Merwin’s The Carrier of Ladders

During our recent remodel I found several more poetry books that I bought while I was teaching and never found the time to read until now. One of them was W.S. Merwin’s Pulitzer Prize Winner The Carrier of Ladders. I know I had to have boughten it quite awhile ago because the University of Washington bookstore sticker price was $5.95.

After trying to finish it for over six months now, I suspect I may have actually started it but put it aside for another of the books I must have bought at the same time since I could never go the University Bookstore without coming away without a stack of poetry books. Truthfully, I prefer Merwin’s later poems more than these early ones, though I haven’t quite figured out why that might be.

I suspect that one of the problems is that he doesn’t seem to have a particular strong “voice,” at least in this collection, and I’ve always preferred poets with a strong personal vision. I wonder if he was so influenced by the many translations he was doing that the found it difficult to develop his own vision. I’ll also have to admit that I have seldom been fond of collections of poetry from different poets; even as a college freshman if I found a poet I particularly like in a survey class I would go buy a volume of his/her poetry and read that instead of reading the assigned poems. Turned out that wasn’t a truly effective way of getting good grades, but grades were never particularly important to me anyway.

Though I might not be the best judge of this particular book of poetry, I did mark several poems for further study. As you can probably guess, I strongly identify with “Kin.”

Kin

Up the west slope before dark
shadow of my smoke
old man

climbing the old men’s mountain

at the end
birds lead something down to me
it is silence

they leave it with me
in the dark
it is from them

that I am descended

This almost sounds like a summary of my retirement years when I finally discovered birding. I suspect it is birding, and perhaps my return to photography, that has even made me fonder of poems that rely on imagery rather than mere words to reveal their vision.

Which, of course, is not to say that I only like concrete, imagist poems, as shown by Merwin’s

THE CHAFF

Those who cannot love the heavens or the earth
beaten from the heavens and the earth
eat each other
those who cannot love each other
beaten from each other
eat themselves
those who cannot love themselves
beaten from themselves
eat a terrible bread
kneaded in the morning shrouded all day
baked in the dark
whose sweet smell brings the chaff flying like empty hands
through the turning sky night after night
calling with voices of young birds
to its wheat

I must admit I don’t really know what this poem means, particularly those last lines from which the poem derives its title, but there is enough truth in those opening lines to make the poem intriguing. Though this poem appears later than the previous poem, it seems to further develop the same idea.

Merwin’s “The New Song”

I suspect our advancing years gives Merwin and I more in common than he might have with younger readers. It’s clear Merwin and have confronted some similar issues as we’ve aged, and come up with some of the same answers. This poem sounds like one I should have written after our recent remodel and my decision on what to keep and what to throw away rather than keeping everything I’ve accumulated over the years.

THE NEW SONG

For some time I thought there was time
and that there would always be time
for what I had a mind to do
and what I could imagine
going back to and finding it
as I had found it the first time
but by this time I do not know
what I thought when I thought back then

there is no time yet it grows less
there is the sound of rain at night
arriving unknown in the leaves
once without before or after
then I hear the thrush waking at
daybreak singing the new song

I’ve long bought books, particularly, and tools, too often, that I thought I would like to read or learn to use. I already got rid of some of the tools when we moved to Tacoma a few years ago, but I stubbornly hung on to books that I’d bought when I was in college. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the reasons I started this blog years ago was to record my reaction to the many poetry books I had bought over the years and had been too busy grading papers to actually read.

I’ve been doing that on this blog since 2001 and still haven’t finished reading all the books I bought while in college. Of course, I have continued to accumulate new books during that time as I’ve been inspired by my own readings or, more commonly, by fellow bloggers. Still, during our remodel I decided I would finally get rid of my collection of Greek Tragedies because “by this time I do not know/ what I thought when I thought back then” and bought them. I also got rid of a number of novels by famous authors that everyone “should have read.”

I even got rid of some poetry books that I decided I would never re-read before I was no longer able to read. I’ve always tried to buy hardbound copies of poetry books under the assumption that I would want to re-read them over the years. At 73, I’ve started buying Kindle versions on the assumption that there would be less for those I leave behind to dispose of when I make my final departure.

There has never been enough time to do all the things I want to do or learn all the things I want to learn, but, like Merwin, I’m beginning to realize how little time is left.

Perhaps that realization should convince me I need to read more in order to finish all those books, but, instead, I find myself reading less and spending more time outside. If I lived in Arizona, I might never read another book.

It would be nice if I could assume that all my reading has finally brought me enlightenment, but, at best, it has taught me that I don’t have time to waste, that I need to live in the moment because there’s no future to worry about.

That’s strangely freeing.

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.

Simon Ortiz’s “Starting at the Bottom”

I’ve finished reading Simon Ortiz’s Woven Stone, though I’ll have to admit that I was so angry and so depressed by the last section entitled “No More Sacrifices,” an interesting combination of essay and poems, almost haibun, that I had to take frequent breaks to finish the book. However, those concerned with the plight of the American Indian or the plight of all workers at the bottom of our capitalist system it’s an enlightening read. I don’t think that “Starting at the Bottom” is necessarily the best poem in the last part of the book, but it touches on several of Ortiz’s major themes.

Starting at the Bottom

The truth is,
most of us didn’t know
much about the unions
at any rate.
A job was a job.
You were lucky to have one
if you got one.
The truth is,
the companies didn't much care
nor did the unions,
even if both of them
were working our land.
When the mines came
to the Laguna and Acoma land,
the men and their families were glad
in a way because
the men wouldn't have to go so far away to work
for the railroad in Barstow,
Richmond, Flagstaff, Needles.
Or to pick beets and onions
in Idaho, Utah, and Colorado.
Or work for the Mormons
in Bluewater Valley
who paid you in carrots and potatoes.

When Jackpile opened up
on Laguna land, some Laguna men got on alright,
at the bottom.
You have to start at the bottom, personnel said,
for a training period and work your way up.
The Acoma men went to the Ambrosia Lake mines
and always got stuck by the space on the application forms
for previous mining experience,
but the mine steward explained,
you have to start at the bottom and work your way up.
So, almost thirty years later,
the Acoma men
were at the bottom of the underground mines at Ambrosia Lake,
and the Laguna men were at the bottom of the open pit at Jackpile,
they were still training, gaining experience, and working their way up.

And weekends, that city jail
was still full.

“Starting at the Bottom,” or, more precisely, living on the bottom is a theme throughout Ortiz’s book. His tribe, his family and he have struggled to survive in modern times, and Ortiz reveals many of the less obvious reasons why this is true. The arrival of industry, from the early trains to the later Uranium mines, has siphoned vital water away from Indian land, making it nearly difficult to even grow subsistence crops. As a result, the men had to take jobs further and further away from the land, creating a whole new set of problems.

I’m sure the mining companies would offer “valid” reasons why the Indians end up in dead-end jobs, but exploiting cheap labor seems to be the real business of mining companies. While reading the last section of Ortiz’s collection, I happened to receive this from PROPUBLICA:

If you don't have to pay the fine for having an unsafe workplace, why provide a safe workplace? Thousands of mines are operating despite owing safety penalties that go back as far as 20 years, according to an NPR investigation. In their years of delinquency, these mines reported injury rates 50 percent higher than mines that paid penalties. In a joint investigation, NPR and Mine Safety and Health News report that federal regulators are either unable or unwilling to get these owners to pay up. "Coal mine regulation is not a high-profile area of law enforcement. ... It's a fairly low priority," said one former assistant U.S. attorney. — NPR via @AnnaBoikoW

It’s hard to dig your way out of your problems when you’re at the bottom of a pit, so it’s not surprising that their frustration and despair causes them to end up in the city jail on weekends.

Ortiz’s View of Nature

I’m pretty sure I’ve made it clear that I’m an environmentalist to anyone who visits here regularly, so it should come as no surprise that I share Simon Ortiz’s Indian viewpoint that Nature is Sacred and that desecrating it is sacrilegious. Of course, I think I also share this with Transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, not to mention Taoists.

Living in an area where Asarco’s Copper Refinery spewed arsenic and lead into its surroundings to near toxic levels, it’s impossible not to identify with Ortiz’s condemnation of the Peabody Coal Company and Kennecott copper mine:

Long House Valley Poem

This valley is in northeastern Arizona
where one of the largest power centers
in this hemisphere is being built.

Sheep and woman.
The long brown and red land
looming unto the horizon.
Breathe in so deeply.

Tsegi,
a canyon. "Hello" and "Goodbye,'
but always Hello
and smile.

The old rocks, millions of years old.

A Mohawk camper trailer
pulled behind a big white Cadillac.
Tourists,
the crusaders.

A cop car
flashing frenetic orange.
down. I can’t
even remember my license plate number.

And then, suddenly the Peabody Coal Company.
Black Mesa Mine.
Open pit.

Power line over the Mountain,
toward Phoenix, toward Denver,
toward Los Angeles, toward Las Vegas,
carrying our mother away.

A sign reads: Open Range.
Bulldozer smoke and dust rise
from the wounded Mountain

A PLAGUE ON ALL YOUR DAMN HORSEPOWER
A PLAGUE ON YOUR KENNECOTT COPPER BLIGHTS

The old rocks, millions of years old.

Horses quietly grazing, quietly.
A skinny black one throws his head
at the sky, at the wind.

The Yei
and hogans and the People
and roadside flowers
and cornfields and the sage
and the valley peace,
they are almost gone.

As if it wasn’t enough that the peaceful valley been invaded by tourists with big white Cadillac pulling a “Mohawk” trailer and police pulling over Indians, the invaders build an open-pit coal mine alongside the Kennecott Copper Mine. It’s enough to make a skinny black horse throw “his head at the sky.” Is this the final destruction of the Pueblos who are already nearly gone?

I also share Ortiz’s love of the land, though it’s a very different piece of land. It’s Puget Sound that has always been home to me and will be for eternity once my ashes are spread. My family’s 100+ years here in Puget Sound seem insignificant compared to Ortiz’s family’s 800+ in Acoma, but it’s enough to convince me that we belong to the land as much as it belongs to us.

This Occurs to Me

It has something to do
with intuition and instinct.
a mixture of appreciating
how the physical quality
of dirt and stone exist,
how useful they are,
what you can do with them.
Working with fingers, hands,
the mystery—knowing
it is not a mystery
that you can't possibly
know anything about—
that is yours.
Watching sparrows,
sheer cliff wall,
the effect of light and shadow,
line of stone mesa,
strata of sediment,
touching with foot and hand
the tamp of sand
against cliff wall;
noting the undershadow
of stone ledge.

All these, working in the mind,
the vision of weaving things
inwardly and outwardly
to fit together, weaving stone
together, my father tells me
how walls are built.

The Acoma pueblos have lived in the same place for more than 800 years. Their adobe homes are an architectural masterpiece and they are known for their exceptional pottery, both made of “dirt and stone,” both mirroring and made of the canyons and mesas where they live. Of course, they are also known for their fine weaving so it seems appropriate that Ortiz should tie them together in a poem that clearly reflects the title of this collection of poems.

Though the poem has specific images (i.e. “sparrows,” “sheer cliff wall,” “strata of sediment,” etc. the vision itself, as described in the last stanza, seems strangely undefined, perhaps because “love of place,” the feeling that a particular place is “Sacred,” can never be defined; it is infinite in the same way that any vision is infinite. Transcendent. And, ultimately, undefinable

Any Parent Would Identify With These Ortiz Poems

Although I was originally drawn to Ortiz as a Native American poet, I find my favorite poems are those that could probably have been written by anyone, even a Chinese poet in the 4th century. In other words, I like poems like:

Speaking

I take him outside
under the trees,
have him stand on the ground.
We listen to the crickets,
cicadas, million years old sound.
Ants come by us.
I tell them, "This is he, my son.
This boy is looking at you.
I am speaking for him.”

The crickets, cicadas,
the ants. the millions of years
are watching us,
hearing us.
My son murmurs infant words,
speaking, small laughter
bubbles from him.
Tree leaves tremble.
They listen to this boy
speaking for me.

I suspect that any parent could identify with this poem, even though it veers toward being Native American Poetry at the end of each stanza. Though most of us have “introduced” our children to nature and been amused, and, hopefully, enlightened by their amazement with what we’ve come to ignore, I doubt many Americans would even think of the kind of formal introduction that ends the first stanza. You would have to have a different view of nature than most of us have been raised with to ever think of making this kind of introduction.

Most of us have shared our children’s joy in being entertained by their outdoor discoveries, but most of us would never think that Nature also listens to the boy, much less “tremble” as they listen to him play. For us, Nature is seen as indifferent to our feelings or words.

My favorite poem like this, though, is this one:

Pout

Daughter sits straddle-legged
on the floor. Smiles
as she turns the pages
of a catalogue. Toys,
books, clothes, rocky
horseys. Smiles and mur
murs. And then, watching
her, several pages stick
together, and the crinkle
of a frown edges on her fore
head and her lips purse
and push forward in con
cern. And I smile
and pout my mouth
in sympathy and love.

It’s been a long, long time since I had this reaction to my granddaughter’s discovery of life’s problems, much less to my daughter’s, but I identified with the scene immediately. As they age our worries for them increasingly become “intellectual” where we try to discover solutions to their problems in the same way we try to solve our own problems, but at that age we feel their emotions immediately, unconsciously.

Simon Ortiz’s “Wisconsin Horse”

One of Ortiz’s reoccurring images is first found in “Wisconsin Horse.” Considering his Indian heritage, it’s a rich symbol, one often identified with Indians, though perhaps less so with the Pueblo Indians. The image is usually found in poems where the narrator is commenting on “America building something,” and, in the process, destroying nature.

Wisconsin Horse


It is late at night, lying
drunk on the floor, hearing
a church bell across the
street, remembering that
Wisconsin Horse
this Spring.

One step at a time to return.

The horse across the road
stands within a fence,
silent in the hot afternoon.

A mile north is some construction.
I tell the horse,
"That's America building something."

A mile further through a clump of trees
is a river.

The Wisconsin Horse is silent.

The bell clamors
against the insides of my skull,
It has nothing to do with sound
that can comfort.

The clamor wants to escape
its barriers.
I want it to escape.
I have no defenses.

I should be an eager Christian
hungry for salvation,
or at the very least accept smugness
bound tightly in plastic.

Yet, at this single point in my life,
I know only a few bare things:
the floor, the walls around me,
that bell across the street,
that despair is a miserable excuse for emptiness,
that I should echo louder
that call for salvation
which at this point I know
is a need to fill the hollows
and pockets of my body.

Despair is such a poor excuse
to exclude things from my life,
to allow them to slip
from safe places.

But now, and not too soon,
in, this dark night,
having gotten up to write,
I make this offering:
that Wisconsin Horse I saw
standing in that hot afternoon,
staring through a chainlink fence
at the construction going on
only a mile away,
I wonder now if the horse still stands
silent in the dark night,
dreamless and stifled,
having no recourses left
except to hope his silence
will soon go away
and the meaningfulness enter .


This poem has several of Ortiz’s major themes beginning with the opening note. Alcoholism, seemingly a reflection of his alienation and despair, plays a large part in his early poems. The bell that clamors inside his skull seems to be the church bell, the church that wants to convince him that he should be “hungry for salvation.”

It’ s obvious that what he’s really hungry for, though, is some sort of meaning to “fill the hollows and pockets” of his body. At this early stage of his career all he has, though, is an image that has stuck with him. Like the Wisconsin horse, he is fenced in and incapable of articulating what he really feels. All he can do is “hope his silence/will soon go away/ and the meaningfulness enter.”