A Review of Paul Nemser’s Poetry Collection: A Thousand Curves, by Leonard Temme

Four months ago, I received a review copy of Paul Nemser’s 2021 collection of poems, A Thousand Curves. Since then, I’ve read the book in its entirety at least a dozen times and its 58 poems several times more with an increasing admiration for what Mr. Nemser accomplishes with his writing.

I frequently liken the creation of a poem to a journey, discovering and exploring a new world or even a different universe, and the resultant poem as a travel journal or at least a souvenir. Many of Nemser’s poems seem to work this way. They are like a guidebook to the places that Nemser leads us. We discover something of his language, the individuality of his word usages, rhythms, diction, conjunctions of images and phrases. After all, poetry is nothing but language. Reading his poems, we discover something of his mind, his experiences, the ones that capture his attention, then ours by what he asks the poem to accomplish as a made thing. His poems are so original and diverse that each one is a separate journey to a new world, a new encounter with an extraordinary mind.

The sequence of poems between the covers of the book is another dimension, that of a container, an architecture that organizes the connections between individual poems, how they are arranged to articulate each other. In a sense, A Thousand Curves becomes a kind of map to Mr. Nemser’s mind. The fact that I’ve spent four months visiting and revising his mind, reading and rereading this book, maybe the highest recommendation I can give. His mind, sharp, clear-sighted, original, unpredictable, humane, and vulnerable, rewards such intimate, frequent visits; it seems there is always something more to discover.

The title, A Thousand Curves, is extraordinarily apt. The cover displays a clearly organic but disquieting serpentine image, which I suspect to be a close-up photograph of a small part of the twists and turns of a Banyan tree’s surface root system. The image, simultaneously static and dynamic, captures the thousand curves of a complex writhing organism frozen in an instant. At first, the title of the book seems curious and arbitrary since the Table of Contents does not include a poem with that title. After reading more than half the book one encounters the poem, ‘Mil Cumbres,’ that describes a road trip through the mountainous region of an unnamed Spanish-speaking country. Early in the poem, a local warns the travelers, ‘whatever you do, do not take the road to Mil Cumbres.’ The poem continues, describing a perilous trip on makeshift roads up and around a rugged mountain range. The second to last stanza concludes: “‘What did he mean–Mil Cumbres?’ / We looked it up: a thousand peaks, a thousand curves.”

The thousand curves of the title is a corollary, a leap of logic. The unavoidable consequence of ‘Mil Cumbres,’ a thousand peaks, is the thousand curves the peaks impose. Thus, the book earns its title, buried, waiting for the reader to discover the turns and curves that structure the poems and the connections between them. One of the characteristics of the book is its unpredictability at every turn; from word to word within a poem, to the sequence of lines, to the images, to the space between poems. But none of this is arbitrary or absurdist. On repeated reading and reflection, meanings reveal themselves and grow richer, more poignant.

It’s extraordinary, I’ve read ‘Mil Cumbres’ at least a dozen times, invariably aloud as I habitually read almost all poetry; and even on this most recent reading, I captured nuances I had not noticed before. But this is true of all the poems in this collection. They invite and reward careful repeated reading, as though they hold something just beyond your grasp. With repeated reading, the poems amplify their role in the book and the book’s cumulative effect on the reader.

The book has no introduction or preface to orient the reader. It begins with the Table of Contents, a list of 58 titles, and ends with a page of acknowledgments and a list of places where the individual poems were published. The poems are not grouped into named or numbered sections. The only compass the reader has as an aid for navigating these intricate poems is the title. The book’s theme is its title, the title is its theme, a thousand curves embodies the genius of the work. The language of the poems embodies the genius of a thousand curves.

A good example is the poem ‘Drishti,’ chosen only because it is the 29th poem, midway through the book.  Drishti is a Sanskrit word referring to a yoga meditative technique involving vision or seeing that is intended to focus attention and enhance concentration. The poem begins with an oblique reference to meditation without being explicit; the meaning is inferred:

“And my mouth overflowed with yogurt and minted honey

But then a future came:”

And the future that does come is increasingly out of the ordinary and unpredictable, dislodging and knocking down the preconceived buttresses of conventional reality:

“trees falling on street corners and on the schools,

salmon-crushing trees in heavy seas.

Postures of dislocation, despair, immolation.

The burning of bonds to free my heart into the air,

a red powder and a blue and a yellow.

. . .

I counted backward through the rooms of the tall building

Where daily I’d skittered, hoarding and lizarding.”

The images and word choices are unpredictable throughout; the diction itself contributes to the thousand curves the poem instantiates.  This unpredictability does not lead to chaos but does have a cumulative effect. The images and word choices lead somewhere, they support the poem’s structure that culminates with the last stanza, the single line:

“And a rain ran wild with open eyes.”

While the poem describes an experience that many, if not most of us have had in some way, Nemser constructs a series of curves toward an alternative way of encountering reality. The poem demonstrates its meaning.

‘Dishti shares the center of A Thousand Curves with the 30th poem, ‘Without A Whisper, a disarmingly innocent enough title. The two poems are on facing pages and I am sure they are strategically placed to articulate each other. While the two poems individually are complete and satisfying on their own, their juxtaposition imposes an unavoidable contrast that deepens their impact.

‘Without A Whisper,’ with its quartet of 6-line stanzas is more formal than is ‘Drishti.’ The last line of each stanza ends with the refrain ‘without a whisper.’ Over its four stanzas Nemser captures the Biblical Exodus without a whisper of Moses or Aaron or Jews or Pharaoh or Law or Exodus, but after sufficiently careful readings we experience the impact of that seemingly simple, innocent title. Consider the first line of each of the four stanzas, coupled with its closing refrain.

The people carried a homeland in their pockets,

                                                 . . . without a whisper.

Of course, an idol might scare a ravening brigand;

                                                 . . . without a whisper.

The wise man understood that the people longed

                                                 . . . without a whisper.

The wise knew that matter was a dangerous thing.

                                                 . . . without a whisper.

The repetition of the last phrase along with the regularity of the stanza and the didactic nature of the text give this poem a ceremonial feeling, totally appropriate for the ancient story of a people living a contract with a rather litigious and exacting God. What a difference between the two poems, amplified by merely their juxtaposition. Yet as different as they are, the two poems balance each other with their different descriptions of the encounter with the ineffable. When the book is closed, the two poems press together, face to face, text to text, with Nemser straddling the divide. 

Although the book is not structured into sections, Nemser surely organized the sequence of poems. They are not just shuffled; there is an order that I found myself trying to decipher. Without a doubt what I came up with is wrong. I’m certain that Nemser would object; but since he did not make his logic clear, we’re free to understand the sequence as we wish.

The book seems to me to begin with a couple or three dream preambles followed by a pair of aubades, then morning, and breakfast to begin a day. The book closes with ‘Mnemosyne,’ a poem that captures something of the filigree nature of memory. The key to my reading of ‘Mnemosyne’ was its italicized line, “I packed in my suitcase,” which names a memory game commonly played with children during those interminable, boring vacation trips trapped in the backseat of the family car.

Between the waking dreams and memory, the beginning and end, Nemser takes us to work with him; we mourn with him for the environment as a metaphor of our own pollution; we meet his parents, engage his family, its origins, and his loved ones, catch an echo of thundering Cossacks, hunt, travel with him to Germany, Italy, Japan, En Gedi, then return home to recollect the thousand summits with their thousand curves and turns. Want a wonderful tour through Mr. Nemser’s engaging, complex world. I highly recommend it. I look forward to my next visit, his next book.

Leonard Temme studied writing most extensively with Marie Ponsot, Sue Walker, Walter Spara, Josh Davis, and Kristina Darling. Following extensive formal training in music composition, he earned a master’s in mathematics and a doctorate in neuropsychology. His day job is as a research scientist in a government laboratory. In addition to his professional publications, his writing has appeared in a variety of literary and small presses.