David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 21 Poems That Shaped America (Pt. 13): “Letter to Simic from Boulder”

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Forty years ago, the poet of last good kisses and broken down lives wrote the following:

Dear Charles: And so we meet once in San Francisco and I learn
I bombed you long ago in Belgrade when you were five.
I remember. We were after a bridge on the Danube
hoping to cut the German armies off as they fled north
from Greece. We missed. Not unusual, considering I
was one of the bombardiers. I couldn’t hit my ass if
I sat on the Norden or rode a bomb down singing
The Star Spangled Banner. I remember Belgrade opened
like a rose when we came in. Not much flak. I didn’t know
about the daily hangings, the 80,000 Slavs who dangled
from German ropes in the city, lessons to the rest.
I was interested mainly in staying alive, that moment
the plane jumped free from the weight of bombs and we went home.
What did you speak then? Serb, I suppose. And what did your mind
do with the terrible howl of bombs? What is Serb for “fear”?
It must be the same as in English, one long primitive wail
of dying children, one child fixed forever in dead stare.
I don’t apologize for the war, or what I was. I was
willingly confused by the times. I think I even believed
in heroics (for others, not for me). I believed the necessity
of that suffering world, hoping it would learn not to do
it again. But I was young. The world never learns. History
has a way of making the past palatable, the dead
a dream. Dear Charles, I’m glad you avoided the bombs, that you
live with us now and write poems. I must tell you though,
I felt funny that day in San Francisco. I kept saying
to myself, he was on the ground that day, the sky
eerie mustard and our engines roaring everything
out of the way. And the world comes clean in moments
like that for survivors. The world comes clean as clouds
in summer, the pure puffed white, soft birds careening
in and out, our lives with a chance to drift on slow
over the world, our bomb bays empty, the target forgotten,
the enemy ignored. Nice to meet you finally after
all the mindless hate. Next time, if you want to be sure
you survive, sit on the bridge I’m trying to hit and wave.
I’m coming in on course but nervous and my cross hairs flutter.
Wherever you are on earth, you are safe. I’m aiming but
my bombs are candy and I’ve lost the lead plane. Your friend, Dick.

Richard Hugo didn’t give his epistolary poems splashy titles. This one is called “Letter to Simic from Boulder.” We know from its tone that it’s spoken by a wistful former army pilot and that it evokes World War II. And we know enough about Richard Hugo’s life to remember that he served in the Army during the war as a bombardier in the Mediterranean. From there you get the self-deprecation of the tough guy, remorse, wrestling with moral clarity.

Charles Simic picks up the story from here—

In 1972, I met one of the men who bombed me in 1944. I had just made my first trip back to Belgrade after almost twenty years. Upon my return to the States, I went to a literary gathering in San Francisco, where I ran into the poet Richard Hugo in a restaurant. We chatted, he asked me how I spent my summer, and I told him that I had just returned from Belgrade… Without knowing my background, he proceeded to draw on the tablecloth, among the breadcrumbs and wine stains, the location of the main post office, the bridges over the Danube and Sava, and a few other important landmarks. Without a clue as to what all this meant, supposing that he had visited the city as a tourist at one time, I inquired how much time he had spent in Belgrade… “I was never there,” he replied. “I only bombed it a few times”… When, absolutely astonished, I blurted out that I was there at the time and that it was me he was bombing, Hugo became very upset. In fact, he was deeply shaken.

So much of the history evoked in this poem is gone now, not least the Warsaw Pact that Hugo surely had in mind when he wrote it. To that add, I suspect, the undercurrent of the stalemated Cold War of the 1970s and the anti-Vietnam War movement. In this way, “Letter to Simic from Boulder” shapes an America struggling to communicate self-inflicted, paralyzing militarism to itself—a struggle we are engaged in today following the slow-burn of the Afghanistan adventure and the debacle in Iraq.

This poem appeared in 1977 in the book 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, and Hugo lived only another five years after that. The war Hugo fought to free Yugoslavians from partition following the 1941 takeover by Nazi Germany may have ended in 1945, but Hugo lived to witness decades of Soviet political occupation and the crackup of Yugoslavia in 1980 after the death of Tito. Hugo did not live to see, of course, the tragic, ethnic-based Yugoslav War that began with Croatia and Slovenia declaring independence in 1991 and, over ten years, led to the deaths, by some estimates, of 150,000 people.

Now a new imperialism has returned that region with Russian president Vladimir Putin funding populists in Eastern Europe and cementing close ties between Russia and Serbia. Those ties are no more cordial or goodhearted as they once were. Sure, gone are the collectivist speeches, but these have been replaced by hollow buzzwords about “democracy.”

If you think I’m being willful talking about “Letter to Simic from Boulder” as a poem that shapes American experience grappling with war and as a poem that has bearing on our contemporary national political drama today, ask yourself whether you can picture a president of the United States—a president who has a nasty, foul, and cruel mind, whose remarks and innuendoes about women, blacks, Hispanics, Europeans, Muslims, Jews (to say nothing of journalists and the free press)—sees the growing Russian threat from a brutally cynical perspective. Namely, he appears to ask again and again, what’s in for me?

What lesson might this president and his, well, White House apparatchiks, take from a poem like this one when it says—

I believed the necessity
of that suffering world, hoping it would learn not to do
it again.

Or when it says—

And the world comes clean in moments
like that for survivors. The world comes clean as clouds
in summer, the pure puffed white, soft birds careening
in and out, our lives with a chance to drift on slow
over the world, our bomb bays empty, the target forgotten,
the enemy ignored.

And what lessons will we take today? There is almost no point in looking away now.

Christopher Hitchens, in 2010, recalled that, “Alan Clark, Tory historian and amoral wit, once drew up a list of the occasions on which it is permissible to employ the word fuck in polite society. One of his examples was, “What the fuck was that?” as uttered by the mayor of Hiroshima. Add to this the mayor of Nagasaki exclaiming the same thing just as Yamaguchi stumbles onstage, and you can arguably build a bit of a routine around it. Unfeeling, you say? Not particularly. It isn’t my idea that these capricious catastrophes strike the just and the unjust with such regularity, or that they are soothingly explained away by the pseudo-compassionate. Of all the great cosmic questions, WTF still strikes me as one of the most pressing, relevant, and ultimately humane.”

Well I keep asking, day after day, because I do not find myself reassured—again, day after day—by the lies coming out of the White House—What the fuck? The stories filed by some of today’s best independent journalists, whose muckraking—to say nothing of the men and women in the federal government now passing along telling anecdotes and, one hopes, republic-saving memos—leave me feeling repulsed and vigilant against the credibility chasm that is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And yet millions of Americans and their elected representatives in Congress endorse this president still.

“Wherever you are on earth, you are safe,” writes Richard Hugo. Really? Because the poem reminds us otherwise.

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This is part thirteen of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 1234567891011, and 12. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →