Carrying On like a Crow
by Charles Simic
Are you authorised to speak
For these trees without leaves?
Are you able to explain
What the wind intends to do
With a man’s shirt and a woman’s nightgown
Left on the laundry line?
What do you know about dark clouds?
Ponds full of fallen leaves?
Old model cars rusting in a driveway?
Who gave you permission
To look at the beer can in a ditch?
The white cross by the side of the road?
The swing set in the widow’s yard?
Ask yourself, if words are enough,
Or if you’d be better off
Flapping your wings from tree to tree
And carrying on like a crow?
Picture the perspiring poet, hauled into the station, harassed in a room with all the set pieces of interrogation: the wooden chair, the two-way window, the bare light bulb swinging overhead. A hairy-knuckled detective waves a crumpled poem in his face and with each question pokes the poet’s poetically soft chest. In Charles Simic’s poem “Carrying On Like a Crow,” such an absurd interrogation is as amusing as it is surreal. But today is the twelfth annual international PEN Day of the Imprisoned Writer. In such a context the poem is almost realistic and certainly less funny than it first appears.
The interrogator, let’s calls him Sergeant, narrates the poem, and his questions structure it. But even though the speaker is singular, the poem is split into two voices. The authoritarian voice challenges and berates the poet’s right to write. Who gives you permission? What right do you have? What do you know about anything? Like any other skilled bully, Sergeant finishes with an insult, comparing the poet’s words with the useless, annoying caws of a crow.
Each of Sergeant’s questions is partnered with an image, and these images form the poem’s second voice, the poet’s voice. This half of the poem re-creates a poem that the poet has already written. The images from this poem speak of decay and loss: dark clouds, fallen leaves, rusty cars, scattered trash. A man has died, his shirt still on the line, whipped by a harsh wind. On the side of the road is a marker of his accident or perhaps is his grave itself. A widow remains. Her nightgown on the clothesline is a reminder that her bed is half-empty, the unused swingset a sign that children have grown and gone. Above this bleak scene of rural poverty, a solitary crow, unlovely and unsympathetic, yammers on, a dark omen.
The gulf between the two voices is wide: one, direct, angry, legalistic; the other alluding, mournful, imagistic. Simic achieves a sly irony when the disapproving Sergeant repeats the poet’s words in his questions and unwittingly creates his own poem.
Who is this interrogator anyway? Simic grew up under fascist and then communist dictatorship, so overtones of governmental hostility to and disrespect for writers are not accidental.
But the voice could also belong to private citizens. Family or friends of the writer might not wish their lives to be used as writing fodder. Who gives you permission, they ask, to speak about my experiences?
Then again, the prosecuting voice could be the writer’s own, an inner critic who challenges, Who do you think you are? What qualifications do you have? Your work is stupid.
Reminds me of a time when I was a young teen, and on a dare (and a misguided notion of what was humorous), went to the grocery story dressed as a bunny. I wore footed purple pajamas, bunny ears and my own naturally bucked-teeth. I hopped around the produce section and assaulted customers with a bad knock-knock joke. The punch line was “Ether bunny!” A woman stopped me and said, “Do you think you’re funny? You are not funny.” I left immediately, feeling shame such as only a buck-toothed teenager dressed as a bunny in the grocery store can feel.
All my life I hear her disgust when I write. You are not funny. Surely everyone wrestles with defeating voices, regardless of one’s pursuits, which is why Simic’s poem speaks to everyone, writers and non-writers alike.
I left the poem in Graffiti Alley in Ann Arbor near the university. At one time Graffiti Alley was the exclusive canvas of one artist, Katherine Cost, but after a few years the space was taken over by graffiti artists (or should I call them, per a recent episode of Project Runway All-Stars, “aerosol artists”?) Cost was gracious about the destruction of her 5-month mural project: “The thing about public art is it is an exercise in letting go,” she said. “You put it out there and you know it is not forever.” Although none of the graffiti I saw was particularly meaningful or interesting, the democratic spirit of the place—the idea that everyone has a right to express themselves—seemed like a good antidote to the authoritarian voice in the poem.
Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938. During WWII, his family was evacuated from place to place to escape bombing. “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he jokes. His father left to find work in Italy and was imprisoned instead. After the war Simic and his mother and brother were briefly imprisoned by Communist authorities. Eventually they were able to leave Yugoslavia for Paris, then New York, where the family was reunited with Simic’s father after ten years. Simic took night classes in Chicago and then moved to New York where he worked a number of odd jobs. He served in the army in the early sixties, and arriving back in New York, earned a degree from New York University.
Simic has taught at the University of New Hampshire for nearly forty years. He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2007, won the Pulitzer Prize, and received a MacArthur Genius Grant, and remains one of our most popular American poets with readers and critics alike. Quite a feat for a poet who didn’t speak English till he was fifteen.