Poetry Review: Louis Simpson “After Midnight”

21 Oct

Going through American towns after midnight can be quite a strange thing–unlike other parts of the world, American towns tend to close up completely at night, showing empty buildings and strange neon lights.

“The dark streets are deserted,/with only a drugstore glowing/Softly, like a sleeping body;”

Does a sleeping body glow?   I can see it though, those closed stores with soft lights, like living things that are at rest.   Being in a town so late, there’s something that feels a bit like you’re intruding–sort of like being in a museum after it’s been closed, or a theme park.

“With one white, naked bulb/In the back, that shines/On suicides and abortions.”

Suicides and abortions–two things that might be done in the very still of the night.  We’re not just literally “after midnight” but emotionally there.   Even though it’s not said, the strangeness of night makes things have different associations than during the day.   One would not think of suicides and abortions in the middle of the day.   The naked bulb almost seems to punctuate the darkness that surrounds rather than bring light.

“Who lives in these dark houses?/I am suddenly aware/I might live here myself.”   The dark houses are the metaphor for the dark self–the dark city–he’s knowing that there’s a part of him that lives in the world of suicides and abortions as well.

“The garage man returns/And puts the change in my hand./Counting singles carefully.”   So the man stopped to get gas in the middle of the night, and the man returning takes him away from his thinking.  A the same time there’s a bit of loneliness and melancholy here too we don’t hear any speech or any real connection, just a transaction.

This whole poem is really about the speaker, and feeling disconnected from everything around him.  The associations he makes are also disconnected, but connected in the theme of night.   At the same time there’s a sort of fascinating defamiliarization that makes him see all these things in a new way.   In the end, I find this to be one of the best sorts of Halloween stories, filled with the sort of fear we all live with.

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