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.

Merwin’s “One of the Butterflies”

Considering what I had to say about Merwin’s poetry yesterday, it seemed ironic that


Butterfly

ONE OF THE BUTTERFLIES

The trouble with pleasure is the timing
it can overtake me without warning
and be gone before I know it is here
it can stand facing me unrecognized
while I am remembering somewhere else
in another age or someone not seen
for years and never to be seen again
in this world and it seems that I cherish
only now a joy I was not aware of
when it was here although it remains
out of reach and will not be caught or named
or called back and if I could make it stay
as I want to it would turn into pain.

is one of my favorite poems in the second half of The Shadow of Sirius. For me, at least, the lines “it can stand facing me unrecognized/ while I am remembering somewhere else” explains why you focus on the present moment rather than getting caught up in the past or worrying about the future.

I’m not a great fan of carpe diem poems and certainly don’t believe in sacrificing the future for immediate gratification, but worrying too much about the future or the past destroys any real chance for joy. Of course, it’s easier to know that then it is to actually live it.

I doubt you can go through life without missing what should have been moments of joy, and like most people I, too, have tried to hang onto a “good thing” too long, only to find it destroyed in the process. But for me, the biggest mistake of all is mourning those things, which simply compounds the misery instead of doing those things that make us happy.

Merwin’s “A Likeness”

I’ve been reading W.S. Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius for a little over a month now — usually a sign I don’t much like what I’m reading. I’m not sure that’s true this time, though because I much prefer the second half of the book to the first half. I have marked nearly twice as many poems in the second half to re-read as I did in the first half.

Too much of the first part of the book is spent in reminisce, or, rather, in studying the nature of reminisce on an abstract level, and, despite recent indulgences, those are qualities I’m not particularly fond of.

I’m biased against poems that begin “time unseen time our continuing fiction/ however we tell it eludes our dear hope and our reason” and end “and was the veil still there/ when my mother turned from her own garden one evening that same year”. The closer death comes, the less I’m concerned about it, and the more I’m concerned about this moment.

I did like this poem, though,

A LIKENESS

Almost to your birthday and as I
am getting dressed alone in the house
a button comes off and once I find
a needle with an eye big enough
for me to thread it
and at last have sewed the button on
I open an old picture of you
who always did such things by magic
one photograph found after you died
of you at twenty
beautiful in a way
I would never see
for that was nine years
before I was born
but the picture has
faded suddenly
spots have marred
maybe it is past repair
I have only what I remember

perhaps because it uses concrete examples like the missing button and the fading photograph to reach the simple conclusion, “I have only what I remember.”

At my age, the past certainly looms much larger than it used to, particularly because I don’t have as much “future” to balance it out, but I much prefer to live my life in the here and now. And more and more I prefer to live my life doing things, experiencing things, rather than philosophizing about things, particularly about things I couldn’t change even if I wanted to.

I’m not sure what “reality” is; I’m not even sure I really care any more. Simple joys make me happy. And that’s enough reality for me.