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On "December Among the Vanished"


Cary Nelson

"December among the Vanished" is one of the major poems addressed to the texture of absence.

The atmosphere of this poem offers snow, but no reviving moisture. Change is only loss; the snow "gets up"--it drifts or evaporates with the insistence of inanimate force, the winter birds (or their tracks) following its course. The beasts hiding in knitted walls anticipate the unprotected sheep of the last stanza, since we may take "knitted walls" as an image of sheep's coats, but the phrase also suggests predators in a forest, or even an animal furtiveness inhering in all matter, as when he wrote of "the night green with beasts as April with grass." In any case, the sense of threat and tension is clear. The winter is a "lipless man," sere and skeletal. The next line, "Hinges echo but nothing opens," is intended to be a complete sentence; the rattling door frames, or even the hinge of potential seasonal change, are the empty vestiges of possibilities now extinct. Yet Merwin's unpunctuated poems often create syntactical ambiguities, so we may also read that "lipless man Hinges" echo the winter. But this human presence, perhaps the hinged jaws of a skull, can neither speak, nor alter the landscape. The second stanza begins with an image of broken huts, belonging by virtue of their common origin to a silence receding into the past. We cannot remember if this silence once followed Armageddon; we suspect that it has a historical cause, but we can no longer isolate one. The lines also imply, more metaphorically, that even silence is now unhoused, even nothingness is exposed and unprotected. The pastures are no vista of openness but an encroaching distance. There are no barriers against fortune; with insensible willfulness, the snow and darkness "walk" down through shattered roofs. Everything is penetrated by loss.

The poem to this point is directed toward the last lines, where the tension becomes intolerable. They are among the most anguished lines in contemporary poetry, and their pain has no outlet. In one of those vacant huts, he writes, "I sit with a dead shepherd / And watch his lambs." The ceremony of shepherding, whether that of gods or of men, is gone out of the world; the lambs are born too late to understand their danger. The poem's tone makes the speaker seem a powerless witness, brought forward to watch in paralysis. Yet the resonances of the final verb are very complicated. "Watch" suggests not only mere observation but also protective vigilance, as in "watch over." We are not, however, convinced that the speaker could intervene if the lambs were threatened. The verb also implies the watch kept over the dead, an association which makes the lambs appear even more helpless. What is definitely missing here, what will never return, is the particular, secure relationship between the shepherd and his flock, a relationship Christianity ordinarily renews each December. The act of writing the poem is perhaps an act of witness, though the poet cannot quite become the new shepherd. Inevitably, too, our own loyalties are torn. We yearn to reach out and care for the lambs, but we are also part of that flock whose shepherd is dead.

In a larger sense, the poem itself is very nearly paralyzed. As the poem proceeds, its imagery is filled out, its emotional resonance intensified and newly dramatized, but the poem is also nothing more than another fragment of the world The Lice has evoked for forty pages. From that perspective, its broad tonal consistency suggests stasis rather than creative variation. Like so many of Merwin's recent poems, or like Rich's "Shooting Script," it is a sequence of equivalences impinging on one another; if there is a definitive key to their similarities, the poem both desires and evades it. Even the title, "December among the Vanished," straddles redundancy and contradiction--suggesting at once a double extinction and the inconceivable winter of those no longer present.

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


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