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
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.
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.
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?
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 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
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 locks 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 am.
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.
Anger, 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. Man 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.
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.
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. God, 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!
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.
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
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 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
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