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by Howard Nemerov | |

Casting

 The waters deep, the waters dark,
Reflect the seekers, hide the sought,
Whether in water or in air to drown.
Between them curls the silver spark, Barbed, baited, waiting, of a thought-- Which in the world is upside down, The fish hook or the question mark?


by Howard Nemerov | |

September The First Day Of School

 I

My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go.
My selfish tears remind me how I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.
Each fall the children must endure together What every child also endures alone: Learning the alphabet, the integers, Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff So arbitrary, so peremptory, That worlds invisible and visible Bow down before it, as in Joseph's dream The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers As cost the greater part of life to mend, And yet great kindness came of it in the end.
II A school is where they grind the grain of thought, And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one, As from the alphabet come Shakespeare's Plays, As from the integers comes Euler's Law, As from the whole, inseperably, the lives, The shrunken lives that have not been set free By law or by poetic phantasy.
But may they be.
My child has disappeared Behind the schoolroom door.
And should I live To see his coming forth, a life away, I know my hope, but do not know its form Nor hope to know it.
May the fathers he finds Among his teachers have a care of him More than his father could.
How that will look I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Learning by Doing

 They're taking down a tree at the front door,
The power saw is snarling at some nerves,
Whining at others.
Now and then it grunts, And sawdust falls like snow or a drift of seeds.
Rotten, they tell us, at the fork, and one Big wind would bring it down.
So what they do They do, as usual, to do us good.
Whatever cannot carry its own weight Has got to go, and so on; you expect To hear them talking next about survival And the values of a free society.
For in the explanations people give On these occasions there is generally some Mean-spirited moral point, and everyone Privately wonders if his neighbors plan To saw him up before he falls on them.
Maybe a hundred years in sun and shower Dismantled in a morning and let down Out of itself a finger at a time And then an arm, and so down to the trunk, Until there's nothing left to hold on to Or snub the splintery holding rope around, And where those big green divagations were So loftily with shadows interleaved The absent-minded blue rains in on us.
Now that they've got it sectioned on the ground It looks as though somebody made a plain Error in diagnosis, for the wood Looks sweet and sound throughout.
You couldn't know, Of course, until you took it down.
That's what Experts are for, and these experts stand round The giant pieces of tree as though expecting An instruction booklet from the factory Before they try to put it back together.
Anyhow, there it isn't, on the ground.
Next come the tractor and the crowbar crew To extirpate what's left and fill the grave.
Maybe tomorrow grass seed will be sown.
There's some mean-spirited moral point in that As well: you learn to bury your mistakes, Though for a while at dusk the darkening air Will be with many shadows interleaved, And pierced with a bewilderment of birds.


More great poems below...

by Howard Nemerov | |

A Spell before Winter

 After the red leaf and the gold have gone,
Brought down by the wind, then by hammering rain
Bruised and discolored, when October's flame
Goes blue to guttering in the cusp, this land
Sinks deeper into silence, darker into shade.
There is a knowledge in the look of things, The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.
Now I can see certain simplicities In the darkening rust and tarnish of the time, And say over the certain simplicities, The running water and the standing stone, The yellow haze of the willow and the black Smoke of the elm, the silver, silent light Where suddenly, readying toward nightfall, The sumac's candelabrum darkly flames.
And I speak to you now with the land's voice, It is the cold, wild land that says to you A knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things: The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.


by Howard Nemerov | |

The Makers

 Who can remember back to the first poets, 
The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus? 
No one has remembered that far back 
Or now considers, among the artifacts, 
And bones and cantilevered inference 
The past is made of, those first and greatest poets, 
So lofty and disdainful of renown 
They left us not a name to know them by.
They were the ones that in whatever tongue Worded the world, that were the first to say Star, water, stone, that said the visible And made it bring invisibles to view In wind and time and change, and in the mind Itself that minded the hitherto idiot world And spoke the speechless world and sang the towers Of the city into the astonished sky.
They were the first great listeners, attuned To interval, relationship, and scale, The first to say above, beneath, beyond, Conjurors with love, death, sleep, with bread and wine, Who having uttered vanished from the world Leaving no memory but the marvelous Magical elements, the breathing shapes And stops of breath we build our Babels of.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Lion and Honeycomb

 He didn't want to do it with skill,
He'd had enough of skill.
If he never saw Another villanelle, it would be too soon; And the same went for sonnets.
If it had been Hard work learning to rime, it would be much Harder learning not to.
The time came He had to ask himself, what did he want? What did he want when he began That idiot fiddling with the sounds of things.
He asked himself, poor moron, because he had Nobody else to ask.
The others went right on Talking about form, talking about myth And the (so help us) need for a modern idiom; The verseballs among them kept counting syllables.
So there he was, this forty-year-old teen-ager Dreaming preposterous mergers and divisions Of vowels like water, consonants like rock (While everybody kept discussing values And the need for values), for words that would Enter the silence and be there as a light.
So much coffee and so many cigarettes Gone down the drain, gone up in smoke, Just for the sake of getting something right Once in a while, something that could stand On its own flat feet to keep out windy time And the worm, something that might simply be, Not as the monument in the smoky rain Grimly endures, but that would be Only a moment's inviolable presence, The moment before disaster, before the storm, In its peculiar silence, an integer Fixed in the middle of the fall of things, Perfected and casual as to a child's eye Soap bubbles are, and skipping stones.


by Howard Nemerov | |

The Goose Fish

 On the long shore, lit by the moon
To show them properly alone,
Two lovers suddenly embraced
So that their shadows were as one.
The ordinary night was graced For them by the swift tide of blood That silently they took at flood, And for a little time they prized Themselves emparadised.
Then, as if shaken by stage-fright Beneath the hard moon's bony light, They stood together on the sand Embarrassed in each other's sight But still conspiring hand in hand, Until they saw, there underfoot, As though the world had found them out, The goose fish turning up, though dead, His hugely grinning head.
There in the china light he lay, Most ancient and corrupt and grey.
They hesitated at his smile, Wondering what it seemed to say To lovers who a little while Before had thought to understand, By violence upon the sand, The only way that could be known To make a world their own.
It was a wide and moony grin Together peaceful and obscene; They knew not what he would express, So finished a comedian He might mean failure or success, But took it for an emblem of Their sudden, new and guilty love To be observed by, when they kissed, That rigid optimist.
So he became their patriarch, Dreadfully mild in the half-dark.
His throat that the sand seemed to choke, His picket teeth, these left their mark But never did explain the joke That so amused him, lying there While the moon went down to disappear Along the still and tilted track That bears the zodiac.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Storm Windows

 People are putting up storm windows now,
Or were, this morning, until the heavy rain
Drove them indoors.
So, coming home at noon, I saw storm windows lying on the ground, Frame-full of rain; through the water and glass I saw the crushed grass, how it seemed to stream Away in lines like seaweed on the tide Or blades of wheat leaning under the wind.
The ripple and splash of rain on the blurred glass Seemed that it briefly said, as I walked by, Something I should have liked to say to you, Something.
.
.
the dry grass bent under the pane Brimful of bouncing water.
.
.
something of A swaying clarity which blindly echoes This lonely afternoon of memories And missed desires, while the wintry rain (Unspeakable, the distance in the mind!) Runs on the standing windows and away.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Walking the Dog

 Two universes mosey down the street
Connected by love and a leash and nothing else.
Mostly I look at lamplight through the leaves While he mooches along with tail up and snout down, Getting a secret knowledge through the nose Almost entirely hidden from my sight.
We stand while he's enraptured by a bush Till I can't stand our standing any more And haul him off; for our relationship Is patience balancing to this side tug And that side drag; a pair of symbionts Contented not to think each other's thoughts.
What else we have in common's what he taught, Our interest in shit.
We know its every state From steaming fresh through stink to nature's way Of sluicing it downstreet dissolved in rain Or drying it to dust that blows away.
We move along the street inspecting shit.
His sense of it is keener far than mine, And only when he finds the place precise He signifies by sniffing urgently And circles thrice about, and squats, and shits, Whereon we both with dignity walk home And just to show who's master I write the poem.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Ozymandias II

 I met a guy I used to know, who said:
"You take your '57 Karnak, now,
The model that they called their Coop de Veal
That had the pointy rubber boobs for bumpers--
You take that car, owned by a nigger now
Likelier'n not, with half its chromium teeth
Knocked down its throat and aerial ripped off,
Side stitched with like bullets where the stripping's gone
And rust like a fungus spreading on the fenders,

Well, what I mean, that fucking car still runs,
Even the moths in the upholstery are old
But it gets around, you see one on the street
Beat-up and proud, well, Jeezus what a country,
Where even the monuments keep on the move.
"


by Howard Nemerov | |

Poetics

 You know the old story Ann Landers tells
About the houseife in her basement doing the wash?
She's wearing her nightie, and she thinks, "Well, hell,
I might's well put this in as well," and then
Being dripped on by a leaky pipe puts on
Her son's football helmet; whereupon
The meter reader happens to walk through
and "Lady," he gravely says, "I sure hope your team wins.
" A story many times told in many ways, The set of random accidents redeemed By one more accident, as though chaos Were the order that was before the creation came.
That is the way things happen in the world: A joke, a disappointment satisfied, As we walk through doing our daily round, Reading the meter, making things add up.


by Howard Nemerov | |

A Life

 Innocence? 
In a sense.
In no sense! Was that it? Was that it? Was that it? That was it.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Fugue

 You see them vanish in their speeding cars, 
The many people hastening through the world,
And wonder what they would have done before
This time of time speed distance, random streams
Of molecules hastened by what rising heat?
Was there never a world where people just sat still?

Yet they might be all of them contemplatives
Of a timeless now, drivers and passengers
In the moving cars all facing to the front
Which is the future, which is destiny,
Which is desire and desire's end - 
What are they doing but just sitting still?

And still at speed they fly away, as still 
As the road paid out beneath them as it flows
Moment by moment into the mirrored past;
They spread in their wake the parading fields of food,
The windowless works where who is making what,
The grey towns where the wishes and the fears are done.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Learning the Trees

 Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn
The language of the trees.
That's done indoors, Out of a book, which now you think of it Is one of the transformations of a tree.
The words themselves are a delight to learn, You might be in a foreign land of terms Like samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome, Where bark is papery, plated, warty or smooth.
But best of all are the words that shape the leaves – Orbicular, cordate, cleft and reniform – And their venation – palmate and parallel – And tips – acute, truncate, auriculate.
Sufficiently provided, you may now Go forth to the forests and the shady streets To see how the chaos of experience Answers to catalogue and category.
Confusedly.
The leaves of a single tree May differ among themselves more than they do From other species, so you have to find, All blandly says the book, "an average leaf.
" Example, the catalpa in the book Sprays out its leaves in whorls of three Around the stem; the one in front of you But rarely does, or somewhat, or almost; Maybe it's not catalpa? Dreadful doubt.
It may be weeks before you see an elm Fanlike in form, a spruce that pyramids, A sweetgum spiring up in steeple shape.
Still, pedetemtim as Lucretious says, Little by little, you do start to learn; And learn as well, maybe, what language does And how it does it, cutting across the world Not always at the joints, competing with Experience while cooperating with Experience, and keeping an obstinate Intransigence, uncanny, of its own.
Think finally about the secret will Pretending obedience to Nature, but Invidiously distinguishing everywhere, Dividing up the world to conquer it.
And think also how funny knowledge is: You may succeed in learning many trees And calling off their names as you go by, But their comprehensive silence stays the same.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Because You Asked About The Line Between Prose And Poetry

 Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.


by Howard Nemerov | |

The Lobster

 Here at the Super Duper, in a glass tank
Supplied by a rill of cold fresh water
Running down a glass washboard at one end
And siphoned off at the other, and so
Perpetually renewed, a herd of lobster
Is made available to the customer
Who may choose whichever one he wants
To carry home and drop into boiling water
And serve with a sauce of melted butter.
Meanwhile, the beauty of strangeness marks These creatures, who move (when they do) With a slow, vague wavering of claws, The somnambulist¹s effortless clambering As he crawls over the shell of a dream Resembling himself.
Their velvet colors, Mud red, bruise purple, cadaver green Speckled with black, their camouflage at home, Make them conspicuous here in the strong Day-imitating light, the incommensurable Philosophers and at the same time victims Herded together in the marketplace, asleep Except for certain tentative gestures Of their antennae, or their imperial claws Pegged shut with a whittled stick at the wrist.
We inlanders, buying our needful food, Pause over these slow, gigantic spiders That spin not.
We pause and are bemused, And sometimes it happens that a mind sinks down To the blind abyss in a swirl of sand, goes cold And archaic in a carapace of horn, Thinking: There's something underneath the world.
The flame beneath the pot that boils the water.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Style

 Flaubert wanted to write a novel
About nothing.
It was to have no subject And be sustained upon the style alone, Like the Holy Ghost cruising above The abyss, or like the little animals In Disney cartoons who stand upon a branch That breaks, but do not fall Till they look down.
He never wrote that novel, And neither did he write another one That would have been called La Spirale, Wherein the hero's fortunes were to rise In dreams, while his walking life disintegrated.
Even so, for these two books We thank the master.
They can be read, With difficulty, in the spirit alone, Are not so wholly lost as certain works Burned at Alexandria, flooded at Florence, And are never taught at universities.
Moreover, they are not deformed by style, That fire that eats what it illuminates.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Insomnia I

 Some nights it's bound to be your best way out,
When nightmare is the short end of the stick,
When sleep is a part of town where it's not safe
To walk at night, when waking is the only way
You have of distancing your wretched dead,
A growing crowd, and escaping out of their
Time into yours for another little while;

Then pass ghostly, a planet in the house
Never observed, among the sleeping rooms
Where children dream themselves, and thence go down
Into the empty domain where daylight reigned;
Reward yourself with drink and a book to read,
A mystery, for its elusive gift
Of reassurance against the hour of death.
Order your heart about: Stop doing that! And get the world to be secular again.
Then, when you know who done it, turn out the light, And quietly in darkness, in moonlight, or snowlight Reflective, listen to the whistling earth In its backspin trajectory around the sun That makes the planets sometimes retrograde And brings the cold forgiveness of the dawn Whose light extinguishes all stars but one.


by Howard Nemerov | |

The Blue Swallows

 Across the millstream below the bridge 
Seven blue swallows divide the air 
In shapes invisible and evanescent, 
Kaleidoscopic beyond the mind’s 
Or memory’s power to keep them there.
“History is where tensions were,” “Form is the diagram of forces.
” Thus, helplessly, there on the bridge, While gazing down upon those birds— How strange, to be above the birds!— Thus helplessly the mind in its brain Weaves up relation’s spindrift web, Seeing the swallows’ tails as nibs Dipped in invisible ink, writing… Poor mind, what would you have them write? Some cabalistic history Whose authorship you might ascribe To God? to Nature? Ah, poor ghost, You’ve capitalized your Self enough.
That villainous William of Occam Cut out the feet from under that dream Some seven centuries ago.
It’s taken that long for the mind To waken, yawn and stretch, to see With opened eyes emptied of speech The real world where the spelling mind Imposes with its grammar book Unreal relations on the blue Swallows.
Perhaps when you will have Fully awakened, I shall show you A new thing: even the water Flowing away beneath those birds Will fail to reflect their flying forms, And the eyes that see become as stones Whence never tears shall fall again.
O swallows, swallows, poems are not The point.
Finding again the world, That is the point, where loveliness Adorns intelligible things Because the mind’s eye lit the sun.


by Howard Nemerov | |

The Beautiful Lawn Sprinkler

 What gives it power makes it change its mind
At each extreme, and lean its rising rain
Down low, first one and then the other way;
In which exchange humility and pride
Reverse, forgive, arise, and die again,
Wherefore it holds at both ends of the day
The rainbow in its scattering grains of spray.


by Howard Nemerov | |

I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee

 I tell you that I see her still
At the dark entrance of the hall.
One gas lamp burning near her shoulder Shone also from her other side Where hung the long inaccurate glass Whose pictures were as troubled water.
An immense shadow had its hand Between us on the floor, and seemed To hump the knuckles nervously, A giant crab readying to walk, Or a blanket moving in its sleep.
You will remember, with a smile Instructed by movies to reminisce, How strict her corsets must have been, How the huge arrangements of her hair Would certainly betray the least Impassionate displacement there.
It was no rig for dallying, And maybe only marriage could Derange that queenly scaffolding - As when a great ship, coming home, Coasts in the harbor, dropping sail And loosing all the tackle that had laced Her in the long lanes.
.
.
I know We need not draw this figure out But all that whalebone came for whales And all the whales lived in the sea, In calm beneath the troubled glass, Until the needle drew their blood.
I see her standing in the hall, Where the mirror's lashed to blood and foam, And the black flukes of agony Beat at the air till the light blows out.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Amateurs of Heaven

 Two lovers to a midnight meadow came
High in the hills, to lie there hand and hand
Like effigies and look up at the stars,
The never-setting ones set in the North
To circle the Pole in idiot majesty,
And wonder what was given them to wonder.
Being amateurs, they knew some of the names By rote, and could attach the names to stars And draw the lines invisible between That humbled all the heavenly things to farm And forest things and even kitchen things, A bear, a wagon, a long handled ladle; Could wonder at the shadow of the world That brought those lights to light, could wonder too At the ancestral eyes and the dark mind Behind them that had reached the length of light To name the stars and draw the animals And other stuff that dangled in the height, Or was it the deep? Did they look in Or out, the lovers? till they grew bored As even lovers will, and got up to go, But drunken now, with staggering and dizziness, Because the spell of earth had moved them so, Hallucinating that the heavens moved.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Threshold

 When in still air and still in summertime
A leaf has had enough of this, it seems
To make up its mind to go; fine as a sage
Its drifting in detachment down the road.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Gyroscope

 This admirable gadget, when it is
Wound on a string and spun with steady force,
Maintains its balance on most any smooth
Surface, pleasantly humming as it goes.
It is whirled not on a constant course, but still Stands in unshivering integrity For quite some time, meaning nothing perhaps But being something agreeable to watch, A silver nearly silence gleaning a still- ness out of speed, composing unity From spin, so that its hollow spaces seem Solids of light, until it wobbles and Begins to whine, and then with an odd lunge Eccentric and reckless, it skids away And drops dead into its own skeleton.


by Howard Nemerov | |

Kicks

 The fishermen on Lake Michigan, sometimes,
For kicks, they spit two hunks of bait on hooks
At either end of a single length of line
And toss that up among the scavenging gulls,

Who go for it so fast that often two of them
Make the connection before it hits the water.
Hooked and hung up like that, they do a dance That lasts only so long.
The fishermen Do that for kicks, on Lake Michigan, sometimes.