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 Simić (b. 1938)


Source: Charles Simić: Selected Early Poems (George Braziller Inc., 1999)


Dušan “Charles” Simić (born 9 May 1938) is a Serbian-American poet and was co-poetry editor of the Paris Review. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990 for The World Doesn’t End, and was a finalist of the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for Selected Poems, 1963-1983 and in 1987 for Unending Blues. He was appointed the fifteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 2007.Simić was born in Belgrade, Serbia then part of Yugoslavia. Growing up as a child in war-torn Europe shaped much of his worldview. Simić states in an interview from the Cortland Review: “Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of others. I’m still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life.” Simić immigrated to the United States with his family in 1954 when he was sixteen.


In a short autobiographical piece entitled ‘Why I Still Write Poetry’, Charles Simić commented on his love of chess and its connection to his poetry. There follows a short extract from that piece:

‘…There’s something else in my past that I only recently realized contributed to my perseverance in writing poems, and that is my love of chess. I was taught the game in wartime Belgrade by a retired professor of astronomy when I was six years old and over the next few years became good enough to beat not just all the kids my age, but many of the grownups in the neighbourhood. My first sleepless nights, I recall, were due to the games I lost and replayed in my head. Chess made me obsessive and tenacious. Already then, I could not forget each wrong move, each humiliating defeat. I adored games in which both sides are reduced to a few figures each and in which every single move is of momentous significance. Even today, when my opponent is a computer program (I call it “God”) that outwits me nine out of ten times, I’m not only in awe of its superior intelligence, but find my losses far more interesting to me than my infrequent wins. The kinds of poems I write—mostly short and requiring endless tinkering—often recall for me games of chess. They depend for their success on word and image being placed in proper order and their endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate.’

Note: Charles Simić’s poem ‘Prodigy’ partly inspired the poem ‘My Chess Career’ by Oliver Dunne, which is also to be found in Chess Pieces.