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:


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.”


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.