Nemerov served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. Consequently, his first two books of poetry deal with his experiences and were viewed by critics as a way to purge him of the terror of war. Born in New York City in 1920, Nemerov studied at Harvard, and after the war taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Hamilton College, Brandeis and Washington Universities. It was at Washington University that he was Distinguished Poet in Residence from 1969 until his death in 1991. Nemerov received the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and was selected as Poet Laureate of the United States, 1988-90.
The War in the Air
For a saving grace, we didn't see our dead,
Who rarely bothered coming home to die
But simply stayed away out there
In the clean war, the war in the air.
Seldom the ghosts come back bearing their tales
Of hitting the earth, the incompressible sea,
But stayed up there in the relative wind,
Shades fading in the mind,
Who had no graves but only epitaphs
Where never so many spoke for never so few:
Per ardua, said the partisans of Mars,
Per aspera, to the stars.
That was the good war, the war we won
As if there was no death, for goodness's sake.
With the help of the losers we left out there
In the air, in the empty air.
Peace In Our Time
Honor is saved by the national will,
The burgher throws up his cap.
Gone is the soldier, over the hill,
And the rat has defended his trap.
Grand Central, With Soldiers, In Early Morning
These secretly are going to some place,
Packing their belted, serviceable hearts.
It is the earnest wish of this command
That they may go in stealth and leave no trace,
In early morning before business starts.
A Day on the Big Branch
Still half drunk, after a night at cards,
with the grey dawn taking us unaware
among our guilty kings and queens, we drove
far North in the morning, winners, losers,
to a stream in the high hills, to climb up to a place
one of us knew, with some vague view
of cutting losses or consolidating gains
by the old standard appeal to the wilderness,
the desert, the empty places of our exile,
bringing only the biblical bread and cheese
and cigarettes got from a grocer’s on the way,
expecting to drink only the clear cold water
among the stones, and remember, or forget.
Though no one said anything about atonement,
there was still some purgatorial idea
in all those aching heads and ageing hearts
as we climbed the giant stair of the stream,
reaching the place around noon.
It was as promised, a wonder, with granite walls
enclosing ledges, long and flat, of limestone,
or, rolling, of lava; within the ledges
the water, fast and still, pouring its yellow light,
and green, over the tilted slabs of the floor,
blackened at shady corners, falling in a foam
of crystal to a calm where the waterlight
dappled the ledges as they leaned
against the sun; big blue dragonflies hovered
and darted and dipped a wing, hovered again
against the low wind moving over the stream,
and shook the flakes of light from their clear wings.
This surely was it, was what we had come for,
was nature, though it looked like art with its
grey fortress walls and laminated benches
as in the waiting room of some petrified station.
But we believed; and what it was we believed
made of the place a paradise
for ruined poker players, win or lose,
who stripped naked and bathed and dried out on the rocks
like gasping trout (the water they drank
making them drunk again), lit cigarettes and lay back
waiting for nature to say the last word
—as though the stones were Memnon stones,
which, caught in a certain light, would sing.
The silence (and even the noise of the waters
was silence) grew pregnant; that is the phrase,
grew pregnant; but nothing else did.
The mountains brought forth not a mouse, and the rocks,
unlike the ones you would expect to find
on the slopes of Purgatory or near Helicon,
mollified by muses and with a little give to ’em,
were modern American rocks, and hard as rocks.
Our easy bones groaned, our flesh baked
on one side and shuddered on the other; and each man
thought bitterly about primitive simplicity
and decadence, and how he had been ruined
by civilization and forced by circumstances
to drink and smoke and sit up all night
inspecting those perfectly arbitrary cards
until he was broken-winded as a trout on a rock
and had no use for the doctrines of Jean Jacques
Rousseau, and could no longer afford
a savagery whether noble or not; some
would never batter that battered copy of Walden
But all the same,
the water, the sunlight, and the wind
did something; even the dragonflies
did something to the minds full of telephone
numbers and flushes, to the flesh
sweating bourbon on one side and freezing on the other.
And the rocks, the old and tumbling boulders
which formed the giant stair of the stream,
induced (again) some purgatorial ideas
concerning humility, concerning patience
and enduring what had to be endured,
winning and losing and breaking even;
ideas of weathering in whatever weather,
being eroded, or broken, or ground down into pebbles
by the stream’s necessitous and grave currents.
But to these ideas did any purgatory
respond? Only this one: that in a world
where even the Memnon stones were carved in soap
one might at any rate wash with the soap.
After a time we talked about the War,
about what we had done in the War, and how near
some of us had been to being drowned, and burned,
and shot, and how many people we knew
who had been drowned, or burned, or shot;
and would it have been better to have died
in the War, the peaceful old War, where we were young?
But the mineral peace, or paralysis, of those
great stones, the moving stillness of the waters,
entered our speech; the ribs and blood
of the earth, from which all fables grow,
established poetry and truth in us,
so that at last one said, “I shall play cards
until the day I die,” and another said,
“in bourbon whisky are all the vitamins
and minerals needed to sustain man’s life,”
and still another, “I shall live on smoke
until my spirit has been cured of flesh.”
Climbing downstream again, on the way home
to the lives we had left empty for a day,
we noticed, as not before, how of three bridges
not one had held the stream, which in its floods
had twisted the girders, splintered the boards, hurled
boulder on boulder, and had broken into rubble,
smashed practically back to nature,
the massive masonry of span after span
with its indifferent rage; this was a sight
that sobered us considerably, and kept us quiet
both during the long drive home and after,
till it was time to deal the cards.
Howard Nemerov, "A Day on the Big Branch" from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. Copyright © 1977 by Howard Nemerov.