W. S. Merwin, born in 1927, is one of the most lasting and continually productive of American poets. In addition to his own multiple volumes, beginning in 1952 with A Mask for Janus, he has been a distinguished translator of poetry in French, Spanish, Latin and Portuguese. Obvious-ly he appreciates quality when he finds it. His long elegiac poem, “Lament for the Makers,” guides us through those he has admired and held as friends for half a century. It is a roll call of the greats, from Dylan Thomas to James Merrill, even as it is also a sequence of losses. He has found in these past masters “the true sound of brevity/ that will go on after me.” Reading them convinced him that the “presence I had known/ sometimes in words would not be gone.” The voice of good poetry is enduring.
In 2005, when Merwin issued his New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press), not surprisingly he gave it the title Migration. The cover art is a beautiful aerial photograph of Lowell, Ga., called “Snow Geese in Migration.” This sense of being in movement, and part of a directed passage through the world, this attention to “the high wavering trails of migrant birds” (“Another River”), enters his poetry at many places. In a poem called “Teachers,” he admits that “I dream of the first words/ of books of voyages/ sure tellings.” These have been his real teachers.
In Merwin’s poetry there is an even more persistent theme, not unrelated to the migration of the living. He is preoccupied with the darkness that surrounds and engulfs us in the universe, and also with our fugitive but astonishing experiences of light—“the blaze in widened eyes,” he calls it in “The Chinese Mountain Fox.” You cannot compel the light, he believes. This is what interests him in what are known as “the Marfa Lights,” elusive flashes often reported in the Glass Moun-tains of West Texas. All sorts of people claim to see them, but you can never be sure.
In “The Hours of Darkness,” a blind old man says to the poet: “How often you return/ to the subject of not seeing/ to the state of blindness.” Yet the poem ends declaring “we see the youth of the light/ in all its ages/ we see it as bright/ points of animals/ made long ago out of night.” Stars, that take so long to reach us with their radiance, are for Merwin “the youth of heaven the ages of light” (“At Night before Spring”). Yet he named his latest collection (2009) The Shadow of Sirius, suggesting that the Dog Star, brightest in the sky, does not truly dispel night.
W. S. Merwin was brought up in an aura of belief; his father “was a country preacher/ in a one-store town” (“Inheritance”). But he has also been affected by the skepticism of the modern mind. These two powers contend in his poems. We see this vacillation at work in a poem entitled “To Purity,” from Present Company (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).
Merwin begins “To Purity” with the line “I have heard so much about you.” What can he mean? In recent decades pure food and drugs, that is to say, pure products undiluted and undoctored, have become a big public concern, as has purity of water. We want what we ingest to be free of impurities. But also, anyone with a sense of ritual and religion has learned much about lustrations and ceremonies of purification. Under the term katharos in Kittel’s New Testament Dictionary, we read this: “By associating what is holy and what is clean religion fashions a starting-point for the ultimate moral spiritualizing of the concept of purity.” Merwin, writing in his 70s, also would remember an era when chaperones and courtship were in order, and modesty and purity were ideals for the relation between the sexes. So, however taken, we need to let this term “purity” connote a strong longing for an ideal, reachable or not.
Next comes a baffling statement: “if you claim to be you/ I will know it is not true.” Isn’t this self-contradictory? No, it is not in the character of purity to advertise or tout itself, to trumpet its own identity. Ego is not consonant with purity.
The poet, incidentally, is addressing purity as a “you.” Is this merely as expected in a personification, a literary license in other words, or does it imply something more personal? English literature, we know, has a string of wonderful “To” poems, as in “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. This approach enlivens an ordinary musing and surely attracted Merwin, for the title of every poem in Present Company begins with “to”—“To Impatience,” “To Smoke,” “To the Dog Stars.” But does not the “to” in “To Purity” also express a genuine tribute?
The speaker says that if, by contrast with any self-announcing, purity keeps quiet, he will listen. He will have his antennae out, with the “old mixed feelings.” This avatar of purity could be the real thing, although appearance once more could be deceiving. Doubt is at work in his mind along with persistent belief and yearning.
Merwin, who has always been entranced by light, especially “the white light from/ the beginning”—from the Big Bang or the pronouncement “Let there be light”—sees it reverberate in the bright spectrum of garden colors. But “garden colors” can also suggest the original garden, Eden, the earthly paradise, where we first watch the spectrum of emotions and passions complicating the white ideal. As to “a face, an eye,” lighting up, they certainly suggest and make us hope for an interior pure source.
Reading “To Purity,” we notice its seamlessness, the omission of capital letters and of all punctuation marks. The syntax, the grammatical construction, is exact, but the reader has to spot where periods and commas would normally be for pauses, and where, by contrast, one must read on past the end of a line without pausing (so as to complete the phrasing). Merwin makes do with a basic, simple vocabulary—generic terms that would not send anyone to the dictionary. His aim always is thoughtful probing rather than vividness, philosophic musing (although he scorns philosophy!) and geographic or biographic reference. His poems often refer to valley, river and ridge, but with no detail that indicates Hawaii, where he has lived for 30 years.
The Shadow of Sirius—winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize—is a book of retrospection. He revisits his early life, touching on so much that he cherishes—his parents, to begin with (see the touching elegy “Secrets”); incidents of youth; his dogs; his wife, Paula. But how fugitive is this memorable world!
Laboring to sew on a button, the poet says of his mother, “I open an old picture of you/ who always did such things by magic.” The poem has to conclude, however: “but the picture has/ faded suddenly/ spots have marred it/ maybe it is past repair/ I have only what I remember” (“A Likeness”). Alas, we are not mindful of the marvelous when it happens, for we are too busy somehow; and then it gets away.
In a poem recreating the house and fields where he once lived, Merwin writes: “here surfacing through the long/ backlight of my recollection/ is this other world veiled/ in its illusion of being known/ at the moment of daybreak/ when the dreams are all at once gone” (“The First Days”). Merwin ends the poem “in a dream of clear depths,” with what seems a wistful smile: “I glimpse/ far out of reach the lucent days/ from which I am now made.”
The aging master, all too aware of the shadow obscuring our sight of things and aware of the encroaching darkness as well, can still ponder what is on the other side of night and still be lucent, thank goodness, about the great benefit of living.