Barbara Goldberg on Charles Simic


The Voice at 3 a.m.:  Selected Late and New Poems by Charles Simic. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 2003.


A fork like a bird's claw worn around a cannibal's neck.  A dog writing a poem on why he barks. Body and soul sitting on different stoops chewing the same piece of gum. 


Welcome to the world of Charles Simic, where the macabre and ludicrous entwine in a lusty embrace. The landscape is surreal, film noir.  The tone, matter of fact.  The vision so quirky and off the wall that you laugh until you cry.   


Forget about God.  He hangs a sign that He's not to be disturbed.  Forget about mother: a lion tamer with whip in hand.  Forget about father: a successful mortician, he's out falcon hunting.   History?  Licking the corners of its bloody mouth.  Death?  Looking for someone with a bad cough.  As for the poet, he has only a small, non-speaking part in a bloody epic. 


In the midst of a bloody epic is where Charles Simic spent his boyhood.  Yugoslavia in the 1940s was a treacherous place to live, first occupied by the Germans; then fighting a civil war; and later, when the Communists took over, plagued by autocracy.  Simic and his family lived at the edge of starvation.  They were not alone.  His father was arrested by the Gestapo, but managed to slip through their fingers.  He made his way to Italy, was liberated by the Americans and by 1948, had landed in Chicago.  From him, Simic learned the survival skill of cracking jokes. 


With no word or support from her husband, Simic's mother was reduced to bargaining with gypsies for food.  Once she traded her husband's tuxedo for a live pig.  Poetic justice, considering that an earlier photograph of his father showed him smiling, wearing that tuxedo, holding a pig under his arm.  What the photograph doesn't show is that shortly after he came upon a drunken priest marrying a young couple and gave them the pig as a wedding gift.   


To Simic a pig is not a pig, but redolent with memory.  One Christmas, Simic carried a roast pig in a pan.  The pig was covered with a newspaper because of the rain.  The road was slippery.  A gust of wind caused the newspaper to fly in his face, which caused him to tip the pan.  The pig slid against Simic's chest and he was covered with grease.  His mother tried to clean the stain, but the smell lingered.  Dogs followed him around for months. 


At 16, Simic arrived in the states and was reunited with his father.  They stayed up late into the night, drinking, smoking, talking about jazz and philosophy.  Back in Yugoslavia, all of Simic's teachers thought he was a dummy and wouldn't amount to much.  It must have been especially gratifying for Simic when he received the coveted John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant (also known as the "genius" award) and the Pulitzer Prize and when he was named United States Poet Laureate.        


Much of this can be found in Simic's Wonderful Words, Silent Truth: Essays on Poetry and a Memoir.   It makes for fascinating reading.  In the meantime, we can feast on Simic's tragic-comic cuisine – onions and potatoes surrounding a roast pig, an apple in its mouth.



Poems cited: "Cameo Appearance," "Eyes Fastened With Pins," "Fork," "Mummy's Curse," "My Turn to Confess," "What the Gypsies Told My Grandmother While She Was Still a Young Girl."



Barbara Goldberg is the author of seven books of poetry, including three in Hebrew translation.  Most recently, she received the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry judged by David St. John for The Royal Baker's Daughter (University of Wisconsin Press). Goldberg, along with the Israeli poet Moshe Dor, translated The Fire Stays in Red, which contains poems by  the Iraqi-born Israeli poet Ronny Someck (Wisconsin University Press).  The two also edited and translated After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace (University of Syracuse Press). The recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and numerous grants from the Maryland State Arts Council, Goldberg’s work appears in 2009 Best American Poetry, the American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Paris Review, and  Poetry. A former senior speechwriter at AARP, she currently is visiting writer in American University’s MFA program.  Contact info is at



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