Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Howard Nemerov - The Vacuum (1955) (wife or dog)


The house is so quiet now
The vacuum cleaner sulks in the corner closet
Its bag limp as a stopped lung, its mouth
Grinning into the floor, maybe at my
Slovenly life, my dog-dead youth.

I've lived this way long enough,
But when my old woman died her soul
Went into that vacuum cleaner, and I can't bear
To see the bag swell like a belly, eating the dust
And the woolen mice, and begin to howl

Because there is old filth everywhere
She used to crawl, in the corner and under the stair.
I know now how life is cheap as dirt,
And still the hungry, angry heart
Hangs on and howls, biting at air.

I have had multiple reactions to this poem for the time that I have been reading it.  Who is speaking?  Who is being spoken of?  What is being spoken of?  What words have multiple uses?
I know there is a vacuum in a closet;  there is a vacuum left by a death.
Perhaps a dog has died, and recently too, his 'dog-dead youth' being the first months of bereavement. 'The house is so quiet now...'  Not only because the vacuum is stored away but the dog no longer howls or bites the air.  Who has not seen a dog snap and bark at a vacuum in use?  The vacuum with its grinning mouth howls back. 
The narrator says that his old woman has died but it couldn't have been a human who crawled 'in the corner, and under the stair.'  A dog would do that.  This sounds more like a man who lived alone with a dog which served as a substitute human companion.
'life is cheap as dirt' - a common thought for someone bereaved and unaccepting, but 'the hungry angry heart hangs on' howling.
There is a richness to this poem that I can chew on for a long time.

1 comment:

  1. interesting. in my analysis I took the crawling "in the corner, and under the stair" to mean that the home had belonged to his wife's family. She, as a baby, crawled in the corner and under the stairs. The thought of her childhood happening all around in the home just adds to the man's depression.