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By Howard Nemerov

Earth’s Wrath at our assaults is slow to come

But relentless when it does. It has to do

With catastrophic change, and with the limit

At which one order more of Magnitude

Will bring us to a qualitative change

And disasters drastically different

From those we daily have to know about.


As with the speed of light, where speed itself

Becomes a limit and an absolute;

As with the splitting of the atom

And a little later of the nucleus;

As with the millions rising into billions—

The piker’s kind in terms of money, yes,

But a million2 in terms of time and space

As the universe grew vast while the earth

Our habitat diminished to the size

Of a billiard ball, both relative

To the cosmos and to the numbers of ourselves,

The doubling numbers, the earth could accommodate.


We stand now in the place and limit of time

Where hardest knowledge is turning into dream,

And nightmares still contained in sleeping dark

Seem on the point of bringing into day

The sweating panic that starts the sleeper up.

One or another nightmare may come true,

And what to do then? What in the world to do?

Howard Nemerov, “Magnitudes” from Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991. Copyright © 1992 by Howard Nemerov. Reprinted by permission of Margaret  Nemerov.

Source: Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems 1961-1991 (1992)

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Poet Bio

Howard Nemerov
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. See More By This Poet

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