The Sweeper of Ways
by Howard Nemerov
All day, a small mild Negro man with a broom
Sweeps up the leaves that fall along the paths.
He carries his head to one side, looking down
At his leaves, at his broom like a windy beard
Curled with the sweeping habit. Over him
High haughty trees, the hickory and the ash,
Dispense their more leaves easily, or else
The district wind, hunting hypocrisy,
Tears at the summer’s wall and throws down leaves
To witness of a truth naked and cold.
Hopeless it looks, on these harsh, hastening days
Before the end, to finish all those leaves
Against time. But the broom goes back and forth
With a tree’s patience, as though naturally
Erasers would speak the language of pencils.
A thousand thoughts fall on the same blank page,
Though the wind blows them back, they go where he
Directs them, to the archives where disorder
Blazes and a pale smoke becomes the sky.
The ways I walk are splendidly free of leaves.
We meet, we smile good morning, say the weather
Whatever. On a rainy day there’ll be
A few leaves stuck like emblems on the walk;
These too he brooms at till they come unstuck.
Masters, we carry our white faces by
In silent prayer, Don’t hate me, on a wave-
length which his broom’s antennae perfectly
Pick up, we know ourselves so many thoughts
Considered by a careful, kindly mind
Which can do nothing, and is doing that.
I would really like to hear any thoughts people have about this poem, which strikes me more and more each time I read it. Something is most certainly standing for something else here, I would say. But it is not in the way that I have grown accustomed to with Mr. Kooser– where the two ends of the analogy are made quite obvious and it is the striking likeness of them that lends power to the poem. Here, the poet poses more of a puzzle.
I feel pretty certain that this poem is about how I felt often at college watching the parade of nameless black folks cook for and clean up after white students (well, nameless outside of the gym– a credit to the sports program of St. John’s for sure). And how I feel at work now with Hispanic employees doing most of the same thing. There is one woman in particular… she cleans the bathrooms on the floor where my office is. I visit the bathroom a lot. She wears a lot of makeup and is fat. She cleans the bathroom twice a day during the hours I am there. Of course she has to wait outside the door of the men’s room, blocking the entrance, while the people doing business inside finish and come out. I’m not sure how she knows that it is all clear. Maybe they tell her to wait X amount of time and then go in. In any case, I think about her waiting there outside the room nodding to men like me as we come out of the bathroom, an awkward moment for sure. Need I point out that its a little sad and that I do– in a way– pray she doesn’t hate me?
But in this poem the sweeper is given a lot of dignity. To me he seems like the prophet in common clothes; Knight of infinite resignation, maybe. And why so much lingering in the poem on the sweeping, the leaves, trees, wet leaves? This is what stands for something I feel. But I can’t sort out what. With the line “The ways I walk are splendidly free of leaves” I start to feel certain that a clean walkway is a semblance of justice– an appearance that things are acceptable as they are, though the way is never and never can be finally free of leaves. There is more to expose, I think, in this analogy.
4 responses to “Nemerov’s Sweeper”
I’m supposed to be getting good at developing analogies, at determining all the ways in which X and Y are alike. I am, however, horrible at working at them backwards—given a list of similarities, I labor to locate an X and Y that share them. I’m terribly dense when called to identify a metaphor. This poem may be allegory or amphigory; on first reading, I just can’t tell.
What I can tell is that the way has not been swept clear of all obstruction; the way might be splendidly free of leaves, but there are numerous little rocks and branches strewn across the path that trip me up as I make my way through the verse:
The awkward syntax and word usage lead me to wonder if Nemerov’s way is really so free. Perhaps a few more erasers conversant in the pencil tongue would have helped direct those uncomfortable constructions to a blazing disorder, and out of my way. A certain urge toward charity pushes me to ask if these little rocks, these obstacles to my clear and comfortable reading, were left to serve some purpose? Does all my stumbling force me to keep my eyes on the ground, to pay closer attention to the path I’m walking? If all the fascinating leaves have been swept away, what further interest could I have in the path beneath my feet, beyond where it takes me?
I really don’t understand why the “careful, kindly mind” is (presumed to be) doing nothing. I find it is when I am doing something as repetitive and mundane as sweeping leaves that my mind roams most freely and energetically. Or is Nemerov using “mind” metonymically? I can’t interpret this poem, because I can’t read it. Again, I find myself wishing we could meet again for a thorough discussion.
The trees are haughty, the wind hunts hypocrisy, the days are hastening, the broom is patient as a tree. The small mild Negro man is evidently quite efficient, as the path is kept splendidly free of leaves. All this is certainly good, and good the truth when naked and cold. But would I call any of it justice? I don’t know, Alan… this, I think, requires further consideration.
In looking about for uses of “emblem”, I happened across a webpage here and there about emblem books.
The grammatical stumbling blocks that Mike points out just don’t bother me too much. I have the most trouble with “dispense their more leaves easily” since its hard to see what meaning ‘more’ adds here. Clearly it doesn’t belong syntactically since more is not the kind the kind of adjective to modify a noun like leaves. Clearly it is a help to the blank verse meter, expanding the line to ten syllables and, more importantly, adding a fifth stress. For me, not belonging syntactically is far from a sin if the meaning is deepened. I feel this way about “say the weather”—I think this is a very effective way of saying “talk about the weather” in the context. Saying it this way sounds dismissive, like it’s a very superficial and inconsequential thing. It avoids using the euphemism “talk about” since people in the situation that Nemerov is describing don’t really talk about it. They merely say it—“sunny today” or “cold this morning.” If you tell me that English syntax doesn’t allow “say the weather,” my response is, after reading this poem, ‘well it does now.’ I realize I am a bit of a radical about this, though.
But back to ‘more leaves.’ Why describe something as more when you are not saying what it is more than? This is the syntactic problem and the meaning problem. Here is my shot, though, at putting some light on the meaning here: The effect is to convey that there are a seemingly endless number of leaves—more and more and more. The trees are haughty and they simply drop leaves like a rich man might drop a quarter into a panhandlers cup or—more likely—drop a five into the hands of a coffee vendor. He dispenses his more dollars easily.
This fits with what I take to be the focus of the poem—the gap in understanding (and communicating) that exists between people of different economic classes. When I mentioned justice what I meant was that a way swept clean of leaves gives a superficial impression of amity. It makes things seem just because they are not messy. Real justice would demand that certain people (white people) not be exempted from doing jobs like the one that the sweeper does. Or maybe this is too strongâ€¦ maybe it is just that it is an affront to a responsive, democratically minded individual to see another man, full of his portion of human dignity, engaged in a servile task—one, moreover, that the poet benefits from. The echo of slavery that still resonates makes it all the more distressing to some difficult to articulate sense of justice.
I think my resistance is rooted in a few of my own failings. I’m not a poet. I’m lazy, I’m unimaginative (and becoming more so), I like very much not to have to think. The more structure, the more rhythm, the more rhymes a poem has, the more I am able to enjoy it. I like to be helped along, I like to be given easily interpretable images. I don’t like subltety that requires any corresponding subtlety from me to find it. When a poet requires me as a reader to write a portion of the poem for him, I lose interest. I read poetry precisely because I am incapable of writing it myself.
Nemerov’s Sweeper has 310 syllables by my count (104, 105, and 101 by stanza, counting “there’ll” and “prayer” both as single-syllable words). Each line has either 10 or 11 syllables, but there seems to be no pattern to the distribution of those values, and I was unable to discern any further metrical regularity. To put it generously, the poem is composed of a broad mélange of feet. One line is broken mid-word, and three sentences end mid-line. It seems odd to me that Nemerov would use an awkward new expression to add some rhythmic regularity to a poem that seems delightfully free of it otherwise (and I’m not sure “more leaves” adds much rhythmically—I hesitate to scan the seventh line as you must; stressing the last syllable of “easily” puts too much burden on the comma—or are you stressing three syllables in a row?).
I am not entirely blind to the possibility that freer verse can be quite effective, evocative, enjoyable—but when the form is loose, the content must do more work. And here, I benefit from your suggestions when my own interpretive engines refuse to turn. I initially thought you were suggesting a theory of justice as indifference—that there was something that could be called just in the peaceful appearance of acceptability. But I missed the importance of the appearance as distinct from the reality. Were you suggesting rather that the cleanliness makes it easy for us to overlook some injustice, perhaps because our eyes have no leaves to linger upon, because our path is free and does not demand our attention at all? That when a situation is comfortable we may fail to look too carefully at how it came to be that way? That we want not truth but merely plausible deniability? These ideas I can appreciate (and by “appreciate” I mean something like “be disturbed by” or “cry over”). It requires a bit more of my imagination than I am used to using to trace these ideas in the poem, but I begin to see them now, as I did not on first reading. I still have some difficulty with it—the last full sentence is a dark mystery to me—but I’m working on it.