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Time and the Poet

by Eliot Schain

The Moon Before Morning, by W.S. Merwin, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington, 2014, 120 pages, $24.00 hardcover.

The Shadow of Sirius, by W.S. Merwin, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington, 2009, 130 pages, $16.00 paperback.

Both available at Small Press Distribution,

W.S. MERWIN’S LAST TWO BOOKS, The Shadow of Sirius and The Moon Before Morning, are a revelation. Since poetry is often mercurial—can stun without warning or leave one cold—it’s rare to have the experience of returning to a poet and being consistently astonished. Such has been my experience with these two books.

Merwin is tackling the mysteries of life and impending death with a grace and dexterity of imagination that leaves one of any age wondering if this is more than simply poetry, but bordering on prophecy, in the manner of Buddha or Jesus. Merwin’s commitment to Buddhism is no secret, and it shows in the work, as time and again he returns to the present moment for relief from tempestuous memory, and from impending dissolution.

Here’s a brief example from “Dew Light”:

only the day and I are here with no

before or after…

Or from “Voice of Summer”:

…in the moment when it calls

there is no memory

only the hush of the pasture

with the sheep in the evening

all the years at once

in the lengthening shadows

By returning to the present moment, Merwin is returning to the well-visited spiritual truth of the eternal now as a place of surcease. He is ever-conscious of the past—of memory, of loss, and how these shadow humans—but by concentrating on the present moment the poet, and the reader, transcend difficulty and carry on. Here in “Still Morning” he again addresses this theme:

voices murmur in a shadow

as I watch one patch of sunlight moving

across the green carpet

in a building

gone long ago and all the voices

silent and each word they said in that time

silent now

while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

The poem reminds one of Thoreau’s parable about the artist of Kouroo, in which the artist—a walking-stick whittler—focuses so intently on the act of creation that the illusions of passing time collapse and the artist remains in an ever-provident present. Similarly, Merwin’s voice luxuriates in a present that mitigates fear, grief, regret, even the mundaneness of daily routine.

In the hands of a narrower artist, returning to this theme might border on the sanctimonious. However Merwin is also able to employ post-modern irony and lend impishness to living in the here and now. In “Theft of Morning,” the speaker begins by listening to rain at daybreak, then remembers what he “should be doing”—the nagging voice most of us hear so often—but he returns, impudently, to Buddhist awareness:

with a shadowing sense

that I am stealing the moment

from something else

that I ought to be doing

so the pleasure of stealing is part of it

To my mind, this reinforces Merwin’s bona fides as an American—a visionary artist intent on integrating East and West, replete with the questing consciousness that tests everything, including the peace of meditative transcendence.

And of course memory is not without value. Besides the emotional richness of it, memory can also serve a political voice, which Merwin allows himself. In one of the most startling poems, “Forgotten Fountain,” he sets his timeless stage by describing water dripping from a cliff—lets nature revolve peacefully around it—then alludes to the fountain’s impending destruction by the industrious people of the village, and then to the image of a young man leaving for the Western Front and the Battle of Verdun. The effect is stunning in the way he acknowledges the limits of mindfulness without denigrating it, even as he confronts the dangers of our insatiable ambition.

In another favorite, “The River One Summer Day,” the poet describes a “timeless” river that contains the history of the industrialized city around it, with strings of barges, ferries, railroad trains—everything still and captured like a snapshot, together in the eternal present:

whole railroad trains held still as breaths

hypnotized onto strings of barges

and the day-tour steamer glitters without

moving in front of the glittering

silence of the city it keeps passing

like a clock hand and a liner arriving

with its tugs out ahead like dark kites

in no wind carries without a sound

the whole of arrival it is still

there in that changeless river

Masterful! How he incorporates the past while remaining loyal to the idea that all of time is now, and everything that ever was still exists, or better yet, is still becoming. And that transcendence within the present is a source of salvation in an otherwise painful world—relief from the losses we accrue and the memories that shadow us.

But again, memory is a rich vein, not to be ignored. And perhaps the greatest riches come from the memory of lost love. To this end, Merwin writes of departed family members and friends, but also his dog Koa, who serves to show how the spirit of the dead can enrich the eternal now.

Here from “Dream of Koa Returning”:

I looked out to the river

flowing beyond the big trees

and all at once you

were just behind me

lying watching me

as you did years ago

and not stirring at all

when I reached back slowly

hoping to touch

your long amber fur

and there we stayed without moving

listening to the river

and I wondered whether

it might be a dream

whether you might be a dream

whether we both were a dream

in which neither of us moved

The fullness of love, even the inevitable loss of it, is worthy of remembering and reconstituting.

In “Youth,” the poet offers another delicate handling of this theme, with a nod to both the joys and the agonies:

      …only when I

began to think of losing you did I

recognize you when you were already

part memory part distance remaining

mine in the ways that I learn to miss you

from what we cannot hold the stars are made

That last line is among my favorites—Shakespearean really—and it suggests our human connections, even in the past, are worth maintaining, for they can drive the dreams that sustain us later. And memory, even when dark, completes us. This is central to “The Prow of the Ark,” in which the flood that caused Noah to build the ark and save us, is actually a flood of “forgetting,” and when the ark finally lands, after forty days, our shadows find us again. It’s an image that has clung to me since my first thrilling reading of it.

A note on style: Merwin’s has evolved over the years into longer breaths, but the truncation and enjambments still illuminate his themes. He goes for speed, often without subordinating or coordinating conjunctions, to leave room for mystery and unspecified emotion, much as Dickinson’s does. He eschews punctuation to give us better entry into the interstices between the earthly world and the spiritual one, between past and present, present and future, between the voice of the poet and the echoes in the head of the reader. Here is “The Nomad Flute” in its entirety:

You sang to me once sing to me now

let me hear your long lifted note

survive with me

the star is fading

I can think farther than that but I forget

do you hear me

do you still hear me

does your air

remember you

o breath of morning

night song morning song

I have with me

all that I do not know

I have lost none of it

but I know better now

than to ask you

where you learned that music

where any of it came from

once there were lions in China

I will listen until the flute stops

and the light is old again<

There is exquisite yearning to reconnect. Perhaps to the spirit of the youthful nomad, perhaps to another soul, perhaps to the spirit of being that hangs in the air of morning…of night—that waits for us to give it voice in song. For what we do not know is as important as what we do. And communication between humans is both exalted and impossible. Merwin maintains hope is a glorious thing, which is not always a feature of contemporary poetry, nor a feature of Buddhist contemplation. To my mind, he positions himself wisely, not just to celebrate the present, or the past, or even the future, but to access a voice that lifts into the ethereal mixing of substance and form, so as to favor neither past nor present, neither darkness nor light, but unify them in a satisfying weave that intuits eternal, spiritual understanding:

Through the trees and across the river

with its surface the color of steel

on a rainy morning late in spring

the splintered skyline of the city

glitters in a silence we all know

but cannot touch or reach for with words

and I am the only one who can

remember now over there among

the young leaves brighter than the daylight

another light through the tall windows

a sunbeam sloping like a staircase

and from beyond it my father’s voice

telling about a mote in an eye

that was like a mote in a sunbeam

            (from “By the Avenue”)

Here we get the ineffable that exists between what we sense and what we can say: “a silence we all know / but cannot touch or reach for with words.” And we get the voice of the departed, alive still—his father’s voice exhorting the son to remain in the sunbeam, the birthright of us all, if we can let the gifts of faith keep the Self afloat.

Remember how the naked soul

comes to language and at once knows

loss and distance and believing

                        (from “Note”)

The soul knows loss, the soul knows horizon, the soul knows faith. And language, the mysterious mix of it that a poet like Merwin employs, becomes a vehicle for sustaining all we know, and all the intimations of what we do not know. While clearly the language of a mature poet, the poems found here are revelatory, still mysterious, and profoundly moving for one at any age.

Eliot Schain’s books include American Romance and Westering Angels, both available from Zeitgeist Press. After receiving his M.F.A. from Columbia University, he served as Program Director for the Poetry Society of America. For twenty years he has taught English, history, psychology, and religions in Martinez, California. Earlier this year, 2014, he organized the EcoPoetry Festival at John Muir House, in Martinez, featuring noted poets, and read at the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival. He lives in Berkeley.

— posted November 2014

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