Speaking out of Charles Simic’s mouth.
Ask me in a hundred years.
Aided by Augustine of Hippo
The natural order, which would have peace amongst men, requires that the decision and power to declare war should belong to princes. (Saint Augustine)
Innocent human beings get killed—that was my earliest lesson. Whenever I read about a “just war” in which thousands of innocents have died or will die, I want to jump out of my skin.
My own inordinate interest in what the lunatics are up to in every corner of our planet has to do with my childhood. When I was three years old in Belgrade, German bombs started falling on my head. By the time I was seven, I was accustomed to seeing dead people lying in the street, or hung from telephone poles, or thrown into ditches with their throats cut.
Just wars are usually defined as those which avenge injuries, when the nation or city against which warlike action is to be directed has neglected either to punish wrongs committed by its own citizens or to restore what has been unjustly taken by it. Further, that kind of war is undoubtedly just which God Himself ordains. (Saint Augustine)
The war ended the day before May 9, 1945, which happened to be my birthday. I was playing in the street. Anyway, I went up to the apartment to get a drink of water where my mother and our neighbors were listening to the radio. They said, “War is over,” and apparently I looked at them puzzled and said, “Now there won’t be any more fun!” In wartime, there’s no parental supervision; the grown-ups are so busy with their lives, the kids can run free
Like any child growing up in an occupied city during wartime, I didn’t think much about it. I was as serene then as I will ever be, sitting among the ruins smoking my first cigarette, riding on a Russian tank with a friend, or watching our school janitor hang the portraits of Marx, Stalin and Marshal Tito in our classroom after the liberation.
I am the last Napoleonic soldier. It’s almost two hundred years later and I am still retreating from Moscow. The road is lined with white birch trees and the mud comes up to my knees. The one-eyed woman wants to sell me a chicken, and I don’t even have any clothes on.
The Germans are going one way; I am going the other. The Russians are going still another way and waving good-by. I have a ceremonial saber. I use it to cut my hair, which is four feet long.
Logic is what he valued and not metaphor. We’d sit on the beach on Lake Michigan and I’d try to explain “Prufrock” to him and he’d say, “How can the evening be etherized like a patient upon a table?” By questioning everything I assumed to be self-evident, he forced me to think seriously about poetry.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
We don’t have any lessons to teach; we don’t worship nature or tell the reader how much we suffered….We are a country of millions of fools, who believe the most imbecile things about ourselves and the world, but when it comes to poetry only solemnity counts and joking is un-American.
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
Becoming a displaced person after that, one among millions, ending up in country after country, learning one foreign language after another, mispronouncing its words in school or when asking direction in the street, struggling to read and make sense of the history of the place, worrying about some war being declared and even bigger bombs falling on my head, and later, when I was older, fretting about being inducted into the army and sent half-way across the world to die for a cause that made no sense to me or to a great many other humans being capable of thinking—all this contributed to my need to know what plans are being hatched behind our backs.
With the true servants of God wars themselves are pacific, not being undertaken through cupidity or cruelty, but through the love of peace, with the object of repressing the wicked and encouraging the good. (Saint Augustine)
Chicago was like a coffee-table edition of the Communist Manifesto, with glossy pictures of lakefront mansions and inner-city slums. On one side you had Michigan Avenue with its swanky hotels and luxury stores and, a few blocks away, the rest of the city wrapped up in smoke where factory workers, their faces covered with grime, waited for buses. An immigrant’s paradise, you might say. Everyone was employed. There were huge factories humming twenty-four hours a day short distances from beautiful beaches where beautiful young couples sat reading Camus and Sartre. I had Swedes, Poles, Germans, Italians, Jews, and blacks for friends, who all took turns trying to explain America to me. Chicago, where I only spent three years, gave me my first American identity. Everything that happened to me there made a huge impression on me.
I mustn’t forget, either, that I was surrounded by political exiles in my youth, many of whom, after having lived either under Stalin or Hitler, or in some cases both, never lost their vigilance. Even after twenty or thirty years in the United States, they gave the impression of keeping a suitcase packed under their beds, ready to flee at a moment’s notice should hippies or some variety of American fascists come power.
For what is blamed in war? Is it the death of those who must die sooner or later, but who give up their lives to bring peace by overcoming guilty men? To blame this is the cry of cowards, not of religious people. (Saint Augustine)
The same type of lunatics who made the world what it was when I was a kid are still around
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. They want more wars, more prisons, more killing. It’s all horribly familiar, very tiresome and frightening, of course.
With only his dim lantern
To tell him where he is
And every time a mountain
Of fresh corpses to load up
Take them to the other side
Where there are plenty more
I’d say by now he must be confused
As to which side is which
Lucky for them, they are all long dead, so they can’t read some opinion piece or hear a congressman or a senator today clamor for the very same police state measures they barely escaped from. Watching the government of the country they grew to love curtailing liberties, spying on its citizens, militarizing its police forces, imprisoning both foreigners and Americans indefinitely without having to prove their guilt, and coming to admire the mindset of authoritarian regimes it used to despise, would have been both terrifying and depressing.
Sometimes walking late at night
I stop before a closed butcher shop.
There is a single light in the store
Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.
An apron hangs on the hook:
The blood on it smeared into a map
Of the great continents of blood,
The great rivers and oceans of blood.
They could not help but note that some of their fellow Americans who cheer for the death penalty and for torture, and call the people demonstrating against Wall Street lice-infested misfits and degenerates, are no better than the ones they knew back home and are as eager to persecute, imprison, and even commit murder should they be called upon (I think people who clap for death, love war without end, and adore guns are perfectly capable of it).
There are knives that glitter like altars
In a dark church
Where they bring the cripple and the imbecile
To be healed.
There’s wooden block where bones are broken,
Scraped clean–a river dried to its bed
Where I am fed,
Where deep in the night I hear a voice.
My mother was a woman of incredible personal courage and integrity whose political views proved to be much more lucid and prophetic than my father’s, but from day to day she was no fun to be with. She expected only the worst. If she sent me to the corner grocery for a bottle of milk she would fret and imagine every awful thing happening to me and was astonished to see me return safe and sound. The horrors of war left a much bigger impact on her than on the rest of us. She would say often that my father was not a serious person, that he did not understand what had happened to us. She felt defeated and he wouldn’t admit defeat; she felt that their lives had been made meaningless by historical events.
I’d say it doesn’t matter
No one complains he’s got
Their pockets to go through
In one a crust of bread in another a sausage
My mother, who never recalled anything but trouble, and was sure the worst was yet to come, would be saying, I told you so, all day long.
Once in a long while a mirror
Or a book which he throws
Overboard into the dark river
Swift and cold and deep
There are many things that must be done against the will of those whom one ought to correct with a beneficent severity. (Saint Augustine)
There’s no preparation for poetry. Four years of grave digging with a nice volume of poetry or a book of philosophy in one’s pocket would serve as well as any university.
“The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Charles Simic, The Art of Poetry No. 90
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