Merwin and the River, 1927-2019 Tristan Beach Essay

person_pin Merwin and the River, 1927-2019

by Tristan Beach

Published in Issue No. 263 ~ April, 2019

 

then toward morning I dream of the first words

of books of voyages (“Teachers” lines 12-13; The Second Four Books 134)

 

i.

Sitting crossed-legged on the used bookstore’s streaked, discolored linoleum, an enormous burnt-green faux leather-bound 1970s anthology of American poems lay open on my lap—spine broken, a sheaf of Bible-thin pages loose, teasing an escape.

At 14, I knew books, old books: their faint musk of fading ink mixed with the sweet perfume of their aging pages. But in this book that opened itself to me, the margins throbbed with notes: past students and lovers’ interrogating, exclaiming—surprise, repulsion, joy—their myriad responses to these poets and their poems, sometimes in neat script, sometimes in voluptuous scrawls; delineations of thought, tangles of emotion growing right out of the very poems.

In these pages, the names I knew—the Dickinson, Frost, and Stevens of my high school freshman classroom—accompanied names I didn’t yet know—Wheatley, Toomer, Berryman. And then there was one name which, at the time, I merely glimpsed, being one of the dozens of others who sought my attention. Over the next several years before I would eventually lose this precious volume of poems (the title, as all things, has long since passed from memory), I would glimpse that name again, and again: absorbing with some curiosity the brief selection of poems hanging below that name’s bold lettering.

W.S. MERWIN. (1927–

This was my introduction to a Poet.

ii.

Out at the end of the street in the cemetery

the tombstones stared across the wheeling shadows

of tombstones while the names and dates wept on (“No” lines 1-3; The Shadow of Sirius 21)

–2019)

iii.

W(illiam) S(tanley) Merwin died on March 15, 2019, in Haiku, Haiku-Pauwela, Hawai’i. He was blessed with a long and prolific life, publishing more than 60 books, as author and translator, and receiving numerous accolades, including two Pulitzer Prizes in poetry (1971, 2009) and two appointments as U.S. Poet Laureate (Special Joint-Consultant with Louise Glück and Rita Dove, 1999; Poet Laureate, 2010). His well-documented emergence into the poetry scene of the early 50s began with his first collection, A Mask for Janus (included in The First Four Books of Poems), which received the Yale Younger Poets Prize, in 1952. His career steadily came to a close, signaled by his final collection of original poems, Garden Time, published in 2016. He suffered from macular degeneration, robbing him of his sight. This physical loss compelled him to dictate the poems, collected in Garden Time, to his wife Paula Merwin—who preceded him in death, in 2017 (Imada).

In his review of Garden Time, Jeff Gordinier describes experiencing Merwin’s poetry as a “timeless continuum, a river that stretches all the way back to Han Shan and Li Po” (“Memories Distilled”). Gordinier’s metaphor feels apt—there is a uniquely transcendent quality in Merwin’s work, more greatly pronounced in the poetry of the latter half of his career, signaled by a progressive change from traditional verse forms to unpunctuated free verse forms. Besides acknowledging his pull towards free verse in the preface to The Second Four Books, Merwin describes his conscious idiosyncratic dropping of nearly all punctuation as “[evolving] from my growing sense that punctuation alluded to and assumed allegiance to the rational protocol of written language” (The Second Four Books 1). This turning away from conventional form freed his words from the confines of the page, allowing their seamless spoken passage from mouth to ear to heart—

Would I love it this way if it could last

would I love it this way if it

were the whole sky the one heaven

or if I could believe that it belonged to me

a possession that was mine alone

or if I imagined that it noticed me

recognized me and may have come to see me

out of all the mornings that I never knew (“The Morning” lines 1-8)

iv.

I witness the progression of time reading The First Four Books and The Second Four Books: the arc of Merwin’s poetics—the river source, the impermanent and precocious genius of youth, and the anguish and defiance of the middle years, affected by wars and what Joni Mitchell calls the “the bloody changes” (“California”).

I witness also in the latter books, including selections in Migration and The Essential W.S. Merwin, the embrace of Buddhism, the urgency of environmental action, and the serenity and contemplation of advanced age. This was a poet deeply concerned with and ever striving for reconciliation within his times and within the times to come.

v.

I arrived at Merwin the same time I arrived at poetry. At 14. But for a long time he remained in the periphery as my attention was focused on other poets, other Eliots, Sandburgs, Bishops, Plaths, and Sextons (oh how I confined my education to a forty-some-year period in American literature). It wasn’t until I was 21, newly out of university and without any prospects, that I arrived at Merwin a second time: Merwin emerged out of my periphery and into the center for the next full year and for many years after.

vi.

Then we poised, in time’s fullness brought

As to a new country, (“Anabasis (I)” lines 1-2)

 

I graduated from Saint Martin’s University with a BA in English in 2009. I was fresh and uncertain—plans to live and teach in Japan had recently fallen through. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and this lack of knowing scared me to no end. Hoping to calm, if not dispel, some of that depressive cloud of doubt that bound me, my parents and I decided to take a weekend trip to one of our old haunts, Port Townsend, WA. While visiting Fort Worden State Park, located in the northeastern tip of Port Townsend, my parents and I checked out the Commons building on the park’s campus. While perusing a couple of glass display cases in the lobby, I came across one featuring Copper Canyon Press. Someone from the press, probably an intern, had arranged broadsides, poetry books, printed or clipped news items, old photographs, and, most notably, a simple gray book at the center of the display—a calligraphed note attached to the front cover proclaimed “Winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.” Beside this book stood a transparent-framed press release with the author’s photo in the upper righthand corner of the page. I recognized the name before I recognized the face—I can’t recall seeing a photograph of him before that moment. It was Merwin.

The name brought back that lost anthology of American poets, that text so formative to my artistic sensibilities as a naïve and too-sensitive teenager; and, strangely, I took this brief moment of recognition as a sign.

vii.

Located on the Fort Worden campus, Copper Canyon Press is housed in a long, white, single gable-roofed wooden building with an emerald green trim; large, black COPPER CANYON PRESS letters are fixed above a white double-winged door on the east-facing wall. These letters are the first one notices when approaching the press. Similar black letters occupy a narrow space above the green double entry doors to the press.

Entering the building, one is greeted by hundreds of new and recent titles—books leaning gingerly against the white spaces between shelves that line a thick partition spanning the back of the small reception area. Immediately on the right are a reception desk and register. Farther inward, on one end of the partition, stands a bookcase crammed with popular older titles. The layout for this area has changed over the years since I first set foot into this building. I remember a different layout, perhaps wrought of my own imagination, of books, dating as far back to 1972, spilling haphazardly and desperately out of bookshelves—of hundreds of voices beckoning a visitor to lift a title from its narrow place, to open an untouched volume, spine crackling meekly, pages unfurling in release.

Books occupy the pinnacle of my romanticism.

I recall, in 2009, a tall-legged table centered before these shelves, holding a small selection of Merwin books—reissues and recent original publications of his poems, among them The Shadow of Sirius and his National Book Award-winning Migration (2005). This selection of books represented a much larger body of work published by Copper Canyon by that point. The number of volumes of Merwin’s poetry, prose, and translations that Copper Canyon produced would reach 20, as of this writing—there will surely be more as time passes.

Merwin’s works found a home at Copper Canyon Press beginning in the early 1990s. Merwin and the press maintained an author-publisher relationship, well-known, enviable, and quite fruitful, for more than 25 years. And his presence there was and is undeniable. Merwin’s stature and impact at the press, not to mention the poetry community of the Northwest and at large, cannot be understated.

viii.

On March 15, news of Merwin’s death was posted to The Merwin Conservancy website. The news has since been shared and reiterated in a number of news and social media platforms, including Facebook, where I first read it. Merwin died.

In the Conservancy’s announcement, Copper Canyon Press Editor-in-Chief, Michael Wiegers, states, “While we have lost a tremendous friend, the loss to American poetry is even more profound. From the stylistic inventions, he introduced to the catalyzing force of his work in translation and international poetics, his influence on American poetry has been without equal” (Tekula). I grieve for Michael. I grieve also for Copper Canyon Press, for the people who called Merwin “friend.”

***

Exhausted leaves, suspended, through

 

The distant autumn do not fall,

Or, fallen, fired, are unconsumed,

The flame perduring, the still

Smoke eternal in the mind. (“Anabasis (I)” lines 20-24)

ix.

I began my internship at the press in February 2010. This was my introduction, my rite of passage, into the world of publishing. While there were certainly other poets, translators, and critics I encountered while immersing myself in the “warehouse” section of the press’s Fort Worden building (thousands and thousands and thousands of books converging in a secluded space), Merwin probably commanded my attention the most. I collected as many books of his as I could, reading each one rapid-fire—in those days, I thought I knew poems as if poems could be easily understood or comprehended, and I simply wasn’t among those elites who were “in” on that secret to knowing POETRY. Thus, as I had done for other poets, I absorbed Merwin’s poems—the music, the objects, the spaces between and the absences of words. I gazed deep into the well, half in wonder at what captivated me, but also half in disappointment at what I couldn’t see, assuming more than there was or was supposed to be, assuming there was some magical element that escaped me, that would otherwise have aided me in the knowing.

Perhaps Merwin’s poems cannot necessarily be understood; but they may be “known,” as “knowing” entails so many various somatic, pre- and anti-cognitive personal experiences of poetry.

Nevertheless, there is a logic within Merwin’s poems, repetitive and yet inconsistent, existing as an ethereal beast unique to the spaces between each line—beheld, even recognized, by the reader; but it is a beast with its own mind and its own agency.

Or perhaps they may only be said.

Merwin’s poems are not fastened to the page, they do not truly occupy space in the physical sense. This perception of their flight and emptiness, shared by me and many readers of Merwin, invites, repels, yet also reconciles the reader to these poems.

You may come to Merwin’s poems with your own terms, your own instilled agenda, with the bent to interrogate, throttle the meaning out of the poem, as we are often conditioned to do as students (or critics) of Poetics, in workshops. But you may also come to these poems as one comes to an unmapped river, unsullied by human presence. Come to the river as one comes without expectation, without the hope of mercy or the fear of death. Come as you are: the river runs, without malice; the river is—

already far below me

some were falling into

the river of day

the invisible surface

that remembers and whispers

but does not tell even in sleep

not this time (“Without Knowing” lines 6-12; The Shadow of Sirius 11)

x.

While interning at Copper Canyon Press, I was once put to work at a special benefit reading in Seattle, “Merwin and Friends.” There is no way to fully describe this experience. Hundreds of patrons, poets, admirers, and arts-people were in attendance. As I can remember, I remember meeting the mystical and un-eccentric Erin Belieu and Dana Levin, as well as my poet brother, Gary Copeland Lilley. There were the Dickman twins, Ed Skoog, and Ben Lerner. Matthew Zapruder was also there as was Valzhyna Mort. Other names escape—or have left—me. Please correct this transgression of forgetfulness.

These openers preceded the main event, Merwin, reading from The Shadow of Sirius. I haven’t much else to say about this event. I remember objects and faces far more clearly than I remember actions.

Following the event, after much of the crowd had dispersed to the various other venues, including a bustling afterparty at the top of Smith Tower, a few of us stayed behind, cleaning, boxing books. Merwin was still there, signing copies of his books, and I waited until the line of readers thinned before bringing up the end, bearing with me about eight of his books in my arms. He graciously signed each one. I thanked him, and I thanked him also for writing The Shadow of Sirius—

“Your book is helping right now. My father is dying in a nursing home, with dementia. So I feel like these poems are comforting me, helping me understand what’s happening.”

“Really, how old are you?” he asked, voice lilting compassion, eyes clear, limpid blue.

“22,” I replied.

“That’s hard.”

“That’s life,” I said, wanting to somehow minimize the gravity of what I was saying.

“Yes,” Merwin paused, then added, “But it’s still very hard, no matter how old you are.”

xi.

My father died the next year. He had suffered from dementia in the last years of his life, losing his memory, functions, and much of his identity. There is something terrible about losing oneself. But some semblance of who he was, remained until the final days. Remains now, I like to think, in me.

I like to think that who we are cannot be pinned down by words or a name. The name stays with others, while we continue onwards as a stream continues unimpeded, unconcerned with forms—it forms itself accordingly in those instances of shapes—and yet, the stream is never cognitively understood, only glimpsed as it is in the moment we glimpse it.

I also like to remember Merwin as I met him that one night in Seattle. Once the readers were gone and the attendants moved on, he gathered his things together, donning cold weather clothing. Merwin wore a black beret, tilted to one side, and a black cape draped his shoulders, reaching to his midriff. A black or navy-blue coat. He was the complete picture of a Poet. Refined, mysterious, worldly, and fully aware of his own myth. And, romantic as I was, and still am, I saw this myth more than this man.

So I suppose this tribute contributes to the myth of who he was and who he continues to be. I admit here that by writing this, I have mythologized him to myself as I mythologize myself. I knew him only in name, by this one appearance, enveloped in a literary aura; I witnessed him as a reader, as have thousands of other readers, through his poems.

xii.

Matthew Zapruder writes in “Poem for Merwin,”

pick up the small rose book
with its disappearing house on the cover

 

enter its doorway
get lost for a while

 

forget we were born to carry our names

 

until it is our turn with nothing to say
except maybe we were born to love

 

and move further on (lines 60-67)

There are far better tributes to Merwin than what I have written here. Zapruder’s tribute in The Paris Review is among them. But perhaps Merwin offers a definitive tribute, entitled “For the Anniversary of My Death” (originally published in The Lice), not to his work or who he considered himself to be, but to what passes, is passing, without our knowing and just beyond the self-fulfilling ritual of a public lament:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Then I will no longer

Find myself in life as in a strange garment

Surprised at the earth

As today writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing not knowing to what (lines 1-3, 6-8, 11-13; The Second Four Books

115)

The river ever runs—

 

Works Cited

Gordinier, Jeff. “Memories Distilled by 2 Radically Different Poets,” The New York Times, 19 Sep. 2016, nytimes.com/2016/09/20/books/w-s-merwin-garden-time-adam-fitzgerald-george-washington.html. Accessed 20 March 2019.

Imada, Lee. “The Merwin Conservancy co-founder Paula Merwin dies,” The Maui News, 11 Mar. 2017. mauinews.com/news/local-news/2017/03/the-merwin-conservancy-co-founder-paula-merwin-dies/. Accessed 20 March 2019.

Merwin, W.S. “Anabasis (I),” The First Four Books of Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2000, pp. 5-8

—. “The Morning.” The Merwin Conservancy, 23 Apr. 2018, merwinconservancy.org/2018/04/the-morning-by-w-s-merwin/. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.

—. “Teachers.” The Second Four Books of Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 1993, p. 134.

—. The Shadow of Sirius, Copper Canyon Press, 2009.

Mitchell, Joni. Lyrics to “California,” Genius, 2019. genius.com/Joni-mitchell-california-lyrics. Accessed 21 Mar. 2019.

Tekula, Sara. “Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet W.S. Merwin Passes Away at 91.” The Merwin Conservancy, 15 Mar. 2019, merwinconservancy.org/2019/03/pulitzer-prize-winning-poet-w-s-merwin-passes-away-at-91/?fbclid=IwAR15vhDqGUkpoL82KYh6OR NrAzFACqnGV8eMrqrxxcowjeXjgkn-pkcz1l0. Accessed 21 Mar. 2019.

Zapruder, Matthew. “Poem for Merwin.” The Paris Review, 18 Mar. 2019, theparisreview.org/blog/2019/03/18/poem-for-merwin/. Accessed 20 Mar. 2019.

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Born and raised Washingtonian, Tristan Beach taught college English across China from 2014 to 2017. Before that, he was a long-time associate editor for The Conium Review. He has been involved with various journals and literary presses since 2010, including Copper Canyon Press, Coffee House Press, Pitkin Review and Clockhouse. His poems and proses appear in Shantih, rawboned, The Writer in the World and Pitkin Review. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and received his BA in English from Saint Martin’s University. He currently teaches creative writing, composition, and ESL at Saint Martin’s and co-founded the Raven Writers group.