The Prisoner of History

 

 

The Prisoner of History

Charles Simic

It is hard for me to believe that I was born in Belgrade, and not in New York City, for I have a pretty good idea what it was like to live in New York in 1938. I can picture what the New Yorkers were doing in various neighborhoods and streets, the buildings and apartments they lived in, how they dressed, what they ate in restaurants, and where they went to see a movie and go dancing, while I lay around in my crib on Majke Jevrosime Street in Belgrade, playing with my toes and giving loving looks to a large teddy bear propped up next to me.

I even have a photograph to prove it and another one of me, when I was a bit older, being pushed in a stroller by my mother down a street full of people. It is the spring of 1941 and I appear exceedingly pleased with myself, as though after much nagging I had finally persuaded her to buy me a toy, although, unknown to either one of us, Hitler and Stalin and their armies had already made plans to turn me into an American poet.

I remember nothing about the day that photograph was taken, but I do have a vague recollection of what happened next. On April 6, 1941 (Palm Sunday), Belgrade was bombed by the Nazis at five in the morning. There was no declaration of war or any warning that the planes were coming. A building across the street was hit and set on fire and I was thrown out of my bed and landed on the floor in a shower of glass from the broken windows. The bombing went on for four more days, killing some 20,000 people and destroying several hundred buildings. I imagine there are many Europeans of my generation whose first memories are also of fire, smoke, and streets lined with ruins.

In the days after the bombing, Yugoslavia was occupied by the German, Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian armies, and a bloody civil war erupted between various domestic political factions and ethnic groups, making life hell for most people, except for children like me who, not knowing any better, took it all in stride. Everybody thinks I’m out of my mind when I tell them that I had a happy childhood even with bombs falling on my head. Playing with toy soldiers, I would go boom, boom, and the planes would go boom, boom. In 1944, it was the American and the British bombers that brought death and destruction. As bad as that was, I recall the good times I had then, for while the grown-ups were busy with their troubles, I ran around with other kids and did pretty much as I pleased.

When the war was over and I finally had to go to school, I missed the streets. I was a poor student, the kind of kid the teachers are convinced will grow up to be a criminal because he is seen in the company of hoodlums twice his age, although I was quiet in class where I read comic books and adventure stories instead of paying attention. My other problem was that I skipped classes every chance I got. Once I stayed away nearly three months, until the school sent the police to tell my mother about my absenteeism. I walked around Belgrade, saw movies if I had the money, and hid for hours in doorways when the weather was bad. If anything made me a poet, running away from school certainly did.

At the age of twelve, I became a stranger even to my closest friends. I remember trying to tell them how wonderful it was to roam the city, but I lacked the words to describe the exciting things I saw or express my thirst for adventure, which made me set out every morning in the opposite direction from school. “His head is always in the clouds,” my mother used to tell our neighbors, who undoubtedly would not have described me so poetically. Without realizing it, I was learning to be an outsider, an excellent preparation, as it turned out, for someone on the verge of becoming a displaced person.

My parents had no ambition to stray far beyond the city where they were born, but like millions of others all over Europe, they found themselves homeless as a result of events beyond their control. Separated for over a decade, they were reunited in the summer of 1954, when my mother, my younger brother, and I disembarked from a ship in New York City and were met there by my father. He wore, as I recall, a white linen suit and a light blue shirt that made him look so American in our eyes that we were surprised that he spoke Serbian and knew our names.

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We checked into a hotel near Times Square and after quickly freshening up ran into the street to see the famous billboards with their smiling, rosy-cheeked faces peddling cigarettes and toothpaste and bright neon signs advertising movie theaters, restaurants, and night clubs. The air smelled of greasy popcorn oil and fried onions. Sailors crowded around the entrances of dance halls, while drunks accosted pedestrians asking for money. Since my father left Belgrade in 1944 and first made his way to Italy a few months before my brother was born, this was their first meeting. We took turns sneaking peeks at each other and staring at men in the street sporting neckties decorated with palm trees and women in bathing suits.

Even that first day in America, I had a hunch that nothing would ever be the same. For someone older, that was bound to be terrifying, but I was sixteen years old, coming from a destroyed and impoverished continent, the son of parents who had not been together in a decade and no longer seemed to like each other very much, and I had no wish to look back. I could feel my old identity slipping away as I explored Manhattan and tried to make sense of what I was seeing. European cities were orderly and easier to read than this American megalopolis. Their grand old buildings and stylish hotels and cafés were confined to certain neighborhoods, while their pawnshops and pool halls were relegated to parts of town some people never got to see. Not so in New York, where one was likely to stumble across a skyscraper standing right next to a two-story shack with a shoe-shine parlor, or a double row of rundown movie houses with huge marquees advertising horror films and westerns, a short distance from the elegant Fifth Avenue and that apogee of Beaux Arts architecture, the New York Public Library.

Of course, there was also the problem of language. I could read English more or less, but speaking was a different matter. The shock of asking for directions and not being understood was mortifying. Every day in America, I realized, I would have a fresh opportunity to embarrass myself each time I opened my mouth. Nevertheless, the claim that an immigrant can never feel at home again didn’t prove to be quite true in my case. After a couple of years, even with my conspicuous accent, I felt that there was no other place for me but America.

This created a problem whenever I came in contact with other immigrants, many of whom loathed everything I liked about my new country. I don’t remember exactly when it first crossed my mind that America had given me an opportunity to escape everything I secretly disliked about the old life. Not even the revered role of an intellectual in exile, haunted by twentieth-century history and nostalgia for the culture of Europe, ever appealed to me in the least. The United States, despite its glaring contradictions and problems, was far more attractive, and so were the anonymity and the freedom to be myself that came with assimilation.

Actually, that was not entirely true. Both New York and Chicago, where I lived for a few years, were cities full of old and recent immigrants. I had close Italian, Jewish, and Irish friends and knew and worked with people from other ethnic groups. Since my parents had decided to divorce shortly after our coming to America, and had no money to send me to college, at the age of eighteen I had to go to work to support myself. For the next twelve years, except for a two-year stint in the army, I earned my living proofreading classified ads for a newspaper, then as a bookkeeper in various offices, a shirt salesman in a department store, a clerk in a bookstore, and a business manager at a small photography magazine, while attending night classes at New York University and living in seedy hotels and cheap apartments.

My first poems were published in 1959, in the winter issue of The Chicago Review, five years after I came to the United States, and yet it never occurred to me then that I would spend the rest of my life writing poetry. In my youth, I wanted to be a painter and I drew and painted in my spare time till poetry started to dominate my life, when I was in my mid-twenties. Even then, I didn’t really think of myself as a poet. Like my father, I was a voracious reader, interested in literature, art, philosophy, the history of ideas, Eastern religions, and a dozen other subjects. Working long hours and with a busy social life, I was too distracted by it all to stop and think about the future.

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The poems I wrote and published in those years I have either destroyed or never collected in a book, except for a few. Here is an example of the kind of poetry I wrote more than fifty years ago in New York City:

COCKROACH

When I see a cockroach,
I don’t grow violent like you.
I stop as if a friendly greeting
Had passed between us.

This roach is familiar to me.
We met here and there,
In the kitchen at midnight,
And now on my pillow.

I can see it has a couple
Of my black hairs
Sticking out of its head,
And who knows what else?

It carries a false passport—
Don’t ask me how I know.
A false passport, yes,
With my baby picture.

Looking back at the poetry scene in the mid-1950s, when I first started attending poetry readings and meeting poets, I realize how provincial and ill-informed we all were. While it was not uncommon to meet people who had a great deal of knowledge about the modern novel, modern art, and modern music, poetry followers were few in number and further divided by factions that feuded with one another over aesthetic questions without bothering to fully inform themselves about their opponents’ poetry. It took me years to sort all this out and properly understand what had happened in American poetry since the days of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams, and learn what sort of poetry had been written in other parts of the world.

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Charles Simic

Charles Simic, Belgrade, 1938

The way Don Juan fell in love with women, I fell in love with poets. In my youth, I went to bed with old Homer, Roman and Chinese poets, French Symbolists and Surrealists, Russian Futurists and German Expressionists, Spanish and South American poets, individually or in groups. I was insatiable. I’d be lying if I pretended that I had one great love, because I had so many. We tend to speak of good poetry as if there is only one type, but that was never true and has been even less so since the days of Baudelaire and Whitman. Years later, when I started teaching literature at a university, I had that view reconfirmed every time I taught a poem written by some poet who held radically different and mutually exclusive ideas about poetry from the poet we had read and found equally admirable the week before. Modern poetry proves that any single theory of literature no longer works.

Of course, without being fully aware of it, my immersion in American literature was also meant to answer the questions: Where do I fit here? What kind of native tradition in poetry do I feel closest to? You notice that I do not mention European and Serbian poets in this context. Even though they’ve meant much to me, I knew I could not write like them. American poets tend to carry little religious, cultural, or historical baggage, so it would have been foolish of me to believe that I could play at being a European and get away with it here.

What I find laudable about the finest American poets, going back to Whitman and Dickinson, is their intellectual independence. That each poet renders the world intelligible and in so doing determines its nature is an idea of Wallace Stevens that is widely shared by American poets, and that I too have found philosophically and temperamentally congenial. Emerson asks in his famous essay “Nature” why Americans should not also enjoy an original relation to the universe and have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition. This notion that truth has to be rediscovered time and time again makes sense in a country with a population of diverse ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, and his call for self-reliance has continued to inspire whatever originality our literature and our arts have accomplished to date.

I must confess, however, that my bond with the poetry of my adopted country would have been even closer had my past been different. It’s not that I have continued to relive the horrors of my childhood to this day; nonetheless, the many wars fought in the intervening years keep jogging my memory about how my own identity was formed. To paraphrase what Czesław Miłosz said in the introduction to his anthology Postwar Polish Poetry, published in 1965 in the United States, the poet crawling from under the historical steamroller has no choice but to face the moral obligations fate has assigned to him, unlike his colleagues in happier countries, who write as if history had nothing to do with them.

Encountering for the first time the poems of Aleksander Wat, Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Różewicz, Zbigniew Herbert, and others, I knew immediately that I was being shown how to write about my own encounter with history, which American poetry could not do for me. Here is Wat’s “From Persian Parables,” translated by Miłosz and Leonard Nathan:

By great, swift waters
on a stony bank
a human skull lay shouting

Allah la ilah.

And in that shout such horror
and such supplication
so great was its despair
that I asked the helmsman:

What is there left to cry for?
    Why is it still afraid?
What divine judgment could
    strike it again?

Suddenly a rising wave
took hold of the skull
and tossing it about
smashed it against the bank.

Nothing is ever over
—the helmsman’s voice was
    hollow—
and there is no bottom to evil.

Even before reading the Polish poets, I suspected that only a mixture of tragedy and comedy could convey what I and others went through, that only a poetic imagination free of all inhibitions, as that of Hieronymus Bosch, could do justice to what we had experienced. That the comic is one of the essential forms of truth has always seemed obvious to me. Besides, as Miłosz once remarked, the blackest humor, gallows humor, is something I can eat for breakfast.

There’s something else I found out early on. I was six years old when the Allies bombed Belgrade in the spring of 1944, but even at that young age, I was beginning to suspect that there was something terribly wrong in what I was seeing, since the bombs falling on us, as even we kids knew, were supposed to be killing Nazis, but incredibly, they kept missing them and killing old people and children. That innocent people are the greatest victims of wars and revolutions I learned later when reading history, but these first lessons in that grim truth weren’t taught to me by any grown-up or book. I learned them on my own and never forgot. Neither I nor my poems would have been the same without that knowledge, and neither would my lifelong sense of right and wrong that transcends national and political sympathies.

I live between two worlds, the one I see with my eyes open and the one I see with my eyes closed. Unlike other people, I regard the two as equals and trust my eyes as much as I trust my imagination. To favor one over the other is inconceivable to me. Poetry is not just a record of things seen and remembered, but a deeper reading of them with the aid of the imagination. It doesn’t take much to get me started: a sock I can’t find in the morning, the color of the sky just before it snows, the news on the radio, a pair of broken, expensive-looking wire-rimmed glasses fallen in the gutter, a dog begging on two legs outside a supermarket, the wind sending gust after gust at a woman trying to cross the avenue, causing her to stagger and spin around as it tugs at her skirt like an impatient lover.

As Thoreau once said, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” If I were to compare my poetry to the art of cooking, I would say that I’m a devotee of the frying pan. At the heart of my poetics is the belief that it is possible to make astonishing dishes out of the simplest ingredients available.

That’s not the whole story, of course. A poem is also a place where one is confronted with philosophical or religious questions. Even a nonbeliever like me feels, now and then, the presence of something outside of language and suspects that this brief experience of transcendence and encounter with being and nothingness is what defines him. It’s a quandary familiar to mystics, madmen, and lovers, but in the light of reason, an incoherent and hopeless state of affairs. You may not think so, but I find this an ideal predicament for a poet to be in. John Keats called it “negative capability,” the ability to remain in the midst of uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without reaching for some reassuring thought.

Or, as Zbigniew Herbert said, “We live in a world of contradictions and we ourselves are the victims of contradictory ideas, impulses, imaginings.” And I don’t think, he went on to say in that same interview, that a work of art, like a scientific theory, has to be internally coherent or that juggling opposites is evidence of a lack of character. As for that One and Only Truth, which many are searching for and others claim to have found, luckily for us poets and for everybody else, “La vie est plus belle que les idées,” as the French say.

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