Paul Nemser’s childhood connection to poetry began in Portland, Oregon, where he passed the time reading poems in the storage room of his family’s tool store. From there, he went on to receive a BA from Harvard College, an MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts, and a JD from Boston University School of Law. In an interview for the Kenyon Review, Nemser described his newest book A Thousand Curves, the winner of Red Mountain Press’ Editor’s Choice Award, as “… a collection of poems written over a lifetime of poetry writing.” The poems in this collection are tethered to specific places: homes, nature, busses, and time frames. But, at the same time, they soar on surprising trajectories. While I read A Thousand Curves, I imagined Nemser reading in the storage room; rooted in the solid foundation of family, steady job, and the physicality of hardware and tools. The poetry he’s reading introduced his imagination to the vocabulary he will use later. A vocabulary that will lift and become his voice. A voice which is part ancient oracle, part familiar and trusted friend.
At first, I thought it would be helpful to find out when each poem published, so I could better understand (or imagine) who or where Nemser was when he wrote it. Was he a young man? Was he looking back on his life? But when I finished “After The Calm,” I made the decision to read in the moment and let the poems tell their own story. I connected to the poems even though they soar in their own orbits. I delighted in Nemser’s expert use of and control of form and wordplay. While reading “After The Calm,” I pictured myself reaching out and capturing for a moment a scene, a thought, an essence. Nemser connects myth, nature, recollections, and the present to a stream of consciousness that is elusive, but also physically and familiarly grounded. I recognized the setting because I have spent many hours daydreaming on public transportation. Like most people my thoughts lean heavily toward grocery lists, the traffic, or what’s for dinner. Unlike most people, Nemser’s daydreams allow us to peek into the mind of a poet. Like the boy in that storage shed, the poem is grounded in familiarity while it curves on the route of imagination: “Bus-music jostles us, like the changing tide / where islands once appeared upside down in the harbor.” After reading the two words, “bus-music,” I found myself on the same route, but soon the connection changed with “the changing tide” and I also took a few guesses on what comes before. When “islands once appeared upside down …” My imagination/memory took a different path when the poem finished. I remembered a walk I took years ago with my young son. He asked, “What’s under the sidewalk, Ma?” I guessed there were pipes and tunnels bringing water and gas to our home. We agreed that the sewer pipes were gross, but necessary. Then, he asked “What’s under all that stuff?” Together we imagined a land before stuff. He created a world of covered wagons and Native Americans, and even before that, dinosaurs stomping below our steps so long ago. We walked together on a route that began on concrete, but we ended up in his own imagined universe. This was the moment I decided it wasn’t necessary to do any more research. I connected to a poet who shares/remembers/honors the strong and confident voice of the imagining child.
I never felt lost while reading because he sets out clear sense markers. He creates a safe place that builds confidence and allows the imagination to find another route. He begins “In The Alley Of Perpetual Industry” begins with a description of an alley that is so vivid, I almost stopped reading to open a window for a breath of fresh air:
Full of thrown cans and bins, it smells like mammals.
Rain insinuates into wood. A puddle trembles
like a vat of black vinyl fish.
Falls of sour mild, sour melon.
Congealed balls of motor oil.
A yellowed technical manual has a crust
of dried honey and insect mandibles.
Nemser’s expert wordplay brings the alley to life with a connection to the natural world. The result is lovely and unexpected. At first the rot and filth engulfed me, but that was not the place I was eventually brought to. In the next stanza Nemser introduces the “… spirits in this world / from worlds already mouldering. They come on and sharp as smoke / or like apples and their peelings / going bad but still sweet.” I’m familiar with a contrast of nature and the industrial in these types of descriptions, but Nemser does not exalt one at the expense of the other. He builds the foundation of the place he lifts off from. He invites us to walk with him in what at first seems like a constricting gross alley, but we quickly learn to follow the path of his soaring imagination. As we walk with him, we are reminded that everything “sticks to our shoes.” The alley becomes the place where “Our lips and eyes burn away / leaving all we crack open for holy, / all we mistake for decay.” He invites and gently nudges to let go of easy definitions which compartmentalize ideas. I’m still looking around and wondering about what I “mistake for decay.”
Reading A Thousand Curves is an active exercise. Phrases bump into each other to form ideas that surprise and connect. In “End Of The Century,” he mashed the familiar feelings of oversleeping, dread, and time passing by:
We’ve slept too long that hasn’t stopped
the incidental warping, constellations
crossing, new diamond scratch on glass.
Radio jumps off the nightstand, as the Ramones hammer
in the background their future, our present alarm.
In a few words Nemser describes the universal feeling of surprise at the discovery of just how inconsequential our lives really are. In the same way he connects rot with everlasting life (despite the intrusion of humanity), he connects the physicality of the nightstand radio playing the Ramones to the shock of waking up too late. He begins calmly with an assurance—a new day will start without us, but he ends with alarm. It’s this small, one-word explosion that kept me reading, and wondering if I was ready to find out what I should be alarmed about.
The delight in reading A Thousand Curves is discovering the surprise contained in each poem. It might be the breadcrumb/clue of one perfect line: “If ever I was young and upright, and knew the clouds up close, / I have forgotten.” These few words illuminate Nemser’s craftmanship. A story of a life, a life of forgotten dreams, a life with some regret. The surprise could also be one perfect word. I discussed above how the word “alarm” becomes the hinge that opens a new thought. But the lasting pleasure of Nemser’s poetry is finding the solid foundations he builds that allow our imaginations to soar.
A Thousand Curves, by Paul Nemser. Red Mountain Press, April 2021. 78 pages. $21.95, paper.
Noreen Hernandez lives in Chicago, and works as a teacher’s assistant in Oak Park, Illinois. Her reviews have appeared in Heavy Feather Review and Popular Culture Studies Journal.