Nemerov’s “Trees”

If I were writing a formal paper on Howard Nemerov, and thank goodness I’m not, I would be very curious to see if any dramatic events took place in his life just prior to 1958, when Mirrors and Windows was published.

For the first time, nature poems become prominent in his work and Chinese themes suddenly appear. Of course, I knew that he wrote some excellent nature poems because that’s the reason why I bought the collected works. No the nature poems didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was the lack of such poems in his early works.

For instance, I can’t remember anything like this poem which is the second poem in the collection, appearing right after the title poem, where a branch seems to mirror his inner thoughts:

TREES

To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one's own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One's Being deceptively armored,
One's Becoming deceptively vulnerable;
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word-
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also-though there has never been
A critical tree-about the nature of things.

This poem stands as a silent, meditative force amidst all the sturm und drang of modern life. There’s almost something Taoist about the poem, with it’s emphasis on ying and yang, “To be steady as a rock and always trembling” and “Having the hard appearance of death/ With the soft, fluent nature of growth.” Unlike people, trees “exemplify/ What they believe themselves to be about,” rather than tell you what they are about. Of course, Nemerov hasn’t abandoned his more typical themes, but even they seem strangely relevant to our own times, as in this poem about a government worker whose “death has been cited as one of the few murders attributable to McCarthyism.” :

THE MURDER OF WILLIAM REMINGTON

It is true, that even in the best-run state
Such things will happen; it is true,
What's done is done. The law, whereby we hate
Our hatred, sees no fire in the flue
But by the smoke, and not for thought alone
It punishes, but for the thing that's done.

And yet there is the horror of the fact,
Though we knew not the man. To die in jail,
To be beaten to death, to know the act
Of personal fury before the eyes can fail
And the man die against the cold last wall
Of the lonely world-and neither is that all:

There is the terror too of each man's thought,
That knows not, but must quietly suspect
His neighbor, friend, or self of being taught
To take an attitude merely correct;
Being frightened of his own cold image in
The glass of government, and his own sin,

Frightened lest senate house and prison wall
Be quarried of one stone, lest righteous and high
Look faintly smiling down and seem to call
A crime the welcome chance of liberty,
And any man an outlaw who aggrieves
The patriotism of a pair of thieves.

What made the crime so heinous was that he was beaten to death in jail by prisoners who “hated commies.” Strangely enough, it doesn’t seem nearly as reassuring as in the first poem to discover that some things never seem to change, that some government officials seem more than ready to foment hatred to promote their own aims, to condone the killing of the “other” because it suits their purposes.

Nemerov’s “The Snow Globe”

I’ll have to admit that I find it difficult to identify with much of Nemerov’s rather dark vision in his early poems, at least those before 1960. Even the title Salt Garden suggests a bareness I’ve seldom felt in my life.

Even though I don’t share his vision, I can identify with poems like this one:

THE SNOW GLOBE
A long time ago, when I was a child,
They left my light on while I went to sleep,
As though they would have wanted me beguiled
By brightness if at all; dark was too deep.
And they left me one toy, a village white
With the fresh snow and silently in glass
Frozen forever. But if you shook it,
The snow would rise up in the rounded space
And from the limits of the universe
Snow itself down again. 0 world of white,
First home of dreams! Now that I have my dead,
I want so cold an emblem to rehearse
How many of them have gone from the world's light,
As I have gone, too, from my snowy bed.

I’m old enough to have been fascinated with snow globes as a child, probably because I identify them with Christmas and because my family never owned one, a deficiency I’ve more than remedied in the last few years.

Unfortunately, like Nemerov, I’ve never recaptured the innocent joy they used to bring, and I keep them around more in hopes that they will inspire similar hopes in my grandchildren than any hope they will rekindle my own.

Though I fear it’s not true, I’d like to believe this is a universal feeling, that all children share this ability to dream bright dreams. I’m sure my happy childhood has helped me to get through some rough times and made it possible to believe that there is always hope for better times ahead.

Nemerov’s “Sonnet at Easter”

Though I still haven’t found a particular poem that I like enough to want to memorize, it is interesting to read Nemerov’s viewpoint of the the world in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I didn’t really realize until today that Nemerov was Jewish, though I’m sure that must have given him a unique viewpoint of World War II.

Perhaps it helps to explain why many of his poems about Europe remind me of Henry James’ novels, watching the intellectual and moral decay that slowly ate away at European culture. It’s the anti-Victorianism that Pirsig noted in Lila.

I doubt many Christian poets could have written this poem:

SONNET AT EASTER

You splice together two broomsticks, then reef
A tie (a Christmas present) at the throat.
A hat must rattle on the knob, a coat
Keep warm the chest (for he has little beef).
You set this person up disguised as you
And let him flap. He hangs lonely as grief.
His wraithless hull, no blood and no belief,
Your children don’t despise but your crows do.

He is a habit now, perennial,
One of your pieties. You plant him deep,
And though you have no earthly use for him
You dress him in your father’s coat, and call
Good Evening sometimes when the light is dim,
Seeing he stands for you in upright sleep.

On the literal level, of course, this is simply a poem about a scarecrow. The poet begins by telling you how to create one. The title, though, suggests it’s about more than a scarecrow. Even though many people put scarecrows up to keep crows away from their garden seeds in Spring, I’ve never heard anyone call it their “Easter scarecrow.”

In what sense is he “disguised as you?” And why is he as “lonely as grief?” Is it true that “He is a habit now, perennial, One of your pieties?” Ever wonder why Easter Sunday draws such huge crowds?

Is it true that we have “no earthly use for him?” Do you suppose the Nazis had “a use for him?”

The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov

I’m back to reading more of those collected works I bought many years ago thinking that I would find time to read them, but never did. Most of the time these were contemporary poets I discovered while majoring in poetry at UW and whose collected poems I bought when it appeared later.

Howard Nemerov probably belongs more to my father’s generation than mine since he fought in World War II. The difference is clear in the first section of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov, poems published in 1947. Eliot’s influence hangs over most of the poems with an almost palpable air of despair.

Many of the poems seem generic, but a few like this one:

FOR W_______ , WHO COMMANDED WELL

You try to fix your mind upon his death,
Which seemed it might, somehow, be relevant
To something you once thought, or did, or might
Imagine yourself thinking, doing. When?

It was, once, the most possible of dreams:
The hero acted it, philosophers
Could safely recommend it to the young;
It was acceptable, a theme for song.

And it was wrong? Daily the press commends
A rationed greed, the radio denies
That war is right, or wrong, or serious:
And money is being made, and the wheels go round,
And death is paying for itself: and so
It does not seem that anything was lost.

seem to give deeper meaning to the overall despair. Poems like this one remind us that Nemerov was a pilot in the WW II and was undoubtedly still trying to make sense of a country that seemed more intent on making up for economic sacrifices made during the war than on honoring those who sacrificed their lives.

This is also a major theme in one of my favorite novels, Catch-22, where it’s symbolized by Milo Minderbinder. I’m not sure whether society’s greed is an issue for everyone who fights in a war, but it was an issue for many of us who fought in Vietnam and came home to discover that we seemed to be the only ones making sacrifices. It’s hard not to admit that the very same thing is going on today.

Perhaps this poem means more to we “old-timers” raised to believe in “heroes” than to today’s younger generation who’ve too often seen “hero” equated with “victim,” as in he “died a hero,” than by reading Greek or Roman classics. Perhaps their view is closer to reality, but that doesn’t make it any easier for those of us raised with a different definition to accept that a friend’s loss was meaningless.

It’s not just people who are lost in combat; whole belief systems are swept away, and victims are left to try to make sense of a meaningless world.