Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

The thanks of a God-fearing atheist


In Spain, where I live, today is the day of Saint Cecilia — ¡ Muchas felicidades a todas las Cecilias y los Cecilios ! *— but back in the USA where I was born and raised it is, as you have probably heard, Thanksgiving. A  time to give thanks for  all the good things in our lives, including life itself. But, to whom?

Others, I know, thank God, whatever they mean by that. I have no doubt that their gods exist, in the minds of their believers, and that they are powerful, which is why I fear and respect them. They impel men and women to do extraordinary things, from acts of great bravery on behalf of others to acts of great terror, as in every religious war. But since no such magical being has been able to survive for long in my imagination (several have traipsed through it, but none could withstand the doubts and laughter), I need to find someone or something else to thank for all the good things in this world.

And I have. Besides all my direct ancestors, they include, very especially, the protagonists of this poem by Howard Nemerov, which I recall whenever I need solace from forces beyond my own.

  • The Makers

Who can remember back to the first poets,
The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus?
No one has remembered that far back
Or now considers, among the artifacts,
And bones and cantilevered inference
The past is made of, those first and greatest poets,
So lofty and disdainful of renown
They left us not a name to know them by.

They were the ones that in whatever tongue
Worded the world, that were the first to say
Star, water, stone, that said the visible
And made it bring invisibles to view
In wind and time and change, and in the mind
Itself that minded the hitherto idiot world
And spoke the speechless world and sang the towers
Of the city into the astonished sky.

They were the first great listeners, attuned
To interval, relationship, and scale,
The first to say above, beneath, beyond,
Conjurors with love, death, sleep, with bread and wine,
Who having uttered vanished from the world
Leaving no memory but the marvelous
Magical elements, the breathing shapes
And stops of breath we build our Babels of.


* My friend  Cecilio corrected me yesterday. Indeed, the 22d of November is the day of Saint Cecilia, patron of musicians, and so is the day to send best wishes to all women and girls named  Cecilia. But it is not the day of Saint Cecilio,  patron of the city of Granada; his day is the  1st of February.

Howard Nemerov, 1920–1991