Poetic Justice
Charles Simic grew up in war-torn Belgrade, has a passion for sausage, and spins surreal worlds out of words. He's the nation's newest Poet Laureate.

I grew up bent over a chessboard.

So begins a poem called "Prodigy" by Charles Simic. And it's true. At an early age, Dušan, as he was then known, was remarkably good at chess. But in another sense, he grew up on a chessboard, in a country where order had turned to chaos and carnage. It began in April 1941, when Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and bombarded Belgrade. That was the first time 3-year-old Dušan was thrown from his bed by the force of a bomb exploding nearby.

It happened again in 1944, and this time the Allies were dropping the bombs. Even at the age of 6, Dušan could see that thousands of innocent people were harmed, while the Gestapo's headquarters remained unscathed. By then, he was taking chess lessons with a retired astronomy professor, but he and his friends also played at war, pretending to drop bombs out of windows and machine-gun each other down on the street. Real battles were taking place among the fascists, communists, royalists and other factions in Belgrade. The Nazi puppet government, having vowed to kill 100 civilians for every slain German soldier, hung the corpses from telephone poles. Dušan's mother tried to shield him against such sights by tucking his head under her overcoat.

By the time he wrote "Prodigy" in 1977, Dušan had long since escaped that chessboard of terror and become Charles Simic, a Serbian-American who spoke with a self-described "atrocious Slavic accent," but wrote poetry in English. The poem is one of his favorites today because it is unique among the hundreds he has written, so autobiographical and yet effortlessly metaphorical. Still, the effects of his childhood can be glimpsed in virtually everything he writes, in his dark sense of humor, his keen eye for the surreal, his folkloric images—or even just his deep appreciation of sausage.

Today, the UNH professor emeritus is at the pinnacle of American letters, having won the Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur "genius" grant and countless other awards. In August, he received two more honors in one day when he was named the recipient of the $100,000 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the 15th Poet Laureate of the United States. The author of 18 books of poetry, he is also an essayist, translator and poetry editor of The Paris Review. In short, the prodigy has become not a master of chess, but a master of words—words he can use to transport readers, fight a modern-day tyrant, or galvanize young writers.

In his 69 years, Simic has lived a life that is, like poetry itself, a distillation of human experience. In childhood, he moved freely between modern and medieval times simply by traveling from Belgrade to a village where relatives lived. As eager as he was to return to the city after a summer in the country, however, it always took a few weeks to be reinstated in the neighborhood gang. "I felt like a stranger, as I was to feel so many times in my life," he writes in his memoir, A Fly in the Soup.

In the midst of the war, Dušan's father, George, fled the country, leaving behind his 6-year-old son and pregnant wife. While his mother was in the hospital with the new baby, Dušan secretly began bartering gunpowder for toys and food. He stashed ammunition in the basement and used the kitchen faucet to pry open the shells—until a friend performing a similar maneuver lost both his hands.

After the Germans were defeated, the realities of life in a communist country emerged, including indoctrination in school and overt efforts to use children to spy on their parents. The family learned that Dušan's father had made it to America, where he was working as an engineer, and his mother made several attempts to reunite the family despite the dangers of crossing the border. On one occasion, the English army delivered them back into the hands of the Yugoslav army, and Dušan and his brother spent two weeks in jail.

Eventually, they received passports and spent a year in Paris, waiting for a U.S. visa. Feeling like a "foreigner under suspicion," Dušan did poorly in school, but learned a little English and escaped into another world by watching Hollywood movies. In August 1954, they landed on Ellis Island and were reunited with George, who renamed his elder son, then 16, Charles. "It was nothing like Europe," writes Simic in his memoir. "It was terrifically ugly and beautiful at the same time! I liked America immediately."

By 1963, when Simic returned to New York after serving as a military policeman for the U.S. Army in France, he had already lived a lifetime's supply of experiences to plumb for artistic purposes. He also had a new aesthetic, having burned every poem he had ever written up to that point. He received a bachelor's degree in Russian in 1967 from New York University and published his first book of poems that same year. His work was well received from the beginning.

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