By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

When I asked the Serbian-born poet Charles Simic to choose a favorite passage for this series, he asked to discuss Walt Whitman’s “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.” The poem’s narrator apprehends a row of covered bodies outside a Civil War hospital, then lifts the blankets to contemplate each dead soldier’s face. Our conversation hinged on different ways of looking closely: the uncomfortable truths some poems ask us to confront, and the early poems—and subsequent rejection letter—that emboldened Simic to find new ways of seeing familiar things.

Simic has released new two books this year. The first, The Life of Images, is a collection of nonfiction prose pieces celebrating the author’s interests and passions: fried sausage, old records, New York City, cultural figures from Emily Dickinson to Buster Keaton. His gift for enlivening the everyday is on display in a new poetry collection, The Lunatic—in the title piece, for instance, a single snowflake hints at the obsessive, Sisyphean nature of madness. Familiar objects and spaces—boyhood roads, empty rooms, main-street shops—prompt feelings of dread and awe.

A former United States poet laureate, Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 collection, The World Doesn’t End. He teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire, and spoke to me by phone.

Charles Simic: Like anyone my age, war has always been part of my life. I was born in 1938 and was three years old when the bombs started falling on my hometown of Belgrade. When the city was liberated in October 1944, I was six, living in the center of the city. My parents always being busy with—well, who knows what they were busy with—we kids used to just run in the street. And we saw a lot of stuff. Stuff young children are not supposed to see. Including, you know, dead people.

There is a story told in my family that I remember only vaguely. I came home wearing a trooper’s helmet on my head. This was after the Russians had liberated the city. There was a church nearby where I lived, and I went in the churchyard and inside there were some dead Germans. The helmet had fallen off, kind of to the side. I remember distinctly that I did not look at him in the face—that was too scary. But I took the helmet. The reason the story is repeated in my family is not because of what I did—that I took it off a dead German. More awful things than that happened during the Second World War. They told the story because I got lice from the helmet, and they had to shave my head.

When I first got to the United States, I was 16, and as soon as I arrived people started telling me—“Oh, Charlie, you’re going to Korea!” But I didn’t, of course. I was too young, but there was always that fear. I remember working for the Chicago Sun-Times when I was young—a lowly job, going in in the morning into what was called the composing room, where they put together the paper on Saturday mornings. I was in a pretty good mood because it I’d gotten paid the night before. One of the workers yelled out to me, “Hey, Simic, you’re going to Lebanon!” They were sending Marines there at the time. It scared me—ruined my day. I thought, “I don’t want to go to Lebanon!” On and on, for the rest of my life. I was in the army before Vietnam, then my brother was in Vietnam, and then the first Gulf War and my son thought that he would be in that ...

As you know, we no longer see carnage from our wars. But during the Vietnam War, if you stayed up late at night—which I did in those days, certainly—and turned on the TV around 11 o’ clock or midnight, they would show documentary footage of the war. They were really graphic pictures that are just impossible to forget. Dead Vietnamese. Machine-gunning dead Vietnamese from a helicopter, or our soldiers lying dead or wounded. Vietnam was the last war where you could see those things, and they learned their lesson. This is sort of the context for my interest in this poem.

I don’t read it that often, but every time I read “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” I sort of choke up. I tried to read it to a class this fall and found myself being immensely, immensely moved by it—even though I know the poem very well and knew what was coming.

The Civil War was a big break in Whitman’s poetry. Sometimes, he’d drive you nuts before that with his oh, what a great country we are, marching towards this glorious future!—all that Emersonian optimism. He saw this vision of collective humanity in this country that he really believed in. He expected all good things would happen from this very energetic and attractive people. And then, boom—the war.

In 1862, his brother is wounded, and Whitman goes down to find him. He then becomes a wound dresser, as they used to call them, in the hospitals around Washington, D.C.—helping to attend to the sick and dying. At this point, a tragic note enters his poetry. This is not the same Whitman. In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the great Lincoln poem, for instance, there’s no jingoism at all—just tragedy.

“A Sight in Camp” begins with the narrator waking up, leaving his tent, and seeing a row of covered bodies:

A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

It’s just so matter-of-fact. There is not an extra word. Everything is completely pared down to the essentials. The whole thing is so understandable, vivid, poignant, troubling. “In the cool, fresh air”: right away, we’re there. We know what it’s like to be there with the “sleepless” narrator, who has seen these kinds of things before. And those shrouding army blankets—that detail is so interesting. Nothing is sticking out—no foot, nothing. Everything is completely covered. We don’t want to lift those blankets.

But Whitman does. There’s a kind of choreography in the poem. One by one, he lifts the blankets to take a peek.

Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray'd hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?

Whitman had compassion. He understood these were unique lives that had been extinguished, three examples among countless others. Empathy is one of the strongest things in Whitman from the very beginning. And as I read this, I really feel sorry for that old man. And of course, for the kid—young guy, who goes to war to be a hero and gets killed. The whole poem is a live wire vibrating with feelings.  It manages to be both restrained and emotional as he speaker uncovers those bodies and looks in horror at their faces.

And then we reach the final, shocking stanza:

Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;

Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

We keep killing Christ, or someone Christ-like, over and over again. It’s a vision of our collective madness. Of course, in Whitman’s time there were a lot of people who read that poem and felt this was blasphemous—the idea of putting Christ there. But this is the power of the poem. I’m not a person who gets teary-eyed reading poetry—other people’s poetry, or my own. But my eyes were moist, and my students looked at me with some discomfort, as I tried to explain it to them what I was feeling.

In a larger sense, there are other blankets we don’t want to lift and see what lies underneath. There is a kind of truth—that’s a big word—that we hate to look at. It could be a face in the street, someone who looks in pain, someone who’s suffering. We turn away—we can’t look at everything. But I like poems that occasionally do that to the reader: make them look.

Whitman was good at that. Being a city person, and a journalist, he was a noticer. He’s always alert, catching these little dramas that other people don’t see. He has a beautiful poem about kids watching a knife-grinder on the street—their eyes growing bigger and bigger as they watch sparks fly.

For the last 42 years, I’ve lived in New Hampshire, in the tiniest little village. Surrounded by woods and mountains—what they call mountains, they are really hills. When I’m in the city, I notice everything. When I’m in the country, I really don’t notice that much. Though I have time on my hands up here, I look—but I may as well be blind. When I was young I never learned about different kinds of trees, different kinds of birds, and on and on. So my abilities to notice are pretty limited in the country. I very often take long walks along small little dirt roads or paths, but I miss much of what goes on.

I guess it has something to do with the fact that I grew up in cities. My imagination is totally connected to the city. If I see a person walking down the street—the way they look—I start speculating what they do or what sort of person they are, about them. In the city, I’m a noticer, happy to spend hours doing nothing but that.

When I wrote my early poems “Knife,” “Fork,” and “Spoon,” in 1964, I lived on 13th St. and University Place [in Manhattan] in a little dump of an apartment. It was summer, and I’d eaten something. I was looking at the table at the knife, the fork, and the spoon. And I noticed, how interesting these three were. I’d stolen one from a greasy spoon, and another from somewhere else. I remember thinking, “Well, Mr. Simic, let’s see if you can write a poem about this.” Because no one had ever written a poem about a fork, or a knife, although we have to use them every day.

So I wrote them, and I sent them to a magazine called The Quarterly Review of Literature. The editor wrote to me and rejected the poems saying “Dear Mr. Simic ... you obviously sound like an intelligent young man.”

Which sort of puzzled me—I thought, “What the fuck does he know?”

He said, “Why do you write poems about these things? Why do you write about such inconsequential things as silverware utensils?”

I came into the library with that letter, feeling both annoyed—I mean, thinking you idiot! Should I write about sunsets in June?—and at the same time I felt triumphant. I thought, well, this is what I’m going to do from now on. This is my thing. I felt I was on the right track. There’s pleasure in that.

To me, the ideal poem is one a person can read and understand on the first level of meaning after one reading. An accessible quality, I think, is important. Give them something to begin with. Something that seems plain and simple but has something strange—something about it that’s not quite ordinary, that will cause them to do repeated readings or to think about it. The ambition is that, each time they read, they will get to another level of the poem. This fearsome little 10- to 15-line poem becomes something like this poem of Whitman’s, which the reader wants to read over and over again.

My fantasy goes like this: a reader, in a bookstore, browsing in the poetry section. They pull out a book and read a few poems. Then they put the book back. Two days later they sit up in bed at four o’ clock in the morning, thinking—I want to read that poem again! Where’s that poem? I’ve got to get that book.