The Bird and the Broom

The Bird and the Broom: the Poetry of R. Nemo Hill
by Jee Leong Koh

An introduction given at the launch reading of In No Man’s Ear by R. Nemo Hill (Dos Madres Press) on June 2, 2016, at KGB Bar, New York City

 

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I’m honored to be asked by Nemo to introduce his reading tonight. I’m a longtime fan of his work. One of the most powerful poetic experiences I’ve ever had in New York City was hearing Nemo read from his poem The Strange Music of Eric Zann, a long nightmarish narrative inspired by the master of the macabre H. P. Lovecraft. That New York night, perhaps it was fall, perhaps its was spring, it did not matter, the room fell away and I was led by Nemo’s voice into an utterly strange, wholly familiar world. Why was the reading so compelling? It was because Nemo gave himself utterly to the poem, there was no ego standing in the way, and so we passed with him into the poetic realm.

Tonight we’re here to celebrate the launch of Nemo’s new book In No Man’s Ear. We will hear strange music, music heard in no man’s ear, music heard, however, in Nemo’s ear, since Nemo is also Greek for No-man. The reference to Odysseus is no accident. Odysseus names himself No-man while escaping successfully from the Cyclops Polyphemus. The name Polyphemus means “abounding in songs and legends.” This ancient name describes aptly our contemporary world, engorged with poetic egos as huge as the giant, engulfed by the monstrous appetite for distractions. It takes an Odysseus, the byword for cunning, to escape. In Nemo’s poem “Poseidon Elegy,” dedicated to the late poet Ray Pospisil, the noise of the world is figured as the roar of motorbikes that “congest the air,/their eager little engines drowning out true power/With counterfeit bravado.” Unlike the false glamor of motorbikes, Pospisil’s poetry is like the sea, which Nemo hears in the quiet of dawn:

This beating beating against the drum within my ear;
xxThis shaking of the ground beneath my feet;
This fundamental trembling that forever binds
xxAll things above to all that heaves beneath.

These verses, a handsome tribute to another poet, is also a suitable description of Nemo’s work. In poem after poem, we hear “fundamental trembling.” In poem after poem, we feel it in the soles of our feet. If these verses give us Nemo’s sonic ambition, they also give us his metaphysical goal, nothing less than to bind “All things above to all that heaves beneath.”

It does not have to be portentous, this goal, it can be very sexy. In the poem “Testaments of Light,” Nemo is sunbathing on Kuta Beach, in his beloved Bali, when the dark clouds shift and the sun pours down, and the speaker sees the light not with the eye but with the whole body: “I’m blinded now—yet feel light’s apex shifting/from eye to groin, singed nipples set ablaze/by one Almightily seductive gaze.” Nemo welcomes the right sort of attention as avidly as his dead master Thom Gunn.

Sunlight, so “Almightily seductive,” can also possess the utmost delicacy in joining heaven and earth. The poem “Wordlessly Bright Leaves” begins such a delicate invocation. The language reminds me of Wallace Steven’s feeling for the feel of things. Instead of his dilettantism, however, Nemo speaks for spiritual rigor.

Today’s bright sun is filled with such a breeze
the air itself seems made of moving leaves.
Uncertain and atremble, brushed by light,
an endlessness of shadows gently weaves
new surfaces for things, new skins of flame,
new ways to gently chastise cold clear sight.

Perpetually open to the elements, whether in his shelters in Bali and Long Island, or during his travels in Europe and Asia, Nemo finds potent symbols in light and wind for the union of heaven and earth. Other poems, other symbols, speak of the difficulty of reconciling the two. It is this difficulty that gives so much poignancy to the poetry. It is this difficulty that drives the speaker on his endless search: “my own perpetual passage is the cost/of vision” (“Pool of Light”).

The speaker of the dream poem “The Dome” undertakes such a quest. Climbing up a staircase to the broken dome, he can hear and feel the wings of birds above him, the traditional symbol of poetic transcendence. As he climbs, he notices, however, that the flagstones of the floor are swept clean of the leavings of the “migrant birds.” Then he sees the broom that did the work. It is a humble object: “A small bouquet of broken twigs, it leaned in place.” Yet it signifies the importance of humble duty. It is “one vow that must be kept.” To put it crudely, somebody must clean up the shit. This acknowledgement constitutes, for me, the aesthetic and moral power of the poem. The speaker hears not only what sounds above him, and also what sounds below. “Below/faint sounds of sweeping had commenced/as if to vie with beating wings/of birds above, whose feathers brushed/the upper boundaries of the dome.”

The sound of sweeping was already heard in Nemo’s previous book When Men Bow Down. The poem “For a Gardener” from that book is a truly great poem. Handicapped by a slight limp, the titular gardener sweeps a circular garden path every day without fail at four o’clock in the afternoon. He is a figure of humble devotion, comparable in power to Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper.

The lowly sweeper is heard again in the new book, not only in the poem “The Dome,” but also in the triptych “The Banyan Tree and the Bathers.” In the first section, a huge banyan tree rises to the sky, but it does not soar off, like a bird, in “spirit’s blue and gold.” Instead, the tree, in giving shelter to a family bathing in a roadside gutter, rises “but to the top of the bound soul.” The image of the bound soul recalls the broken dome. In the second section of the poem, a long bamboo pole hangs a bird cage over restaurant workers, the birdsong giving a sense of benign shelter to the workers’ practical tasks. In the final section of the poem, the speaker is at home in Bali. He hears a tiny boisterous bird singing on the terracotta crown of a neighbor’s roof. But the heavenly noise would not have haunted the speaker so much if not for another sound, the “gentle yet abrasive scrape” of a gardener’s broom on uneven stone. The speaker, leaving his house to look for breakfast, sees men and women sweeping in front of their shops and homes, all eyes on the ground. “Why do men bow their heads?” the speaker asks. “To count their heavy steps? To hide their weeping?/Or is it the result of some celestial secret that they’re keeping?”

 

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Photo by R. Nemo Hill

The ability to dwell in mysteries and uncertainties, what Keats calls negative capability, is the mark of a strong poet. In his poem, Nemo has transformed Keats’s nightingale into a boisterous tropical bird, and Keats’s “melodious plot/of beechen green” into a banyan tree, first, and then, marvelously, into a broom. Keats would have appreciated, I venture to guess, Nemo’s ceaseless questing.

The bird and the broom recur in Nemo’s poetry, but in surprising and subtle ways. In the poem “The 50 Commands of the Nereids,” the hero of the poem is a figure like Odysseus. The Nereids are demanding sea nymphs, who want Odysseus to fetch for them Sea Chrysanthemums and Squid’s Ink, an Eel’s Glow and old Bloodstained Fish Hooks. His Scylla is an evil old Queen of Migraine, his Charybdis is an airplane crash. A thousand years pass. He finally escapes by rubbing a drop of blood on the nipples of a Nereid, and surfaces from the ocean to find the broom, in the form of a raft of splinters, and the bird, in the sign of the grey feather of an albatross.

And most surprisingly, most sublimely, the bird and the broom appear united in the title poem of the book. “In No Man’s Ear” looks at five cellos in a storefront. It sees them keeping silent, “ripening further into their design” in the “darkly polished patience” of their wood. It hears them yielding music, like a bird, to the touch of nightfall. I’d like to read the whole poem to you, so that you can see and hear those five cellos too. I’m not afraid of preempting Nemo, because if Nemo should choose to read this poem later, he will touch it in his inimitable manner.

In No Man’s Ear

The more spectacular gifts have been left for lesser spirits, who move in the world of action. – Thomas Merton

The simplest box from which one side’s been torn.
A shallow storefront open to the air.
There, upright, in a row, within—the forms
of five dark deep sleeps and five dark deep stares.

Upon the poorest and the meanest street
it’s shocking and yet at the same time soothing
to see through dust and noise and waning heat
these five dark cellos. Glistening. Unmoving.

The world rolls on, fueled by continual comment.
As everything and everyone pass by,
they stay—. They swell in stillness, keeping silent,
ripening further into their design.

They do not wait, in darkly polished patience,
for some strong hands to draw forth that low tone;
but yield instead, inaudibly, strings tensed,
to slow approaching dusk, its touch, alone.

Its violet height to their brown depths descending—
a music draws breath from the vanished wound.
Their low moan to its sigh at last ascending—
such trembling, and such stillness, thus attuned.

Upon the poorest meanest street, they wait.
Five monks, five strong-stringed simple souls, austere,
keeping vigil till the world’s end breaks
in waves unbearable, in no man’s ear.

Please put your hands together, and welcome No-man, from nowhere, R. Nemo Hill.

 

Reprinted by author’s permission, “In No Man’s Ear” appears in In No Man’s Ear by R. Nemo Hill (Dos Madres Press, 2016)

 

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Photo by Julio M. Perea

R. NEMO HILL is the author, in collaboration with painter Jeanne Hedstrom, of an illustrated novel organized according to the processes of medieval alchemy, Pilgrim’s Feather (Quantuck Lane Press, 2002), a narrative poem based upon a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, The Strange Music of Eric Zann (Hippocampus Press, 2004), a chapbook in heroic couplets, Prolegomena To An Essay on Satire (Modern Metrics/Exot Books, 2006), and a poetry collection, When Men Bow Down (Dos Madres Press, 2012).

 

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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