book Jackstraws

reviewed by Elizabeth Knapp

Published in Issue No. 27 ~ August, 1999

In the epigraph to his fourteenth collection of poetry, Jackstraws, Charles Simic quotes his contemporary, Adam Zagajewski: “this moment-what is it-just / a mosquito, a fly, a scrap of breath” Indeed, this new collection could be considered the versified equivalent of A Bug’s Life, with its screwball fly’s-eye-view and surrealist edge, like a band of “Teeny dadaists on the march.” Yet, as always, Simic’s subject is humanity, albeit humanity as seen through the pinhole camera of verse, the house of mirrors that distorts rather than reflects our common human experience. William Matthews has used the word “atavistic” to describe Simic’s poetry; there is something primitive about Simic’s work, something brutish, ape-like, as though each poem were a boulder in the hands of a Neanderthal, like Frost’s “old-stone savage armed.” Yet at the same time, a Simic poem moves with the sheer, clipped grace of a ribbon of swallows, looping and diving through its own clean air, delighting in its broken flight. It gives voice to the otherwise unseen world of critters making good in the dark:

They are all out here somewhere
In the audience, as it were,
Behind Joe’s Garage, in the tall weeds
By the snake handler’s church,
On the fringe of a beaver pond.

And, as always, humor is Simic’s saving grace, his ticket to the wonderland of poetic imagination:

Widow Dragonfly
Doing leg splits could use a pair of
Eentsy-weentsy prescription shades
Before she comes to a dreadful end.

On the other end of the spectrum, Simic waves his magic wand to give corporeality to the larger, abstract concepts of “The famous no-shows, Truth, Justice, and so forth.” In another life, Simic was a cartoonist; his characters live in the flat, one-dimensional frame of buffoonery. One can almost hear the empty thought bubbles bursting above their heads. In “To the One Upstairs,” Simic satirizes the Almighty:

Boss of all bosses of the universe.
Mr. know-it-all, wheeler-dealer, wire-puller,
And whatever else you’re good at.
Go ahead, shuffle your zeros tonight.
Dip in ink the comets’ tails.
Staple the night with starlight.

At times, amidst his playful profanity, Simic achieves an almost holy communion of image and idea. His mock-serious tone undercuts a deeply agnostic sensibility:

Oh supreme unknowable,
The seemingly inviolable reserve
Of your stratagems
Makes me quake at the thought
Of you finding me thus
Seated in a shadowy back room
At the edge of a village
Bloodied by the setting sun,
To tell me so much
To tell me absolutely nothing.

In the collection’s finest piece, “Mystic Life,” dedicated to Charles Wright, Simic plays on the worn metaphor of poetry writing being like “fishing in the dark,” as his images and diction surprise with their simplicity and directness:

Our thoughts are the hooks,
Our hearts the raw bait.
We cast the line over our heads
Past all believing,
Into the starless midnight sky,
Until it’s lost to sight.

In the deep sea of American poetry, Simic is our winning angler. He reels in the catch, and we sit down for the feast, supping on a poetry of succulent thrill and delight.

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Elizabeth Knapp is completing her MFA in Writing and Literature at Bennington College in Vermont. When she's not busy working as an Associate Editor for Pif Magazine, she teaches English as a Second Language courses at Concordia University in Irvine, CA.