W. S. Merwin
Alfred A. Knopf, $21
Writing an essay, nearly three decades ago, in which I attempted to present some account of Merwin’s achievement in the first fifteen years of his art — six volumes of poetry, four verse plays, many translations, and a number of prose texts, the latter more often travel pieces than criticism — I happened to invoke Tennyson as a “punctual” exponent of contemporary feeling comparable to Merwin; now it seems to me that my analogy would have been more answerable had I waited thirty years — and another six volumes of poetry — to cite the earlier poet: “The hills are shadows and they flow / From form . . . .” For Merwin’s new book of 64 linked poems — linked by theme, tone, trope, and fastidiously evolved style — is certainly the closest any modern poet (by which I mean a poet committed as Merwin has so faithfully been to the energies of fragmentation, erasure, and all those energies we identify as negative) has come to that glorious invention of Tennyson’s which was to have such a remarkable progeny in the next century, the poetic sequence published, anonymously, in 1850, In Memoriam.
Not even Thomas Hardy, I venture, so loyally worked his visions of landscape together as Merwin has done in this new poem (I make it out to be one poem in 64 sections, which, though they have titles, have no punctuation; they flow from form, indeed, yet they offer the reader no difficulty whatever, so magisterial has Merwin’s control of lyric syntax, and narrative order become), and the consistency, the inclusive and transforming vitality of the work makes it the crowning achievement of Merwin’s long — and extremely diversified — career.
Of course there has been what Emerson has called a long foreground within Merwin’s own oeuvre — the last six poems of his previous book Travels (1993) are evidently studies for this chain of meditations, and the three prose narratives gathered in The Lost Upland (1992) are a sort of spell laid upon the ground the poet will cover so fluently with what the French call the nappe of his undeterred apprehensions.
And there are literary “exempla” — not sources but signposts in the work of other writers of site and habitation to which Merwin has been attentive: Turgenev’s “Byezhin Meadow” (from the Sportsman’s Sketches), and even more congruently, Chekhov’s patient rhapsody “The Steppe”: It is no accident that these Russian occasions seem so immediate, for Merwin has always ransacked world literature for the means to his realizations, never more fruitfully than in the undeviating splendor of this landlocked sequence.
There is, as in Tennyson’s poem, a repeating formula which keeps the reader aware that what he has read will be echoed in what awaits; not a recurrent rhyme scheme but a temporal structure almost as insistent as the great Victorian’s: Sections usually begin with a notification that the experience has already occurred, ab illo tempore. There will be an opening phrase such as “once,” or “at the beginning,” or “this was the day when,” or “in the long evening of April” — sometimes extended to constitute an opening line, as “one dark afternoon in the middle of the century,” sometimes condensed to no more than a decisive phrase, such as “long after” or “all that time ago.” Then comes the argument, in the operatic sense of that word, a sort of struggle the poet has with himself to endure whatever loss or loosening he has to report concerning this region of southwest France. And then the sign-off, the removal of his consciousness from the circumstance which is perceived to be one that will continue without him, an energy or just a propriety, a tempering that transcends anything so dubious, so mythical as “self.”
Whereupon the difference, indeed the discrepancy from my likening of The Vixen to In Memoriam is made flagrant: Tennyson’s poem is a drama of accommodation to the loss of a beloved person, whereas Merwin knows no others (except insofar as the occasional peasant, an emanation of the land, refuses to acknowledge him) — his poem is concerned with presences, rather, and always with processes, often heartbreaking in their acknowledgment of failure and degradation, but stoic too in their discovery of that ongoing current or energy which the poet, in his destitution, can merely acknowledge as beyond him. Not over or beneath, but in every sense past.
I choose, for illustration, the section named “Completion” from the middle of the text; this seems to me almost diagrammatic in its statement of what the poet is doing (or not doing), and finely representative (it even has the vixen in it) of the imagery that bears the entire text to its memorable departure (it never really concludes):
- Seen from afterward the time appears to have been
- all of a piece which of course it was but how seldom
- it seemed that way when it was still happening and was
- the air through which I saw it as I went on thinking
- of somewhere else in some other time whether gone
- or never to arrive and so it was divided
- however long I was living it and I was where
- it kept coming together and where it kept moving apart
- while home was a knowledge that did not suit every occasion
- but remained familiar and foreign as the untitled days
- and what I knew better than to expect followed me
- into the garden and I would stand with friends among
- the summer oaks and be a city in a different
- age and the dread news arrived on the morning when the
- plum trees
- opened into silent flower and I could not let go
- of what I longed to be gone from and it would be that way
- without end I thought unfinished and divided
- by nature and then a voice would call from the field
- in the evening or the fox would bark in the cold night
- and that instant with each of its stars just where it was
- in its unreturning course would appear even then
- entire and itself the way it all looks from afterward.
Merwin (nearing 70) argues with himself about the possibility of time’s being not a matter of sequence — one damned thing after another — but of immediate realization. Perhaps there is no “way it all looks from afterward” but only what it means in an eternal Now; he risks inconsistency from section to section with all the bravado of Whitman (or indeed Tennyson). Fourteen pages after “Completion” — placed so critically in the middle of things, rather than at the end — he observes with a sort of sour satisfaction in “Distant Morning”: “none of it could be held or denied or summoned back / none of it would be given its meaning later,” and offers himself the only comfort he can take — the imminent realities of earthly life, presences indeed, miracles of fastidious noticing, the tawny owl clenched in the oak, the nuthatch prospecting, the gray adder gathering itself on its gray stone “with the ringing of a cricket suspended around it,” the hedgehogs sleeping in the deep brush, the badgers and foxes in their home ground, the bats high under the eaves. . . . This poet, ages ago so convinced, so won over by the vocabulary of silence, of emptiness and absence, is now the laureate of observation, of exactitude and accountability. Who once was, as he writes in the title section, “sibyl of the extinguished” has made himself, by a certainly religious process of attending, warden of time’s river, “bearing the sense of it / without questions,” sense now being a word of the richest ambiguity, the most diverse gifts.
I should like to end by recurring to the virtuosity of Merwin’s sentences which no longer break off, or down, or even up as they used to do in his books of ecstatic impoverishment. Now the unpunctuated lines of 12 to 15 syllables make use, rather, of enjambment as their only markers, the rest, or rather the restlessness being left to an unbroken voice patiently weaving its account of presence, almost carelessly alluding to Ovid or Hoelderlin, flashing back to the poet’s childhood “being taken home from the circus / late at night in the rumble seat of the old car,” and forward to the depredations of la chose allemande, as De Gaulle used to call World War II, but always closing with the delicacies and brutalities of those French stones, those iron implements, and especially “the eyes of animals upon me they are all here”. . . . Life sentences. No American poet since Whitman has kept better faith with the one genius of Tennyson’s poetic sequence which constitutes the one poem, the elegy which is restoration, the lament which is custody.