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Howard Nemerov's "Grace to Be Said at the Supermarket" and "Writing"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Howard Nemerov

Howard Nemerov

Introduction and Text of "Grace to Be Said at the Supermarket"

Howard Nemerov's "Grace to Be Said at the Supermarket" consists of two unrimed versagraphs. The former poet laureate's theme dramatizes the contrast between the reality of animals' bodies and the way they seem when packaged to sell in groceries stores.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Grace to Be Said at the Supermarket

This God of ours, the Great Geometer,
Does something for us here, where He hath put
(if you want to put it that way) things in shape,
Compressing the little lambs into orderly cubes,
Making the roast a decent cylinder,
Fairing the tin ellipsoid of a ham,
Getting the luncheon meat anonymous
In squares and oblongs with all the edges bevelled
Or rounded (streamlined, maybe, for greater speed).

Praise Him, He hath conferred aesthetic distance
Upon our appetites, and on the bloody
Mess of our birthright, our unseemly need,
Imposed significant form. Through Him the brutes
Enter the pure Euclidean kingdom of number,
Free of their bulging and blood-swollen lives
They come to us holy, in cellophane
Transparencies, in the mystical body,
That we may look unflinchingly on death
As the greatest good, like a philosopher should.

Commentary on "Grace to Be Said at the Supermarket"

This poem might delight vegetarians, although it was not likely penned for that purpose.

First Versagraph: The God of Meat-Handling

This God of ours, the Great Geometer,
Does something for us here, where He hath put
(if you want to put it that way) things in shape,
Compressing the little lambs into orderly cubes,
Making the roast a decent cylinder,
Fairing the tin ellipsoid of a ham,
Getting the luncheon meat anonymous
In squares and oblongs with all the edges bevelled
Or rounded (streamlined, maybe, for greater speed).

The speaker metaphorically compares meat handlers to God. He is not being blasphemous; he is merely demonstrating the odd power that these meat processors possess and exhibit as they turn a cow into beef or pig into pork.

Seemingly, most people would balk at eating decayed cow or pig flesh, but when called beef and pork, the reality somehow becomes much less obnoxious.

The speaker claims that these meatpacking "Gods," who are "Great Geometers," help us out by putting those animal shapes into "cubes," "cylinders," "ellipsoids," "squares and oblongs with all the edges beveled."

By placing the flesh of animals into geometric shapes, these meat workers, these Gods, these Great Geometers eliminate the reality that those shapes once lived and breathed, circulated blood, reproduced, and had feelings just as the humans who consume them do.

Those animals may not have the brain capacity of the human consumer, but they nevertheless walk around in bodies that work pretty much identically to their human counterparts.

Second Versagraph: Human Sensibility

Praise Him, He hath conferred aesthetic distance
Upon our appetites, and on the bloody
Mess of our birthright, our unseemly need,
Imposed significant form. Through Him the brutes
Enter the pure Euclidean kingdom of number,
Free of their bulging and blood-swollen lives
They come to us holy, in cellophane
Transparencies, in the mystical body,
That we may look unflinchingly on death
As the greatest good, like a philosopher should.

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In the second versagraph, the speaker feigns a prayer, saying "Praise Him, He hath conferred aesthetic distance / Upon our appetites." Those geometric shapes that appear bloodless and sanitized represent something very different from the living animal before it was slaughtered.

And not only are they different from the living animal, but they are also very different from the mess of severed flesh they become during the process that takes those animals from their living form to the packaged form.

The human sensibility, especially of modern humankind, does not care to be bothered with the reality of animal life and the bloody, savage process that kills them and shapes their flesh for human consumption.

If most of the consumers were to see that bloody mess, they would lose that "aesthetic distance," and their appetites for eating animals would be averted—at least, the speaker seems to believe such.

But as the speaker asserts, that "mess of our birthright, our unseemly need" is assuaged because the meatpackers perform this miracle of transformation: "Through [the meat processors] the brutes / Enter the pure Euclidean kingdom of number."

As clean, packaged shapes, the animals and thus the human consumer are "Free of their bulging and blood-swollen lives."

No longer pulsing with life, no longer breathing, eating, drinking, the animals "come to us holy, in cellophane / Transparencies, in the mystical body." The human consumer is spared the ugliness of the meat packing process by the skill of the meat packer and his command of geometry.

The poem concludes with an unrimed couplet, except that the final line does sport an internal rime.

After all of the talk of Euclidian geometry and the clean shapes of former living animals, the speaker then avers that the purpose of this process is simply, "That we may look unflinchingly on death / As the greatest good, like a philosopher should."

No need to flinch when the product is presented merely as food in clean squares and cubes in cellophane, and no need to flinch when not reminded of death. The geometry has eliminated death, as miraculously as God would do.

Howard Nemerov's "Writing"

The speaker of Nemerov's "Writing" celebrates his joy and fascination with the artifacts of chirography, concluding with a philosophical aside.

Introduction and Text of "Writing"

In the first movement of Howard Nemerov's "Writing," the speaker likens writing to various other activities that have nothing to do with writing, such as figure skating, wherein the skaters seem to be etching a scrawl across the ice.

The second movement offers a philosophical summation of the first versagraph. The speaker is offering his deep appreciation for the act of writing.

He manages to find examples in nature that he can call "writing" which clearly is nothing of the kind, as in the first movement, where the speaker's affection for writing as art has led him to equate those unrelated acts, the act of ice skaters, for example, to hand-writing, as he claims that the scrapes on ice remind him of the scribbles on a page.

Writing

The cursive crawl, the squared-off characters
these by themselves delight, even without
a meaning, in a foreign language, in
Chinese, for instance, or when skaters curve
all day across the lake, scoring their white
records in ice. Being intelligible,
these winding ways with their audacities
and delicate hesitations, they become
miraculous, so intimately, out there
at the pen’s point or brush’s tip, do world
and spirit wed. The small bones of the wrist
balance against great skeletons of stars
exactly; the blind bat surveys his way
by echo alone. Still, the point of style
is character. The universe induces
a different tremor in every hand, from the
check-forger’s to that of the Emperor
Hui Tsung, who called his own calligraphy
the ‘Slender Gold.’ A nervous man
writes nervously of a nervous world, and so on.

Miraculous. It is as though the world
were a great writing. Having said so much,
let us allow there is more to the world
than writing: continental faults are not
bare convoluted fissures in the brain.
Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.

Interpretive Recitation of Nemerov's "Writing"

Commentary on "Writing"

The poem, "Writing," is celebrating the speaker's joy and fascination with the artifacts of chirography, concluding with a philosophical aside.

First Movement: The Art of Delight

The cursive crawl, the squared-off characters
these by themselves delight, even without
a meaning, in a foreign language, in
Chinese, for instance, or when skaters curve
all day across the lake, scoring their white
records in ice. Being intelligible,
these winding ways with their audacities
and delicate hesitations, they become
miraculous, so intimately, out there
at the pen’s point or brush’s tip, do world
and spirit wed. The small bones of the wrist
balance against great skeletons of stars
exactly; the blind bat surveys his way
by echo alone. Still, the point of style
is character. The universe induces
a different tremor in every hand, from the
check-forger’s to that of the Emperor
Hui Tsung, who called his own calligraphy
the ‘Slender Gold.’ A nervous man
writes nervously of a nervous world, and so on.

The speaker describes the visual appeal of chirography or penmanship. He admires the "cursive crawl, the squared-off characters," which "delight" him, even if he does not know the meaning of the lines.

For example, the speaker can appreciate the appearance of Chinese lettering even without knowing what the marks mean. He can also enjoy the "scoring" made by skaters on a pond who leave "their white / records in ice."

When the observer is able to understand the scrawling, the shapes and figures become "miraculous." The products of the "pen's point" and "brush's tip" bind the world and spirit together through their "audacities / and delicate hesitations."

Acknowledging that the human hand with its "small bones of the wrist" is responsible for the chirographic beauty, the speaker equates that wrist with "great skeletons of stars," claiming that they balance "exactly." He asserts, "the point of style / is character."

The speaker contends that each hand that writes writes differently because "the universe induces / a different tremor in every hand." The speaker offers as examples the widely contrasting "check-forger" and the Chinese "Emperor / Hui Tsung, who called his own calligraphy / the 'Slender Gold.'"

The speaker concludes that nerves are ultimately responsible for the great chirographic variations: "A nervous man / writes nervously of a nervous world, and so on." The world as well as humankind is a-jitter with this nervous energy that leads to art.

Second Movement: The Miracle of Writing

Miraculous. It is as though the world
were a great writing. Having said so much,
let us allow there is more to the world
than writing: continental faults are not
bare convoluted fissures in the brain.
Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.

The speaker concludes that it is all "Miraculous." He claims that it seems that the world itself is "a great writing." Such a statement, of course, offers only the view of one individual; thus, the speaker permits himself to backtrack somewhat: "let us allow there is more to the world / than writing."

The speaker observes that he cannot equate the "continental faults" with the "convoluted fissure in the brain." Those two phenomena exist quite individually, one from the other. The world of miracles undoubtedly contains uniquely crafted patterns.

The skaters who leave their scratches across the face of the pond can remain out skating only so long and then must "soon go home." And the scoring their blades leave behind will disappear after the ice melts, "remember[ing] nothing, neither wind nor wake."

No matter how beautiful the writing or the source of it, time and nature will erase its presence sooner or later.

Nemerov, reading his poem, "Thanksgrieving"

5 Poems by Howard Nemerov

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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