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I Dreamed That in a City Dark as Paris

By Louis Simpson

I dreamed that in a city dark as Paris
I stood alone in a deserted square.
The night was trembling with a violet
Expectancy. At the far edge it moved
And rumbled; on that flickering horizon
The guns were pumping color in the sky.

There was the Front. But I was lonely here,
Left behind, abandoned by the army.
The empty city and the empty square
Was my inhabitation, my unrest.
The helmet with its vestige of a crest,
The rifle in my hands, long out of date,
The belt I wore, the trailing overcoat
And hobnail boots, were those of a poilu.
I was the man, as awkward as a bear.

Over the rooftops where cathedrals loomed
In speaking majesty, two aeroplanes
Forlorn as birds, appeared. Then growing large,
The German Taube and the Nieuport Scout,
They chased each other tumbling through the sky,
Till one streamed down on fire to the earth.

These wars have been so great, they are forgotten
Like the Egyptian dynasts. My confrere
In whose thick boots I stood, were you amazed
To wander through my brain four decades later
As I have wandered in a dream through yours?

The violence of waking life disrupts
The order of our death. Strange dreams occur,
For dreams are licensed as they never were.

****************************************

Many poems and songs recount dreams – I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls, I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill, I Dreamed that I Was Old – and this poem about remembering and forgetting wars also casts itself as a dream. How else really to reach the war dead? If you are, like the poet, a war veteran, you will make contact with those dead in subconscious, flickering, tumbling, wandering moments…

I mean, UD has always loved Siegfried Sassoon’s Prelude: The Troops – especially its last verse, which pretty reliably makes her cry:

O my brave brown companions, when your souls
Flock silently away, and the eyeless dead
Shame the wild beast of battle on the ridge,
Death will stand grieving in that field of war
Since your unvanquished hardihood is spent.
And through some mooned Valhalla there will pass
Battalions and battalions, scarred from hell;
The unreturning army that was youth;
The legions who have suffered and are dust.

Yet this is direct, formal address, wide-awake sorrow and homage. Simpson’s night visitation feels more likely to be the way actual people make contact with the war dead, which is to say by being haunted by them.

Both poets use blank verse, with Simpson occasionally using end rhyme (unrest/crest; occur/were) but mainly featuring unrhymed lines (all of Sassoon’s lines are unrhymed); both poems derive from this form a stately hesitant gait, a queer little funeral march. The absolutely strict measure of Sassoon’s final two lines is at spectacular odds with the explosive rage and despair behind them, and this is what we typically expect in a poem, the poet asserting at least linguistic control over emotional and intellectual chaos, over outcomes too grotesque and vast really to be comprehended, much less assimilated.

Simpson’s poem is all subliminal, all, as he says, a strange dream, its strangeness extreme, but somehow licensed by the beyond-strange atrocities of our century (his poem’s speaker is – assuming he’s Simpson – a Second World War veteran communing with a soldier of the First World War). And as dream, it is free to invert and invent…

So its first line seems immediately all wrong. Isn’t Paris the city of light? A city dark as Paris… Paris during the war? War blasting even the city of enlightenment back to violet (the word one letter short of violent) night… Well, and it’s a dream after all with all the shifty inchoate imagery of the sleeping mind. Rumbling guns pump color – you hear the assonance, the repeated uh a vague menacing sound. And things are vague because the poet stands alone and a distance from them; there is the Front, and the poet is in the back, in the shadows, left behind. All he can see are the edges of war; and this is his mind struggling to get to the Front, to apprehend that reality directly. Restless, he stands alone in a Paris square, and finds himself – bizarrely – to be a poilu, a French World War One infantryman, an ordinary sort from the countryside.

I was the man…

reminds us of Walt Whitman’s line:

I am the man, I suffered, I was there.

Whitman celebrates here his powerful capacity to empathize, to feel exactly what are others – especially suffering others – are feeling; and Simpson is after something similar, his dreaming persona literally taking on the identity of “my confrere.” Yet as to really remembering: The wars are too great (there’s an echo here of course of The Great War), too vast, once again, for us to grasp; they become historical abstractions, like the ancient and vast Egyptian dynasties:

These wars have been so great, they are forgotten
Like the Egyptian dynasts. My confrere
In whose thick boots I stood, were you amazed
To wander through my brain four decades later
As I have wandered in a dream through yours?

I thought of you, that’s all; I didn’t really commemorate you, as Sassoon commemorates, or feel with you, as Whitman feels with you; it’s just that you, poilu, wandered through my brain at some point while I was awake; and then that wandering presence inhabited, solidified, stood stock still, in my dreaming mind — ghosts inhabit a house; this ghost inhabits the speaker’s mind.

The violence of waking life disrupts
The order of our death. Strange dreams occur,
For dreams are licensed as they never were.

Things are out of joint; our war-torn world upends everything, makes everything weird, so that my (dead; dreaming) life propels itself backwards to your still-living, still-dreaming being in the darkness of the eternal war zone. The new global world of conflict – a world in which any behavior is “licensed” – is so grotesque that it infects our dreams in unprecedented ways. We are losing orderly ways of commemoration; we risk flattening our wars into abstraction. Yet we remain open to inhabitation.

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2 Responses to “A Memorial Day poem.”

  1. Nellie in NZ Says:

    I particularly appreciate this wording – ” at least linguistic control over emotional and intellectual chaos.” Now I will go to think it over. And over.

  2. University Diaries » Louis Simpson… Says:

    […] the American poet, has died at 89. UD recently wrote about one of his poems here. Simpson’s sensibility was odd, original; the language of poetry is less interesting than its […]

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