In his first volume of poetry since his tenure as poet laureate, Charles Simic shows he is at the height of his poetic powers. These new poems mine the rich strain of inscrutability in ordinary life, until it is hard to know what is innocent and what ominous. There is something about his work that continues to be crystal clear and yet deeply weighted with violence and mystery. Reading it is like going undercover. The face of a girl carrying a white dress from the cleaners with her eyes half-closed. The Adam & Evie Tanning Salon at night. A sparrow on crutches. A rubber duck in a shooting gallery on a Sunday morning. And someone in a tree swing, too old to be swinging and to be wearing no clothes at all, blowing a toy trumpet at the sky.
This 20th collection from the former U.S. poet laureate (My Noiseless Entourage) departs only by degrees from his poems of earlier decades--but it could just be his best book. Like most of Simic's work, these new poems end up short and sad, setting mysterious, wry, even Kafkaesque, scenes in which nobody gets what anyone wants: "A dark little country store full of gravediggers' children buying candy./ (That's how we looked that night.)" Simic served as laureate in the last years of the Bush administration, and some of his new poems may reflect that experience: they attack, with a pessimistic asperity, callous military officers, bloodthirsty states and unnecessary wars, along with a weary or cynical America: "the TV is on in the living room,/ Canned laughter in the empty house/ Like the sound of beer cans tied to a coffin." Simic alludes quietly to the war-ravaged Serbia he fled as a child. But the "ragged puppets" who populate Simic's stanzas are not always so foredoomed: in an 11-part sequence called "The Invisible," Simic modulates into a restrained and deeply moving lyric lament, admiring a dragonfly for his clear wings, a crow who was once "a professor of philosophy," and a "Bird comforting the afflicted/ With your song." (Oct.)