cover image Jackstraws: Poems

Jackstraws: Poems

Charles Simic, Simic. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $28 (96pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100422-5

By now, Simic's matter-of-fact tossings off of the gothic, the banal and the absurd are so familiar that it's hard to know when he's putting us on. In this 13th collection, less allusive and lighter in tone than the Pulitzer Prize-winning Walking the Black Cat, ""store windows with out-of-business signs"" replace ""The famous no-shows,/ Truth, Justice, and so forth--"" as the poet leads us through blackly comic scenes from post-industrial America's weedy sidewalks and abandoned lots. The ""big topics"" often get upstaged by images of small annoyances--flies, spiders and insects win a surprising amount of attention by climbing religious statues, crawling under the napkins of drag queens eating pot roast and provoking mock admiration: ""Teeny dadaists on the march,/ You're sly and most witty/ As you disrupt my rare moments/ Of calm."" But most of Simic's short, anecdotal lyrics coax depth by skewing ordinary activities, as when depicting lovers ""running drenched/ Past the state prison with its armed guards/ Silhouetted in their towers against the sky,"" or an ""evening sunlight"" that would corner the speaker, ""to tell me so much,/ To tell me absolutely nothing."" The long sequences that end the collection--""The Toy, ""Talking to the Ceiling"" and ""Mystic Life""--are among his best: promisingly experimental in structure, crammed with bits of conversation, off-center quips, invocations and definitions (""Memory, all-night's bedside tatto artist"") that rise above the quotidian world they alternately parody and celebrate. Simic's sly and precocious speakers are at their best when showing us ""how quiet the world gets,/ When you roll your eyes back and look."" (Apr.)