That Little Something

That Little Something

by Charles Simic

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That Little Something is the superb eighteenth collection from one of America's most vital and honored poets, Charles Simic. Over the course of his singular career, Simic has won nearly every accolade including the Pulitzer Prize, and recently served as the poet laureate of the United States from 2007 to 2008. His wry humor and darkly illuminating vision are on

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That Little Something is the superb eighteenth collection from one of America's most vital and honored poets, Charles Simic. Over the course of his singular career, Simic has won nearly every accolade including the Pulitzer Prize, and recently served as the poet laureate of the United States from 2007 to 2008. His wry humor and darkly illuminating vision are on full display here as he moves closer to the dark ironies of history and human experience. Simic understands the strange interplay between the ordinary and the odd, between reality and imagination. A profoundly stunning collection from "not only one of the most prolific but also one of the most distinctive, accessible, and enjoyable" (The New York Times Book Review) poetic voices.

Editorial Reviews

Katha Pollitt
To open one of Charles Simic's collections of poetry…is to enter with renewed delight an instantly familiar neighborhood. Delight may not be the first word you'd associate with his shabby rooming houses, seedy movie theaters, empty restaurants on lonely side streets, dusty stores about to go out of business, bare trees. But if the scenery comes out of Edward Hopper, complete with the aura of loneliness and of ordinary things made strange by odd slants of light, the people who live there are nothing like Hopper's doughy American depressives. They're characters from Eastern European folk tales or Kafka, boiling with energy, nicely poised between the comic and the sinister and prone to metamorphosis…The fun—and Simic's poetry is nothing if not amusing—comes from the way he puts together the whimsical, the earthy, the banal and the transcendent. There are a lot of chickens in his poems and a lot of angels, too.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In his 18th collection, Poet Laureate Simic's neat stanzas continue to deliver odd moments and unexplained memories, by turns surreal, horrifying, funny, sad, and spoken with this Pulitzer Prize winner's trademark friendly bemusement. The startling solemnity of a "Metaphysics Anonymous" meeting for addicts of "truth beyond appearances" in one poem meets, in another, a list of topics for a "late-night chat," including 'How to guess time of night by listening to one's own heartbeat." The second of the book's four sections takes on a decidedly political tone, as in "Dance of the Macabre Mice," in which "the president smiles to himself; he loves war." Similarly, "Those Who Clean After" imagines what's "being done in our name" while the speaker listens to "the sounds of summer night." The final section groups short poems that Simic (My Noiseless Entourage) calls "Eternities"-each offers a preserved moment's thought or image: "Sewing room, linty daylight." While fans will find no stylistic surprises here, there is still the agreeable pathos in Simic's work, as in "To the Reader," which ends, "Bang your head / On your side of the wall / And keep me company." (Apr.)

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"Simic's concise, silvery, and sardonic poems sketch grim vignettes in a world of absences... Simic, a pivotal voice of our bloody times, draws on dark fairy tales, Shakespeare, and pulp fiction as his poems rise from the page like the smoke of the last cigarettes of the damned."

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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I never run into anyone from the old days.

It’s summer and I’m alone in the city.

I enter stores, apartment houses, offices

And find nothing remotely familiar.

The trees in the park—were they always so big?

And the birds so hidden, so quiet?

Where is the bus that passed this way?

Where are the greengrocers and hairdressers,

And that schoolhouse with the red fence?

Miss Harding is probably still at her desk,

Sighing as she grades papers late into the night.

The bummer is, I can’t find the street.

All I can do is make another tour of the neighborhood,

Hoping I’ll meet someone to show me the way

And a place to sleep, since I’ve no return ticket

To wherever it is I came from earlier this evening.


for Li-Young Lee

The likelihood of ever finding it is small.

It’s like being accosted by a woman

And asked to help her look for a pearl

She lost right here in the street.

She could be making it all up,

Even her tears, you say to yourself,

As you search under your feet,

Thinking, Not in a million years . . .

It’s one of those summer afternoons

When one needs a good excuse

To step out of a cool shade.

In the meantime, what ever became of her?

And why, years later, do you still,

Off and on, cast your eyes to the ground

As you hurry to some appointment

Where you are now certain to arrive late?


Grandmothers and their caged birds

Must be trembling with fear

As you climb with heavy steps,

Stopping at each floor to take a rest.

A monkey dressed in baby clothes,

Who belonged to an opera singer,

Once lived here and so did a doctor

Who peddled drugs to wealthy customers.

The one who let you feel her breasts

Vanished upstairs. The name is not familiar,

But the scratches of her nails are.

The bell rings, but no one comes to open the door.

That old man, with a face powdered white,

You caught peeking out of a door,

Whom did he expect to see if not you,

All frazzled and descending in a hurry?


I’m the furtive inspector of dimly lit corridors,

Dead light bulbs and red exit signs,

Doors that show traces

Of numerous attempts at violent entry,

Is that the sound of a maid making a bed at midnight?

The rustle of counterfeit bills

Being counted in the wedding suite?

A fine-tooth comb passing through a head of gray hair?

Eternity is a mirror and a spider web,

Someone wrote with lipstick in the elevator.

I better get the passkey and see for myself.

I better bring along a book of matches too.


Empty beer cans tied to an old model car.

A small circus tent in a parking lot.

Sparrows chirping in rows of trees

That have never known leaves.

The stores on Main Street were boarded up,

Except for a brightly lit tattoo parlor.

Persephone’s daughters on show

With orange hair and spiked collars.

You wish to know about the fires?

We saw mills the color of dried blood

Half-shadowed, half-lit by the setting sun,

Their many windows mostly broken.

The drunk who asked for spare change,

Wanted to tell us about his time in prison,

But with Satan’s palace still to see,

We left him right there with his mouth open.


You take turns being yourself,

Being someone else,

Addressing mirrors, airing your grievances

To a goldfish in a bowl.

Your Queen Gertrude and Ophelia

Are snoring away across town.

Your father’s ghost is in the bathroom

Reading Secret Life of Nuns,

While you pace back and forth

Clenching and unclenching your fists,

As if planning a murder,

Or more likely your own crucifixion.

Or you stand frozen still

As if an idea so obvious, so grand

Has come to you

And left you, for once, speechless.

Outside, you notice, it has started snowing.

You press your feverish forehead

Against the cold windowpane

And watch the flakes come down

Languidly, one at a time,

On the broken bird feeder and the old dog’s grave.


Where you are destined to turn up

Some dark winter day

Walking up and down dead escalators

Searching for someone to ask

In this dusty old store

Soon to close its doors forever.

At long last, finding the place, the desk

Stacked high with sales slips,

Concealing the face of the one

You came to complain to

About the coat on your back,

Its frayed collar, the holes in its pockets.

Recalling the stately fitting room,

The obsequious salesman, the grim tailor

Who stuck pins in your shoulders

And made chalk marks on your sleeves

As you admired yourself in a mirror,

Your fists clenched fiercely at your side.

Copyright © 2008 by Charles Simic

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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