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Howard Nemerov's "Grace to Be Said at the Supermarket"

Updated on March 14, 2016
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Howard Nemerov

Source

Commentary

Howard Nemerov's "Grace to be Said at the Supermarket" might delight non-meat eaters, but it is not likely the poet had them in mind when he penned this poem.

Howard Nemerov's "Grace to be Said at the Supermarket" consists of three unrimed versagraphs (versagraphs). The former poet laureate's theme dramatizes the contrast between the reality of animals' bodies and the way they seem when packaged to sell in groceries stores.

First Versagraph: "This God of ours, the Great Geometer"
The speaker metaphorically compares meat handlers to God. He is not being blasphemous; he is merely demonstrating the odd power that these meat processors possess and exhibit as they turn a cow into beef or pig into pork. Seemingly, most people would balk at eating decayed cow or pig flesh, but when called beef and pork, the reality somehow becomes much less obnoxious.

The speaker claims that these meatpacking "Gods," who are "Great Geometers," help us out by putting those animal shapes into "cubes," "cylinders," "ellipsoids," "squares and oblongs with all the edges beveled."

By placing the flesh of animals into geometric shapes, these meat workers, these Gods, these Great Geometers eliminate the reality that those shapes once lived and breathed, circulated blood, reproduced, and had feelings just as the humans who consume them do. Those animals may not have the brain capacity of the human consumer, but they nevertheless walk around in bodies that work pretty much identically to their human counterparts.

Second Versagraph: "Praise Him, He hath conferred aesthetic distance"
In the second versagraph, the speaker feigns a prayer, saying "Praise Him, He hath conferred aesthetic distance / Upon our appetites." Those geometric shapes that appear bloodless and sanitized represent something very different from the living animal before it was slaughtered.

And not only are they different from the living animal, but they are also very different from the mess of severed flesh they become during the process that takes those animals from their living form to the packaged form. The human sensibility, especially of modern humankind, does not care to be bothered with the reality of animal life and the bloody, savage process that kills them and shapes their flesh for human consumption.

If most of the consumers were to see that bloody mess, they would lose that "aesthetic distance," and their appetites for eating animals would be averted—at least, the speaker seems to believe such.

But as the speaker asserts, that "mess of our birthright, our unseemly need" is assuaged because the meatpackers perform this miracle of transformation: "Through [the meat processors] the brutes / Enter the pure Euclidean kingdom of number." As clean, packaged shapes, the animals and thus the human consumer are "Free of their bulging and blood-swollen lives."

No longer pulsing with life, no longer breathing, eating, drinking, the animals "come to us holy, in cellophane / Transparencies, in the mystical body." The human consumer is spared the ugliness of the meat packing process by the skill of the meat packer and his command of geometry.

Third Versagraph: "That we may look unflinchingly on death"
The third versagraph consists merely of an unrimed couplet, except that the final line does sport an internal rime. After all of the talk of Euclidian geometry and the clean shapes of former living animals, the speaker then avers that the purpose of this process is simply, "That we may look unflinchingly on death / As the greatest good, like a philosopher should."

No need to flinch when the product is presented merely as food in clean squares and cubes in cellophane, and no need to flinch when not reminded of death. The geometry has eliminated death, as miraculously as God would do.

Nemerov, reading his poem, "Thanksgrieving"

The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov

The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov
The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov

Includes "Grace to be Said at the Supermarket"

 

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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