Charles Simic--Yugoslav/American

Charles Simic
(1938-    )

An immigrant from Yugoslavia to the United States, Simic was born in Belgrade in 1938.  His childhood was lived during the war and influenced some of his early poetry.  In coming to the U.S. in 1954, Simic lived with his family in a Chicago suburb until 1958.  His first volume of poetry was published when he was twenty-one.  He received his B.A. degree from New York University.  He has published more than sixty books in the U.S. and internationally, including a number of translations of French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian and Slovenian poetry, and books of essays.  He was the editor of the 1992 edition of The Best American Poetry.  He has received numerous awards including fellowships from the Guggenheim, MacArthur, and the National Endowment for the Arts.  He was named the fifteenth Poet Laureate of the U.S. in 2007.


I grew up bent over
a chessboard.
I loved the word endgame.
All my cousins looked worried.
It was a small house
near a Roman graveyard.
Planes and tanks
shook its windowpanes.
A retired professor of astronomy
taught me how to play.
That must have been in 1944.
In the set we were using,
the paint had almost chipped off
the black pieces.
The white King was missing
and had to be substituted for.
I’m told but do not believe
that that summer I witnessed
men hung from telephone poles.
I remember my mother
blindfolding me a lot.
She had a way of tucking my head
suddenly under her overcoat.
In chess, too, the professor told me,
the masters play blindfolded,
the great ones on several boards
at the same time.


Butcher Shop

Sometimes walking late at night
I stop before a closed butcher shop.
There is a single light in the store
Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.
An apron hangs on the hook:
The blood on it smeared into a map
Of the great continents of blood,
The great rivers and oceans of blood.
There are knives that glitter like altars
In a dark church
Where they bring the cripple and the imbecile
To be healed.
There is a wooden block where bones are broken,
Scraped clean—a river dried to its bed
Where I am fed,
Where deep in the night I hear a voice.



Cameo Appearance

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.

Charles Simic, “Cameo Appearance” from The Voice at 3:00 AM: Selected Late and New Poems. Copyright © 2003 by Charles Simic.


Empire of Dreams

On the first page of my dreambook
It’s always evening
In an occupied country.   
Hour before the curfew.  
A small provincial city.   
The houses all dark.
The storefronts gutted.
I am on a street corner   
Where I shouldn’t be.   
Alone and coatless
I have gone out to look
For a black dog who answers to my whistle.   
I have a kind of Halloween mask
Which I am afraid to put on.

Charles Simic, “Empire of Dreams” from Charles Simic: Selected Early Poems. Copyright © 1999 by Charles Simic.


Karl Shapiro--American


Karl Shapiro


Karl Jay Shapiro was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1913 of Jewish parents.  Throughout his life, Shapiro formed a live-hate relationship with being Jewish.  During World War II, Shapiro wrote poetry while stationed in New Guinea and sent them stateside where his fiancée had them printed.  Most notable from this period: Person, Place and Thing (1942), Place of Love, Essay on Time (1945) and V-Letter and Other Poems (1945) for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.  Following the war, Shapiro became an English professor. He was Poet Laureate and among his other awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Contemporary Prize, and the Levison Prize.  He died in New York City in 2000. (1943)

Elegy for a Dead Soldier


A white sheet on the tailgate of a truck becomes an altar,
Two small candlesticks sputter at each side of the crucifix
Laid round with flowers brighter than the blood
Red as the red of our apocalypse
Hibiscus that a marching man will pluck
To stick into his rifle or his hat
And great blue morning glories
Pale as lips that shall no longer taste or kiss or swear
The wind begins a low magnificat
The chaplain chats
The palm trees swirl their hair
The columns come together through the mud

The time to mourn is short that best becomes
The military dead.
We lift and fold the flag,
Lay bare the coffin with its written tag,
And march away.
Behind, four others wait
To lift the box, the heaviest of loads.
The anesthetic afternoon benumbs,
Sickens our senses, forces back our talk.
We know that others on tomorrows roads
Will fall, ourselves perhaps, the man beside,
Over the world the threatened, all who walk:
And could we mark the grave of him who died
We could write this beneath his name and date:


Underneath this wooden cross there lies

A Christian killed in battle.
You who read,

Remember that this stranger died in pain;
And passing here, if you can lift your eyes
Upon a peace kept by human creed,
Know that one soldier has not died in vain.



Harvey Shapiro--American


Harvey Shapiro is editor of the Poets of World War II, an American Poets Project of the Library of America, released in 2003.  A poet in his own right, he is the author of thirteen books of poetry, including National Cold Storage CompanySelected Poems (1997) and How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems (2001). In Sights along the Harbor, Shapiro evokes the rich heritage of his Jewish culture and his love for New York. Shapiro was a radio gunner during World War II and flew 35 missions and was decorated for service.  He spent many years as the editor of The New York Times Book ReviewThe New York Times Magazine.  While in the military, Shapiro spent a good amount of time reading and writing and began his career as a poet.  (1988), and

War Stories

These are a conquered people,

said the British sergeant,

putting his hand on my shoulder

at the bar in Foggia, Italy—

this is 1944. He was instructing

me on why I should not tip

the Italian barmaid, as I was doing.

A conquered people. I liked the phrase

because it had the ring of history,

suggested dynasty policy, put

British empire with the Roman

down the long reach of time.

But in the real world it made

no sense. How did it apply

to the Italian kids who came

to my tent each morning to trade

eggs for cigarettes. Or to the old

Italian lady in town who was teaching

me the language. Or to the girl

in the Air Force rest camp on Capri

I fell in love with Christmas week.

They were hardly a people, much less

conquered. They were living

as I lived, on the bare edge of existence,

hoping to survive the interminable war.

But high above their cities

on my way to Germany to kill the enemy

I was part of that sergeant's fictive world,

part of the bloody story of our century.


Ahmad Shamlu--Iranian


Ahmad Shamlu


Ahmad Shamlu was born 1925, in Iran.  During World War II, Shamlu contributed to the war effort on the side of the Nazis.  He was arrested by the Allied Armies in 1943 and sent to Rasht, Azerbaijan to serve a one-year prison term.  Shamlu continued his education following the war, and became a stauch nationalist and supporter of the Musaddiq government.  After its fall, he went into hiding, but was found and incarcerated.  All through this time he continued to study, write and translate.  He left Iran in 1977, and lived in the U.S. and later England.  He returned to Iran after the Islamic revolution, and continued to write.  He died in 2000.

The Luminous Horizon

one day we will find our doves again
and kindness will hold beauty's hand.

one day when the slightest hymn
is a kiss
and each man
is a brother
to each man

one day when they won't close the doors
are myths
and the heart
suffices for living

one day when the meaning of each sound
is to love
lest on your last word, you seek a sound

one day when the rhythm of each word is life
lest I suffer the scouring of a rhyme for my poem

one day when each lip is a melody
so that
the slightest hymn shall be a kiss

one day when you come back forever come back
and kindness becomes beauty

one day when we will cast seeds for our doves...

I will await that day
even on the day
when I
no longer


Anne Sexton--American



Anne Sexton

Born Anne Gray Harvey in 1928, Anne married Alfred Muller Sexton II at the age of nineteen.  After the birth of her daughter in 1953 she suffered from a mental breakdown and was encouraged to pursue writing as a form of therapy.  Though Sexton produced an impressive twelve books of poetry, and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her collection, Live or Die, she succumbed to her seemingly endless battle with mental illness and committed suicide in 1974, at the age of 46.  In her short career as a writer, Sexton taught poetry workshops at Boston University, Colgate University and Oberlin College.  The primary themes to her poetry were personal and are often termed “confessional,” similar to the works of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. 


After Auschwitz

as black as a hook,
overtakes me.
Each day,
each Nazi
took, at 8: 00 A.M., a baby
and sauteed him for breakfast
in his frying pan.

And death looks on with a casual eye
and picks at the dirt under his fingernail.

Man is evil,
I say aloud.
Man is a flower
that should be burnt,
I say aloud.
is a bird full of mud,
I say aloud.

And death looks on with a casual eye
and scratches his anus.

Man with his small pink toes,
with his miraculous fingers
is not a temple
but an outhouse,
I say aloud.
Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say those things aloud.

I beg the Lord not to hear.


Victor Serge--Belgium



Victor Serge


Serge was born in Belgium 1890 as Victor Lvovich Kibalchich.  His parents were Russian intellectuals who fled Russia following the assassination of Czar Nicholas the II.  He changed his name to Serge in 1917.  Serge was the editor of the French newspaper Anarchie and was arrested for terrorism in 1912, though innocent of any crime, he nonetheless served five years in prison.  He returned to Russia, and became very critical of Stalin, and was again arrested for sending his literary works abroad. He was expelled from Russia in 1936, went to Paris, but left when the Nazis occupied France.  He moved to Mexico where he lived until his death in 1947.

Constellation of Dead Brothers

André who was killed in Riga,
Dario who was killed in Spain,
Boris whose wounds I dressed,
Boris whose eyes I closed.

David my bunk mate,
dead without knowing why
in a quiet orchard in France—
David, your astonished suffering
-six bullets for a 20-year-old heart...

Karl, whose nails I recognized
when you had already turned to earth,
you, with your high brow and lofty thoughts,
what was death doing with you!
Dark, tough human vine.

The North, the waves, the ocean
capsize the boat, the Four, now pallid,
drink deeply of anguish,
farewell to Paris, farewell to you all,
farewell to life, God damn it!

Vassili, throughout our sleepless midnights
you had the soul of a combatant
from Shanghai,
and the wind effaces your tomb
in the cornfields of Armavir.

Hong Kong lights up, hour of tall buildings,
the palm resembles the scimitar,
the square resembles the cemetery,
the evening is sweltering and you are dying,
Nguyên, in your prison bed.

And you my decapitated brothers,
the lost ones, the unforgiven,
the massacred, René, Raymond,
guilty but not denied.

O rain of stars in the darkness,
constellation of dead brothers!

I owe you my blackest silence,
my resolve, my indulgence
for all these empty-seeming days,
and whatever is left me of pride
for a blaze in the desert.

But let there be silence
on these lofty figureheads!
The ardent voyage continues,
the course is set on hope.

When will it be your turn, when mine?

The course is set on hope.



Jaroslav Seifert--Czech


Jaroslav Seifert

Born in 1901, outside Prague, Jaroslav Seifert began writing poetry at an early age and in 1918 he published his first collection of poems.  As a young man, Seifert joined the new Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and became the editor of several communist newspapers and magazines.  To supplement his income he translated French literature into Czech.  In 1929, along with six other important writers, he signed a manifesto against Bolshevik tendencies in the new Czechoslovakian Communist Party, causing him to be expelled from the party.  During the war, he became an editor of a newspaper, and then a trade-union publication.  Seifert was awarded state prizes for his poetry three times, and in 1967, was named the country’s National Artist.  He served as chairman of the Czech Writer’s Union in 1969-1970.  He died in 1986.

Excerpt from The Plague Column

 The many roundels and songs I wrote!
There was a war all over the world
and all over the world
was grief.
And yet I whispered into jeweled ears
verses of love.
It makes me feel ashamed.
But no, not really.
A wreath of sonnets I laid upon
the curves of your lap as you fell asleep.
It was more beautiful than the laurel wreaths
of speedway winners.

But suddenly we met
at the steps of the fountain,
we each went somewhere else, at another time
and by another path.

For a long time I felt
I kept seeing your legs,
sometimes I even heard your laughter
but it wasn’t you.
And finally I even saw your eyes.
But only once.

My skin thrice dabbed with a swab
soaked in iodine
was golden brown,
the color of the skin of dancing girls
in Indian temples.
I stared fixedly at the ceiling
to see them better
and the flower-decked procession
moved round the temple.

One of them, the one in the middle
with the blackest eyes,
smiled at me.
what foolishness is racing through my head
as I lie on the operating table
with drugs in my blood.

And now they’ve lit the lamp above me,
the surgeon brings his scalpel down

and firmly makes a long incision.

Because I came round quickly
I firmly closed my eyes again.
Even so I caught a glimpse
of female eyes above a sterile mask
just long enough for me to smile.
Hallo, beautiful eyes.

By now they had ligatures around my blood vessels
and hooks opening up my wounds
to let the surgeon separate
the par vertebral muscles
and expose the spines and arches.
I uttered a soft moan.

I was lying on my side,
my hands tied at the wrists
but with my palms free:
these a nurse was holding in her lap
up by my head.
I firmly gripped her thigh
and fiercely pressed it to me
as a diver clutches a slim amphora
streaking up to the surface.

Just then the pentothal began to flow
into my veins
and all went black before me.
There was darkness as at the end of the world
and I remember no more.

Dear nurse, you got a few bruises.
I’m very sorry.
But in my mind I say:
                                A pity
I couldn’t bring this alluring booty
up with me from the darkness
into the light and
before my eyes.

The worst is over now,
I tell myself: I’m old.
The worst is yet to come:
I’m still alive.
If you really must know:
I have been happy.

Sometimes a whole day, sometimes whole hours,
sometimes just a few minutes.

All my life I have been faithful to love.
And if a woman’s hands are more than wings
what then are her legs?
How I enjoyed testing their strength.

That soft strength in their grip.

Let those knees then crush my head!

If I closed my eyes in this embrace
I would not be so drunk
and there wouldn’t be that feverish drumming
in my temples.
But why should I close them?

With open eyes
I have walked through this land.
It’s beautiful—but you know that.
It has meant more to me perhaps than all my loves,
and her embrace has lasted all my life.
When I was hungry
I fed almost daily
on the words of her songs.

Those who have left
hastily fled to distant lands,
must realize it by now:
the world is terrible.
They do not love and are not loved.
We at least love.
So let her knees then crush
my head!

Here is an accurate catalogue of guided missiles.


Hush, city, I can’t make out the whispering of the weir.
And people go about, quite unsuspecting
that above their heads fly
fiery kisses


Vernon Scannell--British


Vernon Scannell
(1922-    )


During World War II Scannell served in the British Army as a member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in France and North Africa.  He was wounded near Caen.  Scannell disliked military life, so on impulse he deserted after V-E Day.  He was captured after two years of running, and imprisoned.  He wrote of his experiences in An Argument of Kings, published in 1987.  While he was “on the run” Scannell wrote poetry.  Many of his war poems, especially “Walking Wounded,” are regarded as among the best to come out of World War II.  Scannell has been the recipient of a number of important British poetry awards including, the Heinemann Award for Literature.

Casualty—Mental Ward

Something has gone wrong inside my head.
The sappers have left mines and wire behind,
I hold long conversations with the dead.

I do not always know what has been said;
The rhythms, not the words, stay in my mind;
Something has gone wrong inside my head.

Not just the sky but grass and trees are red,
The flares and tracers—or I’m color-blind;
I hold long conversations with the dead.

Their presence comforts and sustains like bread;
When they don’t come its hard to be resigned;
Something has gone wrong inside my head.

They know about the snipers that I dread
And how the world is booby-trapped and mined;
I hold long conversation with the dead;

As all eyes close, they gather round my bed
And whisper consolation. When I find
Something has gone wrong inside my head
I hold long conversations with the dead.


The Walking Wounded

A mammoth morning moved grey flanks and groaned

In the rusty hedges pale rags of mist hung;

The gruel of mud and leaves in the mauled lane

Smelled sweet, like blood.  Birds had died or flown

Their green and silent antics sprouting now

With branches of leafed steel, riding round eyes

And ripe grenades ready to drop and burst.

In the ditch at the cross-roads the fallen rider lays

Hugging his dead machine and did not stir

At crunch of mortar, tantrum of a Bren

Answering a Spandau’s manic jabber.

Then into sight the ambulances came,

Stumbling and churning past the broken farm,

The amputated sign-post and smashed trees,

Slow wagonloads of bandaged cries, square trucks

That rolled on ominous wheels, vehicles

Made mythopoetic by their mortal freight

And crimson crosses on the dirty white.

This grave procession passed, though, for a while,

The grinding of their engines could be heard,

A dark noise on the pallor of the morning,

Dark as dried blood; and then it faded, died.

The road was empty, but it seemed to wait—

Like a stage that knows its cast is in the wings—

For a different traffic to appear.

The mist still hung in snags from dripping thorns;

Absent-minded guns still sighed and thumped,

And then they came, the walking wounded,

Straggling the road like convicts loosely chained,

Dragging at ankles exhaustion and despair.

Their heads were weighted down by last night’s lead,

And eyes still drank the dark.  They trailed the night

Along the morning road.  Some limped on sticks;

Others wore rough dressings, splints and slings;

A few had turbaned heads, the dirty cloth

Brown-badged with blood.  A humble brotherhood,

Not one was suffered from a lethal hurt,

They were not magnified by noble wounds,

There was no splendor in that company.

And yet, remembering after eighteen years,

In the heart’s throat a sour sadness stirs;

Imagination pauses and returns

To see them walking still, but multiplied

In thousands now.  And when heroic corpses

Turn slowly in their decorated sleep

And every ambulance has disappeared

The walking wounded still trudge down that lane,

And when recalled they must bear arms again.




May Sarton--American



May Sarton


Born in Belgium in 1912, she moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was three.  Upon her death in 1995, Sarton had written 53 books.  Though she might be most known for her novels and journals, she published 17 books of poetry.  She also created two children’s books, a play and a number of screenplays.  Her first volume of poetry, Encounter, was published 1937, when she was studying acting.  Remarkably, her Journal of a Solitude, has never gone out of print since it was published in 1973.  Sarton left instructions upon her death that her estate should provide scholarships for poets and historians of science (in her honor of her father).  The fund is administered under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which she was a member.


This lazy prince of tennis balls and lutes,

Marvelous redhead who could eat and have his cake,

Collector of hot jazz, Japanese prints, rare books,

The charming winner who takes all for the game’s sake,

Is now disciplined, changed, and wrung into a man.

For war’s sake, in six months, this can be done.


Now he is groomed and cared for like a fighting cock,

His blood enriched, his athlete’s nerve refined

In crucibles of tension to be electric under shock,

His intellect composed for action and designed

To map a bomber’s passage to Berlin by stars,

Precision’s instrument that neither doubts nor fears.


This can be done in six months.  Take a marvelous boy

And knead him into manhood for destruction’s joy.

This can be done in six months, but we never tried

Until we needed the lute player’s sweet lifeblood.

O the composed mind and the electric nerve

Were never trained like this to build, to love, to serve.


Look at him now and swear by every bomb he will release,

This shall be done.  This shall be better done in peace!



Nelly Sachs--German/Swedish


Nelly Sachs


Nelly Sachs was born in a Berlin suburb in 1891. Coming from a wealthy family she was tutored at home.  During her teen years she established a correspondence with Selma Lagerlöf, the Swedish writer. It was Lagerlöf who arranged for Sachs and her mother to flee Germany in 1940 and enter the country.  While in Sweden, Sachs earned her living translating German poets into Swedish.  During this time she worked on her first collection of poems, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), which was published after the war.  Following the war, Sachs decided to remain in Sweden.  Though her mental health was fragile, Sachs continued to write.  Her most popular play, Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels was written in 1950.  A number of other poetry collections followed through the years up to her death in 1970.  She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966.

O the Chimneys

And though after my skin worms destroy this body,
yet in my flesh shall I see God.
JOB 19:26

O the chimneys
On the ingeniously devised habitations of death
When Israel's body drifted as smoke
Through the air -
Was welcomed by a star, a chimney sweep,
a star that turned black
Or was it a ray of sun?

O the chimneys!
Freedom way for Jeremiah and Job's dust -
Who devised you and laid stone upon stone
The road for refugees of smoke?

O the habitations of death,
Invitingly appointed
For the host who used to be a guest -
O you fingers
Laying the threshold
Like a knife between life and death -

O you chimneys,
O you fingers
And Israel's body as smoke through the air!

Translated by Michael Hamburger


All the Lands of the Earth

All the lands of the earth

are ready

to rise up off the surface of the map

to shrug off their epidermis of stars

to tie the cerulean bundles of ocean

on their back

to set the mountains with their deep roots of fire

as caps on top of their smoking hair.


They are ready to carry that last

deadweight of sadness with them as baggage:

as a chrysalis on whose wings

one day

they will end the journey.