Charles Simic 1967
“Butcher Shop” first appeared in Charles Simic’s earliest publication, What the Grass Says: Poems. This 1967 chapbook enjoyed a limited printing of one thousand copies. In 1971, Richard Howard, a highly influential poet, critic, and editor, selected Simic’s manuscript Dismantling the Silence to inaugurate the Braziller Series of Poetry. This book culled poems from What the Grass Says and the other chapbook Simic published during the 1960s, Somewhere Among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes. “Butcher Shop” appears in Dismantling the Silence, facing another poem on a similar subject, “Bones.”
In his introduction to Dismantling the Silence, Howard hails Simic’s poetry as coming “from an enormous otherness, a distance beyond words, wrought out of remote elements and with grotes-querie.” In 1985 Simic chose “Butcher Shop” to open his Selected Poems 1963-1983. By doing so, the poet called attention to the many characteristics that this poem shares with his other work. Though written early in Simic’s career, “Butcher Shop” depicts the dark, primordial world familiar to almost all of his poetry. As in his other work, a close knowledge of violence fills the poem; its simple language and primitive symbols hint at humanity’s long history of brutality. Finally, as the opening poem in Simic’s Selected Poems, “Butcher Shop” suggests a statement of artistic principle. The process of artistic inspiration that it describes culminates in the summoning of “a voice.”
Charles Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1938, a year before World War II began on the European continent. By 1941, Yugoslavia, which had resisted Hitler’s demands, was fully immersed in the conflict; the Yugoslav capital was bombed and the country was invaded by Germany. On April 6, 1941, a German bomb hit the building across the street from the Simic household, leaving the young boy with a memory still vivid five decades later. Simic’s father, whom the Gestapo had arrested and then released for undisclosed reasons, left for the United States during the war, and Simic’s mother worked to help support the family. The war ended when Simic was eight years old. Unlike his elders, however, Simic greeted this news with disappointment: it meant he had to return to school.
After briefly living in Paris (where he continued his rather unpromising academic career), Simic moved with his mother and brother to Chicago, where they reunited with his father. In 1961, Simic became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was drafted and served in the U.S. Army for two years. In 1965, he married Helen Dubin, a designer; the couple subsequently had two children. Simic graduated from New York University in 1967, after attending night school there and at the University of Chicago.
Simic published his first book, What the Grass Says, in 1967. Since then, he has been prolific, publishing more than twenty books of his own poetry, ten books of translations, and four books of criticism and interviews. Along with Mark Strand, he coedited the anthology Another Republic: Seventeen European and South American Writers, which introduced the work of several notable international authors to an English-speaking audience. His Selected Poems 1963-1983 was published in 1985 to wide acclaim. Among his many awards are a MacArthur Fellowship from 1984-1989, several Pulitzer-Prize nominations, and a 1990 Pulitzer Prize. Simic has held a variety of academic posts, teaching for the last twenty years at the University of New Hampshire. In addition to his literary interests, Simic enjoys jazz, blues, and food, which his poetry often praises. The recent strife in Yugoslavia has touched Simic greatly, and he has written several essays on the acute dangers of nationalism and related subjects.
Sometimes walking late at night
I stop before a closed butcher shop.
There is a single light in the store
Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.
An apron hangs on the hook: 5
The blood on it smeared into a map
Of the great continents of blood,
The great rivers and oceans of blood.
There are knives that glitter like altars
In a dark church 10
Where they bring the cripple and the imbecile
To be healed.
There’s a wooden block where bones are broken,
Scraped clean—a river dried to its bed
Where I am fed, 15
Where deep in the night I hear a voice.
In the first stanza, the poem’s scene is introduced: an unidentified speaker walks down an empty street past an unspecified butcher shop. What is most striking about this description is what the poet declines to reveal. The title refers merely to “Butcher Shop,” not a place restricted and defined by an article (“The Butcher Shop”) or a more particular name (for example, “Steve’s Kosher Butcher Shop”). The setting could be almost any city or town large enough to support such a business. Similarly, the speaker remains a largely allegorical figure: the reader learns virtually nothing about him—not his sex, age, or name. As in nearly all of Simic’s early work, no one except the speaker exists in the poem. The time is, at most, vaguely specified as “late at night.” Fittingly for a poem whose themes are so somber, darkness shrouds the scene. However, the poem’s first word cautions the reader that the action does not occur at any specific moment but “[s]ometimes.”
The first stanza also launches the poem’s basic rhetorical strategy. “Butcher Shop” employs simple, descriptive language in surprisingly figurative ways. For instance, lines 3 and 4 state that “There is a single light in the store / Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.” Characteristically, this arresting simile remains largely unexplained. However, it does suggest a sense of confinement and a desire for freedom. What is
- A compact disc titled “In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry” was released in 1996 by Rhino Records; Simic is among the featured poets.
- The Library of Congress’ Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature recorded “John Ashbery and Charles Simic Reading and Discussing Their Poems” in 1975.
unspecified is who wishes to escape and from what or whom.
These lines depict a blood-smeared apron within the butcher shop. While the first stanza revolves around a simile, the second stanza elaborates upon a metaphor. Accordingly, the comparison is stated, not linked by the words “like” or “as.” The apron’s pattern of blood resembles “a map / Of the great continents of blood, / The great rivers and oceans of blood.” This metaphor symbolically presents the world as a scene of primal violence. The key word is “blood,” which the stanza mentions three times. Blood is everywhere: the repetition of this word underscores that violence is part of the very fabric of civilization, not just an isolated portion of it. The blood is “great,” large, and powerful. Thus, the image of a blood-soaked butcher’s apron hints at the permanence and omnipresence of violence.
This stanza consists of a single, menacing simile that recasts a simple image into a gruesome one. The knives in the butcher shop are compared to “altars / In a dark church / Where they bring the cripple and the imbecile / To be healed.” In these lines, the poem adds to its list of mysterious figures, with a reference to “they” who “bring the cripple and the imbecile.” “They” is a pronoun without a referent: are “they” the parents of the invalids, the clergy, or townspeople? How are “the cripple and the imbecile” to be “healed”? Will some strange rite be performed in the “dark church”? Or is “healed” just a euphemism for “murdered”? The comparison of the “altars” to “knives” implies that, whatever is to be done to “the cripple and the imbecile,” the process will be painful and barbaric.
Traditionally, a simile sketches a likeness in order to explain the compared article. By saying “A” is like “B,” one seeks to reveal some truth about “A.” However, the fact that this simile raises more questions than it answers suggests that its purpose is less to settle points of fact than to evoke a certain mood. As the simile elaborates the comparison of the “knives” to “altars,” the poem does not allow the reader to more clearly picture the knives, their use, or any particular details about them. Instead, the simile reinforces some of the themes already present in the poem: darkness, a sense of dread, and the ever-present threat of violence.
Like the previous stanzas—which focus, successively, on “a single light,” “an apron,” and “knives”—the final one considers a particular object: “a wooden block” that intrigues the speaker. Again, this object retains a certain mystery and menace. The “block” is described in plain language reminiscent of the processes of torture: “bones are broken,” not, say, separated from each other.
What is most startling about the last stanza is its unexpected shift to the “I” of the first stanza: “I am fed, / ... deep in the night I hear a voice.” Not surprisingly for a poem that leaves much unexplained, the “voice” is not described. The reader does not learn what the voice says nor whether it is human or divine. The poem asserts, however, that the butcher shop’s bloody symbols of violence nourish and sustain the speaker. Partly for this reason, he seeks out this seemingly repellent scene during his walks. Furthermore, if the speaker acts as a stand-in for the poet, the “voice” he hears might be his inspiration. Fascinated by the images of violence he witnesses through the butcher shop’s window, he hears a poem coming into words.
“Butcher Shop” describes the sights an unnamed speaker views while peering into a butcher-shop window during a walk. Characteristically for a Simic poem, “Butcher Shop” is filled with a literal and figurative darkness. The poem begins and ends in darkness. The opening lines announce the time as “late at night,” and the last line intensifies this image to “deep in the night.” During the course of the poem, other images of darkness abound: there is only “a single light in the store,” and the shop’s knives are compared to “altars / in a dark church.”
The prevalence of this darkness achieves several effects. It establishes a time of fearful solitude and isolation. As in paintings by Edward Hopper, an American whose depiction of urban scenes evoked feelings of loneliness and isolation, the figure seems desperately alone—an insomniac wandering the street while everyone else is asleep. Perhaps the speaker is haunted by memories that do not allow him to sleep; even if not, his insomnia puts him at odds with a world whose inhabitants (such as the butcher) sleep at night and remain awake during the day. Set at a dark time when people are usually asleep, the poem inhabits a dreamlike state between sleep and full consciousness.
The poem’s literal darkness hints at a larger despair. The second stanza presents the butcher apron as “a map / Of the great continents of blood.” For the poet, the map of the world is written in blood, suggesting the history of mankind is not one of progress but is rather one of barbarity and violence. For Simic, who, as child in Belgrade, watched German bombs fall on the city, this pessimism comes easily: “My poetry is really poetry in times of madness,” Simic declared in an essay. The blood-smeared apron achieves an allegorical resonance; it represents the brutality that humankind relentlessly performs in time after time of madness. Similar to the literal darkness the poem depicts, then, the worldview that “Butcher Shop” expresses is figuratively dark—it is bleak and pessimistic.
While “Butcher Shop” is an allegory about the darkness of the human condition, it also offers an allegory about poetic inspiration. “Butcher Shop” ends unexpectedly, with the speaker “fed” and “hear[ing] a voice.” This moment is exceptional: only during it does the speaker communicate with anyone or anything else. Throughout the rest of the poem, the speaker walks by himself through an empty street.
The “voice” the speaker hears remains mysterious, and he does not provide any details about it. However, the poem implies that the voice sustains
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem from the point of view of the “voice” the speaker hears in the last stanza. What kind of voice does the speaker hear? Try to imagine what that voice sounds like and what it says.
- Do you agree with the poem’s presentation of the world as a map of blood? Do you believe that the world is as violent and dangerous as the poet seems to think it is?
- Who do you think is the “they” who “Bring the cripple and the imbecile / To be healed”? How do you imagine their appearance, culture, and actions?
the speaker. It feeds him, and, at least partly for this reason, he seeks it out. If this “voice” is that of his inspiration, what does this fact suggest about the nature of creativity? In “Butcher Shop” neither love nor beauty inspire the poet. The poet does not write in order to court a beloved or to escape into a more peaceful union with God or nature. Instead, the poem presents a much bleaker portrait of creative stimulus. The speaker seeks a solitude whose primal sights—blood smeared on a butcher’s apron—remind him of human cruelty. Poetry does not allow the speaker to transcend the violence that humanity relentlessly performs. Instead, the poet feeds on these images as his inspiration.
The second stanza refers to a “a dark church / Where they bring the cripple and imbecile / To be healed.” Standing by a butcher shop, the poet performs a similarly strange and dark sacrificial rite; he feeds on blood in order to summon “a voice.”
Because “Butcher Shop” is written in free verse, its lines do not adhere to regular metrical or rhyming patterns. Several individual lines, however,
Compare & Contrast
- 1941: German forces invade Yugoslavia.
1945-46: Communist leader Joseph Tito organizes Yugoslavia into a federation of autonomous states and provinces. Following Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia’s leadership transforms itself into a collective rotating presidency.
1999: Citing humanitarian concerns, NATO bombs Serbia in order to force a political settlement to the land conflict in Kosovo.
- 1967: Anti-Vietnam War protests are widespread.
1968: Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated; U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated.
Today: Affirmative action programs receive widespread scrutiny.
are metrical. For example, line 13 might be classified as iambic pentameter with a feminine ending:
There’s a wooden block where bones are broken ,
As the bold type indicates, every other syllable is stressed. Therefore, this line is iambic. This pattern occurs five times, which means the line is pentameter. Finally, the term “feminine ending” refers to the extra unstressed syllable in “broken.” Despite occasional metrical lines in the poem, the fact that all the lines do not conform to one basic pattern classifies the poem as free verse.
“Butcher Shop” is written in quatrains, or four-line stanzas. Except for the first stanza, each of the stanzas consists of a complete sentence. Like the scene it presents, the poem’s language is rather unadorned. “[C]ontinents,” though hardly a vocabulary tester, is the poem’s longest word. Thus, in this poem that shows the eeriness of a seemingly ordinary scene, the language of everyday life reveals its potential strangeness. The poem’s main rhetorical strategy achieves similar effects. “Butcher Shop” consistently uses similes and metaphors in order to compare a simple object with an odd and unsettling image.
In 1967, the year “Butcher Shop” appeared in What the Grass Says: Poems, antiwar protests raged across America. To an increasing number of Americans, the war in Vietnam seemed not only un-winnable but morally wrong. Although the poem does not directly refer to the Vietnam War, the bloody worldview it presents echoes that era’s emotions. Within a year, gunmen assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and antiwar protesters and police battled each other at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. To cultural conservatives, America seemed dangerously close to anarchy; interpreting the same situation differently, some members of the counter-culture heralded a cultural and perhaps even political revolution.
Like many Americans, Simic could not help but be affected by the war. The war directly influenced his family, as his brother served in the military. Also, technology helped give the war an immediacy that previous conflicts lacked. Vietnam is often called the first “television war” because that medium transmitted images of combat directly into millions of American households. Though far removed from the fighting, ordinary citizens watched horrific warfare scenes shortly after they occurred. In a later memoir, Simic remembers “the monstrosity of my situation,” as, drinking a beer in the comfort of his home, he watched a television news-cast show a helicopter shooting at people desperately running away from it.
Though images such as these appalled Simic, his childhood in Yugoslavia complicated his relationship to the 1960s counterculture. Simic shared with many refugees from Eastern Europe an unfashionable dislike of communism. Unlike some prominent members of the American antiwar movement who were either influenced by or sympathetic to the ideals of communism, Simic remained profoundly distrustful of strong ideologies that he viewed as responsible for much of the world’s conflicts and bloodshed. In particular, Simic charged that grand political philosophies showed a tendency to justify oppression in the name of some imagined larger good.
As the Vietnam War divided the country between those who supported and opposed it, the uncertainty of the times seemed to call for a new poetry. Just as new forms of popular music, such as psychedelic rock-and-roll, became increasingly popular in the 1960s, a new generation of American poets experimented with different forms of writing. Poet and critic Robert Bly declared that too much American poetry was old fashioned and influenced by academic theories of art and culture. In response, Bly turned toward the work of international poets such Pablo Neruda and called for the greater use of surrealistic techniques. Sympathetic to Bly’s concerns, poets including Simic wrote poems that drew upon not only their rational intelligence but also their unconsciousness. Instead of making literal sense, these works appealed to a sense of life’s mythic and archetypal undercurrents. These techniques also suggested a dissatisfaction with rational thought as a means either to understanding or to expressing the truth of contemporary existence. To many involved in the arts, the age seemed too crazy for a literature based in common sense.
While few critics have written specifically on “Butcher Shop,” many have celebrated Charles Simic’s work in terms that illuminate this poem. Many critics of contemporary poetry agree with the poet’s own assessment that he draws upon both American and Eastern-European poetic and artistic traditions. In an oft-cited review of Simic’s work, Helen Vendler, America’s preeminent poetry reviewer, wrote, “In his plainness of speech, he is of the line of Whitman and Williams, but in the cunning strategies of his forms, he has brought the allegorical subversiveness of Eastern European poetry into our native practice.” Other critics point out how, in addition to more “literary” sources, folk art inspires Simic. Poet and critic Robert B. Shaw argues that Simic’s readings in folklore provides “the dark atmosphere he exploits in a terse poem like ‘Butcher Shop.’” To put this idea in the slightly different terms of other studies of Simic’s work, poems such as “Butcher Shop” mix the prosaic (a deserted street, a butcher shop, a light bulb, an apron) with the mythic (“great rivers and oceans of blood” and the mysterious “dark church” where “the cripple and the imbecile” are brought “to be healed”).
Critics also tend to praise Simic’s skillful handling of grim subject matter, which he often injects with flashes of earthy humor. While less notable in “Butcher Shop,” this technique provides many of Simic’s other poems with a dark comedy. Finally, some critics dissent from the general critical acclaim that has greeted Simic’s poetry. In particular, some voice disapproval of his surrealist tendencies. For example, in The Situation of Poetry, poet Robert Pinsky argues for a more discursive poetry, capable of making clear statements about the world. Although he specifically mentions Simic only in an endnote, it is clear that Pinsky’s argument against what he calls “the poem-about-nothing, with its tedious ‘imaginative’ quality” slights Simic’s work.
Aviya Kushner, the poetry editor for Neworld Renaissance Magazine, earned an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University. In the following essay, Kushner deems Simic “a poet of the night.”
Never-ending insomnia. In poem after poem, Belgrade-born Charles Simic describes staring into mirrors at four a.m., hearing voices in a seemingly silent city, or conversing with other wild, sleepless people. An immigrant who came to America after World War II as well as a writer who is often humorous and frequently surreal, Simic is, above all,
What Do I Read Next?
- Simic’s Selected Poems 1963-1983, a generous selection of Simic’s work written until that time, offers the best introduction to his work.
- Praise from two of Simic’s contemporaries, poets Mark Strand and W. S. Merwin, adorns the back cover of Dismantling the Silence. Many critics have noticed parallels between these three Pulitzer Prize-winners’ work, and the poets themselves have talked about how they have drawn inspiration from each others’ writing. In 1990 Strand published his Selected Poems while Merwin published his Selected Poems in 1988. Both are widely available and highly acclaimed.
- Simic has published several volumes of lively critical essays. The most recent is Orphan Factory, a collection of memoirs and essays on poetry and other forms of art.
a poet of the night; in each of his books, he returns to those most deserted hours when the majority of the population is fast asleep.
As a child, Simic lived through the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. The house across the street from his parents’ home was bombed to bits when he was just three. Perhaps the reason that terms and characters associated with darkness—including devils, insomniacs, hotels, and nightmares—recur in Simic’s poetry is because of his early experiences in war-torn Europe. Simic often twists these familiar words into surreal images, giving poems such titles as “Congress of the Insomniacs.”
“Butcher Shop,” an early Simic poem, is about a man fascinated by a particular spot, just as the poet is obsessed with night. Like many of Simic’s poems, “Butcher Shop” is short and masterfully spare. In his essays and in conversation, Simic often discusses his desire to pare things down. “I want to simplify; I want to return to and communicate some basic human content,” he told Skylark magazine in the early 1970s, about the same time “Butcher Shop” was written.
In a poem this brief, every syllable counts, and Simic’s incredible control begins with the title. “Butcher Shop” certainly sets the scene—one that is particularly resonant given Simic’s personal history. In fact, Simic remarked in “Notes on Poetry and History” (in The Uncertain Certainty) that a poet in our time has a responsibility to history. “We live in the shadow ... of slaughterhouses,” Simic wrote. “A poet who forgets that is living in a fool’s paradise.”
“Slaughterhouses” and “butcher shops” are clearly essential images for Simic, and they pack a lot of power. The term “butcher shop” immediately connotes blood, death, knives, and bones—all words that will shortly appear in the poem. A butcher shop, of course, sells animal meat, a food that helps sustain human life. So the importance of human life and the improvement of it is also hinted at right from the start. The title is providing major mileage, as it must in a short poem.
The first two lines of “Butcher Shop” follow the title’s lead by providing considerable information and raising many questions with just a few words. These lines may seem understated on first reading, but they are packed with possibility: “Sometimes walking late at night / I stop before a closed butcher shop.” It is a simple statement, yet questions abound. Why is the speaker walking around at night, and why is he standing, of all places, in front of a closed butcher shop? In a pattern seen in other of Simic’s poems, his speaker is alone, in an eerie situation, and is walking (a favorite activity for the insomniac/protagonist). The mystery—a Simic technique—has begun.
The first line also announces that the poem takes place late at night. Night is the home base of Simic’s imagination, presenting a bottomless treasure trove of poetic possibilities. Those frequently silent hours conveniently double as the most language-less hours, an interesting choice of setting for a poet who is not a native English speaker and who has also translated eight volumes of poetry into English. Therefore, it only takes the word “night” to alert a reader somewhat familiar with Simic to know that the surreal lies ahead. Immediately, then, Simic does what he is a master of: creating a singular, off-kilter world in a few short lines. A butcher shop is not a standard source of poetic inspiration. What’s more, the shop is closed.
But where is the speaker, anyway? Perhaps he is in a city, perhaps a tiny town. Like a resident of a postwar no-man’s-land, Simic’s speaker does not have an obvious address. The only perfectly clear factor here is visible to this man from the store window: “There is a single light in the store / Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.” Everything here is singular—“a single light,” in a single store, in which a single convict (not a group or a chain gang) digs a single tunnel. The “singular” image is reminiscent of the refugee, who is utterly alone. Perhaps it is also an allusion to modern, twentieth-century man, wandering in an increasingly nationless society. But these lines accomplish something else. Already, at this early point in the poem, there is a sense of a being condemned, like the animals who landed in the butcher shop. Many Europeans—Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and Communists—were similarly condemned by the Nazis.
The next stanza (lines 5 through 8) draws the reader further into this frightening world. Now, slowly, we will see what this single light illuminates. Line 5 holds back as long as it can, with a deliberate, thudding rhythm created by the alliteration of “hangs” and “hook,” followed by a colon to rein things in:
An apron hangs on the hook:
The blood on it smeared into a map
Of the great continents of blood
The great rivers and oceans of blood
Something deadly rumbles beneath that first line. “Hangs” and “hook” foreshadow awfulness, and the colon announces a new and possibly frightening image. The next three lines are all about the blood on that lone apron, ominously hanging from a solitary hook. Now the speaker has moved from the single hook, apron, and light seen by a singular walker in the city to a wider image of a larger world. The words “Map,” “great continents,” “great rivers,” and “oceans” signal an aggrandizement of the poem that echoes the rapid spread of the brutal Nazi empire, which turned Europe into a continent of blood.
“Blood,” of course, is a word and an image packed with dualities. A sea of blood connotes death—but also life. In many religions, blood carries special importance (for instance, in Judaism, blood is considered the soul, and in the Catholic Eucharist, the wine that congregation member share during that sacrament symbolizes the blood of Christ). No matter how it is used, blood as an image is heavy stuff, and the repetition of “great” indicates that the speaker may be setting the stage for a bold philosophical statement. The speaker doesn’t disappoint, as he fixates on the key element of death in a butcher shop—the actual knives, the
“...[E]arly ... in the poem, there is a sense of a being condemned, like the animals who landed in the butcher shop.”
instruments of slaughter. Here, they are infused with meaning:
There are knives that glitter like altars
In a dark church
Where they bring the cripple and the imbecile
To be healed
Knives shining in the dark remind the speaker of a church’s altar, the holiest of spots inside a church. It is odd, of course, that these instruments of death remind the night-owl speaker of healing and salvation, though religious teachings sometimes connect death and salvation. There is something repetitive and familiar about the healing sensation of looking at those glittering knives for the narrator. He has come to this particular spot before, as he told us in the “sometimes I stop” of the poem’s opening line. This particular butcher shop represents something redemptive for him. Some strong urge draws him there, late at night, to stare at a closed storefront. Yet three stanzas into this very brief poem, the personal relevance of the work is far from apparent. The task of the fourth stanza will be to make the religious and redemptive imagery specific to the one man writing this specific poem. The last stanza must explain the purposeful march to this particular butcher shop; it must elucidate why this shop conjures up continents, rivers, oceans, altars, and churches.
The fourth stanza begins with more of the same—a painstaking description of the gory furnishings of this shop of death. As usual, Simic delivers his account elegantly: “There’s a wooden block where bones are broken, / Scraped clean—a river dried to its bed.” In line 13, Simic makes ample use of alliteration—“block,” “bones,” “broken”—which slows the reader down. The next line is split by a long dash, which further delays the reader. Such deliberate hesitation (as if gearing up for the finale) puts considerable pressure on the last two lines. The speaker, nonetheless, delivers, finally bringing the “I” back into the poem after a nearly three-stanza absence: “Where I am fed, / Where deep in the night I hear a voice.” It is essential that the “I” only returns in the last two lines. “Where I am fed” is a crucial line, and three poetic tricks help emphasize it. First, the line “Where I am fed” is composed of four monosyllabic words. Second, “fed” forms an exact rhyme with “bed” in the preceding line. And third, the line is the shortest in the stanza, further setting it apart and calling attention to itself.
“Where I am fed” is an odd line, because, read literally, it is false. A dry river cannot feed a person. But something about the closed butcher shop, the dried blood, and the utterly clean wooden block “feeds.” Something pertaining to the shop nourishes the speaker. The mystery of that nourishment is kept a secret as long as possible, but finally, in the last line, the source of the nourishment is hinted at: “deep in the night I hear a voice.” A voice, again a single voice, makes itself heard to the speaker in that spot, deep in the night. Perhaps the poem—and poetry itself—comes from that single voice. This space of destruction may be a place where bones are broken and animals are slaughtered, but it is also a place that brings images of churches and altars, cripples and imbeciles to the speaker’s mind.
Late at night, the butcher shop serves another function: it feeds the poet. And, as well-known poet Mark Strand—an admirer of Simic’s—has said in a Paris Review interview, poets don’t need meat loaf. Strand, who wrote a memorable poem titled “Eating Poetry,” believes that what poets need to eat is poetry. Simic appears to be ordering from the same menu Strand uses. In this early poem, as in his many later, accomplished, and often surreal poems, that single voice comes from a solitary wanderer in a nameless city late in the night. For Simic, night is the source of poetry.
Source: Aviya Kushner, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Cliff Saunders teaches writing and literature in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, area and has published six chapbooks of poetry. In the following essay, Saunders contends that “Butcher Shop” represents a microcosm of man’s inhumanity to man and that Simic’s dark view on this subject stems from the gruesome street scenes of violence he witnessed as a child in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
“Food for thought” is a timeworn phrase that may be used to describe the works of great writers. On such occasions, it is normally a figurative observation, but in the case of poet Charles Simic, it is practically a literal one as well. Throughout his career, but especially in his earlier years, Simic has demonstrated an obsession with food and the implements we use to prepare and serve it. The “Contents” page of his first full poetry collection, Dismantling the Silence (1971), contains a number of titles associated with the subject: “To All Hog Raisers, My Ancestors,” “Hunger,” “Meat,” “Last Supper,” “The Spoon,” “Fork,” “Knife,” and, of course, “Butcher Shop.” What’s more, the vast majority of these poems are dark, disturbing, and grotesque on some level. They contain numerous references to cannibalism and seem to have risen up from some deep reservoir of psychic pain. Why this obsession with food? And why is the obsession such a dark one?
Here’s one likely reason: before coming to the United States in 1949, Simic spent some lean, hungry years as a child in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, which had been heavily bombed in World War II and where much of the populace struggled to feed themselves under communist rule. Simic, luckily, managed to escape this horror, but it left an indelible scar on his psyche. Today, Simic can joke (and has on numerous occasions) about his childhood experiences in the darkly humorous way for which he is renowned. Early in his career, however, when Dismantling the Silence came out and when he was struggling to make a living, this psychic wound must have still needed healing—or at least gotten out of his system and onto paper, where it could be recognized and, presumably, dealt with.
This is not to suggest that Simic is or was by any means a “Confessional” poet looking to heal himself via poetry, using the reader as a de facto psychiatrist and the empty page as a metaphorical couch on which to lay out his own particular burdens. Far from it. Unlike the Confessional poets—for whom “self” was everything and who wrote as subjectively as they could, even at the risk of being hermetically self-referential—Simic pursued a more objective, object-oriented path, making a conscious effort to downplay his own ego/self and to explore the world of commonplace, everyday objects.
Upon reading Dismantling the Silence, one gets the sense that Simic doesn’t like people very much and would rather explore the private, hidden lives of a “Stone,” a “Fork,” a “Table,” a “Needle,” bringing such subjects to life for readers like a gleeful, twinkly-eyed sorcerer. Early in his career, Simic built his reputation on his object poems. In fact, later on, one of his object poems (“Breasts”—from his second collection, Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk) caused him no undue amount of grief when feminists accused him of objectifying women and thus perpetuating male-driven stereotypes of female anatomy. This was not Simic’s intention, however, and the poem is unmistakably celebratory, not demeaning. Still, it’s interesting to note that Simic retreated from his object-oriented approach in the wake of this unfortunate misunderstanding—not because he could no longer feel “safe” in that approach, but because there were more autobiographical elements he wanted to explore.
Simic, as Angela Ball notes cogently in her entry on him for the Critical Survey of Poetry, is a kind of “poetic phenomenologist” whose poems present the idea that the world is made of objects whose significance is revealed and created by the human act of attention. It is Simic’s perception, Ball asserts, that people have too much of a monopoly on life; objects should have a say as well (and in Simic’s capable hands, do they ever!) In “Butcher Shop,” the objects clearly have something to say about the cruel and violent nature of man. How could it be otherwise in a place where once-living things are hacked to pieces in a kind of ritualistic bloodletting?
“Butcher Shop” contains four image/objects (corresponding to the poem’s four stanzas), each of which says something dark and disturbing about the primitive nature of man. The first of these image/objects is the light left on in the store every night so that any passerby can see the evidence of the butcher’s trade. By comparing that light to “the light in which the convict digs his tunnel,” Simic strips the word “light” of all of its positive connotations and encapsulates the human condition in the form of a convict trying to escape his fate through a poorly lit, claustrophobic tunnel. The choice of “convict” is important, hinting at the violence within man. If Simic had wanted the escape to be noble in some way, he likely would have used the word “prisoner,” which has fewer negative associations (e.g., prisoner of war). In Simic’s pessimistic worldview, man is a desperate animal trying to escape his fate; nevertheless, he will always remain trapped by his base nature.
The second image/object given attention in Simic’s “chop shop” is that Godawful apron hanging on a hook, an apron so smeared with splotches of blood that it resembles “a map / Of the great
“In Simic’s pessimistic worldview, man is a desperate animal trying to escape his fate; nevertheless, he will always remain trapped by his base nature.”
continents of blood, / The great rivers and oceans of blood.” One would be hard-pressed to find a more powerfully gruesome image in the annals of contemporary poetry. It is an image made all the more repulsive by the simple fact that Simic seems to find a kind of twisted beauty in that blood-soaked garment. Maps, after all, can have a visual beauty to them, and in society, they are considered a good thing, an aide to help us to find our way. Simic seems to be suggesting that a single apron contains all of human history—with its horrible continental wars, naval battles, etc.—and that it’s been a bloody affair from the start. A key word in this stanza is “hook”; it is a word that appears in Simic’s early poems quite a bit and one that carries its own chilling connotations. In this poem, of course, there is the obvious association with the meat hook, by which huge slabs of animal carcasses are hung in slaughterhouses. Another, more personal (for the poet) connotation has its origins in war-torn Belgrade in the 1940s; here, the young Simic—by his own admission, in an interview reprinted in The Uncertain Certainty—saw dead soldiers hanging on lampposts as though on giant meat hooks. The hook, then, can be seen as an archetype of death, with its own chilling, private associations for Simic.
The knives in stanza 3 constitute the third image/object of destruction in Simic’s “little shop of horrors.” These knives, ostensibly used to slice meat into marketable cuts, seem to offer a kind of salvation, for they “glitter like altars / In a dark church / Where they bring the cripple and the imbecile / To be healed.” This is a highly complex image that carries both positive and negative associations with it. On the positive side, an altar is a place for communion with God where people can be “healed,” and though the church is a dark one, it still is symbolic of civilized man’s connection with the positive force of God. Also, the knives that glitter like altars are used for slicing food, creating physical nourishment to accompany the spiritual sustenance offered by the church. On the negative side, the knives are menacing symbols of man’s capacity for violence and destruction, just as easily used for butchering people as for cutting up livestock. The word “altars” in this poem also conveys an undercurrent of human butchery, for in the past, certain civilizations maintained sacrificial altars where hapless victims were led to slaughter. Notice, also, that “the cripple and the imbecile” are brought to the “altar of the knives” by the anonymous “they,” almost like those helpless human sacrifices. It may also be helpful to remember that in his youth, Simic saw directly (though he may not have understood what he saw at the time) how the Nazis dealt with society’s outcasts and unfortunates; anyone who seemed different or unproductive (e.g., Gypsies, Jews, disabled people, the mentally ill) were “exterminated” or otherwise discarded in some ungodly fashion. Regardless of whether this interpretation is valid, the reader can’t help but notice Simic’s dark view of humanity in the poem thus far, with the only people mentioned being a “convict,” a “cripple,” and an “imbecile.”
The fourth image/object in “Butcher Shop” is the “wooden block where bones are broken, / Scraped clean ....” This slab, possibly a kind of workbench or table where the butcher completes his task, may seem mundane and fairly innocuous on the surface, but it, too, conveys a kind of horror. Wooden slabs were common in the torture chambers of yore; the infamous “rack,” on which victims were placed and their limbs stretched virtually to the point of separation in order to extract information and/or confessions, was made of a wooden slab. The image also conjures up pictures of Nazi concentration camps where monsters such as Dr. Mengele (the “Angel of Death”) performed horrifying experiments on prisoners laid out on (wooden) benches and operating tables. So, as you can see, wooden slabs have long been a canvas on which depictions of man’s inhumanity to man have been painted in deep red.
For Simic, though, the wooden block is an archetype with even deeper associations. He compares it to “a river dried to its bed / Where I am fed....” At first, this image may seem a stretch, given that a workbench appears to have little in common with a dry riverbed. But think about it: the wooden slab has, in a sense, absorbed all the blood that has ever graced it—all the rivers of blood that have ever flowed across its surface. And the bloody work performed by butchers does feed the nonvegetarians among us and allow us to go on living. Yet the butchery performed in this shop suggests something more than the packaging of meat for sustenance. One can surmise that Simic finds the whole enterprise vaguely cannibalistic—that in eating the flesh of animals, we are just one step removed from eating each other. The theme of cannibalism (as mentioned earlier in this essay) is an unmistakable undercurrent running throughout Dismantling the Silence. In the poem “Fork,” for instance, Simic compares the implement to “a bird’s foot / Worn around the cannibal’s neck,” and the poem “Meat” begins this way: “Hang the meat on the hook / So that I may see what I am.” For Simic, who witnessed all manner of butchery in World War II, primitive man is alive and well in the twentieth century.
“Butcher Shop” ends with a cryptic reference to a voice Simic hears “deep in the night.” What voice? Whose voice? Indeed, the poem’s final line is wide open to interpretation. The voice could be that of Primitive Man, calling out to Simic across the millennia to witness the capability for violence within the heart of man, even in a supposedly civilized world. The voice could be his mother’s, calling out to him from some distant tenement in Belgrade to come home, to step away from some long-forgotten scene of wartime violence that continues to gnaw away at him like a bad dream. The voice could even be his own, as he shouts aloud in an effort to wake himself up from this recurring nightmare. Or the voice could be a silent one in his own mind, the voice of maternal silence that Simic believes is the source of poetry and that represents all within a person that belongs to the Universe. The silence that creates poetry, Simic has suggested, is a comforting, healing means of discovering the true nature of oneself, no matter how dark that truth may be. Such silence, communicated from poet to reader in a soundless covenant, can even be nourishing. For, as Simic himself said in the August 16, 1973, issue of Rolling Stone, “When my silence meets yours, what strange bread is broken.”
Source: Cliff Saunders, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Alice Van Wart
Alice Van Wart teaches literature and writing in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Toronto. She has published two books of poetry and has written articles on modern andcontemporary literature. In the following essay, Van Wart analyzes “The Butcher Shop,” focusing particularly on Simic’s habit of linking mundane images with abstract, philosophical ideas.
Charles Simic has, generally, moved away from the abstract poems of his early writing career due to a growing preoccupation with the autobiographical and historical in his poetry. For Simic, the historical is part of his personal experience. As a young child growing up in Yugoslavia during World War II, Simic witnessed the war’s devastating effects on his home country. More recently, as an adult living in America, he has watched the nation he knew disappear into a new configuration of countries ravaged by war and ethnic conflict. Perhaps this accounts for a prevailing sense in Simic’s poetry of political violence, abandonment, and loss, as well as for the sensibility he presents of a person living in exile.
Though Simic’s poetry is popular, it is often enigmatic and, thus, resists categorization. It contains an inclusive worldly vision that is compassionate and empathetic. Simic pares his language to a bare minimum, though in its essence, he shows an abiding concern with language and the expression of thought. His preference is for plain language rooted in concrete images. Still, reading a Simic poem can be a challenging experience. What often emerges is the working out of thought conveyed through image—often images of political violence, abandonment, loss, hunger, and exile. In Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry, one critic noted that Simic’s poetry is a “darkly universal discourse dominated by an imaginatively epistemological sensibility.”
“Butcher Shop” is quintessential Simic; it is a poem that uses simple diction rooted in true-to-life images to express an abstract idea. A tightly compressed, terse poem written in four nonrhyming quatrains, its formal pattern conforms to its progression of thought and to an inherent logic. In its structural integrity, using as few words as possible, “Butcher Shop” creates a concrete and mental landscape rooted in the particular that conveys a sense of political violence and general suffering as inherent qualities in life.
In “Butcher Shop,” what begins as the speaker’s late-night stroll becomes a revelation sparked by viewing common implements used by a butcher. For the poet, the various items in the shop represent something far beyond their domestic purposes: a dim light symbolizes the light of a convict digging a tunnel; blood on an apron becomes
“...[U]sing as few words as possible, ‘Butcher Shop’ creates a concrete and mental landscape rooted in the particular that conveys a sense of political violence and general suffering as inherent qualities in life.”
a map with “contents” and “rivers of blood”; the glittering knives change into altars in a church where the wretched come to be healed; and the wooden block where the butchering takes place stands for a form of death in which the poet is implicated. These images work through association to create a complex layering of consciousness that confronts a subject that has long preoccupied poets, philosophers, and theologians—the inexplicable mystery of suffering.
In “Butcher Shop,” Simic’s casual beginning belies the poem’s dark and serious intent. What sounds like the start of an anecdote connected to an evening walk (he “sometimes ... stop[s] before a closed butcher shop”) turns into something quite different. Looking into the shop’s window, the poet sees a single light, an apron hanging on the wall, and some knives on a wooden table. After using plain diction and evoking a sense of the common-place in the first three lines, Simic shifts and presents a simile in line 4 to describe the single light, which, he says, is “like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.” This simile provides an unexpected connection to an act that is furtive and associated with prisoners of war, who often attempt to dig their way out of captivity. The linking of the light in the shop and prisoners is an example of one of Simic’s favorite literary devices: placing the mundane and the spectacular side by side. In “Butcher Shop,” the trope is repeated in each stanza, thematically and structurally integrating the poem and illuminating consciousness as thought.
In line 5, the poet’s gaze turns to “an apron” in the shop that “hangs on a hook.” In the following line, the image expands, as the poet sees the “blood on it smeared into a map.” The enjambment between lines 6 and 7 further extends this image into “a map / Of the great continents of blood.” The juxtaposition of the blood-smeared apron hanging on the wall with the image of “the great continents of blood” suggests violence and suffering of a huge magnitude, which expands further in the stanza’s final line to include “the great rivers and oceans of blood.” The relationship between the mundane image of the apron hanging on a hook and the horrific “rivers and oceans of blood” works through oblique association.
What is hinted at in the first stanza and evoked in the second is particularized in the first line of the third stanza via the image of “knives that glitter.” The knives are more than the implements the butcher uses in his work; again, through indirect association, the image is connected to the continents of blood. As in the first stanza, Simic employs a simile: the poet sees the knives “glitter like altars / In a dark church.” The shiny knives are compared to the most important, symbolic piece of furniture in a place “where they bring the crippled and the imbecile / To be healed.” Although the light in the first stanza is associated with a hope for escape, and, in this stanza, is linked to the hope of being healed, in both cases the light tries to break through the enveloping darkness of, first, a tunnel and then an empty church. Therefore, this particular light offers only a glimpse of hope.
Contrary to the specific, domestic images in the butcher shop—the night light, the apron, the knives—the representations of light and blood are abstract and convey an expanding sense of meaning associated with suffering. In the final stanza, the image of “the wooden block” where the butcher carries out his task picks up the association. On this table, “bones are broken,” and the butcher skillfully removes the meat from the animal carcasses so that the bones are “scraped clean.” The poet continues line 14 with the image of “a river dried to its bed.” A dash connects the two parts of the line, suggesting that the bones are scraped clean and dried by time. The “river dried to its bed” harkens back to the “great rivers ... of blood” of line 9, thus amplifying and clarifying the meaning of this abstract image with its associations of violence and suffering. The continents, rivers, and oceans of blood have become a dried bed of bones.
The intimation of suffering is further particularized in the final two lines of the last quatrain. In line 15, the “river dried to its bed” extends to “where I am fed.” The joining of the image of the dried river of bones with the author’s feeding place is unexpected. The poet eats off of the bones of the animals that are scraped clean. This simple statement of fact links him directly to the world of suffering evoked within the context of the poem. The poet’s simple declaration of “where I am fed” returns the poem’s focus back to the poet surveying the items in the butcher shop. The items he has been contemplating have acted as a catalyst for the mind’s thought pattern, which, through its associations, has created the logical progression as well as a clarity of vision. The rhyme of “bed” and “fed”—the only end rhyme in the poem—underlines the connection.
In terms of the poem’s inner logic, its meaning is connected to historical forces, where abstract social and political upheavals extinguish the lives of anonymous, undocumented millions. The poet recognizes that his life is connected to such forces and “the great continents of blood.” Simic is suggesting something abstract: that life is connected to suffering and often comes at the expense of others. Simic, however, is uncomfortable with the conclusion at which he arrives, and “deep in the night ... [he] hear[s] a voice.” The parallel structure of the final two lines with its rhyming couplet connects this voice to “the wooden block” where the poet is “fed.” The butcher shop is no longer just a shop where a person buys meat; it is a metaphor for something universal. The voice the poet hears “deep in the night” is the voice of all suffering.
In the poem’s structural integrity, using few words and four brief quatrains, Simic conveys the very working of consciousness as it makes its leaps of association to convey it meaning. Each specific image in the poem is connected to the “oceans of blood” with its implication of the horror of suffering in the midst of life. In Simic’s poem, the concrete images of light, knives, aprons, and a carving board anchor the poem to the daily quotidian of life while they lay out a philosophical idea animated by imagination.
Source: Alice Van Wart, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Ball, Angela, “Charles Simic,” in Critical Survey of Poetry, Vol. 6, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1982. p. 3002.
Howard, Richard, “A Note on Charles Simic,” in Dismantling the Silence: Poems by Charles Simic, New York: George Braziller, 1971, pp. xi-xiii.
Margolis, Susan, “100 American Seducers on Their Craft and Sullen Art,” Rolling Stone, No. 141, August 16, 1973, p. 48.
Pinsky, Robert, The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
——, The Uncertain Certainty: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.
——, The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Vendler, Helen, Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Weigl, Bruce, ed., Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996.
Perkins, David, A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
This book is a highly lucid account of modern poetry. Though a scholarly study, it offers a very readable and evenhanded literary history.
Stitt, Peter, “Poetry in a Time of Madness,” in Uncertainty & Plentitude: Five Contemporary Poets, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997, pp. 86-118.
This chapter in Stitt’s study of five contemporary American poets convincingly argues that Simic’s poetry expresses the twentieth century’s political and cultural uncertainties, its lack of faith in any principle capable of making sense of the world’s horrors. As with Perkins’s book, Uncertainty & Plentitude is accessible to readers unfamiliar with modem poetry.