W S Merwin – The Moon Before Morning

This review by Fiona Sampson says all I’d want to say about Merwin’s brilliant new book.

I was delighted when Bloodaxe wanted to excerpt from a review I wrote for ‘Poetry London’ about his last – The Shadow of Sirius (2009) – for the blurb of the new collection.

Here’s what I wrote then:

The Shadow of Sirius won its author a second Pulitzer in 2009 and this UK edition from Bloodaxe is a PBS Recommendation so Merwin hardly needs a plug from me. Yet his original poetry (as opposed to his wide-ranging translation work) remains relatively little known here and this book is so good that I am delighted to be able to add to the praise it has already garnered. These poems are lyrical, majestic, sceptical and tenderly gorgeous meditations on time and the nature of perception. They are also technically thought provoking. Since 1970 Merwin has abandoned punctuation and the resulting texts are thrilling processes in which syntax drifts in and out of focus, never a word out of place, and technique is made to carry metaphysical and psychological weight. Merwin intends the poem – because it must reflect human consciousness – to re-present a unified field of experience, especially of the temporal.

Early poems here are autobiographical and the shadow of Sirius is mortality and time for a writer in his eighties. It “appears now that there is only one / age and it knows / nothing of age as the flying birds know / nothing of the air” (‘Still Morning’). Later, age itself “seems to be without substance” since “the bird lies still while the light goes on flying” (‘Unknown Age’). Many of these sinuous, seamless poems appear to be enacted in a present tense that is re-focused on a remembered past which then contains anticipations of the future. So in ‘Accompaniment’, a child is washing his hands on a train journey, hearing his mother’s instructions about what they will do next, but the journey is long:

I will

wake up far away

we are going south

where I know that my father

is going to die

but I will grow up before he does that

the hands go on washing themselves

‘Photographer’ reads like a little myth of this process. The artist’s death goes unremembered by most but “someone who understood” rescues hundreds of glass plates and from them come “apple trees flowering in another century / lilies open in sunlight against former house walls”.

Though ‘A Likeness’ ends by declaring “I have only what I remember”, there is such generosity, breadth and richness to memory beyond any roseate nostalgia or cheap remorse that Merwin enacts Eliot’s observation that “all time is eternally present (‘Burnt Norton’). In doing so he accesses a redemptive quality yet does not underestimate the epistemological complexities. Many pieces are in search of deeper meaning and can be regarded as versions of ‘A Note From the Cimmerians’ who dwell “in utter darkness”. Towards the end of this marvellous book, landscapes recur which might be Merwin’s childhood USA, or the Pacific island of Maui where he know lives, but most often suggest the France where he once lived (a squabbling Plath and Hughes stayed with Merwin and his first wife in 1961) and seems now to be revisiting. ‘Cold Spring Morning’ notes “At times it has seemed that when / I first came here it was an old self / I recognized in the silent walls”. ‘Youth of Grass’ opens with what reads like straight landscape description but concludes (only 15 lines later) having gathered all the tenses together: “so the youth of this spring all at once is over / it has come upon us again taking us / once more by surprise just as we began / to believe that those fields would always be green”.

“The trouble with pleasure is the timing” declares ‘One of the Butterflies’ and the extent to which Merwin wrests pleasure from the passage of time is extraordinary; and extraordinarily Keatsian since these poems do not reach for fixity or facts, their fluidly unpointed forms unfolding with a marvellous aptness. It is not merely that pleasure is “gone before I know it is here” but more importantly “if I could make it stay / as I want to it would turn into pain” (‘One of the Butterflies’). These are unashamedly late poems and Merwin argues the mark of such work is that they employ “words / that have come the whole way / they have been there” (‘Worn Words’). Just listen to the settled human voice singing in this final poem: “yes this is the place and the one time / in the whole of before and after / with all of memory waking into it” (‘The Laughing Thrush’).

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