Struggling Times by Louis Simpson
Born in Jamaica in 1923 to a Scottish father and a Russian Jewish mother, Louis Simpson has long been one of America’s most prolific writers. Six books of literary criticism, two autobiographies, a novel, two volumes of translations from the French (including François Villon’s complete Legacy and Testament), not to mention countless articles and reviews: these alone would make an impressive catalogue, were it not for the now fourteen books of poetry that constitute the main body of his work. Any poet of such longevity faces a choice between reinvention and repetition. Splitting the difference, Simpson’s work is repetitious, but in the mode of a narrowing spiral. Struggling Times, his newest collection, marks the extreme development of a decades-long movement into ever greater obliqueness and austerity.
The title of Simpson’s book comes from a passage in William Blake’s “Europe: A Prophesy” that tells of the destabilization of the old political order. Whereas Blake’s depiction of Europe’s uncertain future during the French Revolution contrasted with the abounding hopefulness of his earlier “America: A Prophesy,” Simpson implies that Blake’s America has turned into his Europe. When his title poem ends by invoking “Goya’s half-buried dog / looking up at the sky,” the image serves both as a universal symbol of cruelty and neglect, and, at the same time, as a specific historical allusion expressing fear about our future. Goya’s apocalyptic images of the war between Spain and Napoleonic France, the subject of another poem later in the volume, dispel any hope of a new human era after the events of Blake’s prophesy. As Simpson puts it, in a different context, “It seems that finally / life is real, not a joke.”
The context of these lines, in a poem set in a physical rehabilitation center, differs by being personal rather than political. They bring out the secondary sense of the phrase “struggling times,” as referring to old age. Even more than his allusions to Goya, the connection between Simpson’s depictions of struggle at the personal and political levels underscore the sense in which his vision is apocalyptic but not millenarian. The very possibility of historical analogy implies a degree of recurrence in human affairs. For Simpson, the occasional fall of a kingdom does not fundamentally change human life so much as reveal its underlying pattern: “That the things we care about / are suddenly disappearing / and that they always were.” The life-cycle of societies, revealed in moments of sudden alteration, finds its perennial analogue in fleeting individual existence.
It would not be exaggerating to say that, for Simpson, the visceral awareness of mortality is the ultimate revelation. Although his poem “The Caprichos” seems to mix approbation with its astonishment that Goya, who “paints the truth, / what simply and directly is,” intersperses images of witches, cannibals, and angels with material that is more strictly documentary, it is important to recognize that Simpson in effect turns this procedure on its head. In his fascination with the circumstantial, sight replaces insight. Echoing Goya’s inclination toward dark humor, Simpson uses the outer form of jokes -- a bare-bones diction and persistent trimeter rhythm that often makes his poems sound like vestigial limericks -- to make his poetic anecdotes not so much insignificant as supersaturated with their own failure to signify.
This tension acquires a special poignancy in poems based on dreams and memories. That said, the highest expression of Simpson’s style -- and that which reveals its essential limitations -- comes in a poem about reading. In “Wheels” -- perhaps the most intriguing poem in the volume, aside from the polyphonic “Sundays” -- Simpson focuses on a single detail in the book of Exodus. Before the waters of the Red Sea close over the Egyptians’ heads, the Biblical text recounts that God “took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily.” Sometimes interpreted to mean that the Egyptians’ chariots were incapacitated by the mud of the exposed seabed, this apparently inconsequential detail is striking for its specificity. When Simpson asks “Who imagined the wheels?” it makes no difference whether he means God or the book’s human author: what astonishes him is the presence of the circumstantial in the miraculous story. “The wheels! Look at the wheels, / chariots rusting in the sun.” Like a pointing index finger, this exclamation point and imperative are the radical expression of the insistently indicative mood of Simpson’s poetry. They are also its culmination. In Simpson’s search for the sparest language possible, there is nowhere else to go. But perhaps this is missing the point. He wants to hold onto the world.
Struggling Times by Louis Simpson
BOA Editions Ltd.