The Prodigy

I grew up bent over
a chessboard.

I loved the word endgame.

All my cousins looked worried.

It was a small house
near a Roman graveyard.
Planes and tanks
shook its windowpanes.

A retired professor of astronomy
taught me how to play.

That must have been in 1944.

In the set we were using,
the paint had almost chipped off
the black pieces.

The white King was missing
and had to be substituted for.

I’m told but do not believe
that that summer I witnessed
men hung from telephone poles.

I remember my mother
blindfolding me a lot.
She had a way of tucking my head
suddenly under her overcoat.

In chess, too, the professor told me,
the masters play blindfolded,
the great ones on several boards
at the same time.

— Charles Simic

Charles Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1938, and spent much of his early childhood in a state of evacuation due to bombing raids. After the war, his father migrated to Italy in search of work, but he and his mother were not permitted to follow. Mother and son eventually made their way to Paris when Simic was 15, and the family was reunited in the United States when he was 16. The Simics subsequently moved to Chicago, where Charles attended high school and began studying poetry.

[Research note: J. M. Spalding, “Interview with Charles Simic,” Cortland Review Issue 4 (August 1998)]