A review of Sixty Poems by Charles Simic

Reviewed by Bob WIlliams

Sixty Poems
by Charles Simic
Harvest Original 
2007, ISBN 878-0-15-603564-4, $12.00, 100 pages

Charles Simic, born in Belgrade in 1938, came to this country when he was sixteen. He is poet laureate of the United States.

A poet laureate is one elevated by his or her government to an eminent position and from whom certain obligations may be exacted in the way of poetry for special occasions. The post in the United States has existed officially since 1985 but has had a de facto existence from 1938. Some of the poets have held the post more than once. The post has some of the difficulties of appointments and one may detect suggestions of nonliterary influence. That some poets have been laureates twice suggests erroneously, for example, that we have not enough outstanding poets to go around and some of the choices were men and women as obscure as the many choices that one encounters in, for example, the Nobel Prize. And as with that doubtful prize so with the post of poet laureate: many have been inexplicably passed over.

The tendency in the United States has been to select poets who hammer their works from the daily ingredients of life. The ultimate work may be obvious or obscure but some kind of connection with the mundane seems to be an almost inevitable requirement.

Charles Simic is a snug fit for the poet who uses the obvious to explore the mysterious and like any competent practitioner of the poet’s craft, he selects words exactly. To read these sixty poems, almost all of them short and ranging in date from 1986 to 2005, is to respond to the insights that govern a strange world disclosed by the familiar.

This is not to say, however, that he is never moved to direct utterance. Some of his denunciations have a rousing Old Testament prophet ring to them.

Millions were dead; everybody was innocent.

I stayed in my room. The President

Spoke of war as of a magic love-potion.

My eyes were opened in astonishment.

In a mirror my face appeared to me

Like a twice-cancelled postage stamp.

If it is possible to explore a poet on the basis of the metaphors that the poet uses – like Rilke’s angels – it is revealing that the mirror occurs often in Simic, along with trees, birds, hotels and an erotic movie. This is a poet who shuns neither the cosmic nor the familiar. He has written eighteen books and there is another book of selected poems. But this book is a good introduction to his work and a worthwhile addition to your collection.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places