Book Review: Jackstraws: Poems

Jackstraws:  Poems, by Charles Simic

I must admit that I had to look up the meaning of the title of this book.  I suppose my age may be a part of it, but I was not familiar with the game jackstraws when I read this book.  There are many games like it that I remember playing as a kid, games where one built some kind of structure out of blocks or related materials and then tried to remove parts of it while keeping the whole tower standing, until someone moved a critical piece that caused everything to fall down.  If one is as pessimist about the state of the world and the fragility of civilization, and it is clear that the author is pessimistic about such matters, it is not hard to see contemporary existence as being like a giant and very dangerous game of jackstraws where one pulls away one support after another in the hope that what is left can hold the full burden of our hopes and aspirations, until everything falls apart [1].  Admittedly, this is not a cheerful matter, but if one is familiar with the author’s work as a whole, it is easy to realize that there is little cheer to be found in the author’s melancholy reflections.

This particular volume of poetry is divided into three parts and is less than 100 pages in total, a fairly familiar structure and size among the author’s body of work.  As one might expect, the author dwells on some familiar themes here, as there are poems about a “non-stop war with bugs,” as well as poetry relating to the night and insomnia and bad dreams and the horrors of existence.  None of these themes is likely to be unfamiliar with readers of the author’s work in general.  A bit more unusually, the poet seems to be focusing on medieval matters with references to medieval miniature, a barber’s college, the myth of St. George and the dragon, as well as occult and esoteric philosophy.  There are also a couple of poems here that relate to marriage, of the soul as well as of ambiguity, and the author focuses on ancient deities and things that are vacant or invisible.  While none of these represent a dramatic shift, they are certainly a characteristic focus of this particular book, and make for a thoughtful if somewhat gloomy reading experience.

One wonders about the placement of the poetry and the theme of the work as a whole.  Is the author trying to imply that occult philosophy and various mystical means like fortune telling and astrology help in propping up civilization, or is it rather that they are among the desperate measures taken by people who are aware that they live in fragile times and are trying to seek assistance and insight wherever they can.  As is often the case with poetry–and particularly the author’s poetry–the matter is left ambiguous.  We are left with short poems and sketch-like observations without getting any sort of commentary that would allow the reader to see the author’s viewpoint.  But perhaps the author does not wish to provide this viewpoint, but would rather leave his work ambiguous and capable of being enjoyed by many instead of making his own worldview and perspective plain and thus alienate (potentially) a large number of his readers, as is often the case in such matters.  The particular relationship between these dark and reflective poems and the fragility of our own contemporary world is something that must be left to the reader to ponder over and reflect upon in light of our own experiences and perspective.

[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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