightful mixture of insouciance and metaphysical seriousness…. Simic clearly means to proceed with the program of his earlier poetry—to search for a spiritual significance in physical objects….

Simic discovered early that even the most common objects—a spoon, a needle, a stone—assume an unsettling, but beguiling strangeness when they are regarded with the poet's imaginative fixity. Indeed, the most striking perception of his early poems was that inanimate objects pursue a life of their own and present, at times, a dark parody of human existence. Thus, the humble fork "resembles a bird's foot / Worn around the cannibal's neck." (p. 27)

The imaginative spirit of such poems is at the same time alienating and embracing. Even as Simic recognizes the strangeness of objects in their separate existence, he strains to assimilate them to his own experience. Or, making the more arduous effort in the opposite direction, he enters a foreign sphere of being and makes himself at home….

Simic has a beautiful two-line poem called "The Wind":

               Touching me, you touch
               The country that has exiled you.

This is his vision: man lives in apparent intimacy with the world surrounding him—touching and being touched by it—and yet all the while knowing himself to be an exile, a stranger who can at best only pretend to be at home here. Either the poet or the wind could be the speaker, and still the point would be the same….

[The] exile's consciousness still colors [Simic's] language as well as his view of existence. Having mastered a second language, Simic is especially aware of the power of words, and of the limits which words grope to overcome. His diction is resolutely plain: as with the everyday objects he writes about, he uncovers unexpected depth in apparently commonplace language. He chooses unremarkable words with remarkable deliberateness and sets them sturdily side by side in arrangements that seem somehow inevitable. Like any good poet, he understands the uses of silence; his poems stop when they ought to, after saying what can be said.

Understandably, Simic's very success in his accustomed modes seems to have made him wary of merely repeating himself. This anxiety may account for some of the less characteristic and, I feel, less successful pieces in the new book. Simic's new handling of comic effects, for example, is unreliable…. But when Simic tries to broaden his comic tone, he produces an unconvincing kind of surrealist slapstick, as in "Great Infirmities."…

A more promising experiment is the poem "Prodigy"—unusual in being, apparently, an actual childhood memory. Simic recalls learning to play chess in 1944 in a small house near a Roman graveyard…. The chess game, of course, becomes a symbol—of the patterns of conflict, danger and escape that make up life—but the poem otherwise treats personal experience directly, without the mediation of myth. It would be interesting to see more from Simic in this autobiographical vein; this is at once vivid and different.

Simic's willingness to balance change and continuity in his career is most clearly demonstrated by his new version of White, a book-length poem first published in 1972. Although Simic has honed his phrasing, rearranged sections, and added some new material, the poem remains recognizable to those who knew it before. The changes are unobtrusive—fine adjustments rather than wholesale tinkering…. (p. 28)

The poem itself is Simic's longest, most difficult, but most rewarding work. White, from which all the colors of the spectrum are derived, evidently represents the source in or beyond the unconscious mind from which all poetic images are drawn. In keeping with the established themes of Simic's poetry, White appears throughout the poem in enigmatic flashes, suggesting an invisible order of being impinging what is visible. It represents the mystery which the poet seeks to evoke even while knowing that it exists beyond the reach of elucidation….

In this poem about the creation of something, however imperfect, out of a pristine nothingness, Simic is remarkably successful at drawing the reader into his own creative moment. Reading these black words set on a white page, we seem to be with the poet in the very act of writing, to hear the words uttered out of a potent surrounding silence…. (p. 29)

Robert Shaw, "Life among the Cockroaches," in New Boston Review (copyright 1981 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. VI, No. 2, March/April, 1981, pp. 27-9.

Vernon Young

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Charles Simic co-edited with Mark Strand the excellent anthology, Another Republic (1976). He shares with Strand an unmitigated conviction that Armageddon is not far off. But whereas the American is seemingly prompted by future fears alone, Simic, a Yugoslav, born to gallows humour as the sparks fly upward, is hounded by the past—the past, one presumes, not simply of his Serbian childhood: the past of Europe, which he retells as a succession of mini-Grimm fairy tales at their most monstrous, peopled by goblins, witches, men marching, blood and bones, phantom horses in the snow, Mongols and foxes: in short, all the paraphernalia of what he himself calls here The Great Dark Night of History. His Yugoslavia is a peninsula of the mind, unrecognizable as the same landscape which, under the aspect of Classical and Byzantine myth [Lawrence] Durrell, with whatever reservations, has glorified. Simic would never describe Sarajevo as an "ominous dark beauty flowering under veils." In fact he would never name Sarajevo. He speaks by the fable; his method is to transpose historical actuality into a surreal key…. [Simic] feels the European yesterday on his pulses: further,… he does not merely prognosticate, he embodies.

A man makes poetry from whatever experience is most formidable to him. Simic, a graduate of NYU, married and a father in pragmatic America, turns, when he composes poems, to his unconscious and to earlier pools of memory. Within microcosmic verses which may be impish, sardonic, quasi-realistic or utterly outrageous, he succinctly implies an historical montage, as he does in his poem, "Classic Ballroom Dances" (totally inappropriate as a book title), of Europe from Hieronymus Bosch to Democratic Socialism. His acid etchings of the future reduce Mark Strand's worst fears to merely professorial tremors; the best (well, the most apocalyptic) of these were in Dismantling the Silence …, poems of dread matched only by Sylvia Plath or Anthony Hecht…. Simic can scarcely improve on the bizarre juxtapositions and the hobgoblin mid-nights of the soul which he envisioned in that volume. There is evidence among the new poems that his hallucinations are wearing thin. For better or worse he is trying out new techniques of expression, less traditional than before—perhaps I should say less dependent than before on the forms of balladry and the nursery rhyme. They are not as pictorial, not as sensual, which may be a loss. His new handling of the vintage subject is no less ironic but [sometimes] … it is much more impersonal…. (pp. 150-51)

Vernon Young, "The Light Is Dark Enough," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 141-54.∗

William Doreski

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There is language and there are languages. Our obsession with translations from languages few of us can read with any cultural comprehension may be leading us away from the traditional connotative values of English into a Peter Pan world of raw and too often merely clever imagery. But for Charles Simic the encounter with a language and a poet alien to most of us has been decisive and healthy. From Vasco Popa, Simic has learned a tone and strategy unfamiliar to English and American poetry. Simic's best-known poems, like "Table," "Fork", "Knife," and "The Bird," present objects that seem at once too innocent and too self-realized to be products of the old Adamic vision. Merwin's more topographical vision is also a presence in Simic's poems, somewhat more so in his new collection, Classic Ballroom Dances…. This book features a number of fine poems in which the speaker himself assumes something of the innocence and dramatic autonomy of the spoon or knife of the earlier work. In "Prodigy" the metaphor of chess effectively frames a series of childhood reminiscences, brutal and frightening war images. The tone is matter-of-fact. "Cousins" look "worried," but not the speaker, who takes his violent childhood calmly as a game of chess, in which "the masters play blindfolded, / the great ones on several boards / at the same time."

"Green Lampshade" unexpectedly recalls Robert Lowell in its evocation of the dead father…. (pp. 160-61)

Such a confrontation of an imagined landscape with a "real" self is not new in Simic's work, but it is fresher and more fully realized in this book. The more Popa-like Simic still functions effectively in poems like "Note Slipped Under a Door," or "Nowhere," but the poems in which Simic's first-person speaker unabashedly occupies the center of the scene are stronger and surer than most of his previous work. This speaker is not always a dramatis persona per se, but is often a commentator—off-hand, offstage, as in "Like Whipoorwills," or "My Little Utopia."

Still, in these poems the presence of the self calls attention to the central problem: the way something needs to be seen. To perceive the "Nowhere" where "No lives," where "its sky has no stars" demands not a Surreal tizzy but an openness to language and vision and the possibilities of aesthetic accomplishment in their free interplay. This willingness to experience imaginative vision and voice is the primary subject of Simic's poems, but he is most successful when he invokes a dramatic self to anchor his created world in a world of experience in which his readers can find themselves. (p. 161)

William Doreski, "The Mind Afoot," in Ploughshares (© 1981 by Ploughshares, Inc.), Vol. 7, No. 1, 1981, pp. 157-63.∗

J. D. McCLATCHY

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I do not think Charles Simic's [Classic Ballroom Dances] will add to his reputation—a by now firmly established reputation for poems in the surrealist style that has become the academic poetry of the last two decades. Simic's own voice sounded clearly through the babble of his imitators. It was haunted, wryly imaginative, darkly self-possessed. And the poems themselves (their sound and size eventually led one to think of a new sub-genre: A Simic Poem) were distinguished by their unnerving attention to objects, dream images, cognitive traps. But among the three dozen new poems in Classic Ballroom Dances, there is not one to match his first successes. It is almost as if Simic had grown bored with his evident talent to write one sort of poem, yet was unable to write any other. As a result, the worst excesses of his characteristic style are carelessly forced; the poems simply have no staying power—in one ear and out the other…. Some poems in this book—"Begotten of the Spleen" or "Bedtime Story," for example—seem parodies of Simic's ability to turn a familiar story inside out. Other poems are content with flat, dispirited whimsy—as in this opening stanza of "Harsh Climate":

                   The brain itself in its skull
                   Is very cold,
                   According to
                   Albertus Magnus.

This is very nearly zero-degree writing, and a dead end for a poet with Simic's early promise and subsequent accomplishment. One hopes for better things, because fresher, from him in the future. (p. 235)

J. D. McClatchy, "Figures in the Landscape," in Poetry (© 1981 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXVIII, No.4, July, 1981, pp. 231-35.∗

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