(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Charles Simic has been an important voice in American poetry for more than thirty years. His publications total more than sixty books, many of them volumes of poetry. It is significant that he has also published many translations of poetry from Central European countries, an interest which he surely owes to his birth and early life in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. In fact, although Simic has lived in the United States since 1953, his poetry has always displayed a sort of European sensibility that sets it apart from much other American writing. This volume, composed of poems from 1986 to 2003, will serve as a fine introduction to Simic’s work for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Readers who already know Simic’s poems will recognize many things here. His characteristic settings appear—the nameless city filled with great hotels and abandoned factories, inhabited by the anonymous poor or by philosophers, artists, or beautiful yet dangerous women. Here, too, is Simic’s favorite weather: the dark night, the wintry storm. Many readers will also recognize folkloric qualities of much of his work. Cities and countries are nameless and unlocated. Rarely does the reader find the details of ordinary life which inform the work of many contemporary writers—no Chevrolets or Wonder Bread, no cell phones or computers, no Vietnams, only an occasional television set broadcasting news of atrocities. These poems demonstrate in Simic’s work a familiar surrealism that defies paraphrasing into logical narrative.

“Toward Nightfall,” a poem from Unending Blues (1986), demonstrates how these elements work together to create a world that seems fraught with ineffable significance. The opening lines assert that “tragic events” are weighing down everyone, even while some unnamed public assumes that the true age of tragedy—the classical world—is long past. In the present world, the omniscient viewer can see impotent figures on a scaffold and a dark autumn night that looks like what one would see if one were hunkered down in the “back of an open truck.” If one had been walking, the bare trees would have seemed ready to cry out. Or one might have been in “One of these dying mill towns/ Inside a small dim grocery/ When the news broke.” The air in that place smelled of blood or fear of approaching death. What has happened? What is about to happen? The landscape hints at portentous events which are never defined.

The poem’s last stanza pictures a film poster on which monsters are displayed, “too,” Simic adds, as if the world offers enough monsters without fictional ones. The poem concludes with an image of six factory girls, walking “Arm in arm, laughing/ As if they’ve been drinking.” They seem oblivious of the dangers which surround them. “At the very least, one/ Could’ve been one of them,” Simic remarks, suggesting that such obliviousness is not a bad thing.

Simic creates a similarly foreboding effect in “The Little Pins of Memory” from The Book of Gods and Devils (1990). The pins in this poem are the pins that hold a child’s dress suit to a tailor’s dummy in the window of a dusty shop which appears to have been closed for years. The speaker sees it one Sunday afternoon in the past while wandering lost through endless streets of “red-brick tenements.” Remembering the “dark and heavy cloth” of the suit was like the pricking of pins as he walked those streets, and it continues to prick him even today as he recalls the sight. The tailor’s closed shop seems to have...

(The entire section is 1441 words.)