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poem is on yellow post

 

Cameo Appearance

by Charles Simic

 

I had a small, nonspeaking part

In a bloody epic. I was one of the

Bombed and fleeing humanity.

In the distance our great leader

Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,

Or was it a great actor

Impersonating our great leader?

 

That’s me there, I said to the kiddies.

I’m squeezed between the man

With two bandaged hands raised

And the old woman with her mouth open

As if she were showing us a tooth

 

That hurts badly. The hundred times

I rewound the tape, not once

Could they catch sight of me

In that huge gray crowd,

That was like any other gray crowd.

 

Trot off to bed, I said finally.

I know I was there. One take

Is all they had time for.

We ran, and the planes grazed our hair,

And then they were no more

As we stood dazed in the burning city,

But, of course, they didn’t film that.

 

 

Who better for tough times than someone who’s lived through worse?

 

I’m always drawn to Eastern European writers when I need perspective—the Poles, the Russians, the Slavs, and in Simic’s case, the Yugoslavians. Their grim, seen-it-all, deadpan humor sees your pandemic and raises it to mass starvation and genocide with a side of slapstick.

 

 

Perspective is at the heart of Simic’s “Cameo Appearance.” How do we see events while we live through them? How do children experience horror? When we look back years later at documentation of terrible times, what do we feel? Some little bit of perverse pride?

 

The poem is broadcast (so to speak) simultaneously in two time periods. One, on the day planes bombed the crowd. The other, years later and thousands of miles away, on an evening watching the event on television as if it were entertainment. The speaker’s children, (the kiddies, he calls them, a silly word which heightens the strangeness of watching slaughter) can’t see what he wants them to see. There I am! That’s how it was! Even the old woman, her mouth open in great distress or rage, looks silly, like she’s showing a bad tooth to the dentist.

 

 

It’s only after the speaker gives up and sends the kids to bed that the present and past come together. The language of the poem shifts from conversational to narrative, straightforward and hard—

 

We ran, and the planes grazed our hair,

And then they were no more

As we stood dazed in the burning city

 

 

The poet’s job, we see, is indispensible to history. From the distance of time, even photographic evidence can mask reality and leave the past open to multiple interpretations. It is story that brings the past alive, story that illustrates the horror and annotates the humor.

 

 

Some day, a better day I hope, this pandemic will slip into story. The loss, pain and sacrifice will sit beyond the kiddies’ grasp until the poet of our age comes forward.

 

[I’ve by no means exhausted this poem. I look forward to your own response to it.]

 

 

Here’s Simic on perspective from a 2005 Paris Review interview:

 

There’s a story they used to tell in my family. The war ended the day before May 9, 1945, which happened to be my birthday. I was playing in the street. Anyway, I went up to the apartment to get a drink of water where my mother and our neighbors were listening to the radio. They said, “War is over,” and apparently I looked at them puzzled and said, “Now there won’t be any more fun!” In wartime, there’s no parental supervision; the grown-ups are so busy with their lives, the kids can run free. A few years ago I reviewed two huge books of photographs of the war in Bosnia. Every face looked unhappy, except for some kids in Sarajevo who were smiling as if saying: Isn’t this great, isn’t this terrific! When I saw those faces, I thought, That’s me and my friends

 

 

And from the same interview:

 

One of the distinct advantages of growing up in [Yugoslavia,] where one is apt to find men hung from lampposts as one walks to school, is that it cuts down on grumbling about life as one grows older.

 

 

Note:  I’ll be featuring Simic till I run out of poems I’ve got on file. Think of him as your nightly bitter tonic to settle the stomach.

 

 

Here’s a bio 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.

 

 

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