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.