Few poets have been as honored as W. S. Merwin, author of 20 books of poetry and translation, twice U.S. Poet Laureate, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, and many other international awards. At age 90 he is still writing, still touring, and often speaking of human and environmental rights. He has translated Dante, Neruda, and ancient poets of China and Japan. Perhaps the most influential poet of his time, his work is always humble, personal, and yet mythical and spiritual.
Garden Time (co-published in the U.S. and England) is no exception, as it explores the conscious and semi-conscious worlds of age and wisdom. One enters Merwin’s world where the personal and mythic sense blend magically conveying a naturalness of all. He has always been one to use poetry to express the inexpressible, always with a sense of exploring the mind-body realm. Of note, Merwin’s absence of capitals and punctuation in his craft suggests a natural core of communication. Its charm is that it succeeds in bringing us further into his voice and transcendent world.
In “Pianist in the Dark” we sense the magic of music and nature:
The music is not in the keys
it has never been seen
the notes set out to find
listening for their way
when they move they are the music
they have always been
the leaves stirring in the night air
as it changes around them
the rain arrives in a slow minor
the keys sing to themselves in their dream of dancing
they make their own music
they make it again
Not only does he capture the core of music and movement, but by using his associative method he connects it with the way of nature. The fact that so many of his poems defy simple explanation testifies to the strength of his vision and method.
Though much of these poems take us into the garden of memory and awakening, rare do we find so autobiographical a poem of heritage and relationship, as “The Same River.” He images the river where:
my father sat with his back to the river
holding the dry handles of the long oars
thinking that he wanted to go somewhere that
he knew nothing about and could not imagine
while the river went on flowing behind him
taking the day with it as it went
and his own father had seen the river then
when he had been a child and the paddle-wheeled
boats with the tall smokestacks came upriver
and anchored in the deep water offshore…
And we trace the grandfather who follows the progress where “rails were laid between Pittsburgh/ and Erie but for my grandfather/ it was always the river that took him . . .” And we follow the family’s movement downriver and later recall:
the day my father
took me to see the village one summer day
and I stood between the old house and the river
and saw just upstream from the few houses
the shining water spilling over
a dam that an old man by the road said proudly
was the first of many that were planned
The river is wide and long here as the poet finds its mythic essence in his life. Rare is Merwin so literal and historical, though some of his finest poems are of family and relationships. Another fine poem “The Blackboard” describes the loss of his father with the metaphor of writing erased on the blackboard then vanished in the dusting of erasers on the schoolyard.
A further aspect of this and Merwin’s other collections is the writing of fine love poems. “Here Together” is a beautiful tribute to the endurance and devotion of love for his wife Paula.
These days I can see us clinging to each other
as we are swept along by the current
I am clinging to you to keep you from
being swept away and you are clinging to me
to keep me from being swept away from you
we see the shores blurring past as we hold
each other in the rushing current
the daylight rushes unheard far above us
how long will we be swept along in the daylight
how long will we cling together in the night
and where will it carry us together
Though his profound sense of life’s movement and bonding of past-present-future have long been a part of W. S. Merwin’s work, in Garden Time he connects it with the eternal.