Week 384: Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain, by Louis Simpson

This poem by the American poet Louis Simpson (1923-2012) seems to be primarily about disillusionment with the American way of life, though it ends on a note of apparent hope. I really like it for its lyricism, but am aware that as an English reader I am almost certainly missing some of its cultural nuances. For one thing, I am not even sure exactly what the ‘American dream’ is. Opening your own fast-food joint? Getting a cameo role in The Simpsons? Coming over here, marrying one of our princes and carting him off to Canada? Whatever it is, the poet clearly feels that it has led his people down the wrong road, and that the nation they were promised has become lost in a rising tide of uncaring consumerism: ‘The Open Road goes to the used-car lot’, and only poets stop to read inscriptions. But then there is a change of mood that seems to stem from a feeling of being released from the burden of expectation: ‘All that grave weight of America/Cancelled’. The last line, ‘Dances like Italy, imagining red’, is a resounding one but I have to confess I don’t understand it. Why Italy? Why red? Sorry, Louis Simpson, but I need a bit of help with this one. Still think it’s a fine poem though.

Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain

Neither on horseback nor seated,
But like himself, squarely on two feet,
The poet of death and lilacs
Loafs by the footpath. Even the bronze looks alive
Where it is folded like cloth. And he seems friendly.

‘Where is the Mississippi panorama
And the girl who played the piano?
Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.

‘Where is the nation you promised?
These houses built of wood sustain
Colossal snows,
And the light above the street is sick to death.

‘As for the people – see how they neglect you!
Only a poet pauses to read the inscription.’

‘I am here’, he answered.
‘It seems you have found me out.
Yet, did I not warn you that it was Myself
I advertised? Were my words not sufficiently plain?

I gave no prescriptions,
And those who have taken my moods for prophecies
Mistake the matter.’
Then, vastly amused – ‘Why do you reproach me?
I freely confess I am wholly disreputable.
Yet I am happy, because you have found me out.’
A crocodile in wrinkled metal loafing …

Then all the realtors,
Pickpockets, salesmen, and the actors performing
Official scenarios,
Turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted
American dreams.

But the man who keeps a store on a lonely road,
And the housewife who knows she’s dumb,
And the earth, are relieved.

All that grave weight of America
Cancelled! Like Greece and Rome.
The future in ruins!
The castles, the prisons, the cathedrals
Unbuilding, and the roses
Blossoming from the stones that are not there…

The clouds are lifting from the high Sierras,
The Bay mists clearing;
And the angel in the gate, the flowering plum,
Dances like Italy, imagining red.

Louis Simpson

Week 36: Carentan O Carentan, by Louis Simpson

Carentan O Carentan

Trees in the old days used to stand
And shape a shady lane
Where lovers wandered hand in hand
Who came from Carentan.

This was the shining green canal
Where we came two by two
Walking at combat-interval.
Such trees we never knew.

The day was early June, the ground
Was soft and bright with dew.
Far away the guns did sound,
But here the sky was blue.

The sky was blue, but there a smoke
Hung still above the sea
Where the ships together spoke
To towns we could not see.

Could you have seen us through a glass
You would have said a walk
Of farmers out to turn the grass,
Each with his own hay-fork.

The watchers in their leopard suits
Waited till it was time,
And aimed between the belt and boot
And let the barrel climb.

I must lie down at once, there is
A hammer at my knee.
And call it death or cowardice,
Don’t count again on me.

Everything’s all right, Mother,
Everyone gets the same
At one time or another.
It’s all in the game.

I never strolled, nor ever shall,
Down such a leafy lane.
I never drank in a canal,
Nor ever shall again.

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.

Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
The way to turn and shoot.
But the Sergeant’s silent
That taught me how to do it.

O Captain, show us quickly
Our place upon the map.
But the Captain’s sickly
And taking a long nap.

Lieutenant, what’s my duty,
My place in the platoon?
He too’s a sleeping beauty,
Charmed by that strange tune.

Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.

Louis Simpson

This great antiwar ballad is all the more devastating for its surface naivety, the broken rhythms and stumbling rhymes mirroring the mind of a young soldier faced for the first time with the realities of combat.