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Archive for the ‘Charles Simic’ Category

Old World

by Charles Simic

 

 

I believe in the soul; so far

It hasn’t made much difference.

I remember an afternoon in Sicily.

The ruins of some temple.

Columns fallen in the grass like naked lovers.

 

The olives and goat cheese tasted delicious

And so did the wine

With which I toasted the coming night,

The darting swallows,

The Saracen wind and moon.

 

It got darker. There was something

Long before there were words:

The evening meal of shepherds . . .

A fleeting whiteness among the trees . . .

Eternity eavesdropping on time.

 

The goddess going to bathe in the sea.

She must not be followed.

These rocks, these cypress trees,

May be her old lovers.

Oh to be one of them, the wine whispered to me.

 

 

Such a droll opening line, classic Simic.

 

I believe in the soul; so far

It hasn’t made much difference.

 

Lest anyone think he’s being earnest, he covers up lickety-split with a world-weary shrug. What me, ache for transcendence? I was just kidding! Scratch a cynic, as they say.

 

The “Old World” of the poem’s title does double duty here. There’s the old world of Sicily, where the speaker sits among the ruins, eating and drinking. And there’s the really old world, the world before temples were built, the world before words. The world of the eternal, if you have faith it exists and go back far enough.

 

The speaker imagines the life of the shepherds and then of the trees and rocks, perhaps once men themselves. He’s chasing time farther and farther into prehistory (where the soul was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be), even as he is stuck in time. The afternoon turns to evening, the decay of the temple mirrors his own, and he will age to the point where the poem begins, where his beautiful picnic is a long-ago memory.

 

The funny thing is, as much as he longs for eternity, or at least a glimpse of eternity, eternity seems to be equally interested in him, as if a massive Peeping Tom were checking in on the little people—

 

A fleeting whiteness among the trees . . .

Eternity eavesdropping on time.

 

It’s the dance of the mortals and the immortals, as old as gods seducing men and then turning men into trees for daring to look upon their beauty.

 

That’s as far as I got with it. It’s a complicated poem. Your take on it is appreciated.

 

*****This is the last of the Simic series. I’ve finally depleted my supply. On Monday I’d like to start posting your entries in the Poem Elf Ten Year Anniversary Project. I’ve gotten a handful of wonderful submissions. I’d love to have enough to fill out the month of May. Link here for guidelines and here for suggestions. Send your photos to thepoemelf@gmail.com.

 

Go forth and poem-elf!

 

 

 

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poem is on sign

 

County Fair

by Charles Simic

 

 

If you didn’t see the six-legged dog,

It doesn’t matter.

We did, and he mostly lay in the corner.

As for the extra legs,

 

One got used to them quickly

And thought of other things.

Like, what a cold, dark night

To be out at the fair.

 

Then the keeper threw a stick

And the dog went after it

On four legs, the other two flapping behind,

Which made one girl shriek with laughter.

 

She was drunk and so was the man

Who kept kissing her neck.

The dog got the stick and looked back at us.

And that was the whole show.

 

 

Anyone else hearing strains of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” For the uninitiated (please initiate yourselves!—this is one of the greatest songs ever) here’s the first verse:

 

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire

I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up

in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement

I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames

And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire

 

Is that all there is, is that all there is

If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing

Let’s break out the booze and have a ball

If that’s all there is

 

 

(You really have to hear the song in Lee’s jaded, on-my-fourth-martini voice to get it. No surprise that the song has old world roots—link here for the Thomas Mann connection.)

 

“County Fair” is similarly blasé. The six-legged dog, the drunk girl, the amorous man, all fail to impress the speaker. But where Lee goes to, eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!, Simic’s speaker stays listless, bored and depressed to the end. You get the feeling he’s seen many horrors and knows how to survive them.

 

One got used to them quickly

And thought of other things.

 

 

It’s one way to get through the pandemic, I guess.

 

 

Here’s Simic’s 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.

 

NOTE:  Don’t forget the Poem Elf collaborative project! Taking entries now through mid-May at thepoemelf@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

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poem is on yellow post

 

Romantic Sonnet

by Charles Simic

 

Evenings of sovereign clarity—

Wine and bread on the table,

Mother praying,

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.

 

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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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poem is in the Angel book

 

Like so . . .

 

In the Library

by Charles Simic

 

for Octavio

 

There’s a book called

“A Dictionary of Angels.”

No one has opened it in fifty years,

I know, because when I did,

The covers creaked, the pages

Crumbled. There I discovered

 

The angels were once as plentiful

As species of flies.

The sky at dusk

Used to be thick with them.

You had to wave both arms

Just to keep them away.

 

Now the sun is shining

Through the tall windows.

The library is a quiet place.

Angels and gods huddled

In dark unopened books.

The great secret lies

On some shelf Miss Jones

Passes every day on her rounds.

 

She’s very tall, so she keeps

Her head tipped as if listening.

The books are whispering.

I hear nothing, but she does.

 

 

As ancient and creaky as the book in Charles Simic’s “In the Library” is his portrayal of the librarian Miss Jones. A spinster, too tall, cocking her head to hear books speak to her in her loneliness—I’m hearing strains of “Eleanor Rigby”—a woman not seen in libraries since the fifties and perhaps not even then.

 

Still, I love this poem, the whimsy, the humor. I love how Simic uses straightforward language to create his fanciful worlds—the medieval one where people have to swat away angels as species of flies, and the modern one where forgotten angels and gods huddle together inside a book, waiting to be set free.

 

The unopened book full of angels makes me think of the shelves and shelves of poetry books at my library, most untouched for years. And all those novels, especially these days when words on a page can’t compete with their cousins on screens. Where oh where are the legions of Miss Joneses, turning to the written word, looking for what’s beautiful, magical, mysterious?

 

Here’s a bio from an earlier 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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poem is next to fountain soda

 

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

deathbed.

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.

 

doesn’t Simic look like a Bond villain?

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.

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