Ask Charles Simic about Oak Park, and he’ll describe for you its public library: stacks upon stacks of philosophy, fiction, history, and poetry; art books with stiff, heavy pages full of Renaissance portraits and Impressionist landscapes; jazz albums, opera recordings and classical-music compilations. Plus, of course, the librarians, who would pencil a name and a due date onto a little card and send readers home with armloads of borrowed literature. “It was heaven,” Simic says. “I was a constant visitor. I couldn’t believe it when I discovered that they would let you take all these books home for free and read them at your kitchen table.”
Simic-who this past August was named United States poet laureate-spent his last two years of high school in Oak Park. He arrived in 1955, after an 18-hour journey on the Twentieth Century Limited, a yearlong immigrant existence in New York City and a turbulent, war-torn upbringing in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. He was 17 years old the first time he stepped foot on Oak Park’s sidewalks, and he had never written a poem. It had not yet occurred to him that he might.
Simic’s father, an engineer for a branch of the Western Electric Company, had been transferred from New York to Chicago, and on the advice of Serbian friends who declared Oak Park a nice place to live, the family rented a two-bedroom, third-story apartment abutting the railroad tracks on Wesley Avenue. Trains roaring west out of Union Station rattled dishes in the cupboard and pots on the stove, but the family stayed put. Simic’s mother took a seamstress job at the Marshall Field’s at Harlem and Lake, and his younger brother started third grade. Simic enrolled as a junior at OPRF High School, where his French teacher, a Miss Miller, reminded the class “at least three times a week,” he says, that Ernest Hemingway was once a student there. “I think he had taken a French class with her,” he recalls, adding waggishly, “and everybody knows that Hemingway spoke awful French.” An English teacher, Mr. Dolmetsh, took an interest in Simic and began supplying him with volumes of Joyce and Faulkner and other 20th-century writers. Yet another teacher introduced Simic to French poetry.
“They found out I liked to read and just kept handing books to me.”
It was his peers, though, who inspired Simic’s first poems. During his senior year at OPRF, he discovered that a couple of friends were writing poetry … and wooing pretty girls.
“They showed me their poems, and I thought, ‘I can try this too,” Simic recalls. “‘I can do what they’re doing.'”
He went home and scratched out a few verses. He knew immediately they were terrible, but even the terrible ones worked on girls (in a 1998 interview with the Cortland Review, Simic recalled trembling “at the memory of a certain Linda listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps”), and he found exhilaration in the act of writing. He read a few poetry anthologies to see if he could crack the code.
And he kept writing.
“So that’s how it started,” Simic says. “It didn’t mean a hell of a lot in the beginning. I didn’t know what would come of it.”
What came of it
Half a century later, here’s what the tally looks like: 18 books of poetry, and a 19th due out next February-all of them written in English, a language he didn’t begin learning until he was 15 years old (Serbian is his native tongue).
“Everyone I knew in Oak Park and Chicago was American,” he says. “I wanted to share poems with the people I knew. It never crossed my mind not to write in English.”
Among his many awards over the years, Simic picked up a MacArthur Fellowship (1984-89), a Pulitzer Prize (1990 for The World Doesn’t End, prose poems) and, most recently, a Wallace Stevens Award from the American Academy of Poets-he got word of the latter just hours after arriving home with a sackful of groceries to find the phone ringing and the Library of Congress on the other end, calling to say he’d been chosen as the nation’s 15th poet laureate.
Now 69, Simic has been a translator, essayist, literary critic and memoirist. He serves as one of two poetry editors at The Paris Review and is professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, where he taught from 1973 until his retirement last year. He lives on the shore of Bow Lake in Strafford, N.H., a town of 3,000 straddling the Blue Hills mountain range.
What it came from
Simic’s poetry, though, with its sardonic irony and matter-of-fact surrealism and fragmented, noirish humor, hails from a stranger, darker place. Born in Belgrade in 1938, he was three years old when a German bomb fell on the house across the street and knocked him out of bed. What followed-flames, darkness, a rush down the stairs and into the cellar-became a regular occurrence as the Nazis, and later the Allies, rained bombs down on the city. In the opening to his 2000 memoir, A Fly in the Soup, Simic writes, “My family, like so many others, got to see the world for free, thanks to Hitler’s wars and Stalin’s takeover of East Europe.”
As the German occupation wore on and Yugoslavia descended into civil war, Simic’s father left to find work in Italy; it would be 10 years before the family saw him again. Meanwhile, Belgrade’s bombed-out ruins became Simic’s jungle gym, and he and his friends played soldier and traded gunpowder for comic books and cans of food while real soldiers marched the streets. By the time his mother was able to escape Belgrade with 15-year-old Charles and his brother (first to Paris, then to the United States, where his father was waiting), World War II had ended and communist totalitarianism had taken hold in Yugoslavia.
However glancingly or obliquely-Simic is never explicitly political-the shadows of those early memories and their brutal, often absurd history lessons cling to Simic’s poetry. His work is a landscape of evocative and darkly whimsical images: broken clocks, town-square gallows, half-buried doll heads, slaughtered chickens, rats, cockroaches, upturned ants. His poems have titles like “Prison Guards Silhouetted Against the Sky,” “Misfortune is on the Way,” and “Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators,” in which Simic describes the infants:
Posing for the camera in their sailors’ suits,
Out there in the garden overgrown with shrubs.
Lovable little mugs smiling
The new century. Innocent.
In “Suitcase Strapped with a Rope,” Simic writes:
They made themselves so tiny
They could all fit in one suitcase.
They huddled there in the dark
While their mother called out their names
To make sure no one was missing.
Her voice made them warm, made them sleepy.
He wanted to go out and play.
He even asked for permission.
They told him to be very quiet.
Just then the suitcase was moving.
Soon the border guards were going
To open and inspect it,
Unless, of course, it was a burglar
And he knew another way to go.
In a 1999 essay in the New York Review of Books, poetry critic Helen Vendler compared Simic’s poems to “self-developing Polaroids, in which a scene, gradually assembling itself out of unexplained images, suddenly clicks into a recognizable whole.” His work is driven, she argued, by “the search for explanation, knowing there is none; and the finding of plots or images to match the burden of feeling.”
In a perpetual dialogue with the events of his life, Simic manages to imbue even ordinary objects and situations with a mysterious or menacing or metaphysical elements. In “Solitude,” for example, a colony ants spurred into motion by the accident of a crumb hitting the floor are “putting on/Their Quaker hats/And setting out to visit you.” The Quaker hats are funny, and of course an ant would notice the crumb, but one gets the feeling they’re not just after food; after all, they’re looking for “you.”
Oak Park springboard
In the mid-1950s, Simic had only just begun his lifelong dialogue with history. Looking back now, he recalls his Oak Park years fondly: movies at the Lake Theater, hamburger joints and coffee shops on Lake Street. He and some friends joined OPRF’s French Club and organized a mid-year performance.
“Me and this other guy were supposed to do a soft-shoe routine and sing a song,” he recalls, “wearing straw hats and carrying canes.”
After high school, Simic moved into the city and got a job as an office boy and then a proofreader at the Sun-Times. He started taking night classes at the University of Chicago. And he wrote constantly.
By the winter of 1959, when the Chicago Review printed two of Simic’s poems-his first publication-he had already departed for the bohemian chaos and commotion of New York. Afterward, he returned now and then to visit family and friends in Oak Park, but it’s been probably a decade since he was back.
He says he’d like to see the new public library. He’s been told it’s beautiful. “And I’m sure it is,” he says. “I just hope they kept all the old books. I’m sure some of them have a few stains I made when I was eating some sandwich, sitting in a kitchen and reading into the night.”
In the Libraryfor Octavi
There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered
The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.
Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.
She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.
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.
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
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.