by Charles Simic
Evenings of sovereign clarity—
Wine and bread on the table,
Father naked in bed.
Was I that skinny boy stretched out
In the field behind the house,
His heart cut out with a toy knife?
Was I the crow hovering over him?
Happiness, you are the bright red lining
Of the dark winter coat
Grief wears inside out.
This is about myself when I’m remembering,
And your long insomniac’s nails,
O Time, I keep chewing and chewing.
The Simic series continues. It started for no reason other than I happened to have three Simic poems on hand as I shelter-at-home. Now it seems I’ve pulled him center stage on cue. His old world memories, menacing imagery and dark sensibility feel just right during this time of collective longing for a pre-pandemic world we may never return to.
“Romantic Sonnet” opens with a tableau of a simple, sensual life—wine, bread, table, the murmur of prayers, the heat of a man lounging naked. But the sovereign clarity of that memory gives way to the speaker questioning his memory of a simultaneous scene. Is the boy in the field resting or dead? The knife is a toy knife, but the crows hovering over carrion may be real. Or maybe the crows are him. The dreamy first act has ended in a nightmare of insomnia, of coat lining the color of blood, of fingernails long in spite of constant chewing.
I can’t get a grip on this poem. It keeps shifting on me. But I see it. I feel it. Something has died. Something is gone and the speaker desperately wants it back. Spoiler alert: he’s not going to.
Hey, have a great week!
Here’s a bio of Simic from a previous post:
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.