I’m fairly careful with books, but my hardback copy of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov is 31 years old and almost looks like I teethed on it. In a way I did: even before I found Richard Wilbur I was gnawing at how he wrapped casual speech or jokes or social commentary or serious meditation and sometimes all four at once in deftly handled meter and rhyme, at how he moved effortlessly from breathtaking cynicism to equally breathtaking wonder, at how effortlessly he seemed handled every theme that came to his mind, at how endlessly varied were those themes.
I open the book at random to find 3 poems on facing pages. The first is “Pockets,” which begins “Are generally over or around / Erogenous zones.” and notes near the end that “For all they locate close to lust, / No pocket ever sees another …”
“Hero with Girl and Gorgon” follows, an address to Perseus, ending
And now you must go onward through the world
With that great head swung by the serpents held
At lantern height before you, lighting your way
Past living images that mock or curse,
Till paralyzed to silence in the stone
They run unmoved on your undying doom.
And then “The Backward Look” — backward from the moon, to which “Even the immense power / Of being bored we brought with us from home / As we brought all things else, even the golf / Balls and the air.” Its final prayer to the Earth, our “Leve moder”:
Hold us your voyagers safe in the hand
Of mathematics. grant us safe return
To where the food is, and the fertile dung
To generation, death. decay; to war,
Gossip and beer, and bed whether warm or cold,
As from the heaven of technology
We take our dust and rocks and start back down.
Elsewhere there’s a longish poem “Watching Football on TV,” which I wrote about here, and in the same post quoted a few epigrams, of which Nemerov is an absolute master. Here are three I didn’t quote there:
“Creation Myth on a Moebius Band”
This world’s just mad enough to have been made
By the Being his being into Being prayed.
“The God of This World”
He smiles to see his children, born to sin,
Digging those foxholes there are no atheists in.
“Power to the People”
Why are the stamps adorned with kings and presidents?
That we may lick their hinder parts and thump their heads.
I’ll end — arbitrarily, since I’ve got no real stopping place when I get started on Nemerov, with the whole “On Getting Out of Viet Nam,” which is, sadly, all too relevant to our current politics:
Theseus, if he did destroy the Minotaur
(it’s hard to say, that may have been a myth),
Was careful not close the labyrinth.
So After kept on looking like Before:
Back home in Athens still the elders sent
Their quota of kids to Knossos, confident
They would find something to die of, and for.