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This review is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

WHAT CAT? WHICH ROOM? CHARLES SIMIC, Selected Poems 1963-2003 (Faber) £12.99

Charles Simic's great gift, apparent in his new Selected Poems, is his ability to highlight the cloud of hilarity and dread surrounding ordinary experiences. The poems encapsulate, over a period of forty years, the constant 'what?' of modern times.

In a Simic poem, something as simple as enjoying a water-melon turns odd and violent: 'Green Buddhas/On the fruit stand./We eat the smile./And spit out the teeth' ('Watermelons,' Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, 1974). There is something of William Carlos Williams' comforted old woman munching a bag of plums here, but the food disturbs.

The influences making up Simic's particular modern consciousness reach from the Spanish Surrealists to the American fathers of free verse to contemporaries Stephen Dobyns and James Tate. Simic's images, from the very start of his career, are the soft, familiar things of daily life, which he twists. At times his poems move from tragicomedy to an Ionesco-like absurdity, as in 'Cold Blue Tinge' from Weather Forecast for Utopia and Vicinity (1983): 'The pink-cheeked Jesus/Thumbtacked above/The cold gas stove,/And the boy sitting on the piss pot/Blowing soap bubbles/For the black kitten to catch.' The scene moves (as many scenes in these poems do) from congenial suffering delivered in widescreen and narrows to a focal point, something or someone in the periphery. The poem ends: 'All his brothers and sisters/Have been drowned./He'll have a long life, though,/Catching mice for the baker,/And the undertaker.' We laugh ...


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