Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The endless beginning

Before I put Nemerov's Collected Poems back on the shelf, let me comment on another of his later poems, written in his mid-fifties (he died in 1991 at age seventy-one). The poet is taking note of a shelf of books collected in his younger years, "Field Books of This, The Beginner's Guide to That." He recalls the hours and hours he spent learning the wildflowers, the birds, the stars. Was it a waste of time? he asks. And answers:
But it felt good to know the hundred names
And say them, in the warm room, in the winter,
Drowsing and dozing over his trying times,
Still to this world its wondering beginner.
I have the same long shelf of field guides, and another long shelf of black journals in which I identified, sketched and recorded plants, insects, birds, mushrooms, lichens, rocks, and stars. After a while all of that went by the board, my head stuffed to overflowing with names and attributes. It wasn't a waste of time, I think. Today I walk through a world of named elements and see things I might otherwise have missed. To have a word for a thing -- stinkhorn, nuthatch, jewelweed, feldspar -- is to invite the world into one's head. And yes, now, here, in this warm room, in winter, the only universals I care about are those that were patiently pieced together, long ago, word by word, of particulars.