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On "Beginning"


Cary Nelson

One early source for this poem is Merwin's "The Frozen Sea," a poem Antarctic exploration and about the human experience of that landscape. The ices and snow are "the very flesh / No different only colder as was / The sea itself"; they reflect a "whiteness that we could not bear. It / Turned bloody in our carnal eyes." The wind there shrieks of a violent purification; it would "freeze out / The mortal flaw in us." Its "screaming silence" fills the explorers' minds with hollow animal voices that boast "their / Guts would feed on God." The absolute whiteness and sheer antagonism of the setting invoke comparable human extremes--transcendence and violence. The men are at the center of a vortex; they are so small, these figures "around whom the howling / world turned." Only a "soulless needle" can tell them where they are, though even the magnetic compass is useless near the poles, where the dipping needle stands vertical. They have come to a point of origin that inversely suggests closure. Merwin describes this journey to whiteness in lines he will later directly echo in "Beginning": we have come, he writes, "to the pure south, and whichever way we turned / Was north, the sides of the north everywhere." The choices of direction are infinite, but they are all the same. With the sides of the north surrounding them, they are not liberated but confined. Time seems to have stopped; it awaits only the imprint of the law. In a poem called "The Present" he writes: "The walls join hands and / It is tomorrow."

"Beginning" realizes the figural potential of the earlier poem. The ambiguous title, without the restricting definite article, is at once noun, verb, and adjective; it makes this creation-poem coextensive with all time. It is an eschatology of origins; it binds the course of history to a single core of emptiness. The landscape is again pure whiteness--a white plain under a white sky, possibly separated by the thin seam of the horizon, but perhaps not distinguishable at all. Yet this whiteness is not of substance but of essence; like the sun, it "hangs / in a cage of light." The poem begins "long before spring," which sets it not only before the first spring or the first birth, but also as a seed or source within every renewal. The poem's distance is one of inaccessible proximity; within us and outside time, its beginning is a true origin--an end.

Within these hemispheres of light, like the germ of the poem's movement, is a black needle's eye. The image of the needle's eye combines a sense of the compass, its needle now ascending directly out of its center, with an allusion to Christ's words, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The biblical reference occurs in three earlier poems about Merwin's grandparents, as in his grandmother's belief that you could get "through ... the needle's eye if / you made up your mind straight and narrow." The needle's eye is a nexus for these past connections and also an image of vision as a rite of passage. As he writes later in "The Way Ahead":

An eye is to come

to what was never seen

the beginning opening

and beholding the end

falling into it

Out of this eye, whose pupil is a doorway into the nothingness of all things, out of this eye which is his nest, rises the king of the black cranes. Metaphorically, kingship here suggests he is the foremost of his kind, selected to bear a destiny of dark flight. Merwin may be aware of the legend alluded to in Christian art that there is indeed a king of the cranes whom the other cranes, each standing on one foot to stay awake, encircle and guard as he sleeps at night. If the legend is relevant here, it can add another dimension to the nest image: the king of the cranes rises out of preexistent watchfulness. In both Western and Eastern art the crane is frequently a positive symbol of justice, vigilance, loyalty, and good works. In Egyptian iconography the crane is associated with the ibis-headed god Thoth, spokesman and arbiter for the gods, patron of wisdom and the arts, and inventor of writing. Yet the crane is also known in a wide range of myths as a sly and wily bird, whose enticements to humans are offered in duplicity. So the crane, dark lord over the bleached plain at the beginning and the end of time; here, at least, is an ambivalent figure.

His crown turns, and his indifferent gaze falls on us. His gaze is empty; it is only a hollow cylinder through which the white landscape is focused. The eye is "drilled clear through his head"; it is an image familiar to us from modern sculpture, a more ruthless version also of the drilled eyes in ancient Greek sculpture. The image is startlingly mechanical, like a periscope or a gun turret. As the eye turns, it progressively renders the crane's whole head empty. The image of the crane's eye is a verbal successor to the black needle's eye in the first stanza. This vacant stare, the eye through which white light fllls his black head, makes the opposite colors equivalent. It heralds the collapse of all alternatives, although it is proffered to us as a first moment when distinction is only a perceiving eye moving through uniform white light. "Come out," the crane encourages, "it is north everywhere." In Merwin's work, such enticements are double-edged. "Well they'd made up their minds to be everywhere because why not," he writes in "The Last One"; the line presages an empty possessiveness that will cover the earth. Come out, he reasons, and we are tempted, as with his power of flight, by an image of the end disguised as a new beginning. If the light is not yet divided, then we need not fear our own darkness; it will be transparent. If it is north everywhere, then every failure will be an ascent, every cruelty a transfiguration. Come out, the crane demands, we shall now make everything in our image; we no longer need know ourselves at all. Dream, the crane suggests, that no things are yet to be seen; thus everything can be undone. "Everything that does not need you," Merwin wrote earlier, "is real." But these things can be undone. It is a long way before anything will happen, and the crane's offhand "come even so" is the sardonic justification for the death we would want anyway. When "the first / anything" appears it will occur under the sign of everything. "Bring your nights with you," he commands, as though we had any intention of doing otherwise, as though we had any choice. These "nights" are composed of the darkness we have inside us even in the brightest light. From the black needle's eye, our shadow rises to fall over the earth. "Beginning" extends the American myth of a second chance to a dream of a decisive chance--an opportunity to eliminate all uncertainty. Moreover, we may feel uneasily that we have already made the choice, for the crane's invitation, past the midpoint of "Beginning," also reads like a belated invitation to encounter the poem, one we accepted in venturing forth to read.

The poem seems inexorable, yet its form is almost dismantled. Its achievement is to pursue its own deconstruction with sufficient discipline to triumph over it. Full of long pauses, particularly in the last stanza, it has been pushed to the point of faltering. Although a narrative line is maintained throughout, it is reduced virtually to a series of isolated images. Whiteness, blackness, emptiness--the poem pivots about a hollow center which is nonetheless human. It comes almost as close as a poem can to containing nothing; yet it is broadly prophetic, cohering through a coldly democratic generosity that summons all subjects. It attempts to be, and largely succeeds as, an allegory of all situations.

Into its resolving emptiness "Beginning" draws all the political and social poems from The Moving Target to The Carrier of Ladders. There are no overt references to American history here, but the anguished mixture of loss and hope at the core of poems like "The Trail into Kansas," "Western Country," "Other Travellers to the River," and "The Gardens of Zuni," the last two addressed respectively to William Bartram and John Wesley Powell, culminates in this poem of ultimate beginnings and endings. In effect, "the black heart of Andrew Jackson" is traced here to its abstract origin outside any ordinary sequence of events. But the poem is also radically anticipatory, bringing America's first and last dreams together. Thus "Beginning" also generalizes Merwin's merciless vision of American history as the representative eschatology of our times. Through the tunnel of the crane's eye pass our celebrations, our songs, our pronouncements of victory and glory, and our incessant violence. A few years earlier, Merwin had written two bitterly sardonic lines indicting and connecting everything that is best and worst in us: "The beating on the bars of the cages / Is caught and parcelled out to the bells." By the time we get to "Beginning," however, the reciprocal halves of this social contract have coalesced into a single wave of sound. Our complicity with our leaders, or our enthusiasm for them (and there are no other choices), is a convulsive "applause like the heels of the hanged." In a poem like "Beginning" the cultural accusation is implicit in the metaphors of sight and light and darkness, worked into that vocabulary in such a way that it cannot be extricated. Thus we hear echoes of his earlier political judgments ("You born with the faces of presidents on your eyelids," he wrote, "and your lies elected") even in this language, which is reduced to its bare essentials.

By Cary Nelson. From W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom. Copyright  1987 by the Board of Trustees of the Unviersity of Illinois.


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