Howard Nemerov’s poetic achievements, it is quite safe to say, are fully insured against a future loss of immediacy and damage done by hostile critics. Though very much the poet of twentieth century America, he addresses age-old problems and concerns with rigor and notable insight. His subjects and themes are drawn from the many ages of man, his audience is universal, his imagery, Daedalian, and his capacity for satirical comment, memorable—at times, Swiftian. This volume of verse, his Collected Poems, is a compilation of distinguished Nemerov collections beginning with The Image and the Law (1947), proceeding through Guide to the Ruins (1950), The Salt Garden (1955), Mirrors & Windows (1958), New and Selected Poems (1960), The Next Room of the Dream (1962), The Blue Swallows (1967), Gnomes & Occasions (1973), and ending with his latest volume, The Western Approaches: Poems 1973- 75 (1975).
To examine critically Nemerov’s success as a poet, it is instructive to look toward the major themes, then toward Nemerov the intellectual poet and satirist.
Three themes recur in The Collected Poems: time’s mysterious passing, war, and the natural world. Returning to childhood for clues to his meaning and for emotional sustenance, the poet faces the harsh truth expounded in “An Old Photograph” that “No one escapes the perjury of time.” After all, it is time itself (rather than any mere reexperiencing of childhood moments) that the poet is after. It is time, variously described and decried as a thief and liar, that tricks all of us and steals from us our most valuable, painfully earned lessons—even our fondest memories. Time conquers. As the poet, surveying the New Jersey boardwalk in “Elegy of Last Resort” finds, “We enter again November, and the last/ Steep fall of time into the deep of time,/ Atlantic and defeated. . . .” Together with time, we experience the descent into the void from which there is no escape and no awakening.
Many Nemerov poems have to do with the mystery involved in time’s passing. As an American living in the Northeastern states, this poet knows well his seasons; yet the one season he writes about more than others is that quiet, ominous period between fall and winter when the bite of time is felt most acutely by the perceptive observer. Like the “cinnamon moths” of the poem “The Rent in the Screen,” who, upon being awakened from cocoons by the treacherously “sweet mildness of the late December day,” fly “Across the gulf of night and nothingness” into “The falling snow, the fall, the fallen snow,” we too make our yearly and all-too-brief flight into hopes and dreams, lulled by the summer’s heat, only to fly into the sad and puissant arriving winter. Like the persona in “Observation of October,” human beings have that “old desperation of the flesh” when confronted by the annual drying up of the easy and free times of spring and summer.
Time, that implacable enemy against which there is no weapon to employ, is, to the poet, an “angry wheel” that “might burn away in air,” giving the thoughtful individual very few quiet meditative moments of genuine insight before forcing him on to do battle with the encroaching tide of everyday duties. In “A Harvest Home,” the persona is able, if only for the briefest time, to bask in the august stillness of “the long field in fall,” reflecting upon the sun’s silent bending of earth toward afternoon. This momentary blessing is, however, nothing more than one of time’s confidence tricks, “a snare/ For time to pull from and be torn/ Screaming against the rusty brake.” Or time may be cast in the image of an ocean voyage from which there is no return and it may be found in the painting, “Triumph of Time,” by Pieter Brueghel, wherein time is depicted as a great elephant bearing a trumpeting angel which tramples the books and crowns and kings to dust.
Nemerov is much like certain anonymous artists of the Middle Ages whose paintings portray the victory of the grave over worldly ambitions and hopes and yet, unlike them, he is unable to paint the companion scene: that of the uncorrupted body rising to the New Jerusalem.
Poetry is the poet’s chief bulwark against the aggressor, time, who must in the end conquer all. And yet, the poet questions the efficacy and enduring value of what he writes, knowing full well that he cannot hope to compete with the ancients, the old masters like Homer whose poetry had a sufficient, sustained vision of life and a wholeness destined to survive the centuries.
In addition to time, Nemerov is obsessed by another destroyer: modern warfare. Having participated in World War II, the poet knows well what that conflict said about us and our technological world, what it elucidated for us, what ambiguity of response it and other wars manifest within us.
Modern warfare cannot be sung in the manner of Homer or Virgil: it is more cruel than ancient warfare because it is more mechanical, more difficult to conjure up because it is too awesome a phenomenon. And yet, Nemerov, working with isolated memories of conflict, makes the attempt to tell what war is really like without saying too much in the process. In one of his earlier poems, “For W____, Who Commanded Well,” the poet speaks of the ironies inherent in being an officer in charge of men in an era when the individual soldier or officer no longer matters—an era when technology decides outcomes of battles and big money interests control wars. This theme is vividly reiterated in other creations such as “September Shooting” (ostensibly about bird hunting, but actually dealing with modern warfare) in which the poet finds that “death comes quickly/ And is not famous nor ever identified. . . .” It is a...
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