On Paul Nemser’s A Thousand Curves: A Review by Aline Soules

This book could have been written only by a poet of long life and experience.  As the reader enters the book, the poems appear separate, each a gem in itself.  When the reader delves further, their interconnection is revealed and the title, A Thousand Curves, reflects the importance of considering these poems as they weave in and out of the poet’s themes, and create a whole. 

In the first poem, “After the Calm,” the poet offers these individual lines:

            We’ve stored no provisions for molasses-less times.

        Bus crunches branch. We seize up. We sway...

            I will. I will survive. I will rise. I will follow. / I will be.  I will wait—for you.

            ...In the frantic, dizzily companionable / wane of this day ...

These excerpted lines speak of a human moving through a lifetime in moments, storing nothing, reaching old age, adjusting between seizing up and swaying, and surviving, waiting for the other, while reveling in the companionable wane of the day.  Moving through the poems, the poet comes back to these and other ideas over and over, offering the reader a new slant on one, a different take on another, and exposing shades and nuances that allow the reader to explore, consider, and appreciate each perspective.

            Moving further into the book, the reader is led to consider the order of the poems and why one is juxtaposed with another.  An example is “Current” (on the verso of page 36) and “Cityscape” (on the recto of page 37).  “Current” opens with “Oars spoon light through a bank-less river.” “Cityscape” opens with “And what if we once had more than this green water?”

From these grounded opening lines, the poet soars through resonating images.

You paddle with your first and second toes. / I with my deviated nose. (“Current”)

...Yet my nose finds lovely / this purple nightmare of a rot (“Cityscape”)

A chilling wind tears holes in my skin. / Fish scales mirror falling stars. (“Current”)

This dust obliterating toothy, towered roofs? (“Cityscape”)

Leapers down ladders young salmon will say / when their fins comb kelp... (“Current”)

So grand this nest of telephone wire and clothesline / spit messages at me... (“Cityscape”)

            The images are a deep strength in this book.  Unusual, original, each reader will come to images he wants to remember.  In “View from a Blind,” the poet writes:

            Shouts from other blinds,

            shots from seeping clouds,

            a torment of birds

            falling out of their feathers.

Rooted, as always, in reality—the process of going out on a shoot—the poet comes to the birds “falling out of their feathers.” The death heightened by this image of naked birds.

            The poem, “Out of Season,” juxtaposes these lines:

            You didn’t believe in insurance for anything.

            I was raised on it like oatmeal and smoked fish.

The idea of how we’re raised embedded eternally in viewpoints from the early days of our lives.  A reflection, too, of the poet’s relationship with his life partner.

            There are many poems that address family, both the poet’s original family and his nuclear family.  He uses the words Dad and Mom and son, but many poems refer simply to “you.” Sometimes, he’s addressing his life partner, sometimes he could be addressing other family members or other people, and sometimes he could be addressing the reader.  The ambiguity draws in the reader, is, perhaps, one of the thousand curves the poet circumnavigates through the book.  In “Questions at the Drop-Off,” for example, “You lug your bag. I reach out your guitar.” A son going to college? A daughter going on a plane? Another journey?  The reader knows there’s a journey, a parting, but also hope: “Will you be back tomorrow? / ‘See you later.’ ‘See you soon’.” There’s a comfort that this is routine, that the two people will weave in and out. The absence of the exact relationship addressed here enlarges the possibilities in this poem and makes it universal.

            Just as the individual poems “Current” and “Cityscape” reflect each other, the poems of the city set against the poems of Maine do so in a larger sense.  One example of an urban poem is “In the Alley of Perpetual Industry.”  “Full of thrown cans and bins, it smells like mammals.”  Another amazing opening line that puts the reader in the heart of this alley.  There’s “sour milk” and “sour melon.” “Everything sticks to our shoes...” There are “corpses” and “cruds.”  All this leads to this ending:

            Our lips and eyelids burn away,

            leaving all we crack open for holy,

            all we mistake for decay.

The reader must consider again the images of rot and decay.  Where is the “mistake”?  What is decay and what isn’t? 

            Contrast this with “A Little Place,” “where the trees from here are not ladders to there, / but lead to clouds...”  There is unpleasantness in the little place, too: “birdshit and seed pods” and “some sorry cicada snapped across the belly.” Despite these elements of raw nature, “It’s different here. There’s a map, if we can read it. / Lilac, needle mound, drying kelps.” The reader is invited to read that map. A lesser poet might have ended with that invitation, but Nemser adds a final stanza:

            With so much to talk about, what is there to say?

            Hair stands on end when we know another day

            is running silken hands across our gooseflesh.

Pay attention—to everything. Time is slipping away.

From the opening poem, “After the Calm,” to the closing poem, “Mnemosyne,” this sense of time passing faster and faster haunts the reader.  In “After the Calm,” the “we” take a bus ride and are let off “near a panic of birds” who are plucking rotting raspberries.  The poem ends with a paean to the goddess:

            “O goddess of raspberries, grant us red hands!”

            Shrieks, chucks, pipes—where from? Lilt of songbirds

            in a social praxis? In the frantic, dizzily companionable

            wane of this day neither still nor sweet.

A prayer to the goddess, the sounds, the end of this day.  Turn to “Mnemosyne” with its images of little things one partner notices in another: “I almost forgot your eyes / were tea.” Or the little activities one partner shares with another: “We played a game...Airedale on an airplane to zebra zoo.”  But:

            Maybe letters were the last

            anyone could say

            after a thin-spun day,

            after a moon like that


            down like new, a green flash.

            And I flash back to you,


                                       with knotted strings

                                       and dew,

            your hair with salt on the strands,

            those lined hands

                                    tasting of tea.

            The joy of this collection of Nemser’s poems is how much there is to explore in every line and how a reader can come back to these poems many times and gain a new insight.  The poet offers the reader a lived life, with all the complexity that life entails.

Aline Soules’ writing has appeared in such publications as The Kenyon Review, Houston Literary ReviewPoetry Midwest, and The Galway Review.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in Danville, California. Learn more about Aline at http://alinesoules.com