“Going Away” Howard Nemerov

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“Their Suddenly Forbidden Houses”


Americans move a lot. Often it is jobs that uproot them and carry them, like feathery seeds in the wind, to new pastures. Sometimes family concerns are the cause. Retirement, too, is often the driver once you’ve loaded all your earthly goods (and there are far too many) onto the cargo space of a moving truck.

When I was young and naive, I thought moving was a way to leave your troubles behind. If you hoped for a new life as a new person, I figured, you need only change your zip code.

Since then I’ve learned the lie in that theory. You can’t leave yourself behind. And you certainly can’t change who you are as a person like the flip of a switch. There’s the hardwiring to reckon with. There’s the lifetime experiences that resist the clean idea of a tabula rasa.

These thoughts rose to the surface when I read Howard Nemerov’s poem below. It’s a neat mix of concrete images and abstract thought, the artful blending that leads to the heart of any successful poem. Let’s take a ride with him:


Going Away
Howard Nemerov

Now as the year turns toward its darkness
the car is packed, and time come to start
driving west. We have lived here
for many years and been more or less content;
now we are going away. That is how
things happen, and how into new places,
among other people, we shall carry
our lives with their peculiar memories
both happy and unhappy but either way
touched with a strange tonality
of what is gone but inalienable, the clear
and level light of a late afternoon
out on the terrace, looking to the mountains,
drinking with friends. Voices and laughter
lifted in still air, in a light
that seemed to paralyze time.
We have had kindness here, and some
unkindness; now we are going on.
Though we are young enough still
And militant enough to be resolved,
Keeping our faces to the front, there is
A moment, after saying all farewells,
when we taste the dry and bitter dust
of everything that we have said and done
for many years, and our mouths are dumb,
and the easy tears will not do. Soon
the north wind will shake the leaves,
the leaves will fall. It may be
never again that we shall see them,
the strangers who stand on the steps,
smiling and waving, before the screen doors
of their suddenly forbidden houses.


Though much of the poem deals with inner thoughts, hopes, dreams, pleasant memories and bitter doubts, the end takes us to another truth: those we leave behind. It seems often that friends from one location become strangers once we’ve touched down in another. This despite our pledges to stay in touch, to visit, to remember.

Going away, then, often pulls us toward the blank promise of tabula rasa whether we wish it to or not.

And the north wind shakes the leaves….