Charles Simic has, to my ear, a distinctly American voice, yet he didn't learn English until the age of 15, after emigrating here from his native Yugoslavia in the 1950s. He was born in 1938 in Belgrade and his darkly ironic point-of-view was no doubt shaped by his formative experiences as a person displaced by World War II and facing hardship in post-war Eastern Europe. He has published around 20 volumes of poetry, won numerous prizes, and is the current American poet laureate.
His poems are accessible on their surface - familiar words laid down on the page simply. The earlier ones seem to be set amidst the rubble of a ruined city, often seemingly the point of view of a child or at least someone young. The more recent ones have the flavor of the urban sidewalk, a seediness, mixed with aura of an old useful domestic object - like a wooden kitchen table that was newly painted once but is now worn and flaking, yet kept clean. Then there are little flashes of potentially magical details, but it's as though he says "the magic is up to you," with a wink. And there is fear lurking in the dark corners.
Here is an appreciation of Simic by Jay Parini for The Guardian, an interview by Mark Ford for the Paris Review, and a long interview on The Connection on NPR.
The photo is by Phillip Simic. Every time I see it, it reminds me of Peter Sellars in Dr. Strangelove, is that just me? Here are today's selections.
My mother was a braid of black smoke.
She bore me swaddled over the burning cities.
The sky was a vast and windy place for a child
We met many others who were just like us.
They were trying to put on their overcoats with
arms made of smoke.
The high heavens were full of little shrunken
deaf ears instead of stars.
A Book Full of Pictures
Father studied theology through the mail
And this was exam time.
Mother knitted. I sat quietly with a book
Full of pictures. Night fell.
My hands grew cold touching the faces
Of dead kings and queens.
There was a black raincoat
in the upstairs bedroom
Swaying from the ceiling,
But what was it doing there?
Mother's long needles made quick crosses.
They were black
Like the inside of my head just then.
The pages I turned sounded like wings.
"The soul is a bird," he once said.
In my book full of pictures
A battle raged: lances and swords
Made a kind of wintry forest
The truth is dark under your eyelids.
What are you going to do about it?
The birds are silent; there's no one to ask.
All day long you'll squint at the gray sky.
When the wind blows you'll shiver like straw.
A meek little lamb you grew your wool
Till they came after you with huge shears.
Flies hovered over open mouth,
Then they, too, flew off like the leaves,
The bare branches reached after them in vain.
Winter coming. Like the last heroic soldier
Of a defeated army, you'll stay at your post,
Head bared to the first snow flake.
Till a neighbor comes to yell at you,
You're crazier than the weather, Charlie.
I liked my little hole,
Its window facing a brick wall.
Next door there was a piano.
A few evenings a month
a crippled old man came to play
"My Blue Heaven."
Mostly, though, it was quiet.
Each room with its spider in heavy overcoat
Catching his fly with a web
Of cigarette smoke and revery.
I could not see my face in the shaving mirror.
At 5 A.M. the sound of bare feet upstairs.
The "Gypsy" fortuneteller,
Whose storefront is on the corner,
Going to pee after a night of love.
Once, too, the sound of a child sobbing.
So near it was, I thought
For a moment, I was sobbing myself.
The White Room
The obvious is difficult
To prove. Many prefer
The hidden. I did, too.
I listened to the trees.
They had a secret
Which they were about to
Make known to me--
And then didn't.
Summer came. Each tree
On my street had its own
Scheherazade. My nights
Were a part of their wild
Storytelling. We were
Entering dark houses,
Always more dark houses,
Hushed and abandoned.
There was someone with eyes closed
On the upper floors.
The fear of it, and the wonder,
Kept me sleepless.
The truth is bald and cold,
Said the woman
Who always wore white.
She didn't leave her room.
The sun pointed to one or two
Things that had survived
The long night intact.
The simplest things,
Difficult in their obviousness.
They made no noise.
It was the kind of day
People described as "perfect."
Gods disguising themselves
As black hairpins, a hand-mirror,
A comb with a tooth missing?
No! That wasn't it.
Just things as they are,
Unblinking, lying mute
In that bright light--
And the trees waiting for the night.
The painter of doll faces
Dipped a small brush into a red jar,
In a cramped shed
With its door open
And a hen or two looking in,
Their heads bobbing in approval
At the way he raises his eyebrows,
Purses his lips
And makes the doll's cheeks blush.
The Forest Walk
Today we took a long walk in the forest.
There we met a couple walking
Arm in arm with eyes closed.
The forest is a dream you had
When you were little, they told us.
Then the two of them were gone.
Even in the afternoon the narrow path
Was busy with shadows.
They had many dark secrets among them,
The trees did.
Shhhh is all we kept hearing.
The leaf we plucked and held in our hands
Appeared genuinely frightened.
The night threw open its birdcage.
The trees pretended to protect us.
In a fit of passion they'd rise
Against the slightest sough of wind,
Only to fall back
Into long minutes of listening.
Let's stay here tonight, you said,
And I agreed, but then we didn't.
You had left the key in the car,
And the video store was about to close.
We were running now.
We could see the ice-cream truck.
We could see the plane's landing lights.
The Street Ventriloquist
The bearded old man on the corner,
The one drinking out of a brown paper bag,
The one who declares himself
The world's greatest ventriloquist,
We are all his puppets, he says
When he chooses to say anything.
Neon at sundown, lovers carrying tall cages
With frightened songbirds,
Early shadows going to meet
The one and true darkness,
A few sun-struck windows at the horizon,
The blind doomsayer lifting his board
For all to read.
So, I'm the cat's-paw, I said,
And went off shadowboxing
With my own reflection
Appearing and disappearing
In a row of store windows
That already had that seen-a-ghost look.