2004 International Shortlist
I had come to Australia
for ten weeks, as a guest of the state.
My duties were light: to confer
with students. They didn’t want to –
they came once or twice, that was all.
One night someone knocked: a student
with some poems she’d like me to see.
The next day I observed her
in the dining room, and went over.
“I liked” I began to say …
She lifted her hands, imploring me
not to speak. All around her
they were talking about the usual subjects,
motorbikes and football.
If it got around that she wrote poems …
At night I would sit in my room
reading, keeping a journal,
and, with the aid of a map,
trying to learn the positions
of the southern constellations.
I’d look at them on the map,
then go outside and try to find them
in the sky before I forgot.
I had recently been divorced
and was starting a new life,
as they say. The world lies before you,
where to live and what to be.
A fireman? An explorer?
An astronaut? Then you look in the mirror.
It was night sweats. Listening
to an echo of the end.
Roger had a live-in girlfriend.
They asked if I’d like to go with them
to a party and sleep over.
He drove. I looked at the gum trees.
Not the Outback, but country …
cattle and kangaroos,
and flies, getting in your eyes,
ears, nose, and mouth.
Once, talking to a sheepherder,
I watched a fly crawl over his face
from his eye to his mouth,
and start walking back
before he brushed it off.
They learn to put up with nature
and not make a fuss like us.
We arrived. I was introduced,
and they made up a bed for me
on the porch at the back.
Then the party began to arrive:
Australians, lean and athletic.
They put a tape on the stereo,
turned it up full blast,
and danced, or stood and shouted
to each other above the noise.
I danced with two or three women
and tried shouting. Then I went
and sat on the bed on the porch.
There was nowhere to go, no door
I could close to shut out the noise.
So I went for a walk
in the dark, away from the sound.
There were gum trees, wind rustling
the leaves. Or was it snakes?
There are several venomous kinds.
The taipan. There’s a story
about a child who was sitting
on a log and fell backward
onto a taipan. It struck him
There’s the tiger snake and the brown.
When they have finished telling you
about snakes, they start on spiders.
You don’t need these – you have only to walk
into the bush. There are stories
about campers who did, and were lost
and never seen again.
All this was on my mind.
I stepped carefully, keeping the lights
of the house behind me in sight.
And when I saw a clearing
in the trees, I walked to it.
I stood in the middle of the clearing
looking at the sky. It was glittering
with unknown constellations.
Everything I had ever known
seemed to have disappeared.
And who was I, standing there
in the middle of Australia
at night? I had ceased to exist.
There was only whatever it was
that was looking at the sky
and listening to the wind.
After a while I broke away
and went back to the lights and the party.
A month later I left Australia.
But ever since, to this day,
there has been a place in my mind,
a clearing in the shadows,
and above it, stars and constellations
so bright and thick they seem to rustle.
And beyond them … infinite space,
eternity, you name it.
There’s nothing that stands between me
and it, whatever it is.
From The Owner of the House, by Louis Simpson
Copyright © 2003