Tribute

Charles Simic

Remembering a great poet and friend

Meghan O’Rourke

Charles Simic in 2011 at the Cosmopoetica Poetry Festival in Cordoba, Spain. Rafa Alcaide/EPA/Shutterstock

There was no poet or dinner companion quite like Charles Simic. He had a fondness for quatrains and absurdity, wine and dessert, the restraint of form and excess of food. And there was no poet whose work was quite like Charlie’s, either. His poetry—melancholy, absurd, surreal, sensuous, funny—was shaped by his experiences growing up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during World War II and then emigrating as what was then called a “displaced person,” first to France, where his family was detained, and then to the United States. In his writing, he recalls playing with ammunition and scavenging soldiers’ uniforms in Belgrade and cutting remedial school in Paris to window-shop and learning English by watching American movies alone in the city’s gilded movie theaters. As a lonely teenager, he fell in love with Gene Tierney in Laura. A decade after meeting him, I went alone in Paris to see a retrospective showing of the film, thinking of him the whole time. This was Charlie: He made you see the world anew and hunger for its pleasures.

I met Charlie in 2005, when he invited me to join him as co-poetry editor of The Paris Review. But I had the strange sense that I already knew him. More than a decade before, my mother had given me his collection Unending Blues for Christmas. It shaped my earliest sense of what a poem could be: brief but enormous, built of images that haunt. His brilliant memoir A Fly in the Soup, which I reviewed, moved me enough that I read it multiple times. In the memoir, he recounts going with his father—an impulsive man who left the family behind for a decade but could charm even the Gestapo with his stories—to a much-anticipated dinner at a high-end New York restaurant they had saved up for. Caught up in talk, the two forgot to savor the meal. They decided to order “the whole thing, once again”—this time to relish it.

Embracing pleasure (whether found in food or art) was one of Charlie’s defining qualities; oddly, or perhaps logically, it made him a great critic, too. Working with Charlie at The Paris Review, which I did for a couple of years, was an education in this. At 29, without a book of my own yet, I was intimidated, worried he might realize I was a fraud—all the things a young person fears. It seemed frankly ridiculous that I was his co-poetry editor. But Charlie made me feel welcome, and his clarity and confidence in his own taste—he never second-guessed what he liked—taught me how to be an editor. That is, he taught me to trust myself. Of a group of poems from a venerable older male poet, I wrote timidly, “I can see the expertise, but they're not to my taste.” Charlie replied in all caps: I MET THE GUY YEARS AGO, FEEL THE SAME WAY ABOUT THE POEMS.

Charlie approached being a bon vivant with the same gusto he dedicated to poetry.

He liked to quip in this way, implying that the man and the poems had the same problem: expertise that might not be to one’s taste. This was an important lesson for a young writer and editor to learn: that it was all right, in fact necessary, to develop my own sense of the world, my own aesthetics, my own value system.

Charlie approached being a bon vivant with the same gusto he dedicated to poetry. (Over hors-d’oeuvres in the West Village one night, he slipped me his copy of Donald Hall’s Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions. “I want you to have this,” he said. “It’s for you. Read the one on Pound.”) The two were inextricably linked for him; his writing grew out of a need to devour what life had to offer. Sex, food, jazz—these are all over his poems. He learned early to relish pleasure even as terror surrounded him. As he writes in his great poem “Prodigy,” about Belgrade in 1944, he spent the days learning to play chess in a small house as “planes and tanks / shook its windowpanes.” After building the scene of a child intently bent on his endgame, he pivots to the present:

          I’m told but do not believe

          that that summer I witnessed

          men hung from telephone poles.

More than anything, Charlie’s work was preoccupied by the surrealism that the gift of existence comes with an expiration date, at which point pleasure—of food, eros, music, and poetry—will be snatched away. How could this be, when we savor life so?

“Watermelons” is a tiny poem that demonstrates his brilliance and the way he used structure to build toward meaningful surprise. A quatrain—he liked stanzas for the way they brought order to the page—it uses compression and metaphor to evoke taking in pleasure and spitting out life’s sharper edges—a kind of ars poetica, exemplary of the way that his poems use subversion and detail to bring forward life’s shadows:

          Green Buddhas
          On the fruit stand.
          We eat the smile
          And spit out the teeth.

For years he would call me, wanting to tell a funny story about poetry, life. There was the time the poet Bill Knott invited him to visit, when they were both very young, and he rang the doorbell only to hear a strange crunching sound, crunch, crunch, crunch. He waited minutes, the crunching continuing the whole while. Finally Knott opened the door, revealing a floor covered—and Charlie said, “I mean covered, like a carpet”—in Coca-Cola cans. When Charlie became poet laureate, he told me, he got a phone call saying that the Library of Congress had nominated him, but the senator that oversaw the role was worried about how many breasts were in his poems. “So early in the morning, the phone rings, and it was the senator, saying, ‘Professor Simic, I don’t know much about poetry, but can you explain why there are so many breasts in yours?’” I don’t recall Charlie’s answer (probably: “Because I like them!”) but I remember his laugh, rich, generous, amused by the absurdity.

Embracing pleasure was one of Charlie’s defining qualities.

We enjoyed our last dinner together in New York in 2017, with his longtime friend and editor Dan Halpern and the poet Deborah Landau. It was fall; there was an invigorating chill in the air. We sat at a table that was soon covered with wine and food, and we drank and talked and laughed. Charlie was hard of hearing at this point and had a habit of speaking too softly to be heard in loud restaurants, so we leaned close, conspiratorially. He was happy, mischievous. The wine made me more tired than usual—the next day I would realize that I was pregnant with my second son, a fact that delighted Charlie—and by dessert I felt I was watching the meal from a remove, savoring the evening with the quiet sense of a child surrounded by family. Everyone wanted dessert, but we couldn’t decide what to order, and soon, thirteen different desserts appeared on the table. The four of us took our spoons and tasted and glided from sweet to sweet, taking it all in. Afterward he emailed Deborah,

         

          That was a truly memorable dinner the other

          night. Our thirteen desserts belong in the

          Guinness Book Records alongside such

          marvels as

               most ice cream scoops balanced on a

               cone

               most fortune cookies eaten and read

               aloud in a minute

               most people hit in face with pies while

               wearing roller skates

               most cream filberts fit in closed mouth

               most cheesecake flavors named in 30

               seconds

          Unfortunately, none of us had the sense to

          take a picture of them and make us famous.

          Love to you all,

          Charlie

He signed many of his notes to me, “To be continued.” How I wish it were. I would eat all the desserts on the menu with him any time. What a joy it would be to call him and say: “The whole thing, once again.”

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness and The Long Goodbye, as well as three collections of poetry. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, and a Whiting Nonfiction Award, she resides in New Haven, where she teaches at Yale University and is the editor of The Yale Review. @meghanor
Originally published:
January 13, 2023

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