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The Lesson, by Charles Simic

It occurs to me now

that all these years

I have been

the idiot pupil

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of a practical joker.

Diligently

and with foolish reverence

I wrote down

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what I took to be

his wise pronouncements

concerning

my life on earth.

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Like a parrot

I rattled off the dates

of wars and revolutions.

I rejoiced

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at the death of my tormentors

I even become convinced

that their number

was diminishing.

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It seemed to me

that gradually

my teacher was revealing to me

a pattern,

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that what I was being told

was an intricate plot

of a picaresque novel

in installments,

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the last pages of which

would be given over

entirely

to lyrical evocations

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of nature.

Unfortunately,

with time,

I began to detect in myself

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an inability

to forget even

the most trivial detail.

I lingered more and more

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over the beginnings:

The haircut of a soldier

who was urinating

against our fence;

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shadows of trees on the ceiling,

the day

my mother and I

had nothing to eat. . . .

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Somehow,

I couldn’t get past

that prison train

that kept waking me up

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every night.

I couldn’t get that whistle

that rumble

out of my head. . . .

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In this classroom

austerely furnished

by my insomnia,

at the desk consisting

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of my two knees,

for the first time

in this long and terrifying

apprenticeship,

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I burst out laughing.

Forgive me, all of you!

At the memory of my uncle

charging a barricade

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with a homemade bomb,

I burst out laughing.

From “Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness,” edited by Carolyn Forche (W.W. Norton: 812 pp., $21.95)


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