Friday, February 23, 2007

On W.S. Merwin's The Lice

I have the impression that W.S. Merwin’s The Lice, visionary, apocalyptic, yet spare and pared-down, is not much read anymore, although it made an enormous impression when first published in 1967. Indeed, Merwin himself, while still a prominent figure in the contemporary American poetic scene, seems to have fallen into some neglect. He is widely esteemed and honored, but not widely read. (He has also been immensely influential on many of today's writers who may not even realize the source of that influence.) This may be an inevitable consequence of becoming a literary elder statesman. And Merwin’s work has rarely again attained the intensity of The Lice.

But many of that book’s poems, with their poetic, political, and moral urgency, their desperate sense of speaking at and against the end, are even more necessary now, in our new world order of perpetual war against not only various demonized others both outside and within America but against the earth itself, than they were when the book was first published.

These are poems not written to an agenda but that create an agenda, preserving and recreating the world in passionate words. Merwin has always been concerned with the relationship between morality and aesthetics, weighing both terms equally. His poems speak back to the fallen world not as tracts but as artistic events.

The Asians Dying

When the forests have been destroyed their darkness remains
The ash the great walker follows the possessors
Nothing they will come to is real
Nor for long
Over the watercourses
Like ducks in the time of the ducks
The ghosts of the villages trail in the sky
Making a new twilight

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

The nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed
The dead go away like bruises
The blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlands
Pain the horizon
Overhead the seasons rock
They are paper bells
Calling to nothing living

The possessors move everywhere under Death their star
Like columns of smoke they advance into the shadows
Like thin flames with no light
They with no past
And fire their only future

When the War Is Over

When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again

The Animals

All these years behind windows
With blind crosses sweeping the tables

And myself tracking over empty ground
Animals I never saw

I with no voice

Remembering names to invent for them
Will any come back will one

Saying yes

Saying look carefully yes
We will meet again

For a Coming Extinction

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day

The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
And ours

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And foreordaining as stars
Our sacrifices

Join your word to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

These poems are taken from Migration: New and Selected Poems, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2005.


Mark Granier said...

Thanks for these Reginald. Beautifully understated and powerful work. Merwin's amazing poem on extinction reminded me immediately of Peter Kane Dufault's poem about a mastodon:

A similar grandeur.

Blogaulaire said...

You are a poet of ideas. From other posts, I began to think you were going in another direction.

Merwin's books were also well made, physically. I find that as books they stand out on the book shelves at the used bookstore.

I do have a bit of difficulty asking for forgiveness from whales . . I sense their plight and their menace and have gone out in a boat to get as close to whales in the St. Lawrence as possible. But I never thought I could communicate with them What I do feel is that we are in the same space, the same world.

Ellen Flookes said...

WS Merwin and Wislawa Szymborska have shown me, in the kindest ways, how often the tables are turned in life. Thanks to them, I continue to ask: What prevents me from perceiving these realities? I found the contemplations in The Lice extraordinary and life affirming. Forty years beyond its conception, thank you Mr. Merwin.

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The Nortones said...

When I started researching my piece on Merwin's The Lice for Open Letters Monthly, I was so glad to come across this appreciation of the book, which is indeed devastating and jolting, not to be forgotten.

R.I.P. Reginald -- your critical acuity and love of poetry are missed.

-Ingrid Norton

Odeon said...

Excited by Mr. Merwin's appointment to the position of Poet Laureate, I started searching for certain poems. I came across Mr. Shepherd's tribute to him and some of his great poems. I am so sorry for the passing of Reginald Shepherd. I can tell he was an extraordinary artist, friend, and teacher. I feel blessed that I came across him in my pursuit of poetry. How beautifully apt.

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