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.