Another of my old teachers died last week. Charles Simic was a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, a MacArthur grantee, and a well-loved teacher at the University of New Hampshire. He died in Dover, NH of complications of dementia. He was also a former Poet Laureate of the United States, and when he started to become famous, turned down many offers to relocate his art and his teaching to more famous institutions than the state university of New Hampshire. He said in an interview that he had a tree on his property that he could not leave.
Back when I thought I was a poet, I was delighted to discover his absurdity and his delicate way with words. The obituary in the New York Times quoted several of his better-known poems, but the one I loved the best, and which, to this day, defies my search for meaning:
The truth is dark under your eyelids.
What are you going to do about it?
The birds are silent; there’s no one to ask.
All day long you’ll squint at the gray sky.
When the wind blows you’ll shiver like straw.
A meek little lamb you grew your wool
Till they came after you with huge shears.
Flies hovered over open mouth,
Then they, too, flew off like the leaves,
The bare branches reached after them in vain.
Winter coming. Like the last heroic soldier
Of a defeated army, you’ll stay at your post,
Head bared to the first snow flake.
Till a neighbor comes to yell at you,
You’re crazier than the weather, Charlie.
Is this winter he’s talking about? I doubt it’s that simple, though shivering like straw in the wind could let you conjure that. The flies hovering, the branches reaching, all of the images are delightful to me, and impenetrable. You could shoehorn all kinds of meanings and ascribe many intentions, but you will eventually slide down into such deep water, you’ll drown in your possibilities. I’ve given up trying to parse it.
As a teacher, Simic had a different voice than his poems. He was quietly thoughtful, respectful of a student’s fumbling for ideas, patient. My last connection with him was in a graduate course in American literature, and unlike some poets I’ve known, he had a deep knowledge of and an appreciation for, the beauty of a prose line, the power of a narrative.
I don’t know if I can imagine a worse end for someone so devoted to words and poetry than to lose his memory and to lose his language. I only hope, in a perverse way, that the dementia also took away his awareness of what he was fading. Ave, Charles. You left a mark.