Tuning Up - Winter 2012

Mrs. Simmons, of Australia, Would Like You to Know

An exchange in verse

By Brian Doyle and Pico Iyer | November 29, 2011


Mrs. Simmons, Amiably Answering a Traveler’s Questions, Says Furthermore …

That I should be bush-wary, as she phrases it, about drawing any sort of sweeping

Conclusions upon a brief insertion or immersion into the cultures of Australia.

You will have been here for a month all told, she says to me, and I suggest

That a month is enough to get a sense of the surface of the nation, our languages,

Sports, characteristic foods, birds, and trees, the unusual angle of light, as you say,

But I’ve lived here all my life, and a thousand books wouldn’t include a shred

Of what I don’t know: the ways people lived in various parts of the country, the words

They used, their names for weathers, and the numbers and characters of their gods.

All those things are like a huge forest on the land—invisible but weighing heavily

On the residents, even if they do not know what was there before. So what you sense as

Australian is Australian, of course, kangaroos and footy and John Howard’s

Intransigence, but don’t think that the surface gives more than a hint of the deeper

Matters at play. That’s a whole other discussion, suitable for professors and poets,

Not for old women selling meat pies to polite travelers from the States. More tea?

—B. D.

Fie, Mrs. Simmons!

Have you never realized that the finest guide

To Australia, 80 years on, is Mr. D. H. Lawrence’s

Great novel, written after a stay of only a few months?

Tell me, Mrs. Simmons, have you not noticed how every passing stranger

Can point out that to which we are blind, or too knowing to acknowledge?

Don’t you know that the traveler’s great blessing is the brevity of his

Stay, its intensity? I regret, Mrs. Simmons, that you never read Oscar Wilde,

Who told us that it’s only the superficial

Who don’t judge a place by its cover. As it’s only

The blinkered who assume that the newcomer has nothing to

Tell them about their hometowns. The visitor is the one

Who imports fresh eyes to us, to make the old sights new,

The places we “know”—and therefore don’t look at at all.

I’m sorry, Mrs. Simmons, that you don’t like Marco Polo

Or Ibn Battuta or Saul Bellow, who never saw some of the places they immortalize.

One night with a person can affect us more deeply, Mrs. S., than a

Lifetime with some other.

—P. I.

Mrs. Simmons Replies Most Courteously …

That she has indeed read the Irish boy Oscar Wilde, whose work she found mannered

But his wit sharp. Wasn’t it Mr. Wilde who said that illusion is the first of all pleasures?

Is it not true that whatever we are sure of we should not be? What we think

We know is a shimmer on the surface, there for a moment and gone the next. Australia,

For example, shows travelers and residents and natives alike the vestige of Anglophilia,

The edifices and boulevards of the cities, the sprawling park, the ballyhoo of cricketers,

But this was never more than the thinnest of crusts and veneers on an ancient red dusty

Land, a land composed of dreams and songs more than stone and bone. Every portrait

Painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter, said Wilde;

And while it is absolutely true that a fresh eye often sees more clearly, I do not see how

Any eye, fresh or not, sees especially deeply, considering the profligacy of the invisible.

Maybe what we are talking about is the possibility of other kinds of eyes than your eyes.

—B. D.

I Commend You, Mrs. Simmons!

I warm to you for conceding that we are

Rich in proportion to those things we don’t and can never know,

Whose mystery extends far beyond the shortness of our sight.

The great thrumming red-dirt spaces of your country

Possess and inhabit us passionate pilgrims with all they do not say or show.

Do I know myself?

This skin that betrays me daily, or the tenor of

My thoughts? I trust only what I cannot know, Mrs. Simmons.

I am anchored only in what stands beyond my ken.

Whatever I cherish—love or faith or circumstance—is what I cannot hope

To understand or explain away.

Your land joins a luminous atlas of those places I will never know,

Even though I feel them as close to me as my own thoughts.

There’s a beauty in innocence, Mrs. Simmons, and a wisdom in

Not-knowing. There’s a truth in seeing how much one has to trust

Precisely because one cannot know.

—P. I.

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