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On "The Drunk in the Furnace"

Cary Nelson

The final poem in the book, which is also the title poem, is an irrevocable perspective on his work to that point. An empty iron furnace rusts in a trash-ridden gully by a poisonous creek, until a derelict decides to make it his "bad castle." He brings his bottle, bolts the door behind him, and carouses in drunken solitude until he passes out. Written in careful septets, the poem's formal concern for a frivolous occasion mocks all the sonorities of Merwin's previous books. The poem ends with a description of the local adults listening to warnings from their preacher, while their children crowd to the irresistible furnace:

Their witless offspring flock like piped rats to its siren

Crescendo, and agape on the crumbling ridge

Stand in a row and learn.

With this burlesque of all his own overwrought rhetoric, Merwin, can never return to his earlier style. It is a deliberate aggression.

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

Edward Brunner

Aggressively, self-consciously, defiantly, it reasserts themes in a new key chosen for its excruciating dissonance. The derelict who has "established / His bad castle' in an abandoned furnace never appears, but his residency can be deduced from "a twist of smoke" and "other tokens," and he becomes the subject of local sermons, though he draws the fascinated attention of the children who "flock like piped rats" as he bangs out a grotesque music of "Hammer-and-anvilling," "jugged bellowings," and "groaning clangs" bumping against the walls that confine him but that he will not leave. Mingling despair and anger, Merwin, like his derelict, refuses to go away, even as he realizes that he must go underground to survive--that the atmosphere is poison to him.

The poem actively subverts the pattern otherwise stamped on the family poems, that rigid division of interior and exterior. Being inside a furnace that has been discarded outside blurs any clear-cut distinction, and the poem poses two irreconcilable questions: Is the drunk's cloddishness all that the community deserves, his relegation to the edge of town revealing the narrowness of people who tidy up their environment by creating junkpiles at the edge of town for those they cannot comprehend? Or is the persistence of the drunk, minding his own business and making his harmless music as he wills, distilling his spirits into a clanking all his own, a lesson in individuality, in perseverance, through his recycling of what others would discard by reshaping it to an individual purpose that blithely ignores what others conventionally expect (as Merwin has managed to recycle the refuse of his family poems)? As these two irreconcilables clash, neither resolved, it is clear that Merwin has found a way, in anger and in anguish, to express his own reaction to being a poet in his own homeland. And yet who is the drunk in the furnace if not his grandfather, an invisible outsider, as Merwin the child knew him, consigned to his marginal role, innocent and oblivious of his stature as a rebel and iconoclast, an example for children to follow. The lesson they learn, quite different from the preacher's text on stoke-holes that are "sated never," is that one must leave this confined community, going further than the junkpile at the edge of town.

Often admired as a work that prophesied an impending change in Merwin's style, "The Drunk in the Furnace" establishes a complex vantage point from which Merwin can survey the wreckage of his family cycle. The poem is, like its central figure, both defiant and circumspect: it secretes stories, none of which are allowed to emerge. But in the context of the entire cycle, especially in the light of its reconstructed development, it is lucid enough. Merwin's homecoming revealed a ruined landscape inhabited by figures sullen, secretive, and withdrawn, and a cycle of poetry that had begun expansively hardened into an abrasive pattern. This unexpected turn ultimately led to a wider understanding of the America into which he had fallen. In the cycle as arranged for final publication, his homeland is the place in which the habit of forgetfulness has become thoroughly ingrained. What he understands is the fact of his own exclusion, and by the close he has found the only home available to him: the margins of the community, where he will dwell as an exile.

By Edward Brunner. From Poetry as Labor and Privilege: The Writings of W.S. Merwin. Copyright 1991 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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