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.

4 thoughts on “Merwin’s “A Likeness””

  1. I’m focused more on you than Merwin.
    I’m pretty sure the concrete is what draws you to LIKENESS, just as birds are more interesting to you than trees. They add life to the setting. Or life to the idea of life. Your comments on the appeal of nostalgia versus the immediate experience make me think of Henry Reed’s wonderful poem “JUDGING DISTANCES” (for those not already familiar, it’s an imagined situation: a drill instructor talking to a platoon about how to read a lanscape)


    Not only how far away, but the way that you say it
    Is very important. Perhaps you may never get
    The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know
    How to report on a landscape: the central sector,
    The right of the arc and that, which we had last Tuesday,
    And at least you know

    That maps are of time, not place, so far as the army
    Happens to be concerned—the reason being,
    Is one which need not delay us. Again, you know
    There are three kinds of tree, three only, the fir and the poplar,
    And those which have bushy tops to; and lastly
    That things only seem to be things.

    A barn is not called a barn, to put it more plainly,
    Or a field in the distance, where sheep may be safely grazing.
    You must never be over-sure. You must say, when reporting:
    At five o’clock in the central sector is a dozen
    Of what appear to be animals; whatever you do,
    Don’t call the bleeders sheep.

    I am sure that’s quite clear; and suppose, for the sake of example,
    The one at the end, asleep, endeavors to tell us
    What he sees over there to the west, and how far away,
    After first having come to attention. There to the west,
    On the fields of summer the sun and the shadows bestow
    Vestments of purple and gold.

    The still white dwellings are like a mirage in the heat,
    And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
    Lie gently together. Which is, perhaps, only to say
    That there is a row of houses to the left of the arc,
    And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
    Appear to be loving.

    Well that, for an answer, is what we rightly call
    Moderately satisfactory only, the reason being,
    Is that two things have been omitted, and those are very important.
    The human beings, now: in what direction are they,
    And how far away, would you say? And do not forget
    There may be dead ground in between.

    There may be dead ground in between; and I may not have got
    The knack of judging a distance; I will only venture
    A guess that perhaps between me and the apparent lovers,
    (Who, incidentally, appear by now to have finished,)
    At seven o’clock from the houses, is roughly a distance
    Of about one year and a half.

  2. Are you trying to make me get nostalgic about my training as a forward observer just before shipping out to Vietnam, Mike?

    Ain’t gonna happen. No nostalgia there, even if it was nearly a year and half after that that I finally returned to civilian life and found almost-true love.

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