Friday, June 10, 2011

I Wish I'd Written This

I don't know what we poets love to write about more: love or regret.  Here is one that has some of both.

By Louis Simpson 

          Swing and sway with Sammy Kaye

Everyone at Lake Kearney had a nickname:   
there was a Bumstead, a Tonto, a Tex,   
and, from the slogan of a popular orchestra,   
two sisters, Swing and Sway.

Swing jitterbugged, hopping around
on the dance floor, working up a sweat.
Sway was beautiful. My heart went out to her   
when she lifted her heavy rack of dishes   
and passed through the swinging door.

She was engaged, to an enlisted man   
who was stationed at Fort Dix.
He came once or twice on weekends
to see her. I tried talking to him,
but he didn’t answer ... out of stupidity   
or dislike, I could not tell which.
In real life he was a furniture salesman.   
This was the hero on whom she had chosen   
to bestow her affections.

I told her of my ambition:
to write novels conveying the excitement   
of life ... the main building lit up
like a liner on Saturday night;
the sound of the band ... clarinet,   
saxophone, snare drum, piano.
He who would know your heart (America)   
must seek it in your songs.

And the contents of your purse ...   
among Kleenex, aspirin,   
chewing gum wrappers, combs, et cetera.

“Don’t stop,” she said, “I’m listening.   
Here it is!” flourishing her lighter.


In the afternoon when the dishes were washed   
and tables wiped, we rowed out on the lake.   
I read aloud ... The Duino Elegies,
while she reclined, one shapely knee up,   
trailing a hand in the water.

She had chestnut-colored hair.
Her eyes were changing like the surface   
with ripples and the shadows of clouds.

“Beauty,” I read to her, “is nothing
but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear.”


She came from Jersey, the industrial wasteland   
behind which Manhattan suddenly rises.   
I could visualize the street where she lived,   
and see her muffled against the cold,   
in galoshes, trudging to school.   
Running about in tennis shoes   
all through the summer ...   
I could hear the porch swing squeak   
and see into the parlor.
It was divided by a curtain or screen ...   

“That’s it,” she said, “all but the screen.   
There isn’t any.”

When she or her sister had a boyfriend   
their mother used to stay in the parlor,   
pretending to sew, and keeping an eye on them   
like Fate.

At night she would lie awake
looking at the sky, spangled over.
Her thoughts were as deep and wide as the sky.   
As time went by she had a feeling
of missing out ... that everything
was happening somewhere else.
Some of the kids she grew up with
went crazy ... like a car turning over and over.
One of her friends had been beaten   
by the police. Some vital fluid   
seemed to have gone out of him.
His arms and legs shook. Busted springs.


She said, “When you’re a famous novelist   
will you write about me?”

I promised ... and tried to keep my promise.

Recently, looking for a toolbox,
I came upon some typewritten pages,
all about her. There she is
in a canoe ... a gust of wind
rustling the leaves along the shore.
Playing tennis, running up and down the baseline.   
Down by the boathouse, listening to the orchestra   
playing “Sleepy Lagoon.”

Then the trouble begins. I can never think of anything   
to make the characters do.
We are still sitting in the moonlight
while she finishes her cigarette.
Two people go by, talking in low voices.
A car door slams. Driving off ...   

“I suppose we ought to go,”   
I say.
                   And she says, “Not yet.”

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

Click on the title to go to's posting of Sway. Click on Mr. Simpson's
name to learn more about this poet.


  1. I love this page and poem.
    I regret not paying closer attention from 1955-2010.

  2. Holy shit! That is amazing. Lord, am I glad fate chased my ass over here. What a wonderful place. I desperately needed a break from my life of thrashing fascists masquerading as Republicans. I had never even heard of this guy and, honey, I am one literate hillbilly.


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