He isn’t a religous man.
So instead of going to church
On Sunday they go to sea.

Opening lines of The People Next Door by Louis Simpson (BAP 1989)

Reading Louis Simpson’s “The People Next Door” is like having a ‘life flashing before your eyes’ event, and it feels like your own life and not someone else’s, because Simpson doubles the narrative in a clever way, so that you, as the reader, observe a family’s current comings and goings—through a middle class narrator having a memory of his own travails raising a family.

I envy their content.  And yet
I’ve done that too, and know
that no hobby or activity
distracts one from thinking
forever.  Every human being
is an intellectual more or less.

The activities and hobbies of middle class families, which seem unthinking and routine, are not—well, in any case, Simpson will not allow this prejudice to pollute his poem; he tackles this prejudice head on in order to head off what might prevent empathy; it’s an adroit maneuver, and we find ourselves won over by the poet’s sensitivity towards his enterpise.  Simpson is working to break down the distance between the reader and his subject: the middle class family.  This is crucial, because the final image, which I find very moving, is one of great distance:

It gives me a strange feeling
to think how far they’ve come
from some far world to this,
bending their necks to the yoke
of affection.   

…………….And that one day
with a few simple words
and flowers to keep them company
they’ll return once more to the silence
out there, beyond the stars.

Very effective poem, Marla.

And now introducing…The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite by William Kulik.

Kulik’s poem seduces us with its drama, its immediacy:

Am I cool or an asshole?  Check this: I’m at this artsy-fartsy faculty

But the immediacy is the very thing that will doom the participants in this poetic drama, because right away Narcissus and Aphrodite attempt an impossible conversation, impossible because of their vanity, and as their conversation takes place, everything changes (metaphorphosis being at the heart of all myth), at first gradually, then swiftly, the punishment for their vanity everywhere, cruel and inevitable, contributing to what feels like the inevitable nature of the poem itself—the ego of Narcissus, his subjective refusal to face the great change, the perfect engine for this ride.   

The walls are covered with moss.  Water drips down onto the rock floor.  I’m bent almost double, I can’t see her at all, and all I hear is someone laughing. I stare at my shivering hand.  There’s my pinky ring.  I’m still cool.

In both poems, there is a doubling, a clear subjective/objective dance towards change and death, a Greek inevitability about them.   The Kulik poem has excitement—it happens, where the Simpson is more wistful.

Kulik looks around, passes to Narcissus, who gives the ball to Aphrodite.  Simpson attempts to steal, and fouls.  Aphrodite goes to the line.  Aphrodite dribbles three times, shoots, misses, Simpson, the rebound, he dribbles up court, passes to the father who stuffs over Kulik!  Kulik back the other way, not much time…the pass to Aphrodite in the corner, back to Narcissus…who shoots from 3…GOOD!!  Kulik Wins!  Kulik Wins!


Marla Muse, can you believe it?

Well, you better believe it, Tom!   William Kulik has made it to the North final!

Let’s let the audience read the winning poem in full:

The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite

Am I cool or an asshole?  Check this: I’m at this artsy-fartsy faculty
party wearing a mauve turtleneck, white blazer, granny glasses and a
tooled-silver peace symbol on a leather thong around my neck. Perfect
for this crowd, right? I figure I’ll test it out. So I lay some heavy eyes on
this knockout blonde, about five eight with legs up to here, and when
she giggles and whispers in her girlfriend’s ear, I read green and move
on her, tearing a can from my six-pack. “So,” I begin, popping the top,
“What do you think of the new Pei student center?” The beer foams up
over the edge of the can; I suck it swiftly, but not before some dribbles
onto my jacket. She titters, brushing a Veronica Lake curl from her
face. “O I thought it was totally awesome”—a bimbo, for sure, I think,
with pretensions—“Form following function but with a dramatic
sweep one ordinarily finds in the work of architects intending merely
to outrage the sensibilities. And, ” she adds, “without the stark serenity
of Aalto’s last works, y’ know? Like the Nordic Ski Center he did for
the Sibelius house.” She tugs at her mini, I pull a lapel aside to show
her my gut, flat and rock-hard from five workouts a week. She’s got a
foot-wide smile, best caps I’ve ever seen, skin flawless even in the glare
of the floodlights. It’s clear she’s a cute little smartass who loves repar-
tee, so I give her some: “Bet you don’t remember Ted Williams’ last
game!” I go to straighten up gain an inch look even more imposing, but
my back has gotten stiff. It’s these new shoes, I think.  And the hostess
must’ve dimmed the lights. That’s cool: more romantic. Still, she
doesn’t look as clear-skinned now and her smile’s lost maybe a little
luster. “O, I don’t?” she comes back, a slight tremor and something savage
in her voice. “He went four-for-four with a three-hundred-fifty foot homer
his last at-bat ever!” She wipes a fleck of spit from her mouth. “And I
saw every Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire movie ever made. Stood in line
the night they opened. Got the ticket stubs from each one.” Her neck’s
thrust out at me and I could swear she’s got a wattle. She’s trembling
with rage, but you know how cool I am? Even with the sudden ache in
my hands and the stiffness in my neck I manage to taunt her with
something I think will stop her cold: “I useta party with Dante!”  Is it
getting darker? And somebody turned off the heat.  Her girlfriend’s
gone and all the other guests, too. There’s just a guy sweeping up who
stops and leers at us. It pisses me off some, but I lean forward to hear
her cause there’s this buzz in my ears like a hive of bees, and I realize
she’s been yapping at me all the while. “Phaeton!” she screams, “When
he drove Apollo’s chariot across the sky and fell to earth in flames. I was
THERE!” Her teeth are yellow and crooked, she’s leaning on a stick,
her clothes are rags. Now she’s just an ectoplasmic outline, a gray halo
in the cold dark. (Do I need a new prescription?) The walls are covered
with moss. Water drips down onto the rock floor. I’m bent almost double,
I can’t see her at all, and all I hear is someone laughing. I stare at my
shivering hand.  There’s my pinky ring. I’m still cool.

As the lights go down inside the Kennedy Center, into the joyous evening pour the happy fans.


  1. Bob Tonucci said,

    March 20, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Marla Muse here down on the floor, congratulations to Bill Kulik, the first poet of the Sweet 16 to make it into the Elite Eight! Tom, I wanna make sure everyone in our viewing audience can see Simpson’s poem in toto, so I asked one of the technicians to run it in subtitles on the bottom of the screen. I’m going to be interviewing each poet right after a message from our local stations….

    The People Next Door by Louis Simpson (1989, Donald Hall)

    He isn’t a religious man.
    So instead of going to church
    on Sunday they go to sea.

    They cruise up and down,
    see the ferry coming from Bridgeport
    to Green Harbor, and going back
    from Green Harbor to Bridgeport…
    and all the boats there are.
    The occasional silent fisherman…
    When the kids start to get restless
    he heads back to shore.

    I hear them returning
    worn out and glad to be home.
    This is as close to being happy
    as a family ever gets.
    I envy their content. And yet
    I’ve done that too, and know
    that no hobby or activity
    distracts one from thinking
    forever. Every human being
    is an intellectual more or less.

    I too was a family man.
    It was a phase I had to go through.
    I remember tenting in the Sierras,
    getting up at dawn to fly cast.

    I remember my young son
    almost being blown off the jetty
    in Oban. Only the suitcase
    he was carrying held him down.
    The same, at Viareggio,
    followed me into the sea
    and was almost swept away by the current.

    These are the scenes I recall
    rather than Christmas and Thanksgiving.
    My life as the father of a family
    seems to have been a series
    of escapes, not to mention illnesses,
    confrontations with teachers,
    administrators, police.
    Flaubert said, “They’re in the right,”
    looking at a bourgeois family,
    and then went back happily
    to his dressing gown and pipe.

    Yes, I believe in the family…
    next door. I rejoice
    at their incomings and outgoings.
    I am present when Betty
    goes out on her first date.
    I hear about Joey’s being chosen
    for the team. I survive the takeover
    of the business, and the bad scare
    at the doctor’s.
    I laugh with them that laugh
    and mourn with them that mourn.

    I see their lights, and hear a murmur
    of voices, from house to house.

    It gives me a strange feeling
    to think how far they’ve come
    from some far world to this,
    bending their necks to the yoke
    of affection.

    And that one day,
    with a few simple words
    and flowers to keep them company
    they’ll return once more to the silence
    out there, beyond the stars.

  2. Bob Tonucci said,

    March 27, 2010 at 10:18 am


    William Kulik

    It’s a beautiful day: sunny, crisp, cloudless. I’m walking down the boule-
    vard in the middle of my life, just a tiny fist of apprehension in the center
    of the chest as I catch a glimpse of myself in a store window, reminding me
    I’m out looking for an eight millimeter to tape myself dancing because
    someone said I’m too stiff in the middle though I figure I’m OK for a white
    guy. So I find a camera shop: the owner is doing his best to fix me up but I
    don’t see anything I like til his sister appears in a short red dress, display-
    ing an expanse of gorgeous thigh. She shows me the latest thing. “Con-
    sumers’ gives it a ninety-two,” she says, thrusting a hip at me. “You’re at
    least a ninety-two,” I say with a dry mouth, “Maybe a hundred, but you must
    have a flaw somewhere.” Her lips are very red and wet. “If you start lick-
    ing,” she says, “Maybe you’ll find it.” “Sorry,” I say shortly, “But I’ve got a
    previous engagement.”

    And I do. Outside, under that brilliant sky, I’m on the ground with the
    store detective’s thirty-eight against my ear. “Shoot!” somebody hollers. He
    cocks and squeezes six times. Watching me shake uncontrollably, he laughs.
    “You deserve this,” she says, standing right above me, legs apart. My eyes
    trace the curve of her thigh til it disappears in the darkness. A voice whis-
    pers “Maybe if you were taller you’d get more.” I think: that’s it. First thing
    tomorrow, cowboy boots.

  3. Bob Tonucci said,

    March 28, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Carentan O Carentan

    Louis Simpson

    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.

  4. Bob Tonucci said,

    March 28, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Old House Blues

    William Kulik

    for Alex P.

    Everyone’s here, and because I love old things, I’ve rented a grand Victo-
    rian in a part of town devoted to preservation, where even a splendid place
    such as this one—broad corridors and stairwells, dark, narrow arteries lead-
    ing from room to room, each with its own period architectural marvels—is
    common. After a welcoming dinner, we walk the halls: floor polish, cedar,
    sachet—wonderful old odors—toward the evening’s entertainment. On our
    way, we stop to admire each room’s unique details. In the study, tales of
    Dionysius and his cohort molded on plaster cornices, Pan and Syrinx in a
    bedroom, garlanded by wreaths and berries and, on the drawing-room ceil-
    ing, the feature attraction: an oval painting of Echo and Narcissus. In each
    room walnut floors, cherry baseboards, carved oak mantels, all glowing with
    the magic of lost arts, of artisans long-gone. I order the house lights turned
    up to make everything clear, but am told it isn’t possible: soon the show will
    begin. That’s odd, I think, shivering as we arrive at the end of the house—
    doesn’t the power reach this far? I open the door to the final wing: panic
    seizes me. Floors sag, lath shows through the fallen plaster. This’ll take
    some work, I think, my spirits high as I recall the fortresses I’d made out of
    other houses that were vulnerable to roving gangs. But the jumble of wires
    on the floor, guitars and amps everywhere, make it clear my son and his
    friends have taken over. I try to persuade him to return to his room in the
    main body til I can get things back to normal, but he’s adamant. “You’re too
    serious, pops,” he says. “Besides, the play’s the thing.” Seeing the empty
    bottles, the piles of crumpled Mickey D. and Cheese Doodle wrappers, I feel
    the panic again. Suddenly the lights blink three times, then go out. From a
    darkened, corner, stage right, a woman giggles. “The metaphor’s trite,” she
    says. The audience titters. Smiling into the darkness behind her, I pat the
    lease in my breast pocket. “Try again, Kafka!” she shouts. This time the
    laughter is loud. A few hoots. Twisting the top off a bottle of beer and pop-
    ping a bag of chips, I wonder if something’s over. “You bet it is, Big Daddy!”
    she calls out for a third time. Taking my cue, I step forward, bow, then turn
    and walk toward the curtains. Applause is general, but there are no en-
    cores: just the old odors—floor polish, cedar, sachet—and a single rose.

  5. Danteday said,

    March 28, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Stop it.

    Stop and listen for a moment.

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