The Lesson, by Charles Simic


It occurs to me now

that all these years

I have been

the idiot pupil

of a practical joker.


and with foolish reverence

I wrote down

what I took to be

his wise pronouncements


my life on earth.

Like a parrot

I rattled off the dates

of wars and revolutions.

I rejoiced

at the death of my tormentors

I even become convinced

that their number

was diminishing.

It seemed to me

that gradually

my teacher was revealing to me

a pattern,

that what I was being told

was an intricate plot

of a picaresque novel

in installments,

the last pages of which

would be given over


to lyrical evocations

of nature.


with time,

I began to detect in myself

an inability

to forget even

the most trivial detail.

I lingered more and more

over the beginnings:

The haircut of a soldier

who was urinating

against our fence;

shadows of trees on the ceiling,

the day

my mother and I

had nothing to eat. . . .


I couldn’t get past

that prison train

that kept waking me up

every night.

I couldn’t get that whistle

that rumble

out of my head. . . .

In this classroom

austerely furnished

by my insomnia,

at the desk consisting

of my two knees,

for the first time

in this long and terrifying


I burst out laughing.

Forgive me, all of you!

At the memory of my uncle

charging a barricade

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)