The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940-2001

The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940-2001

by Louis Simpson

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Few poets have so artfully confronted American life as Louis Simpson. Persona speakers struggle with everyday issues against a backdrop of larger forces, the individual’s maladjustment to a culture of materialism and brutal competition, the failure of marriage under the pressures of such a society, the failure of the American dream. Simpson wages a

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Few poets have so artfully confronted American life as Louis Simpson. Persona speakers struggle with everyday issues against a backdrop of larger forces, the individual’s maladjustment to a culture of materialism and brutal competition, the failure of marriage under the pressures of such a society, the failure of the American dream. Simpson wages a lover’s quarrel with the world.

"Louis Simpson has perfect pitch. His poems win us first by their drama, their ways of voicing our ways . . . of making do with our lives. Then his intelligence cajoles us to the brink of a cliff of solitude and we step over into the buoyant element of true poetry."—Seamus Heaney

Educated at Munro College (West Indies) and at Columbia University, Louis Simpson has taught widely, most recently at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is the author of seventeen books of poetry and ten works of prose. He has received fellowships from the Academy of American Poetry, the Hudson Review, the Guggenheim Foundation, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
These poems -- wry, cantankerous and skillfully made -- are a testament to Simpson's considerable talent and a window on six decades of America's least marketable art form. — David Orr
Library Journal
Poet, critic, and novelist Simpson has been a literary star for nearly three generations. In this anthology he opens with 42 new poems and continues with selections from his 11 previous books, ending with There You Are. This work is filled with evocations of places like Jamaica, Manhattan, Paris, and Venice and range over time from tsarist Russia to World War II to the 1960s. Simpson's obsessive theme is the stultifying effect of middle-class suburban life, with its "cars and power mowers," a wasteland where Whitman's Open Road leads "to the used car lot" and the smug populace "doesn't read anything." Simpson also includes two very readable narrative poems, "The Runner" and "The Previous Tenant." And he goes beyond social commentary to probe "things/ as hidden as a heart" and even notes how "a butterfly/ writes dark lines on the air." The result is a collection both timely and accessible, always telling "of love and infinite wonder." Highly recommended for all poetry collections.-Daniel L. Guillory, Millikin Univ., Decatur, IL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

BOA Editions, Ltd.
Publication date:
American Poets Continuum Series
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Owner of the House

New Collected Poems 1940-2001
By Louis Simpson

BOA Editions, Ltd.

Copyright © 2003 Louis Simpson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1929918399


Chapter One

The Listeners My lovely soul, ah! Let us sum up. The Long Afternoon Behind the glass door stands a babushka, a grandmother doll. It unscrews. There's another inside, a size smaller, that unscrews, and so on. A pipe called a hookah with a malachite bowl ... The gramophone wheezes, scratches, and speaks: "Say It With Music." White flannels and knees intently two-stepping step out on the floor. At four there's a breeze. The bamboo trunks creak and talk in the lane. A house lizard hops from the vine to the rail ... cocks his head at me. "Remember?" he croaks. Dear brother, I do! Nero in Love G. L. B. Wiehen, W pronounced as V, was a quiet, soft-spoken man. He taught French and played the organ. We were reading Britannicus with Mister Wiehen, and came to the place where Nero tells how he saw Junie. He was filled with a "curious desire" to see her when she was conveyed in the night, secretly, to the palace ... "Sad, her eyes shining with tears, and bright Even in the glare of arms and torchlight, Just as she appeared when suddenly torn From sleep, a beauty nothing could adorn ... What do you expect? Disheveled innocence, The shadows, the flames, the cries, the silence ..." That night, waked by the moon, I walked through a long corridor to a great hall, and stood like Nero behind a pillar and gazed at Junie. I would have done anything for her. I would have been one of the Caesars people prayed to, or a great poet like Racine. But it was not to be. Junie became a vestal virgin. Enraged, I plunged headlong into a life of crime. A Letter from Brazil An old friend from schooldays wrote that he was working in Brazil, air-shipping freight. I was in a bad patch in my life and of no mind to answer letters. When I did, finally, it came back scrawled, "Address unknown." What is it like, air-shipping freight? If you're successful, I suppose you can have a fine social life. But not with "Address unknown." I visualized a dingy room in a street where drumming and yelling kept you awake. You turned on the light, and read a magazine. Opportunities in rapidly expanding ... Caracas. You strapped on your money, put your things in a suitcase, and took the first plane out. We used to walk up and down on the barbecue, discussing "If Dempsey had fought Tunney again." Or if "The Flying Scotsman" raced "The Royal Scot," which would have won? His letter came when I had my hands full, simultaneously being divorced and trying to fix up the house. And the workmen after a while just sat down and did nothing. This went on for days. I had given the contractor, like a fool, three thousand dollars in advance. I liked the man ... we had intelligent conversations. He used the money to pay his debts, and the workmen weren't paid, and they packed up their tools, leaving me with a house that looked like an egg with the shell smashed. I had to borrow from the bank. This time I hired a contractor who was with an old established firm. He came, he looked at the mess, and said nothing, just shook his head gently, from side to side, called in a crew, and finished the job. * * * At the beginning of vacations those of us who lived in Kingston would share a car going home. You drove over the mountains to Mandeville, then over the hills, and out on the Spanish Town road, doing sixty. There's the clock at Halfway Tree. And the town, where you drop off, one by one, promising to get in touch. But this isn't true. The friends you see during the vacation are different from your friends at school. The first day at home you go for a ride on your bicycle in the lanes. Then for a swim, the palms dipping, the harbor glittering, with lines of foam. It comes back to me now with the sound of saws and hammers. Some beams beneath our house have been damaged and have to be replaced. An Old Building on Hudson Street It was an old building on Hudson Street, with a loft. The elevator was just a platform wide open on all sides. I saw the cables and walls going by. The operator glanced at me and smiled. It came to a stop in front of an open window. I could have stepped right out into space! And this wasn't the only open window. There were others. Then the interview ... The man asked if I knew Spanish. "Si," I said, and he nodded. The one I would be replacing was a shlemiel. Could I type? With two fingers. Again he nodded. I had the job! On the day I was to start I kept putting it off ... then sent a telegram saying I could not come. That I was ill. I kept reliving the scene. First, the open window ... Then he and I were talking. The one I would be replacing was sweeping the floor, coming closer, trying to hear. The Appointment Genaro was standing halfway down the car. He turned his head slowly, the side of his head with the hole, oozing blood. "Thou canst not say I did it," I whispered. The man sitting next to me gave me a look and rustled his News nervously. At 14th Street he got off with a backward glance. Genaro must have got off too. He was nowhere to be seen. There were three ahead of me. Sports Month had an article, "What fight would you have liked to see?" Peter Jackson and Jim Corbett, though you probably never heard of it, I said to the sports writer. Dark, dark, they all go into the dark, the captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters, even the Silver Star. I'd rather be a peasant, said Achilles, on a farm, feeding pigs, than this damned plain, in a fog. My number was being called. I put the magazine down. "Can't you hear?" the man at the desk said irritably, drest in a little brief authority. "You coulda missed your appointment." So I went in. The doctor was looking at a sheet of paper. He glanced up and looked down again. The doctor had gray hair, glasses with black frames, and hair growing out of his nose. They like to keep you waiting. It's a test. Still, I wasn't prepared when Nosehair said, "Why were you talking to yourself in the waiting room?" I saw a shadow sliding around the ropes to get at me. The referee moved it back, and then went over and picked up the count. "One!" The fog was clearing. I rose to a knee, and at "nine" to my feet. "Was I?" I said. "My lips may have moved a little. I was reading a magazine." The doctor said, "All this about Jesus, are you still thinking about it?" "No," I said. "I was sick." I got on at Chambers Street. At Times Square I looked and saw Genaro. Sitting and pretending to read the advertisements. I don't give a damn, I told him. You can all go to hell. An Orchid I must have been asleep when she got out of my bed, unpinned the orchid from her dress, and placed it in one of my books. A purple skeleton staining through the pages of the book ... a first edition! I took her to the ballet, and she loved it! But when I bought tickets to Nureyev, the best seats in the house, she stood me up. She was sorry-she forgot. So she wasn't devoted to the performing arts. * * * It was Easter Sunday. She was getting out of a taxi in a hat that made people stare. She entered, took off her shoes, dress, stockings, everything, until there was nothing left but her in her Easter hat. "Two lumps," she said, "or three?" The orchid is still there, that is, the fragments are, paper-thin and sere ... the color I remember, outline of the petals that seemed so perfect then, fading through the pages. The Listeners I walked down the street to the harbor, by gardens with tattered leaves and weeds, and through an open gate. The red roof of the house had lost its tiles in patches, and the windows had no glass. A woman stood in a window looking down. "I used to live here," I shouted. "Is it all right if I just look around?" A man with dreadlocks sat on his heels, doing something to a pot. A child stood by him. I walked down to the shore. A man came towards me. His name was Rohan Moore. Was I the owner, he asked. No, I said, and heard the appreciative murmur of those who were listening to my life as to a play. Rohan Moore led the way into the house. It was dark. The wall was unpainted, the railing rough to the hand. A family lived in the room ... it seemed, in every corner, and still there was a space where a bed once stood, by the wall, with a table, glass and spoon. My father, looking small, spoke again the last few words. People were gathering from every part of the house, a dozen where four used to be. They stood and stared silently. I shook the hand of my guide, now my friend. And another's. "You can come and live here, if you want," Rohan said. There were sounds of laughter, chairs pushed back, and voices in the distance, going away. The Willies I asked Johan why he left home and came to America. How sad it can be in winter listening to the wind ... No wonder that in the dawn in the mist, one by one figures appear among the trees, making their way to the sea. This is the day when the pack-boat leaves. Better a voyage with storm and ice than to sit in a creaking house with a dog and old man for company. Better a strange, hostile land, people who do not speak your tongue, than to listen in winter to the wind, and look at snow on the trees. At night when you go outside to chop wood, you see the Willies, those dead girls, giggling and running. It's no dance they mean when they crook a finger. "You have never been to Hudik," he said. "If you had, you'd understand. If you heard the wind against the house, and the voices: 'Come out, we are so lonely!'" It's no life they have in mind for you in a house with wife and child, but wedding with the wind and snow. (Continues...)

Excerpted from The Owner of the House by Louis Simpson Copyright © 2003 by Louis Simpson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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