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,


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.

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