Sixty-One Years in Construction, The

Simpson House: Sixty-One Years in Construction, The

Makuck, Peter

SINCE THE 1988 RELEASE OF HIS COLLECTED POEMS, Louis Simpson has published two more volumes, In the Room We Share (1990) and There You Are (1995). From these most recent books, his New Collected includes thirty poems.1 We also find forty-two uncollected “New Poems,” plus selections from each of his previous nine volumes, those selections varying considerably from the 1988 Collected. He has excluded roughly eighty poems, some important works like “Lines Written Near San Francisco,” “Unfinished Life,” “Peter,” “Maria Roberts,” and “Encounter on the 7:07.” Also missing are a few of my favorites from the two most recent books, but I’ll mention only one, “Lifers,” a beauty which reveals the continuing importance of Zen in his later work. Given that the New Collected rings with finality (the first epigraph is Laforgue: “Ah, my lovely soul, let us sum up”), it’s a shame Simpson didn’t provide us with a preface, some thoughts about his career or this new lineup of poems. But as one of his fictive characters might say with a tsk and sigh, “You can’t have everything.” Still, if you care about Louis Simpson’s alwaysinteresting work, you’ll want both the 1988 collection and the New Collected, at the very least.

Except for the first section, “New Poems,” The Owner of the House, is organized chronologically, but I’ll save the first for last. Simpson’s early work (The Arrivistes: Poems 1940-1949; Good News of Death and Other Poems, 1955; and A Dream of Governors, 1959) covers almost twenty years, and the selections he has chosen for the new book show an evolving style and widening areas of interest. At the outset, we find the influence of Elizabethan and metaphysical models, the recurring subject of war. A dogface who waded ashore at Normandy and fought at the Battle of Bastogne, Simpson, in tight traditional verse forms, gives us with realistic detail a horrifying sense of the firefight:

There is a whistling in the leaves

And it is not the wind,

The twigs are falling from the knives

That cut men to the ground.

The searing and justly famous poem ends:

Carenton O Carenton

Before we met with you

We never yet had lost a man

Or known what death could do.

Simpson did not make a career out of war poetry, but the experience of soldiering toughened his take on the world and gave him material for such powerful work as “Memories of a Lost War,” “The Battle,” “The Ash and the Oak,” and “The Runner,” an extraordinary red-badge-of-courage story in close to 900 lines of blank verse. In the first three books, though his patron saints Whitman and Chekhov have yet to be invoked, Simpson nonetheless discovers an interest in narrative, the richness of everyday reality, and begins to quarrel with American materialism. His wit, humor, and sense of irony are evident even in his first book. “Summer Storm,” for example, has lovers trying out-as if for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records-beds, couches, car seats, tables, riverbanks, fields, mountainsides,

Covering as much ground as they were able.

A lady, coming on them in the dark

In a white fixture, wrote to the newspapers

Complaining of the statues in the park.

By Cupid, but they cut some pretty capers!

Here we have a preview of sexual comedies to come. But the early work is characterized by what will become a deepening indictment of American culture-a culture that is violent, racist, and depthless:

With the arrival of the sixties, Simpson writes the transitional volume that will win him the Pulitzer Prize, At the End of the Open Road (1963), perhaps his darkest and most unforgiving book. We notice a change in the development and direction of an ars poetica. Like his friend James Wright, Simpson jumps ship, leaving behind the HMS Formalism, ticktock meter, and decorative language in favor of staggered lines, subjective if not dream-like imagery, and plainer speech-an act of treason for many of his detractors. He then takes up with that shady outsider, Walt Whitman, for what will become a lifelong but intermittent dialogue about America-especially its rapacious greed, an unreflective mercantile culture, and the negligible role of poetry in our democratic lives. “Lie back, Walt Whitman,” he says, “We cannot bear / The stars anymore, those infinite spaces. / Let the realtors divide the mountain, / For they have already subdivided the valley” (“In California”) . And in the widely anthologized “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” Simpson famously says, “The Open Road goes to the used car lot.” The environment is being destroyed; “the light above the street is sick to death.” And what about the audience for poetry, Walt?

“As for the people-see how they neglect you!

Only a poet pauses to read the inscription.”

After At the End of the Open Road, Simpson’s bitter quarrel with American society increasingly becomes dispersed and embodied in various characters rather than in a poet’s single alienated voice. Simpson’s experience as novelist (Riverside Drive, 1962), love of Chekhov, and command of fictional technique stand behind some of his singular poetic achievements. It is hard to think of another contemporary poet who has populated his work with a wider range of characters: building contractors, doctors, photographers, scriptwriters, models, receptionists, psychiatrists, ad agents, car and insurance salesmen, dental assistants, teachers, students, businessmen, vagrants, soldiers, actors, commuters, mental health workers, and so on. A great noticer and describer, Simpson writes about the lives we really live and provides refreshing encounters with a cross-section of people rather than a poet’s self-preoccupations, narrow observations, and ideas.

Typical of the mature long narratives selected for the New Collected is “An Academic Story,” which reads like an intense short story and makes use of the techniques of fiction: unadorned prose, shifting point of view, common speech rhythms, a mix of scene and summary, character, dialogue, minimal transition between settings and times. he begins with a fine comic hook:

One day during his office hour

a young woman appeared. “I’m Merridy,”

she said, “Merridy Johnson.

I’d like you to read my poems.”

He said that he didn’t teach writing.

“But couldn’t you just look

and tell me, are they any good?”

She was carrying a flat white box.

She removed some tissue paper,

lifted out an album with a red cover,

and handed it to him carefully.

The poems were written in green ink

with flowers and birds in the margins.

She said, “What do you think?”

He said there were some nice images.

“Where?” she said, and leaned to see.

We sense, alas, what’s coming even before the second section begins with “His wife didn’t go to poetry readings.” Sitting on the floor at the reading, Merridy pats a place next to her when she sees Henry, the professor. Eyes shining, she whispers that poems give her goose bumps: “Taking his hand, she showed him where.” After the reading, they idle to a reception at the home of Professor “Pat” Melrose whose wife tells them with a wink, “Pot’s in the kitchen, acid’s in the study. . . .” They leave the Melrose house stoned, Merridy telling Henry she thought the poetry was great. He mocks her, asking if it was as great as Bob Dylan’s.

But irony was wasted on her,

she was innocent. Like her room

with its posters of Joan Baez

and, right on, Bob Dylan.

They go to bed, then weeks later meet on the sly at the MLA convention in San Francisco, explore Chinatown, visit The Hungry I, and attend a showing of Doctor Zhivago. Simpson’s selection of detail, both satirical and sentimental, is perfect.

Like “The Previous Tenant” and “Vandergast and the Girl” (also excellent narratives about adultery that end the way many Chekhov stories end, painfully or wistfully but not melodramatically), “An Academic Story” is middle- rather than end-oriented. Henry, however, is exiled to a kind of academic Siberia in Upstate New York, for his colleague Melrose was on the committee that decided his fate and argued against giving him tenure. Simpson’s treatment of Merridy and Henry is a combination of judgment and compassion, but his contempt is reserved for Melrose, a venomous political snake all too common to the professoriat. Here is Melrose’s hypocritical speech to the tenure committee:

“Associate” . . . think of what that means.

Someone you have to your house,

introduce to your wife . . .

If the fathers and mothers of the children

to whom we stand in loco parentis

were here, they would ask, they would demand to know,

not is he supposed to be clever

and did the New York Times or some other publication

give a book a good review,

but is he a moral man?

Melrose’s rhetorical performance is why Henry is in a hotel bar at another MLA convention, waiting to be interviewed for a new position. The narrator for the first time uses “I” in this last section, and Simpson’s brilliant use of point of view hits us. We suddenly realize that Henry has just told him the story of his downfall and now offers to buy another round. The narrator declines and leaves hurriedly to interview a job candidate for his own university. He arrives late, just as the candidate, “Ms. Harris,” begins to describe her dissertation, Theory and Praxis in Feminist Criticism. The poem concludes:

We used to teach poetry, now it’s theory.

There’s no longer room in the system

for a mind as romantic as Henry’s.

Ever since At the End of the Open Road, where Simpson told us “You were born to waste your life. / You were born to this middleclass life” (“In the Suburbs”), he may have at times been guilty of sarcasm and a lack of sympathy for his characters, but it is important to remember the title and technique of one of his books, Adventures of the Letter I. Like Whitman, Simpson contains multitudes and writes in more than one voice. But from book to book, we register an increasing recognition of our common humanity, middle class or otherwise. In “The People Next Door,” he writes without irony, ‘Yes, I believe in the family . . . / next door.” He recognizes that, despite the many absurd and willed distractions of their lives, they too deal with the heavy awareness of mortality: “Every human being / is an intellectual more or less.” And in “Periodontics,” a poem about the speaker’s meeting with a woman who dumped him twenty years earlier, we register a note of self-indictment that will later recur: “I could hear myself / sneering, like Diogenes in a washtub. / And what did I have to feel so / superior about?” In another poem, “Honeymoon,” primed for the withering satire we have come to expect from Simpson, we immediately begin laughing at his description of a marriage ceremony, at the preacher’s mangled language (love is “insensitive, love is invalueless,” and people “merger together” in holy matrimony), and at a “Love Boat” clich√© of a wedding trip to the tropics, complete with moonlit waves and swaying palms. Then, in the last two lines, Simpson yanks the rug:

And you, hypocrite lecteur,

What makes you so superior?

In the book’s final pages we encounter “After a Light Snowfall” and return to the major theme of waste, to a line from Cavafy quoted in an earlier poem: “As you have wasted your life here in this place, / You have wasted it in every part of the world.” The difference now is that Simpson turns the indictment on himself:

I am disturbed by the words

of a man I never knew, who lived

in a country I never visited.

How is it he knows about me,

and that I have not lived

for the good of others, putting their needs

before my own? That I have not been

a perfect husband and father.

That I have not written a book

that graces every other coffee table,

or made a discovery or invention

that will save lives and relieve human suffering?

How can he say I have wasted my life?

What can he possibly know about me?

And yet I see that he does.

Simpson’s selections in “New Poems” show his talents to be undimmed. We revisit familiar themes, techniques, and places with renewed freshness. There are several poems about writers and a number of impressive long poems (“Variations on a Theme by Shostakovich,” “Footnotes on Fodor’s Spain,” and “Lilies of the Field”) about victims of murderous political regimes, poems that defy summary and are too long to deal with here. In the new poems, Simpson also indulges his interest in and talent for depicting love trysts, triangles, breakups, and amorous misadventures. One very funny poem, “He’s asleep,” is about a middle-of-the-night phone call. A woman from another room in the small hotel tells the speaker “He’s asleep” before she realizes she has dialed the wrong number. When the speaker’s wife wakes and asks who it was, he tells her the truth, but next morning in the small dining room he carefully studies the women:

Or was it the one with style

having breakfast all by herself,

“he” being still asleep?

There was no way of knowing.

It could have been any of the women

in the room, except his wife.

Though restlessness and travel might suggest spiritual search, they might just as often suggest the absence of an inner room of one’s own. “Kaimana Beach” begins with Edenic description, a couple on vacation, every day beginning with a hike or “a drive / inland, across the mountains, / or east around the shore. . . .” But before long, “one coconut looks much like another,” and the repetitive sound of waves becomes maddening. The woman actually begins to miss her office, phone calls, “the sleek black pencil holder, / rolodex, calendar . . .” (I laughed, thinking of Theodore Roethke’s “Dolor,” where such office items stand for terminal ennui and spiritual death).

The middleclass Americans we see in many of Simpson’s poems live in an inner dead zone, people who have been body snatched, or are dying for want of the good news that can be found only in poems. In “All Sorts of Things” (its epigraph from Chekhov), the speaker meets a man on the beach who proudly shows off the smooth round stones he has found-some red, some green. Later, a neighbor tells the speaker:

“That’s Bill McKay,”

she said. “He and his wife

moved here from New York.

He used to be in advertising

but now he’s retired.

What he needs is a regular hobby,”

she said, “like golf or a boat.

The garden keeps me on my toes.”

As usual there is little authorial control over reader reaction. Superior laughter or sympathetic moans are both possible responses to the above, but not to “Reading the Times,” where mindless materialism seems to have reached the highest levels of black humor. The poem almost qualifies as a found poem, as in found in the New York Times where an “assembler” is quoted:

He says, “I have five kids,

three grandkids . . . a Mustang,

a Firebird, a Ford Ranger,

an ’89 Camero, a ’92 Chevy van

at 8.9 percent interest,

a color T.V., a V.C.R.

and a Nintendo.

Am I doing good or what?”

The second part of the linked poem is another news item about an ultra violent bank robbery “just like a movie” out in Los Angeles where two men in black body armor went down in a blaze of gunfire with police, the sense of unreality overwhelming:

Two thumbs up. A four-star thriller!

There’s so much going on.

It’s like The Wizard of Oz:

a house flies by, then a witch.

Then it settles, and everything

is right back where it was.

The car has always played a role in the automotive part of the American Dream-a dream that involves an escape from boredom, a search for happiness or fun, but usually ends up being little more than pointless movement. Simpson has written wonderfully about the car in the past, especially in “American Classic.” Here he returns to the subject with a variation on the theme in a short poem (he is astonishingly good at short poems as well) that is funny and apocalyptic at once:

The jacket of New Collected features a haunting painting which shows a man standing in the dark looking at a house that sits on a rise above him, its windows glowing with light. The owner of the house could be a poet looking at his own life and work, but with what kind of feelings it is hard to say. There is a fair amount of house imagery throughout the selected new and older poems, carpenters, sawing and hammering, and several poems that specifically revisit, but without nostalgia, the house in Jamaica where Simpson grew up. “The Long Afternoon,” the first poem in the book, shows a boyhood routine unchanging as a photo. At four o’clock there’s always a breeze. “The bamboo trunks creak / and talk in the lane. / A house lizard hops / from a vine to the rail . . . / cocks his head at me. // ‘Remember?’ he croaks. / Dear brother, I do!” Journeys, wanderings, separations, and a sense of homelessness are elements of many of the poems. Peter, a long-standing autobiographical persona for Simpson, dreams of the loneliness of his original departure from a seaside home in “Peter’s Dream”: “The mountain saw him off, // and a tree with one arm / waved from the barren rocks.”

Perhaps the most powerful of the Jamaica poems is “The Listeners.” Simpson returns to the family house (scene of his great poem, “Working Late”), a house now occupied by families of black squatters who are afraid he is the owner, which he is of course, but not literally. He explains he used to live in the house and asks if he might look around. The squatters become increasingly friendly and show him into a room where he has a vision of his father diminished and hears him speak “again the last few words.” The reverie is broken by the poor guide who touchingly invites the speaker to stay in the house and live. The poem ends typically, not with a big payoff, but a wistful Chekhovian fade: the sounds of laughter, the scrape of a chair, “voices / in the distance going away.”

Simpson’s longtime exasperation with the negligible role of poetry in American life is resumed and put to rest, or so it seems, in “Inspiration,” which carries an epigraph from Longinus (Ars longa, vita brevis) and begins with the speaker receiving a card from a friend that is printed with a reproduction of Poussin’s The Poet’s Inspiration. After describing the figures in the painting, the speaker tells us his brain cells have been stirred to write something, but what and for whom? And why bother? Again, Simpson resumes his argument with Walt Whitman:

But the poem’s final section is wonderful and replays in a different way lines from a key work written in the 1980s, “The Unwritten Poem” (“To love and write unrequited / is the poet’s fate”). Here Simpson echoes his epigraph:

That’s all right by me.

Popularity out of the way,

we can get on with art. It’s long.

There are many things to admire about Louis Simpson’s work-the perfect pitch of his voice, his range, critical intelligence and serious knowledge, probing explorations, gift for imagery, wit, and humor-but I especially value his ability to look beyond the turmoil of a self and take an interest in the world and people very different from himself. Art is long, and the house that Simpson has built on the rise is solid and impressive, not trendy or garish, its windows glowing with light. It will stand for a long time. We can only hope for additions, the music of hammers and saws.

1 THE OWNER OF THE HOUSE: New Collected Poems 1940-2001, by Louis Simpson. BOA Editions, Ltd. $30.95; $19.95.

Copyright Hudson Review Summer 2004

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