By DONNA URSCHEL
Charles Simic, the 15th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, opened the literary season at the Library with a reading of 11 poems that covered the topics of loneliness, tragedy and everyday hardships. But even in his somber poems, he alluded to the pleasures of ordinary life and to the loopy joys of love.
Simic was relaxed and funny as he spoke to a standing room-only audience in the Montpelier Room on the evening of Oct. 18. Many of the poems he read came from his book “The Voice at 3:00 A.M.” and a few came from his latest book, “My Noiseless Entourage.”
Carolyn Brown, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs and the John W. Kluge Center at the Library, introduced Simic as someone who stands “for living with a clear-eyed observation of things, and many of these are things from which we are encouraged to avert our gaze … for living with a humor that comes from seeing the absurdity that we so easily take as a matter of fact … for keeping serious thought grounded and entangled in living experience.”
In his opening remarks, Simic joked that his early school days in Yugoslavia may have had a big impact on his life. “I was often told to stand in a corner, for hours, days, even months, it seemed. That’s probably why I became a poet. First you’re angry. Then you mellow and start to look out the window and see the details … a deep melancholy comes over you.”
The first poem Simic read was “Toward Nightfall,” dedicated to his friend and predecessor Poet Laureate Donald Hall and Hall’s late wife, Jane Kenyon, who died at age 47 of leukemia.
Simic said he was motivated to write the poem when he read an Atlantic Monthly article by a critic long dead who said that modern-day writers can’t write tragedies anymore. “Toward Nightfall” reminds us that no one is immune to tragedy. There are tragedies of all sorts, every day, among all types of people.
Often, before reading a poem, Simic described his motivation for writing it.
The second poem, “St. Thomas Aquinas,” deals with loneliness. Written in 1990, the poem refers to Simic’s life in 1958, when he left Chicago and moved to New York City. “I didn’t know anybody,” he said.
… I was already in New York looking for work
It was raining as in the days of Noah.
I stood in many doorways of that great city.
Once I asked a man in a tuxedo for a cigarette.
He gave me a frightened look and stepped out into the rain …
His third poem, “Reading History,” describes what it’s like to be comfortable and cozy while reading a book of history that almost always contains violence, massacres and injustices.
At times, reading here
In the library,
I’m given a glimpse
Of those condemned to death
And of their executioners.
I see each pale face before me
The way a judge
Pronouncing a sentence would,
Marveling at the thought
That I do not exist yet …
Next he read a poem that elicited a lot of laughter from the audience, “My Beloved.” Simic imagines the difficulties of writing a love poem in the third century B.C.
… Her eyes are two loopholes
No, let me start again.
Her eyes are flies in milk,
Her eyes are baby Draculas.
To hell with her eyes.
Let me tell you about her
A fascination with mummies, dating back to the mummy movies he watched when he was young, led Simic to write “Mummy’s Curse,” a humorous poem with undertones of despair.
Simic also read “Note,” “At the Cookout,” “My Turn to Confess” and “In the Planetarium.”
Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938 and lived through the bombings and turmoil of World War II. Some of those events are addressed in the poem “Empires.” Simic, who immigrated to the United States in 1954, told the audience, “This poem is about a grandmother of mine who died in 1948. I remember her well. She was a tough old lady.”
My grandmother prophesied the end
Of your empires, O fools!
She was ironing. The radio was on.
The earth trembled beneath our feet.
One of your heroes was giving a speech.
“Monster,” she called him.
There were cheers and gun salutes for the monster.
“I could kill him with my bare hands,”
She announced to me.
There was no need to. They were all
Going to the devil any day now.
“Don’t go blabbering this to anyone,”
She warned me.
And pulled my ear to make sure I understood.
In “Sunday Papers,” Simic describes how the world is a mess with violence and despair but there’s comfort to be found in the simple joys of a good meal:
… In the hallway, the old mutt
Just now had the honesty
To growl at his own image in the mirror,
Before lumbering off to the kitchen
Where the lamb roast sat
In your outstretched hands
Smelling of garlic and rosemary.
After the reading, Simic signed books and chatted with guests. One member of the audience told Simic how much she enjoyed the reading but noted that even the funny poems were sad. Simic mulled it over and said, “’Even your funny poems were sad.’ I like that!”
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.