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By Howard Nemerov

Roughly figured, this man of moderate habits,

This average consumer of the middle class,

Consumed in the course of his average life span

Just under half a million cigarettes,

Four thousand fifths of gin and about

A quarter as much vermouth; he drank

Maybe a hundred thousand cups of coffee,

And counting his parents’ share it cost

Something like half a million dollars

To put him through life. How many beasts

Died to provide him with meat, belt and shoes

Cannot be certainly said.

                                     But anyhow,

It is in this way that a man travels through time,

Leaving behind him a lengthening trail

Of empty bottles and bones, of broken shoes,

Frayed collars and worn out or outgrown

Diapers and dinnerjackets, silk ties and slickers.

Given the energy and security thus achieved,

He did . . . ? What? The usual things, of course,

The eating, dreaming, drinking and begetting,

And he worked for the money which was to pay

For the eating, et cetera, which were necessary

If he were to go on working for the money, et cetera,

But chiefly he talked. As the bottles and bones

Accumulated behind him, the words proceeded

Steadily from the front of his face as he

Advanced into the silence and made it verbal.

Who can tally the tale of his words? A lifetime

Would barely suffice for their repetition;

If you merely printed all his commas the result

Would be a very large volume, and the number of times

He said “thank you” or “very little sugar, please,”

Would stagger the imagination. There were also

Witticisms, platitudes, and statements beginning

“It seems to me” or “As I always say.”

Consider the courage in all that, and behold the man

Walking into deep silence, with the ectoplastic

Cartoon’s balloon of speech proceeding

Steadily out of the front of his face, the words

Borne along on the breath which is his spirit

Telling the numberless tale of his untold Word

Which makes the world his apple, and forces him to eat.

Howard Nemerov, "Life Cycle of Common Man" from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. Copyright © 1977 by Howard Nemerov.  Reprinted by permission of University of Chicago Press.

Source: The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (The University of Chicago Press, 1977)

Poet Bio

Howard Nemerov was born in New York City, and attended the Society for Ethical Culture’s Fieldstone School and Harvard University, where he graduated in 1941. He then served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, an experience he reflects on in “The War in the Air.” After the war, he completed his first book of poems and began teaching at Hamilton College, his first of many teaching positions. In the poems “The Vacuum,” and “Writing,” Nemerov combines a formal elegance with an intelligent wit and strong emotions to describe the mysteries of death and written language.

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