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?