Book Review: Walking The Black Cat: Poems

Walking The Black Cat:  Poems, by Charles Simic

When beginning this book, I already knew that I would like it because quite a few of its poems, including the incomparable “Have You Met Miss Jones,” were in a previous compilation of the poet’s that I had read.  Even so, the rest of the poems in this collection, if they do not quite reach the level of that poem, at least are close enough to it in quality that the book is an immensely worthwhile one in the Simic canon [1].  That is not to say that these poems vary a great deal in terms of the themes that they deal with, as Simic is one of the more consistent writers around and his themes are pretty consistent.  When you pick up one of his books of poetry, you know you are going to get mostly short poems of mostly dark subjects, mixed in with meditations on creation that often end up being less rhapsodic than the poetry one tends to get about such subjects, and that is what you get here.  If the poems here tend towards reflections on fortune and misfortune of various kinds, they certainly move within the general vein of the author’s poetic work as a whole.

Although this book is a collection of poetry under 100 pages and thus presents no difficulties to readers who are equipped to deal with poetry, unlike many of the works of the author, this one is not divided into parts, for whatever reason.  The author reflects on pain and misfortune in clever ways, including by taking the point of view of an abused dog on a sagging porch looking for deliverance from a cruel master but being denied.  One wonders if the author felt that way about his Lord and Master.  Whether we are looking at roach motels or gypsy fortune tellers to the author’s grandmother, the author keeps a consistently dark theme of misfortune here.  Death, insomnia, late night phone calls and nightmares, and suffering all make up a large part of the Simic oeuvre and they find their way here as well as the author sorts out what it means to be alive in dark and evil ages, and what toll that takes on the sensitive and poetic spirit.  Intriguingly enough, several of the poems reference pastors and clergy, which suggests that at least part of the author’s misfortune and suffering is not being able to come up with a sufficient theodicy that would allow him to sleep better at night.

This is not an isolated problem.  Theodicy is a serious problem and it is unsurprising that the author struggles with it to such a great degree.  Many people do, after all, and the author’s willingness to explore various strains of mysticism (more obvious in other books by the author than this one) as well as self-medication suggest that the problem is of the utmost seriousness for him.  Not being able to comfort himself from his sorrows and memories and horrors with a benign view of divine providence, the author writes poetry that is reflective both of his struggle to find peace and of the reality of his feeling of being abandoned and left behind in a cruel world.  These are consistent enough problems with the author that one is faced with the choice of being compassionate to a soul in obvious suffering or wishing that he would just move on and get over it already.  While I have chosen the former solution instead of the latter, I can understand if some readers approach his work with a sense of exasperation that he plows the same ground over and over again and never appears to move on.  Some of us are that way as writers.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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