I have with me/all that I do not know/I have lost none of it
W.S Merwin “The Nomad Flute” from The Shadow of Sirius
Sometime in the mid 1960s, W. S. Merwin completely lost faith in punctuation and came to believe in his readers. The transformation didn’t happen all at once. The change manifested in his 1963 book The Moving Target, and completed in his sixth book The Lice. Only one of its poems uses periods (and not a single comma) and its phrasing, like the other poems in the book, was so true that it seemed that he’d simply forgotten to take them out.
All these years later, readers don’t even notice the lack of punctuation. Doing what he does with phrases crafted across lines that are paced by climax rhythms, stanza breaks and an occasional well-placed “I” (he also no longer capitalizes the first letter of each line), Merwin makes us hear his words even as we read silently. Somehow, like a singer taking breath, we know just where one thought ends and another begins.
In The Lice, the 40-year-old Merwin sounded a cool detachment from the self by writing about reality’s small components: “The Moths, “The Dragonfly” “The Child.” In each poem, he finds himself in smaller things and becomes less significant. The “The River of Bees” he writes, ”…we were not born to survive/ only to live”. He is constantly reminded of what he doesn’t know (“For the Anniversary of My Death”).
Some 40 years later, Merwin survives remembering what he’s yet to learn. The Shadow of Sirius is about small illuminations, the light at the end of life. Looking back always feels like looking ahead. The small realities of his youth shine on his own mortality.
Punctuation, long extinct, lives invisibly in his phrasing. He writes, “we believe in measure/we do it with the first breath we take/and the first sound we make/it is in each word that we learn…”. Measure doesn’t require cues. It carries its own rhythm. This is something Merwin has gotten better at over the years, something he seems to acknowledge in “Worn Words,” one of the collections many attempts at perspective. Sometimes a page-long poem is a single sentence. Quoting only half of “A Codex” shows how well he can stretch and connect thoughts:
It was a late book given up for lost
again and again with its sentences
bare at last and phrases that seemed transparent
revealing what had been there the whole way
the poems of daylight after the day
lying open at last on the table
without explanation or emphasis
like sounds left when the syllables have gone
clarifying the whole grammar of waiting…
There are small things here as always, most often things of flight: herons, butterflies, mine canaries, a laughing thrush. Favorite subjects are revisited–survival of the natural world in light of his own preservation, the pacing of our lives and the audible measure of our works—all seen as if through a reverse lens. He humbly pays tribute to a poet, Ruth Stone, who makes our connection to the natural world more naturally than he, by making himself smaller, picturing her world in different light and granting her vision “beyond any words of mine.”
Merwin’s vision has been consistent over the last 40 years, even in the face of changing perspective. Approaching death just brings him closer to life-long themes. “Now that you are darker than I can believe/it is not wisdom that I have come to/with its denials and pure promises/but this absence that I can not set down…” Memory has become palpable, a thing of touch and taste, and it serves him well. His claim, never spoken directly, is an old cliché: he’s not getting older, he’s getting better. Readers can only agree.—Cabbage Rabbit