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Remembering Charlie


Introduction by Andrew Periale


Charles Simic, my Buddy

I Never Forget Anything

That’s my trouble!*


Charles Simic was a Poet of Memory as well as a brilliant essayist, venerated teacher and

one of the last great voices of his generation, but to me and the many others who knew him,

he was Charlie – devoted husband, father, grandfather and a friend to every dog that lived along the route of his morning walk near Bow Lake. My wife Bonnie and I live just down the road from the Simics, and though we’d met them earlier, we didn’t become friends until 2010. I had been doing some teaching at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, and Charlie was there to do a reading. The next morning, he gave a talk to a small group. I wrote down as much as I could:


Why do we remember one thing and not another—a fly

on the cracked plaster of my childhood, a decaying watermelon rind


on a hot New York City street one summer in the late seventies,

a couple walking naked, curtains flying out of the windows…


Go to Sappho for a sense of place. If she were to read current lyric poetry

She might say, Hey, I wrote this same shit 2,500 years ago. Amazing.


Also Catullus, always walking through the streets of Rome.

Among the unreadable poetry from ancient Egypt, a gem:


A man pretends to be sick. He stays home from work, hopes

the neighbor he adores will come by, put a cool cloth on his forehead.


Fantastic! It could have been written yesterday…

Look, there’s no formula—Frank O’Hara wrote on his lunch hour


Wallace Stevens composed a poem as he walked to work each day.

I began “That Little Something” and waited twenty years for the ending.


After the talk, I introduced myself to his wife, Helen, as a neighbor of theirs. She and Charlie

were intrigued to meet a fellow Strafford resident and invited my wife and me over for

dinner once we were all back home.

Look, there’s no formula—Frank O’Hara wrote on his lunch hour. Wallace Stevens composed a poem as he walked to work each day.

Thus began a friendship that lasted a dozen years, ending only when Charlie went into

the hospital around Thanksgiving. Whether it was dinner on their back deck or just wine

and appetizers, time with the Simics was always filled with laughter and engaging

conversation about local history, music, theater, art, travel, politics… . Though my wife and I

had made our living in the arts, it was impossible to match Charlie’s stories. He’d begun life

in Belgrade, living through the Nazi bombing of his neighborhood. He spent many of his

formative years in France before coming to the US in 1954. He was stationed in Europe with

the military as an MP before he began writing the poetry that would win him the Pulitzer

Prize. It seemed that he knew every poet writing in the latter half of the 20 th century and

had stories about all of them.

Over the past few years, I would sometimes drive him and Helen to various events,

these were opportunities to hear more stories. Toward the end, our drives were more local–

to shop for food, visit the pharmacy, the doctor. His increasing frailty was evident in the

shaky inscription in his final collection of poetry, No Land in Sight, which came out last fall:

“For my buddy Periale and his wife, Bonnie. Much love, Charlie.”**


* Simic, No Land in Sight, p 68


**He always called me by my last name, fairly shouting it in the Italian way – “Peddy-ah-leh!”

It is one of the many things I’ll miss about my friend.

 

Mimi White

Charlie was my teacher. I had written only three real poems in my life, I was a

young mother, but I was determined to become a poet and Charles Simic was a

rising star from wherever he had been teaching in California and we in New

Hampshire were lucky to get him.

We were sitting in Ham-Smith basement, in a rather dour workshop room. The

woman to my right was the first to read. Her poem filled the page. She raced

through it, her hands shaking, and her head down. Then silence. Lots of silence.

Next Simic said. The woman sank deeper into her chair and disappeared.

I learned in those first two hours of Poetry 628 that a failed poem and a poem that

flew off the page with wings needed very little from us, the beginners. It was poems

of promise, poems that stumbled upon meaning and music that needed our poking

and prodding.

Oh and those were the days. We drank and smoked our way through fifteen poems.

Charlie held court. We brought homemade cookies and Genoa Salami. Charlie liked

anything I brought from Emilo’s Italian Market. When a poem worked, but had the

possibility to shine Charlie would tell a story, a parable really. If you paid attention

to how the narrative turned, stalled, started up again in a new village or under a

table you might see a way back into your poem and bring back an improved version

later in the semester. He loved to laugh and said a poem was much like a good joke,

the pacing, the surprise and always the unexpected. Titles? Never let the title tell

what the poem was about. Start as far away as possible and work your way toward

the poem and then stop short.

He loved to laugh and said a poem was much like a good joke, the pacing, the surprise and always the unexpected.

I had to take the undergraduate workshops since I was not enrolled in the masters

program, but one day I screwed up my courage and told Simic I wanted in. “You’re

not good enough,” he said looking me straight in the eye. Fuck You I hoped my face

said back. I stopped taking 628, had another baby and went about working on my

own.

After a few years, I returned to 628. The very first class I read a poem about a

donkey who lost his way going round and round the same trees. I think it was

titled, A Theorem since I set it up like an algebraic equation. “What if a donkey…”

After class I hurried down the steps to get home in time to have supper with my

family.

“Wait up,” Charlie called from the landing. “What happened, Mimi? That poem was

wonderful, really terrific.” I thought to tell him his challenge pissed me off, but I

thought for a moment longer and said, “I wanted it.” He smiled at me. That was it.

Charlie knew that becoming a poet, a good poet was up to us. All he could do was

bring us to the point when we discovered for ourselves whether we wanted it badly

enough. Apparently I did.

I am eternally grateful that he never told me to stop. I went on to get my masters

and teach 8 years of 628. Charlie and I were colleagues, but first and always he was

my teacher.

 

Peter Johnson

What to say about Charlie? Great poet, translator, critic, and essayist. Philosopher of that 3 a.m. wake-up call when, all alone, one contemplates the ironies and cosmic jokes of the universe, when the image of the face of God looking down on you may really be just an apparition brought on by the badly cooked sausage of an inferior chef. Yes, he was brilliant, but, more important, he was a good guy—kind, generous, and humble in a field that doesn’t often reward humility. He had to have been aware of his brilliance, but his playful self-deprecation always kept any chance of egoism at bay.