Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning

I've had W.S. Merwin's The Moon Before Morning in my den for more months then I'd like to admit. I loved the first two poems, particularly,

By the Front Door Rain through the morning
and in the long pool a toad singing
happiness as old as water

then hit a dry spell where I couldn't find a single poem I particularly liked, but felt guilty I didn't like them more for it seems I share much of Merwin's philosophy, though our taste in poetry isn't always identical. When I looked back at an earlier entry I wrote about Merwin's last book, I was a little surprised to find that I had almost exactly the same reaction before.

Luckily, once I managed to get beyond a series of poems that focused on the past and our reaction to it, I again found several poems I identified with. Near the end of the book I found this poem that immediately brought to mind Shelley Powers (Burningbird) and her writings on Ringling Brothers and elephants.

THE CHAIN TO HER LEG

If we forget Topsy
Topsy remembers

when we forget her mother
gunned down in the forest
and forget who killed her
and to whom they sold
the tusks the feet the good parts
and how they died and where
and what became of their children
and what happened to the forest
Topsy remembers

when we forget how
the wires were fastened on her
for the experiment
the first time
and how she smoldered and
shuddered there
with them all watching
but did not die
when we forget the lit cigarette
the last laugh gave her
lit end first
as though it were a peanut
the joke for which she
killed him
we will not see home again

when we forget the circus
the tickets to see her die
in the name of progress
and Edison and the electric chair
the mushroom cloud will go up
over the desert
where the west was won
the Enola Gay will take off
after the chaplain's blessing
the smoke from the Black Mesa's
power plants will be
visible from the moon
the forests will be gone
the extinctions will accelerate
the polar bears will float
farther and farther away
and off the edge of the world
that Topsy remembers

I'll have to admit that I had forgotten "Topsy," or, more precisely, never heard of Topsy before I read this poem. Luckily the miracle of Google immediately brought me up to date on the depravity of the human soul, and even provided links to a YouTube video if I'd cared to watch it (I didn't). If you want/need a commentary on the poem you should Google it yourself or, perhaps, just re-read this famous poem by Robinson Jeffers which immediately came to mind when I read about Topsy.

ORIGINAL SIN

The man-brained and man-handed ground-ape, physically
The most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals
Up to that time of the world: they had dug a pitfall
And caught a mammoth, but how could their sticks and stones
Reach the life in that hide? They danced around the pit, shrieking
With ape excitement, flinging sharp flints in vain, and the stench of their bodies
Stained the white air of dawn; but presently one of them
Remembered the yellow dancer, wood-eating fire
That guards the cave-mouth: he ran and fetched him, and others
Gathered sticks at the wood’s edge; they made a blaze
And pushed it into the pit, and they fed it high, around the mired sides
Of their huge prey. They watched the long hairy trunk
Waver over the stifle trumpeting pain,
And they were happy.

Meanwhile the intense color and nobility of sunrise,
Rose and gold and amber, flowed up the sky. Wet rocks were shining, a little wind
Stirred the leaves of the forest and the marsh flag-flowers; the soft valley between the low hills
Became as beautiful as the sky; while in its midst, hour after hour, the happy hunters
Roasted their living meat slowly to death.

These are the people.
This is the human dawn. As for me, I would rather

Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.
But we are what we are, and we might remember
Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;
And not be astonished at any evil, all are deserved;
And not fear death; it is the only way to be cleansed.

It's frightening when we pull back the veneer of "Progress" to discover how brutal human nature truly seems to be, and when we forget that aspect of our nature is precisely when we are most apt to fall victim to it. As repulsive as that aspect of our personality may be, as much as we'd like to deny it, as much as we would like to ascribe it to the "other," being aware of it may be the only way to actually transcend it, both as individuals and as society.

4 thoughts on “Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning

  1. Powerful stuff, Loren, with poems I had not read before. I’ve long admired Jeffers but reading this, I think he may be a little hard on us humans. We are, as he so richly depicts here, the fiercest hunters in the kingdom, but we are every bit of that kingdom in our carnivorous ways; that simply is what it is. The additional fact that we are burdened with such heavy self-consciousness and moral sensibility complicates our situation greatly, but I’m not so sure we should be upbraided for that (“As for me, I would rather/Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man”) nor thought of as “vicious and evil,” but simply as part of the creation, for better and for worse. Seems to me our multifarious ways, including our often self-tortured self-questioning, can be seen as a still-crowning achievement, whose implications we are busily working out still (in poetry such as you have presented here). Thanks!

    • Well, philosophically, I certainly am closer to Merwin than Jeffers here, though I’ve long admired, and identified with, much of Jeffers poetry. Hopefully it is “awareness” than can save us from ourselves.

  2. I think Jeffers is an underrated poet and a voice for our times, vicious and evil as they often are. It’s good to read him being paired with Merwin. What makes his poetry so enduring is his commitment to beauty in the face of man’s vicious evil:

    “The Beauty of Things”

    To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things–earth, stone and water,
    Beast, man and woman, sun moon and stars–
    The blood-shot beauty of human nature, its thoughts, frenzies and passions,
    And unhuman nature its towering reality–
    For man’s half dream; man, you might say, is nature dreaming, but rock
    And water and sky are constant–to feel
    Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural
    Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
    The rest’s diversion: those holy or noble sentiments, the intricate ideas,
    The love, lust, longing: reasons, but not the reason.

What do you think?