That Little Something, the 18th collection from U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic, is a volume of brief, informal poems that feel effortlessly composed and poignantly chronicle the loneliness of the human condition. Simic's poems are populated by observers and outsiders – solitary figures who are ill at ease in the world. In melancholy portraits of isolation like "Walking" and "Dramatic Evenings," a sense of disconnection is coldly palpable. The narrator of "Summer Dawn" is rootless and alone, prepared "To slip away on foot . . . to look for another refuge." Simic is a master of the mental picture – in a couple of words, he can complete a portrait. The noir-ish "Night Clerk in a Roach Motel" is full of suggestive images that are simple yet unsettling. The narrator, "the furtive inspector of dimly lit corridors," wonders to himself, "Is that the sound of a maid making a bed at midnight? / The rustling of counterfeit bills being counted in the wedding suite? / A fine-tooth comb passing through a head of gray hair?" Clean, uncluttered, almost conversational, Simic's poems examine solitude from every angle, yet they don't leave the reader feeling cold. Simic has his own brand of pleasant pessimism. It's a bleakness leavened with ironic humor, and it gives his work an extra edge, as evidenced in "Madmen Are Running the World": "Watch it spin like a wheel," Simic writes, "and get stuck in the mud."
With Old War, award-winning poet Alan Shapiro offers a beautifully crafted collection dealing with the passage of time, the threat of mortality and the fragility of joy. The narrator of many of these poems is the jealous guard of a precarious peace, all too aware of the fleeting nature of contentment, desperate to hold on to the here and now. In poems like "Last Wedding Attended by the Gods" and "Bower" – both filled with lush imagery yet tinged with bittersweet sadness – happiness exists outside of reality and is all too easily shattered. "Old War," another homage to the lost moment, is a wistful, questioning work in which the poet tries to regain what's gone: "Where is the bower? / And where is it now? / And how do I get back?" Shapiro writes from a variety of perspectives in this formally diverse collection. Persona-based poems like "Skateboarder" and "Runner" showcase his ability to transform commonplace occurrences into remarkable experiences. The perfectly controlled "Country-Western Singer" couples lowbrow subject matter with a traditional rhyme scheme, but the results are unexpectedly profound. After years of drink, the singer has reached the end of the line: "And the blood I taste, the blood I swallow / Is as far away from wine / As 5:10 is for the one who dies / At 5:09." Perfectly shaped, written without excess, Shapiro's poems are first-class.
A simpler past
Showcasing her breadth of vision and mastery of form, Mary Jo Salter's A Phone Call to the Future features new work, as well as excerpts from previous volumes. The book spans nearly a quarter of a century and provides a rich sampling of Salter's eloquent, elegantly composed poems. In the visionary title work, Salter contrasts our technologically advanced era with the less complicated decades that came before, revealing a past that appears unreal: "Who says science fiction / is only set in the future? / After a while, the story that looks least / believable is the past. / The console television with three channels. / Black-and-white picture. Manual controls." Marked by a very conscious sense of craft, Salter's work is precise and artful, composed with a decided sensitivity toward formal poetic tradition. Injecting routine moments of existence with a special luminescence, she writes about the mother-daughter bond ("Dead Letters"), the habits of marriage ("Aubade for Brad") and the process of aging ("Somebody Else's Baby"). There are no extraordinary events here, just the business of day-to-day living, with its little highs and lows, recounted in poems that are deeply human, brilliantly realized and refreshingly perceptive.