Prodigy

Charles Simic

copyright ©Charles Simic, 2004

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.

Notes on the Poem

When a poem tells an intriguing story, or even a story that seems straightforward at first glance, the poet is often employing that storytelling approach to interesting ends. We've observed this in several past Poems of the Week. Sometimes those ends are very different than the storytelling means, as seems to be the case with Charles Simic's "Prodigy". Another poem with vibrant storytelling bents that we've examined here include "The Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart" by David Kirby. In it, the warm storytelling is presented with a very formal-looking structure to humorous effect. In "shades of Linda Lee" by Leslie Greentree, the seemingly casual, almost tossed off presentation belies a story that just possibly has an ominous undercurrent. Charles Simic sounds similarly matter-of-fact as he introduces the poem before reading it as the Poetry Foundation Audio Poem of the Week in March, 2020. He acknowledges that the poem indeed "tells a story" and "I really didn't have to change very much from the original experience." In fact, the poem's account of a childhood passion for chess told in straightforward fashion also manages to be a tale of survival, with shocking details revealed in almost prosaic fashion. Lines like "I loved the word endgame." mean one thing to the child's story, and quite another, menacingly, to the different conflicts actually being played out in the story. That the child blithely says "I’m told but do not believe" suggests he thought at the time he was being told a very different story than what was really going on. But then he does remember blindfolds and being sheltered repeatedly by his mother, and then those memories connect back to chess where "the masters play blindfolded, the great ones on several boards at the same time." Indeed, how many stories are being told here?

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