Howard Nemerov

Here you will find the Poem Money of poet Howard Nemerov


An introductory lecture

This morning we shall spend a few minutes 
Upon the study of symbolism, which is basic 
To the nature of money. I show you this nickel. 
Icons and cryptograms are written all over 
The nickel: one side shows a hunchbacked bison 
Bending his head and curling his tail to accommodate 
The circular nature of money. Over him arches 
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and, squinched in 
Between that and his rump, E PLURIBUS UNUM, 
A Roman reminiscence that appears to mean 
An indeterminately large number of things 
All of which are the same. Under the bison 
A straight line giving him a ground to stand on 
Reads FIVE CENTS. And on the other side of our nickel 
There is the profile of a man with long hair 
And a couple of feathers in the hair; we know 
Somehow that he is an American Indian, and 
He wears the number nineteen-thirty-six. 
Right in front of his eyes the word LIBERTY, bent 
To conform with the curve of the rim, appears 
To be falling out of the sky Y first; the Indian 
Keeps his eyes downcast and does not notice this; 
To notice it, indeed, would be shortsighted of him. 
So much for the iconography of one of our nickels, 
Which is now becoming a rarity and something of 
A collectors? item: for as a matter of fact 
There is almost nothing you can buy with a nickel, 
The representative American Indian was destroyed 
A hundred years or so ago, and his descendants? 
Relations with liberty are maintained with reservations, 
Or primitive concentration camps; while the bison, 
Except for a few examples kept in cages, 
Is now extinct. Something like that, I think, 
Is what Keats must have meant in his celebrated 
Ode on a Grecian Urn. 
Notice, in conclusion, 
A number of circumstances sometimes overlooked 
Even by experts: (a) Indian and bison, 
Confined to obverse and reverse of the coin, 
Can never see each other; they are looking 
In opposite directions, the bison past 
The Indian?s feathers, the Indian past 
The bison?s tail; (c) they are upside down 
To one another; (d) the bison has a human face 
Somewhat resembling that of Jupiter Ammon. 
I hope that our studies today will have shown you 
Something of the import of symbolism 
With respect to the understanding of what is symbolized.