The Selected Poems
Of Howard Nemerov
Daniel Anderson, Editor
(Swallow/Ohio)There are all these poets floating around --- fish in the bowl --- ones we haven't read for years, but who turn up in anthologies, or did when we were in school, and we keep meaning to look them up, but there are too many of them: Amy Lowell, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wallace Stevens, Sara Teasdale, Stephen Crane (or is it Hart Crane?), Elinor Wylie, Marianne Moore, John Ashbery, Charles Wright, Robert Lowell, Robert Pinsky, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Roberts, Mr. Roberts, Howard Nemerov.But you know about time, and those promises we make to ourselves, so that yet these things slip out of our hands, soap in the shower, and then someone comes along with a new anthology, or a new Selected Poems Of...and we dip in, and think, "Oh, no."Rutgers University Press, for instance, just came out with The Selected Poems of Amy Lowell, and we remember the name, and it was an Important Poet's name, one we should have read before. So we leafed through it, and tried to give it a chance, tried hard to like it, but got buffaloed by lines like
Hey! My daffodil-crowned,
Slim and without sandals!
We meet each other.
You still whirl about as a thistledown in the wind.
Your Elixis or Immortality is not yet perfected
And, remembering Ko Hung, you are ashamed...
Somehow this Amy Lowell, who once loomed large, didn't loom so large anymore.
So when Howard Nemerov arrived in the box, we left him till later, after dinner, and the single glass of wine permitted by Dr. No! ... and finally, sitting, stuffed, dozing, we picked the volume up to leaf through, and sigh and yawn and ...
§ § §
It's the first time since college that I took a book of poetry to bed with me: that's how chummy we got, me and this Nemerov. I read him through, first to last; slept, woke up, read it back to first, marking the pages, wondering "Where has he been all my life?"
For I tell you, he's good, in all the ways that a poet should be good. He can be merry, he and his buddies on a hungover outing in Big Branch ("all those aching heads and ageing hearts"). He can be pensive, the goldfish bowl, "Waving disheveled rags of elegant fin." He can write a three pager about going to the town dump: "flies...a dynamo/composed, by thousands, of our ancient black/Retainers..."
He can set up a new vision of the aged ("Near the Old People's Home") where
Some have the habit of getting hit by cars
Three times a year...
(It's that exact "three times," that "habit" --- that's what delights.) The mud turtle: he sees it, he weaves words about it, putting us there, seeing turtle, and seeing paradox, "The time he comes from doesn't count..."
So over he goes again, and shows
Us where a swollen leech is fastened
Softly between polastron and shell.
Nobody wants to go close enough
To burn it loose...
He, too, can catch us in a jolly moment, with Mrs Persepolis, with whom he is "Alone, in a closed garden," who suddenly, despite "Wrinkling skin at the wrist/Patterned in sunburnt diamonds" --- Persepolis, the ancient city or Iran, home of endless, gaunt ruins --- but suddenly she becomes attractive, "For a tumble in the August/Grass right at the center/Of the dream of a landscape..." Two old fossils thinking to nip a moment of pleasure there in the sun, "Till I see her glittering eye/Has taken this thought exactly/As the toad's tongue takes a fly."
§ § §
Poetry that is worth its salt, if it be not epic or narrative, must win our heart with a certain wonder ... being brief, pointed, teaching us something new while using all the old tricks: sound, end-stop, rhythm, image, position on the page. Thus Nemerov, sad, funny, charming, weary, alive, wrought, grim --- he's the American Philip Larkin, but less bitter, less hopeless, one who can stop for a moment up in the attic of the house, find himself weeping: "I cried because life is hopeless and beautiful." This is a man, a grown man, who can capture it (and us) in words, touch us, "And like a child I cried myself to sleep/High in the head of the house..."
Because life is hopeless and beautiful... This is noble stuff, a gift of the poet-gods; this is a man who can write a poem about being asked to write a poem, "A Peace Poem," where he ceases being Howard Nemerov, but:
Here is Joe Blow the poet
Sitting before the console of the giant instrument
That mediates his spirit to the world.
He flexes his fingers nervously,
He ripples off a few scale passages
(Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?)
And resolutely readies himself to begin
His poem about the War in Vietnam.
There are no false notes here, no "Look I'm a poet" --- which is what most of the moderns press so hard to tell us --- but rather just old Joe Blow, flexing his fingers (nervously), pulling in that hoary line from Shakespeare, cranking up the poetry machine, telling us that "all by himself/Applying the immense leverage of art,/He is about to stop this senseless war."
A fine irony, directed at a world that believes there is much magic in the hands of a poet. And, too, irony directed at himself: thinking that he can be another Homer, or Wordsworth.
This is a poet who knows what poetry is and what it isn't: It isn't an executive order, it hasn't the power of law, it isn't a full-page ad in The New York Times ... but ... just a poem with which, in his poet's fancy, he "sees the Nobel Prize/Already." The poet who will forever change man's cruelty to man, only, only...
Only trouble was, he didn't have
A good first line, though he thought that for so great
A theme it would be right to start with O,
Something he would not normally have done,
O--- A. W. Allworthy