What the Gypsies told My Grandmother While She Was Still a Young Girl
by Charles Simic
War, illness and famine will make you their favourite grandchild.
You’ll be like a blind person watching a silent movie.
You’ll chop onions and pieces of your heart
into the same hot skillet.
Your children will sleep in a suitcase tied with a rope.
Your husband will kiss your breasts every night
as if they were two gravestones.
Already the crows are grooming themselves
for you and your people.
Your oldest son will lie with flies on his lips
without smiling or lifting his hand.
You’ll envy every ant you meet in your life
and every roadside weed.
Your body and soul will sit on separate stoops
chewing the same piece of gum.
Little cutie, are you for sale? the devil will say.
The undertaker will buy a toy for your grandson.
Your mind will be a hornet’s nest even on your
You will pray to God but God will hang a sign
that He’s not to be disturbed.
Question no further, that’s all I know.
A gypsy curse seems old world, from another time. But go down the rabbit hole of Twitter or online commentary to newspaper editorials and you’ll quickly realize the curse is alive and well. Poet Charles Simic is just loads funnier and more clever than any modern-day digital gypsy.
But maybe you don’t think this poem is funny. Maybe that first line is too real for half the world’s population. Maybe you’re so overwhelmed with the divisiveness of one side spewing hatred on the other side that you don’t see the humor in lines like these—
your husband will kiss your breasts every night
as if they were gravestones.
Sue me, I do (and I say that as someone who actually has two gravestones on my chest, having had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction years ago). There’s something to be said for exaggerating ugliness and fears till they become ridiculous. It’s what fairy tales do, the real ones, the old un-rewritten ones, the scary, violent, disturbing ones that allow children to work out the dark edges of their subconscious. (I’m not going to get into the whole psychology of it, but link here for an old review of Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment, summarized so well by John Updike.)
Curses of course are standard fare in fairy tales and ghost stories and as old as Adam and Eve. Maybe inventing curses or giving credence to them is how we try to exercise control over horrific realities. Maybe curses are necessary foils to bring out the beauty of blessings. Or maybe curses are just expressions of creativity, fun exercises of the imagination, the way my mother used to put us to bed. She would stand half in, half out of the door and say in a low growly voice, “May your bed be as hard as nails” and “May snakes crawl out from under your bed” and other things about insects crawling over our faces. We loved it and begged her to keep going and never lost a moment’s sleep over those snakes.
That was another time, I guess, a time when kids didn’t have to worry about getting shot up at school.
I didn’t want to leave “What the Gypsies etc.” in a spot where someone might take it to heart, so I left the poem at the airport for a bored passenger to read instead of a screen.
Here’s Simic’s biography from a previous post. It strikes me now that the facts of his life go a long way towards explaining his twisted sensibility.
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.
To me this poem really seems to be an “expression of creativity” as you call it. It’s kind of beautiful in it’s horribleness, actually.
And it is so interesting what part fairytales (and especially dark ones) play in children’s lives, how, because of their experiences, the gory, dark parts aren’t bothersome but actually therapeutic. It kind of reminds me of the fatalistic humor that is so common in my generation because of what we’ve experienced so far in this world. “What? They’re out of ketchup? Guess I’ll just go fling myself off a cliff.”
Yes, agreed. Fairy tales for the young, dark humor for the old!
I love the story of your mother sending you off to bed with curses calling forth snakes and insects and a “bed as hard as nails.” Reminds me of a favorite babysitter my brother and I had who would regale us with outlandish and terrifying tales set in our own neighborhood right before he shooed us off to bed. When he’d mention a neighbor who, as luck would have it turns out to be an axe-murderer or a witch, we’d giggle so hard (1/2 delighted, 1/2 scared witless) tears would flow from our eyes. And we’d ask for more. He was a high-school kid, a very imaginative one, who knew what kind of gore young boys relished. Our mother never let us watch scary TV shows, so we were ripe for his spooky stories.
Bettelheim was onto something important. We need to befriend the fears, the demons, the precious wounds, the fear of the unknown and the way to do it is to walk toward it. And there’s no better (or safer) way to do that than in a story. And as your mother knew, humor, not sugar, helps the medicine go down.
As always, Tom, you set it out on the table and serve it up so beautifully. Glad you survived the axe-murderer neighbor!