Tuesday, September 29, 2020

'Clothing Such Nude Truths with a Rhyme'

“Changed, when the great equalizer

Has played its black joke,

To a few pounds of fertilizer

Or a few puffs of smoke,

“Some ways of such a passing

Strike you sharp and clear:

A van on a zebra crossing,

A vein behind the ear.”


A realist reduces thing to the pertinent facts. He doesn’t revel in them but acknowledges their primacy. That doesn’t make him always right. You may think the speaker of this poem is one of those professional cynics who craves the outrage his bluntness attracts. He’s not.


“Or, with worse scenarios,

A slow melt-down that bores

And exhausts, till dark’s victorious,

Not only you, but yours;


“You feel the days dismantle

The billion-neutron hoard:

Love sputters like a candle,

Small facts go overboard,


“(The mercy speech by Portia,

The words to Gershwin tunes,

The Roman Forts of Yorkshire,

The names of Neptune’s moons.)”


Precisely the class of memories that grow threadbare. The other day I performed on myself  a sort of Apgar test for the rapidly aging and found solace in being able to recite (to myself – I cling to some self-respect) the names of all the presidents. I fumbled, however, when it came to naming Napoleon’s twenty-six marshals. Perhaps memory is patriotic.


“Anyhow, brain and body,

Here comes a new recruit

To much-missed ranks  already

Long since gone down the chute.


“What’s helpful. Not much. Nothing?

But to fill in the time

There’s little harm in clothing

Such nude truths with a rhyme.”


As good a defense of writing poetry as I’ve seen in a long time. The poem quoted is Robert Conquest’s “Sooner or Later,” published in Penultimata in 2009, when Conquest was ninety-two. You’ll also find it in Collected Poems (Waywiser Press, 2020), which I am reviewing in the October 11 edition of the Los AngelesReview of Books.

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