Celebrating Charles Simic

January 15, 2023

  I hope you’ll all join me in celebrating CHARLES SIMIC’S poetry, prose, and life this week.  I’m repeating the post from June 7, 2022, because it’s a good starting point.  What I’m hoping is that everyone who loves his work will join in and post a favorite poem or prose poem here, and best of all bring it to this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) to read to the group.  I’ll be sending the zoom link on Wednesday this week (please let me know if you haven’t received it by Wednesday night, so I can correct that), and I hope you’ll share it with anyone you know who might be interested.  But please don’t post it on any social media–that’s when we get zoom bombers.  His death is a big loss, but we can summon up his presence by reading his work together.

Here’s the earlier post:

Following up on last week’s post about Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, I want to talk about another Eastern European poet, Charles Simic, who was born in 1939 in what was then Yugoslavia.  I first read his poems in about 1970, when I was just beginning to write seriously, and his work opened doors in my mind that I didn’t even know were there.  That first excitement only deepened over time.  The tone reminds me some of Szymborska’s in its humor in the face of great tragedy.  But Simic’s work also summons up the magic of fairy tales–the impossible described very matter-of-factly.  In addition to his numerous books of poetry, he’s also published several that collect his essays and memoir fragments, which I find as compelling as his poems.  He won the Pulitzer prize in poetry for a collection of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End, which remind me of Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages.  Simic wrote an insightful book on Cornell’s work, and I think of Simic’s poems as similar to those boxes.  I’m including here one of the earliest poems of his I read, from Dismantling the Silence, one  about wartime from The Book of Gods and Devils, a prose poem from The World Doesn’t End, and three brief prose passages from his memoirs.

Simic didn’t arrive in this country until he was sixteen.  Why has he always written in English, and not his native Serbian? “For poetry to be used as an instrument of seduction, the first requirement is that it be understood. No American girl was likely to fall for a guy who read her love poems in Serbian as they sipped Coke.”



This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.

As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.


for Charles and Holly

An old dog afraid of his own shadow
In some Southern town.
The story told me by a woman going blind,
One fine summer evening
As shadows were creeping
Out of the New Hampshire woods,
A long street with just a worried dog
And a couple of dusty chickens,
And all that sun beating down
In that nameless Southern town.

It made me remember the Germans marching
Past our house in 1944.
The way everybody stood on the sidewalk
Watching them out of the corner of the eye,
The earth trembling, death going by…
A little white dog ran into the street
And got entangled with the soldiers’ feet.
A kick made him fly as if he had wings.
That’s what I keep seeing!
Night coming down. A dog with wings.



We were so poor I had to take the place of the
bait in the mousetrap.  All alone in the cellar, I
could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turn-
ing in their beds.  “These are dark and evil days,”
the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear.  Years
passed.  My mother wore a cat-fur collar which
she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.


One night the Gestapo came to arrest my father.  This time I was asleep and awoke suddenly to the bright lights.  They were rummaging everywhere and making a lot of noise.  My father was already dressed.  He was saying something, probably cracking a joke.  That was his style.  No matter how bleak the situation, he’d find something funny to say.  Years later, surrounded by doctors and nurses after having suffered a bad heart attack, he replied to their “how’re you feeling sir” with a request for some pizza and beer.  The doctors thought he had suffered brain damage.  I had to tell them this was normal behavior for him.


There was an old cemetery nearby [where Simic lived with his pregnant mother in Belgrade during WW II] with a huge church, and beyond it the fairgrounds, where supposedly, they were shooting German prisoners.  We met a pack of children on the way who said that they were from the circus.  It was true.  There used to be a circus tent on the fairgrounds in the early years of the war, but now only a few trailers were left on its edge.  These were odd-looking children.  They wore the strangest clothes–unmatched, wrong-sized costumes–and they jabbered, speaking a foreign language among themselves.
“Show him what you can do,” said my friend, who had met them before.  They obliged.  A little boy stood on his hands.  Then, he removed one hand and was left for a moment standing on the other.  A thin, dark-eyed, dark-haired girl leaned back until her head emerged from between her legs.  “They have no bones,” my friend whispered.  The dead have no bones, I thought.  They fall over like sacks of flour.


All able men were conscripted and the fighting was fierce.  Belgrade was a city of the wounded.  One saw people on crutches on every corner.  They walked slowly, at times carrying a mess kit with their daily ration.  There were soup kitchens in which people got their meals.  Once, chased by a friend, I rounded the corner of my street at top speed and collided with one of these invalids, spilling his soup on the sidewalk..  I won’t forget the look he gave me.  “Oh child,” he said softly.  I was too stunned to speak.  I didn’t even have the sense to pick up his crutch.  I watched him do it himself with great difficulty.

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  • Reply Laura Jensen January 18, 2023 at 1:30 pm

    Memorial for Charles Simic

    Poems of mine were anthologized along with Charles Simic, and I found poems in Field Magazine by Charles Simic and always liked the concise and wonderful work.

  • Reply Chris Dahl January 18, 2023 at 3:51 pm

    This has always been one of my favorite Simic poems:


    Go inside a stone
    That would be my way.
    Let somebody else become a dove
    Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.
    I am happy to be a stone.

    From the outside the stone is a riddle:
    No one knows how to answer it.
    Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
    Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
    Even though a child throws it in a river;
    The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
    To the river bottom
    Where the fishes come to knock on it
    And listen.

    I have seen sparks fly out
    When two stones are rubbed,
    So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
    Perhaps there is a moon shining
    From somewhere, as though behind a hill–
    Just enough light to make out
    The strange writings, the star-charts
    On the inner walls.

    I also wrote some annotations (maybe thirty years ago?). At the first stanza I said, “All this end-stopping!” Then I said, “And the ending lengthens out in one long sentence.” And I also said, “Intuition, art, poetry, the whole constellation,” by which I’m sure I was referring to the star-charts. I don’t think you can ever explicate a Simic poem. You feel them (or you don’t).

    • Reply Sharon January 18, 2023 at 10:54 pm

      One of mine too.

  • Reply Anne Myles January 19, 2023 at 10:24 am

    I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never really read Simic’s work, so I’m looking forward to learning. Is there a collection you recommend as a starting point? Someone on Twitter shared his essay on prose poetry, which I read with interest. https://plumepoetry.com/essay-on-the-prose-poem-by-charles-simic/

    • Reply Sharon January 19, 2023 at 11:32 am

      Well, we can’t read everything. But his work is like no one else’s. I don’t think it matters much where you start, and whether it’s prose or poetry. His voice is in all of it. The World Doesn’t End is one of my favorites, prose poems that won the Pulitzer.

    • Reply Chris Dahl January 19, 2023 at 2:07 pm

      Thanks for posting the link Anne. I, too, read it with interest!

  • Reply Martha Zweig January 19, 2023 at 1:43 pm

    I hadn’t read his prose poems, so I just did. Two favorites near the end:

    Police dogs in a dog groomer’s window dressed as children.
    O the starched white pinafores, the lace-bordered undies,
    the patent-leather shoes! If you’re going to sell your soul
    to the devil, go down that street and ask on the second floor
    of the house with the dogs.

    AND (the 2nd)
    From inside the pot on the stove
    someone threatens the stars with a wooden spoon.

    Otherwise, cloudless calm. The shepherd’s hour.

  • Reply Anne Graue January 19, 2023 at 3:55 pm

    Like Anne M., I’ve never really read Simic’s work either, just a bit here and there. I’ll do some reading now though.

  • Reply Annie Newcomer January 19, 2023 at 4:19 pm

    1. The Poet

    Someone awake when others are sleeping,
    Asleep when others are awake.
    An illiterate who signs everything with an X.
    A man about to be hanged cracking a joke.

    2. The Poem

    It is a piece of meat
    Carried by a burglar
    To distract a watchdog.

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