Mike’s posting of the Masters poem “Silence” made up my mind to post this Nemerov poem that I just encountered.
Life Cycle of Common Man
by Howard Nemerov
Roughly figured, this man of moderate habits,
This average consumer of the middle class,
Consumed in the course of his average life span
Just under half a million cigarettes,
Four thousand fifths of gin
And about a quarter as much vermouth
He drank maybe a hundred thousand cups of coffee,
And counting his parents’ share it cost
Something like half a million dollars
To put him through life. How many beasts
Died to provide him with meat, belt and shoes
Cannot be certainly said.
It is in this way that a man travels through time,
Leaving behind him a lengthening trail
Of empty bottles and bones, of broken shoes,
Frayed collars and worn out or outgrown
Diapers and dinner jackets, silk ties and slickers.
Given the energy and security thus achieved,
He did…? What? The usual things, of course,
The eating, dreaming, drinking and begetting,
And he worked for the money which was to pay
For the eating, et cetera, which were necessary
If he were to go on working for the money, et cetera,
But chiefly he talked. As the bottles and bones
Accumulated behind him, the words proceeded
Steadily from the front of his face as he
Advanced into the silence and made it verbal.
Who can tally the tale of his words? A lifetime
Would barely suffice for their repetition;
If you merely printed all his commas the result
Would be a very large volume, and the number of times
He said “thank you” or “very little sugar, please”
Would stagger the imagination. There were also
Witticisms, platitudes, and statements beginning
“It seems to me” or “As I always say.”
Consider the courage in all that, and behold the man
Walking into deep silence, with the ectoplastic
Cartoon’s balloon of speech proceeding
Steadily out of the front of his face, the words
Borne along on the breath which is his spirit
Telling the numberless tale of his untold Word
Which makes the world his apple, and forces him to eat.
I love the part about the commas. A book of commas… that would be a very quiet book.
Heidi and I had a discussion when I read this poem to her about whether commas indicate silence. I insisted that they do– what else?– but, as I look again at the poem, it seems that Nemerov may think otherwise: the commas are one of the chief players in the long, noisy babbling of life. I suppose the fact that one needed to take a breath during speech that many times (assuming this roughly as the function of the comma) indicates that one did a lot of yaking. Talking gives over, in fact, to breathing, as the poem closes.