The Necessity of Poetry

Wartime childhood, a father’s generosity, and the passing of time: memory fragments

Late night on MacDougal Street. An old fellow comes up to me and says: “Sir, I’m writing the book of my life, and I need a dime to complete it.” I give him a dollar.

Another night in Washington Square Park, a fat woman with a fright wig says to me: “I’m Esther, the goddess of Love. If you don’t give me a dollar, I’ll put a curse on you.” I give her a nickel.

• • •

One of those postwar memories: a baby carriage pushed by a humpbacked old woman, her son sitting in it, both legs amputated.

She was haggling with the greengrocer when the carriage got away from her. The street was steep, so it rolled downhill with the cripple waving his crutch, his mother screaming for help, and everybody else laughing as if they were in the movies. Buster Keaton or somebody like that about to go over a cliff.

One laughed because one knew it would end well. One was surprised when it didn’t.

• • •

I didn’t tell you how I got lice wearing a German helmet. This used to be a famous story in our family. I remember those winter evenings just after the war with everybody huddled around the stove, talking and worrying late into the night. Sooner or later, somebody would bring up my German helmet full of lice. They thought it was the funniest thing they ever heard. Old people had tears of laughter in their eyes. A kid dumb enough to walk around with a German helmet full of lice. They were crawling all over it. Any fool could see them!

I sat there saying nothing, pretending to be equally amused, nodding my head while thinking to myself, what a bunch of idiots! All of them! They had no idea how I got the helmet, and I wasn’t about to tell them.

It was in those first days just after the liberation of Belgrade, I was up in the old cemetery with a few friends, kind of snooping around. Then, all of a sudden, we saw them! A couple of German soldiers, obviously dead, stretched out on the ground. We drew closer to take a better look. They had no weapons. Their boots were gone, but there was a helmet that had fallen to the side of one of them. I don’t remember what the others got, but I went for the helmet. I tiptoed so as not to wake the dead man. I also kept my eyes averted. I never saw his face, even if sometimes I think I did. Everything else about that moment is still intensely clear to me.

That’s the story of the helmet full of lice.

• • •

Beneath the swarm of high-flying planes, we were eating watermelon. While we ate, the bombs fell on Belgrade. We watched the smoke rise in the distance. We were hot in the garden and asked to take our shirts off. The watermelon made a ripe, cracking noise as my mother cut it with a big knife. We also heard what we thought was thunder, but when we looked up, the sky was cloudless and blue.

• • •

My mother heard a man plead for his life once. She remembers the stars, the dark shapes of trees along the road on which they were fleeing the Austrian army in a slow-moving oxcart. “That man sounded terribly frightened out there in the woods,” she says. The cart went on. No one said anything. Soon they could hear the river they were supposed to cross.

• • •

In my childhood, women mended stockings in the evening. To have a “run” in one’s stocking was catastrophic. Stockings were expensive, and so was electricity. We would all sit around the table with a single lamp, my grandmother reading the papers, we children pretending to do our homework, while watching my mother spreading her red-painted fingernails inside the transparent stocking.

• • •

There was a maid in our house who let me put my hand under her skirt. I was five or six years old. I can still remember the dampness of her crotch and my surprise that there was all that hair there. I couldn’t get enough of it. She would crawl under the table where I had my military fort and my toy soldiers. I don’t remember what was said, if anything. Just her hand, firmly guiding mine to that spot.

• • •

They sit on the table, the tailors do. At least, they used to. A street of dim shops in Belgrade where we went to have my father’s coat narrowed and shortened so it would fit me. The tailor got off the table and stuck pins in my shoulder. “Don’t squirm,” my mother said. Outside, it was getting dark. Large snowflakes fell.

Years later in New York, on the same kind of afternoon, a dry-cleaning store window with an ugly, thick-legged woman on the chair in a white dress. She’s having the hem raised by a gray-headed Jewish tailor, who kneels before her as if he is proposing marriage.

• • •

There was an expensive-looking suitcase on the railroad tracks, and they were afraid to come near it. Far from any station, it was on a stretch of track bordered by orchards where they had been stealing plums that afternoon. The suitcase, she remembers, had colorful labels, of what were probably world-famous hotels and ocean liners. During the war, of course, one heard of bombs, special ones, in the shape of toys, pens, soccer balls, exotic birds—so why not suitcases? For that reason, they left it where it was.

“I always wondered what was in it,” my wife says. We were talking about the summer of 1944, of which we both had only a few clear recollections.

• • •

The world was going up in flames, and I was studying violin. The baby Nero sawing away.

My teacher’s apartment was always cold. A large, almost empty room with a high ceiling already in shadow. I remember the first few screechy notes my violin would make and my teacher’s stern words of reprimand. I was terrified of that old woman. I also loved her because after the scolding, she would give me something to eat. Something rare and exotic, like chocolate filled with sweet liqueur. We’d sit in that big empty room, almost dark now. I’d be eating, and she’d be watching me eat. “Poor child,” she’d say, and I thought it had to do with my not practicing enough, my being dimwitted when she tried to explain something to me, but today I’m not sure that’s what she meant. In fact, I suspect she had something else entirely in mind. That’s why I’m writing this, to find out what it was.

Illustration by Anna Hall

• • •

When my grandfather was dying from diabetes, when he had already had one leg cut off at the knee and they were threatening to do the same to the other, his old buddy Savo Lozanic used to visit him every morning to keep him company. They would reminisce about this and that, and even have a few laughs.

One morning, my grandmother had to leave him alone in the house, as she had to attend the funeral of a distant relative. That’s what gave him the idea. He hopped out of bed and into the kitchen, where he found candles and matches. He got back into his bed, somehow placed one candle above his head and the other at his feet, and lit them. Finally, he pulled the sheet over his face and began to wait.

When his friend knocked, there was no answer. The door being unlocked, Savo went in, calling from time to time. The kitchen was empty. A fat gray cat slept on the dining room table. When Savo entered the bedroom and saw the bed with the sheet and lit candles, he let out a wail and then broke into sobs as he groped for a chair to sit down.

“Shut up, Savo,” my grandfather said sternly from under his sheet. “Can’t you see I’m only practicing?”

• • •

Another story about time. This one about the time it took the people to quit their cells after beginning to suspect that the Germans were gone. In that huge prison in Milan, all of a sudden you could hear a pin drop. Eventually they thought it best to remove their shoes before walking out.

My father was still tiptoeing hours later, crossing a large, empty piazza. There was a full moon above the dark palaces. His heart was in his mouth.

“It was just like an opera stage,” he says. “All lit up, nobody in the audience, and nobody in the orchestra pit. Nevertheless, I felt like singing. Or perhaps screaming?”

He did neither. The year was 1944.

• • •

The streets are empty, it’s raining, and we are sitting in the Hotel Sherman bar, listening to the bluesy piano. I’m not yet old enough to order a drink, but my father’s presence is so authoritative and intimidating that when he orders for me, the waiters never dare to ask about my age.

We talk. My father remembers a fly that wouldn’t let him sleep one summer afternoon fifty years ago. I tell him about an old gray overcoat twice my size, which my mother made me wear after the war. It was wintertime. People on the street would sometimes stop and watch me. The overcoat trailed the ground and made walking difficult. One day, I was standing on the corner, waiting to cross, when a young woman gave me a small coin and walked away. I was so embarrassed.

“Was she pretty?” my father asks.

“Not at all,” I tell him. She looked like a hick, maybe a nun.

“A Serbian Ophelia,” my father thinks.

It’s possible. Anything is possible.

• • •

The huge crowd cheering the dictator; the smiling faces of children offering flowers in welcome. How many times have I seen that? And always the same blonde little girl curtsying! Here she is, surrounded by the high boots of the dignitaries and a couple of tightly leashed police dogs. The monster himself is patting her on the head and whispering in her ear.

I look in vain for someone with a troubled face.

• • •

The exiled general’s grandson was playing war with his cheeks puffed to imitate bombs exploding. The grim daughter wrote down the old man’s reminiscences. The whole apartment smelled of bad cooking.

The general was in a wheelchair. He wore a bib and smoked a cigar. The daughter smiled for me and my mother in a way that made her sharp little teeth show.

I liked the general better. He remembered some prime minister pretending to wipe his ass with a treaty he had just signed, the captured enemy officers drinking heavily and toasting some cabaret singer from their youth.

• • •

It’s your birthday. The child you were appears on the street, wearing a stupid grin. He wants to take you by the hand, but you won’t let him.

“You’ve forgotten something,” he whispers. And you, quiet as a mutt around an undertaker, since, of course, he (the child) doesn’t exist.

• • •

There was an old fellow at the Sun Times who was boss when I first came and worked as a mail clerk, who claimed to have read everything. His father was a janitor at the university library in Urbana, and Stanley, for that was his name, started as a kid. At first, I didn’t believe any of it; then I asked him about Gide, whom I was then reading. He recited for me the names of the major novels and their plots. What about Isaac Babel, Alain-Fournier, Aldous Huxley, Ford Madox Ford? The same thing. It was amazing! Everything I had read or heard of, he had already read. You should be on a quiz show, Stanley, people who overheard us said. Stanley had never been to college and had worked for the newspaper most of his life. He had a stutter, so I guess that explains why he never married or got ahead. So, all he did was read books. I had the impression that he loved every book he read. Only superlatives for Stanley, one book better than the other. If I started to criticize, he’d get pissed off. Who did I think I was? Smartass, he called me, and wouldn’t talk to me about books for a few days. Stanley was pure enthusiasm. I was giddy myself at the thought of another book waiting for me to read at home.

• • •

The night of my farewell dinner in Chicago, I got very drunk. At some point, I went to the bathroom and could not find my way back. The restaurant was large and full of mirrors. I would see my friends seated in the distance, but when I hurried toward them, I would come face to face with myself in a mirror. With my new beard, I did not recognize myself immediately and almost apologized. In the end, I gave up and sat at an old man’s table. He ate in silence, and I lit a cigarette. Time passed. The place was emptying. The old man finally wiped his mouth and pushed his full, untouched wine glass toward me. I would have stayed with him indefinitely if one of the women from our party hadn’t found me and led me outside.

• • •

Did I lie a little? Of course. I gave the impression that I had lived for years on the Left Bank and often sat at the tables of the famous cafés, watching the existentialists in their passionate arguments. What justified these exaggerations in my eyes was the real possibility that I could have done something like that. Everything about my life already seemed a fluke, a series of improbable turns of events, so in my case fiction was no stranger than truth. Like when I told the woman on the train from Chicago that I was a Russian. I described our apartment in Leningrad, the terrors of the long siege during the war, the deaths of my parents before a German firing squad, which we children had to witness, the DP camps in Europe. At some point during the long night, I had to go to the bathroom and simply laugh.

How much of it did she believe? Who knows? In the morning, she gave me a long kiss in parting, which could have meant anything.

• • •

My father and his best friend talking about how some people resemble animals. The birdlike wife of so and so, for example. The many breeds of dogs and their human look-alikes. The lady who is a cow. The widow next door who is a tigress, etc.

“And what about me?” says my father’s friend.

“You look like a rat, Tony” he replies without a moment’s hesitation, after which they just sit drinking without saying another word.

• • •

“You look like a young Franz Schubert,” the intense-looking woman told me as we were introduced.

At that same party, I spoke to a lawyer who insisted we had met in London two years before. I explained my accent to a doctor by telling him that I was raised by a family of deaf mutes.

There was a girl there, too, who kept smiling sweetly at me without saying anything. Her mother told me that I reminded her of her brother, who was executed by the Germans in Norway. She was going to give me more details, but I excused myself, telling everyone that I had a sudden and terrible toothache that required immediate attention.

• • •

I got the idea of sleeping on the roof in Manhattan on hot nights from my mother and father. That’s what they did during the war, except it wasn’t a roof but a large terrace on the top floor of a building in downtown Belgrade. There was a blackout, of course. I remember immense starry skies and how silent the city was. I would begin to speak, but someone—I could not tell for a moment who it was—would put a hand over my mouth.

Like a ship at sea, we were with stars and clouds up above. We were sailing full speed ahead. “That’s where the infinite begins,” I remember my father saying, pointing with his long, dark hand.

• • •

If my father has a ghost, he’s standing outside some elegant men’s store on Madison Avenue on a late summer evening. A tall man studying a pair of brown suede Italian shoes. He himself is impeccably dressed in a tan suit, a blue shirt of an almost purple hue, with a silk tie the color of rusty rose. He seems in no hurry. At the age of fifty-three, with his hair thinning and slicked back, he could be an Italian or a South American. Belle Giorgio, one waitress in Chicago used to call him. No one would guess by his appearance that he is almost always broke.

• • •

I’m packing parcels in the Lord & Taylor basement during the Christmas rush with a bunch of losers. One fellow is an inventor. He has a new kind of aquarium with piped music, which makes it look as if the fish are doing water ballet, but the world is not interested. Another man supports three ex-wives, so he has a night job in addition to this one. His eyes close all the time. He’s so pale, he could pass for a stiff in an open coffin.

Then there’s Felix, a mousy fellow a bit older than I, who claims to be a distant relative of the English royal family. One time, he brought the chart of his family tree to make us stop laughing and explained the connection. What does not make sense is his poverty. He said he was a writer but wouldn’t tell us what kind. “Are you writing porno?” one Puerto Rican girl asked him.

Her name was Rosie. She liked boxing. One time, she and I went on a date to watch the fights at the Garden. We sat in the Spanish section. “Kill him! Kill him!” she screamed all evening without interruption. At the end, she was so tired she wouldn’t even have a drink with me and had to rush home.

• • •

At a poetry reading given by Allen Tate, I met a young poet who was attending a workshop given by Louise Bogan at NYU. I sat in a few times and accompanied my new friends for beers after class. One day, I even showed two of my poems to Bogan. One was called “Red Armchair,” and it had to do with an old chair thrown out on the sidewalk for the trashmen to pick up. The other poem I don’t remember. Bogan was very kind. She fixed a few things but was generally encouraging, which surprised me, since I didn’t think much of the poems myself.

• • •

The other critique of my poetry came later that fall, and it was devastating. I had met a painter in a bar, an older fellow living in poverty with a wife and two small kids in a cold-water flat in the Village, where he painted huge, realistic canvases of derelicts in the manner of l930s socialist realism. A skyscraper and underneath a poor man begging. The message was obvious, but the colors were nice.

Despite the difference in our ages, we saw each other quite a bit, talking art and literature, until one day I showed him my poems. We were sitting in his kitchen with a bottle of whiskey between us. He leaned back in the chair and read the poems slowly, slowly, while I watched him closely. At some point, I began to detect annoyance in him and then anger. Finally, he looked at me as if seeing me for the first time and said something like: “Simic, I thought you were a smart kid. This is pure shit you’re writing!”

I was prepared for gentle criticism in the manner of Louise Bogan, even welcomed it, but his bluntness stunned me. I left in a daze. I was convinced he was right. If I’d had a pistol, I would have shot myself on the spot. Then, little by little, mulling over what he had said, I got pissed off. There were some good things in my poems, I thought. “Fuck him,” I shouted to some guy who came my way in the street. Of course, he was right, too, and it hurt me that he was, but all the same.

I came out of my daze just as I was entering Central Park on 59th Street. I had walked more than sixty blocks, totally oblivious of my surroundings. I sat on a bench and reread my poems, crossing out most of the lines, attempting to rewrite them then and there, still angry, still miserable, and at the same time grimly determined.

There was this old guy in Washington Square Park who used to lecture me about Sacco and Vanzetti and the great injustice done to them. We’d share a bench from time to time, and I’d hear him say again and again how if shit was worth money, the poor would be born without assholes. He wore gray gloves, walked with a cane, tipped his hat to ladies, and worried about me. “A kid just off the boat,” he’d say to someone passing by. “Sure to get screwed if he doesn’t watch out.”

• • •

I went to see Ionesco’s Bald Soprano with Boris. It was being presented at the small theater in the Village. There were only six people in the audience, and that included the two of us. They gave the performance anyway. When it came to the love scene with the woman who has three noses, the actors got carried away on the couch. Their voices went down to a whisper as they started undressing each other. Boris and I just looked at each other. The other four people had suddenly become invisible. I have no recollection of the rest of the play except that at the exit, the streets were covered with newly fallen snow.

• • •

I was five minutes late from lunch at the insurance company where I was working, and my boss chewed me out for being irresponsible in front of twenty or thirty other drudges. I sat fuming at my desk for a while, then I rose slowly, wrapped my scarf around my neck, put my gloves on in plain view of everybody, and walked out without looking back. I didn’t have an overcoat, and on the street it was snowing, but I felt giddy, deliriously happy at being free.

• • •

We were on our third bottle of wine when he showed me the pictures of his girlfriend. To my surprise, the photographs spread out on the table were of a naked woman shamelessly displaying herself. Leaning over my shoulder, he wanted me to note each detail, her crotch, her ass, her breasts, until I felt aroused. It was an odd situation. My host’s pregnant wife was asleep in the next room. The photographs were spread all over the dining room table. There must’ve been close to a hundred of them. I looked and I listened. From time to time, I could hear the wife snore.

• • •

Approaching Manhattan on the train at night, I remember the old Polish and Ukrainian women wielding their mops in the brightly lit towers. I’d be working on some ledger that wouldn’t balance, and they’d be scrubbing floors on their knees. They were fat, and they all wore flowered dresses. The youngest would stand on a chair and dust off the portrait of the grim founder of the company. The old black man who ran the elevator would bow to them like a headwaiter in a fancy restaurant as he took them from one floor to the next. That would make them laugh. You’d see they had teeth missing. More than a few teeth missing.

• • •

It was a window with a view of a large office with many identical desks at which men and women sat working. A woman got up with papers in hand and walked the length of the floor to where a man rose to meet her at the other end. He waved his arms as he talked while she stood before him with her head lowered, and I went on tying my necktie in the hotel room across the street. I was about to turn away from the window when I realized that the man was yelling at the woman, and that she was sobbing.

• • •

Here’s a scene for you. My father and I are walking down Madison when I spot a blue overcoat in a store called the British American House. We study it, comment on the cut, and my father suggests I try it on. I know he has no money, but he insists since it’s beginning to snow a little and I’m only wearing a tweed jacket. We go in, I put it on, and it fits perfectly. Immediately, I’m in love with it. We ask the price and it’s $200—which was a lot of money in 1959. Too bad, I think, but then my father asks me if I want it. I think maybe he’s showing off in front of the salesman or he’s come into some money he hasn’t told me about. Do you want it? he asks again while the salesman goes to attend to another customer. You’ve no money, George, I remind him, expecting him to contradict me or come to his senses. “Don’t worry,” is his reply.

I’ve seen him do this before, and it embarrasses me. He asks for the boss and the two of them sequester themselves for a while. I stand around waiting for us to be kicked out. Instead, he emerges triumphant, and I wear the overcoat into the street. A born con man. His manner and appearance inspired such confidence that with a small down payment and promise to pay the rest in a week or two, he’d get what he wanted. This was in the days before credit cards and credit bureaus, when store owners had to make such decisions on the spot. They trusted him, and he eventually did pay whatever he owed. The crazy thing was that he pulled this stunt only in the best stores. It would never occur to him to ask for credit from a grocer, and yet he often went hungry despite his huge salary.

My father had phenomenal debts. He borrowed money any chance he had and paid his bills only when absolutely necessary. It was nothing for him to spend the rent money the night before it was due. I lived in terror of my landlords and landladies while he seemingly never worried. We’d meet after work, and he’d suggest dinner in a French restaurant, and I’d resist, knowing it was his rent money he was proposing to spend. He’d describe the dishes and wines we could have in tantalizing detail, and I’d keep reminding him of the rent. He’d explain to me slowly, painstakingly, as if I were feebleminded, that one should never worry about the future. We’ll never be so young as we are tonight, he’d say. If we are smart, and we are, tomorrow we’ll figure out how to pay the rent. In the end, who could say no? I never did.

• • •

On the street corner, the card trickster was shuffling his three cards, using a large cardboard box as a table. The cards, the quick hands fluttered. It looked like a cockfight. Five of us watching without expression, our heads, in the meantime, buzzing with calculations and visions of riches. The day was cold, so we all had to squint.

Tough guys, he said, time to place your bets.

• • •

I became more and more lucid the later it got. This was always my curse. Everybody was already asleep. I tried to wake my dearest, but she drew me down on her breasts sleepily. We loved, slowly, languidly, and then I talked to her for hours about the necessity of poetry while she slept soundly.

About the Author

Charles Simic

Charles Simic is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 and was the fifteenth United States Poet Laureate. In 2011, he was awarded the Frost Medal, which is presented annually for lifetime achievement in poetry.

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