Tag Archives: Howard Nemerov

I Only Am Escaped Alone To Tell Thee

Dear Blog,

I used to love New Year’s Resolutions. I made loads of them, and sometimes I even kept them. Having kids changed things, though. Last year I was realistic in my expectations. It was nice to let go and tell myself that I was going to accept the chaos and my own faults and just kind of get through it all. Now my boys are a year older. I sleep more, I have more time to myself, we have said goodbye to naps and diapers, we can basically reason with the older kid, and the boys have their own world of play that is more and more independent (of me). And so now I wonder, where is the line between healthy self-acceptance and a pessimistic sort of giving up on oneself? Am I ready to try and carve out a bit more of a life for myself, besides the mama thing? Do I have the energy to challenge myself a little more?

I haven’t decided yet if I am going to make any resolutions this year. I’d sort of like a small and achievable goal, just to show myself that it is in fact possible for me to achieve small goals, but I can’t think of anything plausible. I’m in a good groove with writing already. I know that resolutions about exercise are not realistic, and becoming a better, kinder, more patient person is an ongoing project but doesn’t count as small (or particularly achievable at the moment). If anyone has suggestions for me, go ahead, because ignoring advice is one of my favorite things.

One thing I thought about was reading a poem every day, because I sometimes forget about poetry. But I hate to give myself a “task,” and I don’t want to think, at the end of a hectic or difficult day, “crap, I forgot to read a damn poem!” because that’s not how I want to feel about poetry. So I’m not going to make a resolution along those lines, but thinking about it, I thought about a poem I haven’t read in a long time, but which I still count among my favorite poems.

It was assigned to me as part of my oral exams when I was finishing up at university. I loved but didn’t understand the title – “I Only Am Escaped Alone To Tell Thee.” I hadn’t read Moby Dick, and I didn’t remember the Book of Job. I tried to talk about the poem and while I doubt I had anything insightful to say, I think my grade was fine, so they must not have expected much. I went out and bought a Howard Nemerov collection afterwards. I have read that poem a hundred times or more and I still can’t say that I know exactly what he’s on about, but somehow I love it still as much as ever – unusual for me because I am one of those people who really isn’t very keen on poetry that I can’t understand. Except this poem, which means more to me now, even, than it did then – when I was leaving university with such grand plans to see the world, just beginning that period of my life that was and will likely remain the most free. I had been in school forever, it seemed, and now I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I could earn some money at the same time. Everything is different now and the poem hits me somewhere different: dropping sails in the long lanes, the uncertain reflection, the shadow that might be ominous, or might not.

In my oral exam, I fumbled around. Maybe he is writing about the oppression of women, or maybe he is writing about cruelty to whales, or maybe he is connecting those things, or…? I left a lot of sentences hanging, and the two professors smiled at me and nodded as if I was making any kind of sense (which I knew I wasn’t) and when it was over I was so relieved that I didn’t ask, well, what is the poem about? (And if you have any ideas, please let me know!). But anyway, it’s a wonderful poem. At least, I think it is. So here it is, with happy wishes to all for the New Year:

I Only Am Escaped Alone To Tell Thee (by Howard Nemerov)

I tell you that I see her still
At the dark entrance of the hall.
One gas lamp burning near her shoulder
Shone also from her other side
Where hung the long inaccurate glass
Whose pictures were as troubled water.
An immense shadow had its hand
Between us on the floor, and seemed
To hump the knuckles nervously,
A giant crab readying to walk,
Or a blanket moving in its sleep.

You will remember, with a smile
Instructed by movies to reminisce,
How strict her corsets must have been,
How the huge arrangements of her hair
Would certainly betray the least
Impassionate displacement there.
It was no rig for dallying,
And maybe only marriage could
Derange that queenly scaffolding –
As when a great ship, coming home,
Coasts in the harbor, dropping sail
And loosing all the tackle that had laced
Her in the long lanes….
I know
We need not draw this figure out.
But all that whalebone came from whales.
And all the whales lived in the sea,
In calm beneath the troubled glass,
Until the needle drew their blood.

I see her standing in the hall,
Where the mirror’s lashed to blood and foam,
And the black flukes of agony
Beat at the air till the light blows out.

Yours, irresolutely,