A man of a certain age greets the morning and considers ruefully the passing of years with the observation: “It’s dawn, purple and pursed in the mouth, / and we no longer wake up wild as bears at five,” and goes on to reflect that he and his wife beside him “were vaster once. We used up all the air . . . .” I tripped over these lines in a quick run-through of Paul Nemser’s latest collection before getting down to the business of reviewing it, and was reassured that I was dealing with a poet of substance, a poet very much alive to those things that give shape and perspective to our lives.
It’s the role of a poet to transmit that awareness in a heightened, original, and engaging form, which requires both formal skill and an active imagination. But the latter is a tricky beast, needing to tidy itself up a bit sometimes, to be told how to behave. In other words, it might need to be held in check to fully achieve its purpose, and this poet is a dab hand at corralling his inventiveness with a quiet command, allowing the image, the seductive metaphor, its full force. It’s no easy feat, but the poems here, alive with creativity and vigour, prove its value.
Consider these lines taken from a reminiscence of family, where his Jewish grandparents, out of breath and stumbling with canes, are talking:
like their tongues were ponies
ahead of the Cossacks
whose braided whips were gaining.
What detail, explicit and implied, is given to us in those few words. In the same poem we learn how his mother “. . . talked like a rainstorm / to keep stray planets away.” which, again, is a tale in itself, and an example of the poet’s ability to suggest character with one or two deft strokes of the pen.
Appreciating the beauty of bare fact, squaring up to clarity with a kind of forensic candor can be equally effective. Rather like Photoshopping an image to delete superfluous material, isolating and exposing the subject dares to call on your full attention, and enables you to see so much more. This is shown to good effect in the rather portentously titled “In the Alley of Perpetual Industry”, a piece I particularly enjoyed. It is a deliberation on decay and renewal, describing a little urban backwater smelling of mammals, and degraded with cans and bins, congealed motor oil, and a yellowed technical manual having “a crust of dried honey and insect mandibles.” But within the detritus, the discarded, the downright offensive, there exists a melancholy, fragile species poetry just as compelling as any of its lyrical cousins. As Nemser observes: “There are spirits in this world / from worlds already mouldering.”
The poems within these covers are almost encyclopaedic in their scope and detail, illustrating and commenting on anything from a close-run thing on a mountain pass, the smell of angels “powdering the breeze with lavender,” to a trip to Japan where monks have “Borrowed a mountain / where they let the seasons be.” Philosophical meanderings and thoughtful conclusions abound (“Every goodnight, we die a little. / Every day sun saves our lives.”) along with the portrayal of everyday tragedies, like the girl whose brother had been murdered, and is now sleeping in a truck tire; or another, sitting on a stone, unable to stop weeping “. . . adding consonants to tears / like celery stalks to a stew with no beef.” There is tenderness and incident, perception, and a consoling delicacy throughout. That delicacy is rather nicely illustrated in the touching little poem “Always,” which begins:
requires no long-term memory,
but moon, tides,
and the meadow flowers
coming back from dropped seeds…
Exactly the right words are caught from a blizzard of alternatives, and the arrangement of those words and the stresses required to reinforce meaning and intent, are just so. Such skills are learned patiently over time, and you know from reading these poems that Nemser has developed and honed his art to the point where, calling on a bank of experience and a multitude of ideas, he can conjure a picture or provoke an emotion with confidence. You’ve only to read, and perhaps reread the quietly remarkable “A Little Place” to acknowledge that. It’s a poem I’ll quote from freely because it seems to sum up the poet’s ideal, the idea that informs him as he writes. It’s a kind of hymn to the joys of living in the now, advising that:
It is better to live in a little place away from a big place,
where the trees from here are not ladders to there,
but lead to clouds.
It suggests we look to those small affirmations of life generally unnoticed – the seed pods at our feet, the descent of leaves, the esoteric language of creatures, of the phoebes rapping on eaves, to more fully understand and appreciate the space we occupy. The final two stanzas validate the reasoning behind that philosophy, if you like, quite beautifully:
It’s different here. There’s a map, if we can read it.
Lilac, needle mound, drying kelps. Ocean’s names
in salt on squishy sands. We settle in, and in.
With so much talk about, what is there to say?
Hair stands on end when we know another day
is running silken hands across our gooseflesh.
I hope the few samples I’ve offered from this impressive collection have given some idea of the character and reach of the poems which, as I suspected, are indeed of substance, and of a standard rarely dipping below the very best. A Thousand Curves is a consistently surprising litany of experience and discovery, urging us to slip behind the billboard and acknowledge the mysteries, the small wonders, and the infinite subtleties to be found there. It is underscored by a sort of muted wisdom; a quiet word in your ear from someone in the know.
About the Reviewer
Robert Dunsdon lives near Oxford in the UK. His poetry has been published in Ambit, Purple Patch, Pennine Platform, The Blue Nib, Decanto, Candelabrum, The Cannon’s Mouth, Picaroon, Allegro, The Crank and others. His book reviews have featured in Tupelo Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, The Lit Pub, Sugar House Review and Poetry International Online.