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… has UD picking among poems that have something to do with the wind. There are approximately 150,000 of these. She has winnowed the number down to one, “A Day on the Big Branch,” by Howard Nemerov. Let’s take a look. You can listen to Nemerov read it, too.

It’s a pretty straightforward narrative of a midday fishing trip on a river in Vermont with friends, after a night of poker. It’s written in rough iambic pentameter, so there are nice neat chunks of poetic prose on the page. Bricks. Or, more appropriate to the poem, rocks – six stanza rocks – of roughly equal size. They move us, step by step, through the narrative of the day’s events.

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.

[First part of Rock #1 is an extremely long sentence, in which we’re with the guys in their car driving to the river “with a vague view” of… hills? No, the poet means the figurative, not the literal view: We had some vague idea of purging the heaviness of confusion and loss and guilt after last night’s excesses by a clarifying, forgiving, return to nature. Monks now, they’ll drink “only the clear cold water / among the stones,” and they will meditate.]

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.

[Climbing with effort to the “empty places of our exile,” they replay the “old standard” of labored effort up Transcendence Mountain — think of Mount Athos — in order to purge themselves of last night’s poisons and, while they’re at it, of fallen existence.]

[Next up, the stanza that describes their destination, their having reached the natural divinity they’re after:]

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.

[This stanza is a lala rock, all liquid l’s as the poet evokes the lullaby wonder of the setting, the setting that promises to lift them from their dulled fallenness and make them dragonflies with “clear wings.” Four times in this stanza he uses the word “light” and he deepens it with “lit” cigarettes. The world in this “enclosed” place is alive, beautiful, it speaks to the guys, even sings to them, as did the ancient Memnon stones. So they get comfortable and “wait for nature” to tell them what they need to know to become simple clear and alive again — to become things of nature, like the dragonflies.]

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

[Well, it’s The Ballad of the Sad Young Men, isn’t it, and UD has, from the age of fifteen or so, loved Roberta Flack’s drawn-out notes as she describes the sodden depressives in this poem. Having labored and set the scene and given nature every opportunity, the guys find that nature has absolutely nothing to say to them. The poignantly self-ruining limestones of Egypt might have allowed them to romanticize their decline; but here in Vermont it’s just “modern American rocks, and hard as rocks.” So “each man / thought bitterly about primitive simplicity / and decadence, and how he had been ruined / by civilization.” Something has happened, and they’re not sure what, but it’s got something to do with the maturation into a civilized being… I suppose if they’d been reading Civilization and Its Discontents instead of Walden they’d have been better prepared for this bitter outcome, in which even a steep river in Vermont can’t undo the cost of assimilating to culture.]

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.

[Even so, the calming effect of the wind, water, sunlight and rock is to infuse in the guys some sense of equanimity; to help them accept their own getting older and broken, the loss of youthful savagery and simplicity. The stream of life is ultimately after all a grave, and it’s really accommodation to life’s “necessitious… currents” they’re after. (The weird word necessitous is great – it has a sort of ridiculous high dignity to it, and this poem is in part a sermon; but also the whispering incessant sss of the river’s in there.)]

[In the next stanza, their tongues loosened by nature, they state their destinies, their quandaries: They will spend their lives in this sad-young-man condition, dulling with games and liquor the pain of having become civilized. And then, finally:]

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.

[Well, this is a sobering final view. One wants to think of the stream of life as reasonably gentle, of life as at least for some years a reasonably equal battle between the stream’s erosive effect upon you, and your capacity to have some control over life, to impose some of your will, some of yourself, upon it before you vanish. Yet here you’ve had three human efforts to encompass the stream, to span it, and that stream turns out to be violently, inhumanly powerful, totally destructive of all efforts to domesticate it. No wonder the guys heard nothing from nature. Turns out it ain’t your friend.]

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One Response to “A Windy Day in Maryland…”

  1. University Diaries » A Cooper’s Hawk Trapped in a Cupola … Says:

    […] in poetry, is always so relentlessly male – always their figure for — remember the last poem UD considered on this blog — for “primitive simplicity” and “savagery” […]

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