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Reviews of W. S. Merwin's Books


Helen Vendler
"Desolation Shading Into Terror"
Review of The Miner's Pale Children: A Book of Prose
and The Carrier of Ladders: A Book of Poems

These books invoke by their subtitles the false distinction between prose and poetry: the real distinction is between prose and verse, since both are books of poems, with distinct resemblances and a few differences. There are more allegories, parables, and fables in the 80-odd pieces that make up the book of prose, but that only makes for more narrative and less reflection. The prose pieces come on with their dramatic title to preclude our criticism: if we ask why they are no more robust, they answer by a single eloquent finger pointing to sunless caverns where they were born: peaked and huge-eyed, like wizened English workhouse children, they stand in speechless reproach in the schoolyard, rebuking by their mere subterranean etiolation the boisterous ruddiness of the terrestrial.

The trouble with the analogy is that nobody tells us why the father of these pieces hasn't let them play in the sunshine more. There is maybe even a complacency in their fragility, as if to say that they are more sensitive than those huge galumphing types with their tans. I don't know for sure whether one has the right to reproach a poet for his subject, but Merwin has been maintaining his starved and mute stance so long that one has a relentless social-worker urge to ask him to eat something, anything, to cure his anemia.

And then, relenting in face of a single poem, singly perceived, and not part of the litany of hunger, one grants Merwin his talent for the desolate and the dismembered. He is one of the voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells, and if the toneless cry of the Waste Land is one of your affinities, you will find it in Merwin. He often seems a lesser Eliot, taking one of Eliot's tonalities to its logical conclusion, a hollow man finding his hollow divinities:

in the abandoned foundation a dead branch points upwards eaten out from
inside as it appears to me
I know a new legend
this is the saint of the place his present form another blessing in absence.

The prose pieces are mostly too long to quote, but one of the shortest, ">From a Mammon Card," can give some idea of the intricacies of the others: "Those who work, as they say, for a living, are not to calculate how much they make an hour and then consider what they claim to own, remembering that there was a time when they made less per hour, and then consider that what they claim to own is perhaps all that remains of what they sold that many hours of their life for, and then try to imagine the hours coming again."

There are tenuous allegories of wish and incomprehension: a "June couple" imaging the "little place beside the water" that they would like to own, each confecting a private vision (his has tan imitation-brick shingles, with a screen porch, while hers is "a low stone building, one big dormer in its thatch roof"), and while each says raptly in separate chorus "Mine," the separation yawns invisibly between them, and the piece ends.

There are parental neglects and reparations. (A mother, frightened of her grown-up daughter, continues "to look after her, but from a distance," so much so that by the time she gets up courage to look inside the bedroom, she finds "that the girl had left without a word two days before.") Other stories, more dream-like, with the attendant disadvantages, revolve around incomprehensible journeys, uninhabited ports, fragmented bodies, chilling rites of passage, inexplicable ordeals, and surreal tasks (like "unchopping a tree" -- a minute set of directions on how to put a chopped-up tree back together again).

There are also painstaking and self-flagellating dissections of memory, grief, fear, and personality: "You are the second person ... You make a pathetic effort to disguise yourself in all the affectations of the third person, but you know it is no use ... No, you insist, it is all a mistake, I am the first person. But you know how unsatisfactory that is. And how seldom it is true." The first person would be "the orphan's mother who never lived but is longed for," and it seems to be an orphan who has written both this spectral book and its companion volume in verse.

Merwin's abstraction cloaks the human cause of these poems, but desolation and abandonment shading into terror are more common than any other feeling. On the other hand, one feels that these poems were written not so much from sentiments requiring expression as from obsessive counters demanding manipulation. These counters are a set of words, found here and in Merwin's earlier volumes, that act for him as a set of talismans: endlessly he pushes them around into different spatial arrangements, festoons them with different decorations, but they are almost always there, central, demanding, repetitive, exacting.

The Merwin dictionary has nouns of ill-omen (pain, grief, fear, pallor, extinction), obsessive objects (gloves, hands, clocks, watches, bandages, shrouds, and eyes), exhausted adjectives (hollow, empty, faint, deaf, blind, blank, frozen, lost, broken, hungry, dead), and constellations of negation (speechless, colorless, nameless, windless, unlighted, unseen, unmoved, unborn). Is it ill-will in a reader to want to force-feed these pale children till they, when cut, will bleed? Even Merwin would seem to want a change: he prays,

Send me out into another life
Lord because this one is growing faint
I do not think it goes all the way.

There are poems when a new life may seem to be beginning, and some of these are very beautiful, especially "Snowfall," where after a vision of death in the night a vision of communion intervenes in the day:

... this morning
I see that the silent kin I loved as a child
have arrived all together in the night
from the old country
they remembered
and everything remembers
I eat from the hands
of what for years have been junipers
the taste has not changed
I am beginning
again.

In his elusive pallors, Merwin sometimes comes near a flawless balance of cadence and meaning. Some of his poems of deprivation and winter share a place in "the pre-history of the mind" with the February poems of Wallace Stevens, but they lack Stevens's obdurate persistence in the natural -- his squirrels, his forsythia, his scrawny bird cry. On the other hand, Merwin has not subscribed to the falser poetic consolations of Eliot: he inhabits a dimmer world than either Eliot or Stevens, but there is a faint cast of sentimentality over his poems that rather persuades the reader that he could, by taking thought, add a cubit to his stature and raise sturdier offspring.

from New York Times (Oct. 18, 1970). Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company. Online Source


Joyce Carol Oates
"Family Portrait"
Review of Unframed Originals: Recollections

The supreme achievement of memory,'' Vladimir Nabokov says in his masterly autobiography, ''Speak, Memory,'' ''is the use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.'' One ''sees'' through memory as through a tremulous prism: The past is recaptured by way of disparate images, fragmented sensory vignettes, snatches of conversation. Chronological fidelity is desired less than impressionistic immediacy. For of what value is the past if, being recounted, it lies dead and mute on the page?

W.S. Merwin's third book of prose might have as its subtitle ''What to Make of a Diminished Thing,'' for this collection of six related essays on the poet's family refuses to present its modest subject in anything but understated and relentlessly un-self-conscious prose. Merwin, the author of nine books of poetry and 12 books of translation, creates by way of the uncompromising plainness of his language a haunting and frequently disturbing portrait of Americans who seem, in this convincing account at least, to have had no language - no interest in literature, very few books in their houses, a minimum even of curiosity about one another's sometimes tragic lives. When, as an adult, Merwin returns to visit a cousin of his father's, to ask questions he hadn't known - or hadn't dared - to ask as a boy, the reply is typical: ''She said, well she supposed she did know some things, probably as much as anybody. But why? What did I want in things like that? None of the rest of them thought anything of all that. They never paid no mind.'' (This is the very person who tells him, somewhat hazily, that a relative of hers married a daughter of Jay Gould but that she never troubled to visit them. ''None of those Goulds ever amounted to much,'' she says.)

In ''Unframed Originals'' the poet-narrator, sometimes called Billy, inhabits his childhood life as we have all inhabited ours - from the inside, invisibly, seeing and listening keenly but rarely experiencing himself. The son of a Presbyterian minister in Union City, N.J., the grandson and nephew of exceptionally dour and closemouthed Methodists who lived in small settlements along the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania, Merwin endured what seems to have been a particularly joyless - and remorselessly bookless -childhood. ''At home our lives were surrounded by injunctions. On visits there were more of them'': Hence the refrain Don't touch runs through the earliest recollections with a dull, comic insistence. Why is Mr. Merwin so ''harsh'' and ''peculiar'' in his behavior toward his son, people inquire, and the answer is typically ambiguous, the sort of thing one recalls as an adult with a stabbing sensation in the region of the heart: ''He always answered that he treated us, and me, that way, only because of love, and that he was afraid I might get hurt.'' Having been encouraged to believe himself superior by his own mother and confirmed in this ''superiority'' by the parishioners of his various churches, Merwin's father seems to have inhabited a private world so insular and so crudely in sympathy with others as to verge upon pathology. One of the memorable scenes in ''Unframed Originals'' is a comically despairing account of an attempt on Mr. Merwin's part to be more of a ''pal'' with his son:

''I would stand in front of his (study) desk, uncomfortable, hot, wondering what I had done wrong now, and he would tell me to shut the door behind me. Then he would fish in the lower recesses of his desk for a moment, shut a drawer and sigh, and tell me we just were not spending enough time together, he and I, and that he was sorry it was happening but he could not help it right now because he was so busy and had so much on his mind. But these were precious years that would not come again. He would tell me how hard things had been for him as a boy, and how fortunate we were, we children, and how much easier life was for us, with our yard to play in. And he said how important it was for me to study hard and do well at school. ... Then he would start telling me about insurance, how I would come to realize its importance when I was older. ... And he might give me something, such as a card printed with the Ten Commandments, ... and pat me and say he would try to find more time to be together, and we would be pals, and I would nod, and go, feeling grief inextricably tangled with my own unexpected and unconvincing goodness, and shutting the door behind me.'' One begins to see revealing affinities between Merwin's life and certain of the haunting, parablelike prose poems of ''The Miner's Pale Children.''

The narrative strategy of ''Unframed Originals'' is one beloved of poets: Each essay is a brooding, speculative, interior piece arising from and circling about an image (a picket fence in Grandfather Merwin's tomato garden, for instance; the New York skyline as it was seen from Mr. Merwin's yellow-brick church in New Jersey). As a much-honored man of letters, W.S. Merwin is cautious about presenting himself, even inadvertently, as ''superior'' to his subject, hence the monochromatic tone, the pages of straight family history - catalogues of names, dates, places, summary careers and fates. These ''originals'' are deliberately ''unframed'': Merwin's book is no autobiography along the lines of ''The Education of Henry Adams'' with its covert claim for singularity, nor is it a memoir in the service of an ongoing polemic, as in Lillian Hellman's autobiographical writing. Indeed, the manner is improvisational, the tone self-effacing. In a typical aside the author says of a longdead relative: ''I cannot be sure now how much of her I remember and how much I have dreamed.''

Nevertheless, there are memorably eccentric characters here. Though rarely presented directly and allowed their own voices, certain of Merwin's relatives declare themselves as marvelously idiosyncratic. There is cousin Mary (''Some meaning of the word 'naphtha' was inexplicably hers, and echoed the smell of her damp apron that reached below her knees, and of the duster on her head, and of her hands, long shapeless and rough, running from gray to orange. ... Whatever she touched was the wrong size''). There is Alma, who fantasizes a ghost child and insists upon living alone in her old age (''(Her hair) never got washed. It was all nested up on top of her head, with pencils stuck through the nest to hold it together. It got matted. Alma complained that it hurt. Her niece offered to wash it. She found that the hair was caked solid, glued with what turned out to be an egg and a melted crayon''). There is Mr. Merwin himself, who never spoke of his father (that is, Billy's grandfather) and allowed the grandson to meet him only once, on the day the old man was being committed to an institution for the elderly and infirm.

Only as the narrator matures and detaches himself from childhood scenes does the book lose its quirky, obsessive quality and become, by its end, a nostalgic reverie of a more conventional sort. But Merwin's prose is never less than graceful and his effort - to understand, to record, perhaps even to celebrate inarticulate lives - is ambitious and laudable.

from New York Times (Aug. 1, 1982). Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company. Online Source


David Bromwich
"Remembered Gestures"

Review of Opening the Hand

During the late '60s and early '70s, W. S. Merwin was the leading practitioner of the ''instant elegiac'' mode that dominated American poetry. Since then the mode has been largely assimilated and therefore forgotten, and Mr. Merwin's own ellipses and fade-outs have become less singular. ''Opening the Hand'' still has echoes of the portentousness with which Mr. Merwin once addressed ''last questions'' to everything that met his eye; when he writes, ''of tomorrow I have nothing to say / what I say is not tomorrow,'' he is poised delicately on the brink of self-parody.

Of course, to be parodied at all one must have come upon a personal style distinguishable from other styles. This Mr. Merwin has done steadily for three decades; and yet a certain mystery remains. Less than any other poet of comparable stature does he occupy his own work as a personal presence. He writes of regret (before action) and mourning (before loss), with a disdain for narrative argument that can seem a noble reticence in the face of actuality. But it would be hard to say what his attitude amounts to, without falling back on useless adjectives like ''restraint'' and ''reserve.''

In many of these poems Mr. Merwin employs a long line, with a visible break to represent a caesura.

Now it happens in these
years at unguarded intervals With a frequency never to be
numbered A motif surfacing in some
scarcely known music of
my own Each time the beginning
and then broken off

One may recall the experiments with Anglo-Saxon accentual verse in Mr. Merwin's third book, ''Green with Beasts'' (1956); but in these new poems, for the most part alliteration is kept to the level of a gentle hint; and often the break seems to be only a chiming pause, as natural and adaptable as rhyme:

I keep waiting to give you what
is already yours it is the morning of the mornings
together breath of summer of my found
one the sleep in the same current of
each waking to you

Mr. Merwin, as the foregoing quotations suggest, has all the equipment of a poet, but for the moment he appears to write from habit rather than impulse, with the result that his poems have the reliable effect of remembered gestures and are not above being praised for their craftsmanship. A poem about a stray dog and one about John Berryman, stand out as interesting subjects of which the poet has cared to make something. But these read like prose sketches, without being as well written as good prose. Perhaps the chief difficulty Mr. Merwin faces at this stage of his career is an uncertainty about motive. He writes a great deal, and has too much confidence to worry about his occasion. Self-confidence may of course give reason enough for writing about anything, but complete freedom and complete listlessness have always looked disturbingly alike.

from New York Times (Oct. 9, 1983). Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company. Online Source


Edward Hirsch
from "Bleak Visions"
Review of Selected Poems

W. S. Merwin is our strongest poet of silence and doubt, vacancy and absence, deprival and dispossession. As he put it in his poem ''Teachers'': ''What I live for I can seldom believe in / who I love I cannot go to / what I hope is always divided.'' He is a master of erasures and negations, a visionary of discomfort and reproof, the Samuel Beckett of postwar American poetry.

Mr. Merwin has gone through several sea changes in his work over the past four decades. He began in the 1950's with a Poundian reading list and a graceful style reminiscent of Robert Graves, a gift for elaborate orna-mentation and traditional meters. In the 60's and early 70's he radically stripped down his style, dropping punctuation and creating a compelling quasi-Surrealist imagery and vocabulary of darkness and loss. The poet of urbanity and wit became a cryptic visionary of the void, an anguished prophet of apocalypse. In the latter part of the 70's and throughout the 80's he has continued as a poet of ghostly negativities while slowly embracing a dream of pastoral or ecological wholeness.

Mr. Merwin's ''Selected Poems'' brings together work from 10 books published between 1952 and 1983. There are only five poems from his first two books -''A Mask for Janus'' (1952) and ''The Dancing Bears'' (1954) - and consequently his diligent apprenticeship is scantily represented. His mature work commences with ''Green With Beasts'' (1956) and ''The Drunk in the Furnace'' (1960). Increasingly the poet's mythic density and opulent sense of traditional form belies an underlying uneasiness that ''We know we live between greater commotions / Than any we can describe.''

The early work culminates in poems where Mr. Merwin describes the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania. In these family mythologies he memorializes the stubborn inhabitants of a forlorn country, old people such as his grandparents dying in an ''abandoned land in the punished / North.'' These blank verse poems also point forward by signaling a new stylistic restlessness, a prodigious sense of human emptiness and loss. ''The Moving Target'' (1963) and ''The Lice'' (1967) were two of the most influential poetry books of the 60's; they are arguably Mr. Merwin's two most forceful and focused books. Everything in them is written under the sign of ''a coming extinction.'' His work has always had an ecological consciousness, but these poems explicitly take up our desperate vulnerability and our plight as a species, our relentless drive to exterminate ourselves and our environment. One poem begins: ''My friends without shields walk on the target.'' Another ends: We are the echo of the future On the door it says what to do to survive But we were not born to survive Only to live.

The voice in these poems seems inscribed on the wind - it echoes with little hope.

Stylistically, these poems - as well as the poems in ''The Carrier of Ladders'' (1970) and ''Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment'' (1973) - are associatively, rather than narratively, organized. They distrust language and resonate with mythic overtones. They also have a peculiar quality of anonymity and impersonality - as if the void had inhabited them. One feels primarily the guilt and shame of being human, our complicity in destruction. Some are accusatory, misanthropic parables. ''The Chaff'' begins: ''Those who cannot love the heavens or the earth / beaten from the heavens and the earth / eat each other.'' These poems use the language of riddle and parable to denounce modernity and imperialism, what Mr. Merwin views as the apparent death wish of Western civilization.

Yet in ''The Compass Flower'' (1977) and ''Opening the Hand'' (1983), one detects a more celebratory and optimistic turn, a new sense of beginning. The poems are concerned not only with what to renounce in the metropolis but also what to preserve in the country. This gradual drift continues in Mr. Merwin's new book, ''The Rain in the Trees.'' To be sure, about half of the poems in this book are fiercely moral parables of denunciation directed at an undifferentiated ''them'' - all those who cut down sacred forests and develop the land, who trample native cultures and ruin the environment, who believe that ''nothing is real / until it can be sold.'' But these poems of didactic rage are balanced by others that immerse themselves in nature with a fresh sense of numinousness. They are alive with the sound of rain in the trees, with beholding ''the ripeness of the lucid air.'' They radiate outward with an enlarged sense of the fullness of being and an original experience beyond language. ''The First Year'' begins: When the words had all been used for other things we saw the first day begin.

In ''The Rain in the Trees'' W. S. Merwin becomes a poet who not only traces the dark night of our collective soul, but also welcomes the morning afterward.

from New York Times (July 31, 1988). Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company. Online Source


Tom Sleigh
from "Now, Voyagers"
Review of Travels

Sturdily written, extraordinarily entertaining as tales, the best poems in W. S. Merwin's "Travels" concern displaced characters made and maimed by their quests' contradictions: itinerant naturalists working among native populations; a European rubber tapper who becomes a shaman; Rimbaud at 21, poetry behind him, wandering through Europe and along the slave routes of Africa; two American Indian artists, one dying on the reservation, the other escaping only to die in battle, hopelessly outnumbered by white soldiers. This eccentric gallery of portraits and dramatic monologues provides the poet with subjects rich in human incident and historical reflection. Such material could have degenerated into predictable political allegory (imperialism is bad!) or become somnambulant run-throughs of Browningesque winks and nudges. But Mr. Merwin's style -- his reticent, self-denying, coolly prophetic blend of Romantic rhetoric and natural description -- transports the subjects into the realm of legend and myth.

Cinchona, the name of a Peruvian tree whose bark can cure fever, becomes transformed in one poem into a sort of infernal Holy Grail of European empire, the Dutch transporting seedlings to Java while the English attempt to do the same in India. The beginning of the poem conjures a cabalistic sense of futurity, a chain linking the blood of humanity with the fever produced by the anopheles mosquito and with the red bark of the tree named after the Countess of Chinchon, a Peruvian viceroy's wife cured of fever by the tree. Each link of the chain is spookily prophetic of the others, as if behind human history lurked a sinister design, Robert Frost's dewdrop spider spinning minute occurrences into a web of inescapable consequences: "but fever could there be none nor night sweats / numbered agues aestivo-autumnal chills . . . until the blood was there to bear them." The archaic flavor of "numbered agues," the Latinate "aestivo," the parody of Old Testament prophecy in "but fever could there be none," lift the poem into an empyrean far beyond its dusty sources in a university library.

"Travels" -- which makes exemplary use of syllable count; of syntactical ambiguity in enjambment; of stanzas that rhyme on the same end-sound to produce a haunting, chantlike intensity; and of that most traditional and difficult device, the art of telling a good story -- represents Mr. Merwin doing superbly well what much contemporary poetry attempts to do, but fails. He reveals, with great formal intelligence, the eerie interconnectedness of evil and the minutiae of our day-to-day lives.

from New York Times (May 23, 1993). Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company. Online Source


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