Tuesday, November 27, 2007

“September, the First Day of School, #1,” by Howard Nemerov


My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph’s dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.

Look how the line breaking at “he does Let go” shows the reluctance of that parting. So nicely done. This poem makes me think and I haven’t finished thinking about it yet. I wonder about that dream that “got him such hatred of his brothers . . . and yet great kindness came of it in the end.” I know it’s talking about Joseph, as a governor in Egypt, feeding his brothers through the famine. It feels right to connect Joseph’s story with going to school where the child will be subjected to the discipline of “learning the alphabet, the integers,” but I haven’t thought quite why yet. I read Nemerov as a Jewish surname and I wonder if his fear for his son, his grief at their parting is a fear of letting the child go into a world of brothers who have so often indulged in anti-Semitism. I wonder if the father comforts himself (and his son) with Joseph’s story as a hope, as a testimony that the dream carried by the thinkers (religious, academic, scientific) will despite everything carry out “great kindness . . . in the end” even among the hating brethren. But there is something to this story more universal than just this one father and his son, something universal about linking School and the world of knowledge (“so arbitrary, so peremptory”) to “the dreaming of a little boy” before which sheaves and stars bow down. Something about gaining mastery of the elements of the world in order to bless the world around you. The inevitable mistakes that “cost the greater part of life to mend” but the lasting hope that “great kindness came of it in the end.” I don’t know. I’ll have to keep thinking.

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