Review: The Voice at 3:00 A.M. by Charles Simic

by Katie Hibner

The Voice at 3:00 A.M. is poetic pop.


It’s easy to understand the broad appeal of Charles Simic’s work: his collection, The Voice at 3:00 A.M., has the unshakable aroma of compromise. By aiming to amaze everyone, it mainly just tickles, rather than truly resonating with, the individual reader. I found it promising but eventually disappointing. Like my musical tastes, my poetic taste is unorthodox in its tendency toward the committed avant-garde, the unyieldingly abstract and extrasensory. Therefore, I personally found this book to have its merits, but in its attempt to grasp at so many aesthetic straws, to end up tasting pleasantly vanilla.

My first favorite was “For the Sake of Amelia”, originally published in the book Unending Blues in 1986. The imagery is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s whimsy, with “monkeys and fighting cocks in the great ballroom, / potted palm trees grown wild to the ceilings,” evoking his acclaimed, charming The Grand Budapest Hotel. Its titular heroine is a celebration of almost-pagan unconventionality, as she’s “surrounded by her beaus and fortune-tellers, / painting her eyelashes and lips blue.” I wish that rebellion would’ve been extended to the form of the piece, which feels restrained by its monotonous quatrains. There is a slight insurrection due to the series of ellipses in the final stanza, but it feels like too little too late. Perhaps Simic employed the traditional formatting to make his daring imagery more digestible, but in my opinion, it feels like an insincere sop to the common reader. 

Another piece that scintillates behind its structural chains is “Promises of Leniency and Forgiveness”, originating in the same collection as the above poem. It has more leeway than “For the Sake of Amelia”, with its mid-line ellipsis, dash, and exclamation point shaking the shackles a little looser. I adore the jarring juxtapositions between the physical and the metaphysical in this piece: flesh and spirit colliding with the notion of “a hairline fracture of the soul”, emotion and sustenance intersecting with the idea of “blues in each bite of bread.” The reader has to jostle many such pieces through a sieve for diminutive gems to eventually arise.

“Hotel Starry Sky”, derived from Simic’s 1992 book Hotel Insomnia, transcends Simic’s structural limitations, perhaps marking the collection’s zenith. It’s a delectable vignette in which form follows function, tightly knitting metaphor and allusion into an impenetrable microcosm. “Titanic on the screen like a / birthday cake sinking. / Poseidon, the night clerk, blew out the candles.” Even more refreshing is the return of Simic’s striking contrasts, clashing the trivial and dirty with the untouchable divine: “At three in the morning the gum machine…is the new Madonna with her infant child.” Unheard-of comparisons testify to Simic’s glorious creativity, and make the reader crave such experimentalism in all aspects of his pieces.

Simic caps off his collection with several new works. He manages to incise the reader one last time with his unrelenting “Hearse”, in which nothing is sacred. Simic concisely establishes his sacrilegious rebellion with the image of “a crow like a defrocked priest.” He toys with both sound and etiquette when claiming that your coffin will be carried in a “hearse with whorehouse curtains.” In his litany of who and what pulls the hearse, he evokes the Final Judgment, the paradox of the weighing of the souls, by closely juxtaposing the humane tenderness you feel toward “every dog you ever owned” and the apathetic sadism toward “the fly whose legs you plucked.” Simic launches the reader into the paradox of something and nothingness, detailing how after death, “Everything is made of light even the dark night…the great nothing [will] hoard its winnings.” He once again proves his mastery of setting, illustrating the afterlife as “a ghost ship [with]…a pool table where you’ll play snooker / With three veiled women.” It’s in such moments of liberation that Simic’s creativity and ingenuity shine through. 

The Voice at 3:00 A.M. deserves its accolades, including its nomination for a National Book Award. But it’s on the too-few occasions when Simic slashes the restraints of the mainstream that it truly soars.

We’re revisiting our archives today—this post originally appeared on our website on March 2nd, 2015.

 — Writer Katie Hibner hails from Cincinnati, Ohio.