Does anyone not know how one of those little Russian "babushka" nesting dolls comes apart? If you were writing a poem, wouldn't you avoid any mention of babushka dolls, in the interest of skirting a cliché? But Louis Simpson begins this book by lingering over one, unpacking it layer by layer in "The Long Afternoon," as if daring us to protest that we have something more important to do. The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001 opens up like an enormous babushka doll, stacking and nesting the stages of one poet's writing life and also the phases of our shared lives as citizens of a privileged empire, decade by decade.
The recent work with which the book begins is conversational, casual yet subtly formal, juxtaposing images boldly as if asserting the right of an established poet to make sense or not, as he pleases. Humor buoys this section, as in "Graduation":
The sound of two hands clapping
A reader can breeze through these first pages, feeling the pleasure of recognition, getting Simpson's jokes and references, appreciating his place among our contemporary literary influences. There is rhyme, but it whispers; there is insight, but it chuckles. We sit in the audience with the poet, exchanging witty remarks about the state of the world we share.
is mine. If there's one thing I know
it's when something is over and
done with, and it's time to go.
Then comes page 99, where selections from previously collected works begin with The Arrivistes: Poems 1940-49, to be carried through There You Are (1995). At page 99 an alarm goes off, and we must get our English homework done before downing breakfast and catching the bus to high school. Suddenly we have tight meter, strict rhyme, capitalized lines, and the adolescent angst of a soldier dropped into a war:
Beside a Church we dug our holes,
This poet holds his head in despair, glancing up now and then to preach a little. He reminds me of myself in my teens and twenties, except of course that he was already Louis Simpson the accomplished poet; my journals lack the attention to diction and line that infuse every page of these early Simpson pieces. Reading at middle age, I'm grateful that the later material came first, or I think I'd have had trouble accepting this earlier voice.
By tombstone and by cross.
They were too shallow for our souls
When the ground began to toss.
But without the early voice, it would be hard to see how this poet has walked through history. Among other themes, Owner explores the poet's role, asking what poetry is worth in a world at work and at war. The poems express homage to predecessors and test the boundaries of who gets to be the poet who among us talks, and who listens. Walt Whitman appears frequently, sometimes overtly ("Where are you, Walt?"), sometimes only suggested by similarities (the poems feature quite a few capitalized Captains). There is "A Walk with Goethe" followed immediately by "A Walk with Basho." Simpson's poems are full of characters and their stories, many of them unrecognized or fictional poets and other artists struggling for survival and meaning:
The question was, which would she marry,
For Simpson the veteran soldier as well as poet, war recurs as both subject
and metaphor. Over the years, Simpson has considered war much the way any
society does in its art, theater and film: first as documented experience
tinged with propaganda, then through lenses of pride, doubt, and remorse. In
the widely quoted "Carentan O Carentan," Simpson speaks to the inevitability
of war the great equalizer: "Everything's all right, Mother,/ Everyone gets
the same/ At one time or another./ It's all in the game." But he doubts the
cause; his note that "the Captain's sickly" suggests that the United States
has already slipped from the clear moral high ground from which Whitman's
Lincoln conducted his war. But it seems more the method than the madness of
war that Simpson questions in this early collection. "When men discovered
freedom first/ The fighting was on foot," begins "The Ash and the Oak,"
published in 1955. But the twentieth century robbed fighting of its heroism,
the poem tells us. By the end of World War Two, "death was nothing if not
dull,/ A hero was a fool."
Tolstoy or Lermontov or Pushkin?
But her family married her off
to a man from Kiev, a timber merchant
who came from Kiev with a team of horses.
As Simpson's immediate experience of war fades, his poetic voice turns to dreams as a way to make meaning out of war. In "I Dreamed That in a City Dark as Paris," the poet has been abandoned by his army and watches "two aeroplanes/ Forlorn as birds" chase each other surreally. "These wars have been so great, they are forgotten," the poet declares in a collection published in 1959, only 14 years after the end of World War Two. In the next poem, "A Dream of Governors," a King visits a witch and implores her, "Grant what I ask./ Bring evil on the land/ That I may have a task!" Heroism has died, indeed, when this is the motivation we attribute to those who lead us into war.
In a book filled mostly with one- and two-page poems, "The Runner" stands out, with its own introduction, multiple scenes, and nearly 30-page length. At first resenting its inclusion, I warmed to it as I read, my sympathy for a weary, confused soldier growing with every stanza. If anyone wonders whether it is possible to "support our troops," as the popular slogan goes, and yet oppose a war, "The Runner" offers a stance that recognizes the humanity and decency of soldiers yet makes no secret of the poet's doubt about their task:
God help them, they were led
"The Runner" gives us a stance from which we can challenge any war, even war itself, while recognizing that we may also benefit from it, may be bound up in it ourselves, may even find ourselves fighting in it. Stance is something that a writer, like a soldier, has to find and hold, and if it takes 30 pages to arrive at a useful stance, perhaps we need to cultivate a patience with longer, more involved poems than many of us grew up learning to appreciate. It's important to read to the end of "The Runner," which circles back to sympathy for the soldier and perhaps hope for the cause he was fighting for, as well: "Dodd waved his hand, although it was too dark/ For the other to see him. And set off/ In what seemed to be the right direction."
By officers and morons, who had orders
For wearing leather out and breaking spades,
To give employment to the men at home
Who, on this freezing night, were warm in bed
With solders' wives!
The search for a poet's wartime role is, of course, only one path on which to approach The Owner of the House. And it's a path overgrown with other concerns; a reader looking for continuity must exercise patience with this meander through a poet's entire career. There is a list of brands of shoes to be gotten through, and one other long poem, "The Previous Tenant," which ends with someone subscribing to Book of the Month. I like my poetry salted with a little more drama and lots of politics, and I grew impatient more than once with Simpson's pictures of suburban blandness. Then again, details from that bland world seized me here and there, things I wish I would notice as I sit in someone's living room, or walk through a commercial strip. Life would be so much richer if I could get lost in "translucent raincoats, and umbrellas,/ fluorescent plate-glass windows" ("Vandergast and the Girl"). I admire the reflections reverberating between "translucent" and "fluorescent," the contrasting softness of raincoats with hard glass, round umbrellas with a flat plate-glass window. For a moment, I don't care whether the image means anything on the world stage.
In the end, I have only two small complaints about this rich volume. One is that a bit of a biographical introduction, for those of us who know less than we should about Simpson and his work, would have been helpful. That might also have illuminated the editorial choices, which must have been challenging and could profitably, perhaps, be shared. It's hard to grasp this book as a composition, hard to consider what might be missing or superfluous. The title poem does nothing to satisfy my curiosity: Just what did this book set out to do? Is there a larger owner of a larger house? I tried grand ideas about the owners of our collective house, our civilization . . . but that's not in the title poem. The title poem is about a woman who died, and in whose house the poet apparently still lives. I hesitate to load the wars of a century onto this private correspondence of a haunted heart. I'd rather say that although the title leaves me wondering, I had a good time looking for illumination in these pages, and I found enough to satisfy and to entice me back for more.
The Owner of the House was a National Book Awards finalist in 2003 and is on the shortlist for the Griffin Poetry Prize 2004 (a Canadian international contest with an $80,000 award). Simpson's previous awards include a Pulitzer Prize for At the End of the Open Road (1963). He was a National Book Award Finalist in 1964 for At The End of the Open Road, in 1966 for Selected Poems, and in 1973 for Adventures of the Letter I.
View three poems from The Owner of the House
Louis Simpson was educated at Munro College (Jamaica, West Indies) and at Columbia, where he received his doctorate, and has taught at Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, and at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The author of seventeen books of poetry, he has received the Rome Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Hudson Review Fellowship, Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, and the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Stony Brook, New York.