The waning moon and a streetlight offered to help when I lost the silver pendant of my necklace walking my puppy in the early morning twilight. But after a moment’s search I let it hide, something precious and intimate concealed, and now it endears that part of the neighborhood to me, as W.S. Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning does with every poem. —A. Anupama
The waning moon and a streetlight offered to help when I lost the silver pendant of my necklace walking my puppy in the early morning twilight. But after a moment’s search I let it hide, something precious and intimate concealed, and now it endears that part of the neighborhood to me, as W.S. Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning does with every poem.
On one of the many double-dog-eared pages in my copy, in the poem “How it happens,” the sky speaks:
The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing…
This poem appears in the last of the four sections of the collection and is followed by the poet’s ars poetica, “The wonder of the imperfect.”
Nothing that I do is finished
so I keep returning to it
lured by the notion that I long
to see the whole of it at last…
W. S. Merwin is prolific and draped with honors. His last book of poetry, Shadow of Sirius, won him his second Pulitzer Prize. He has served as U.S. Poet Laureate (also) twice (1999-2000 and 2010-2011). He was born in 1927 in New York City but grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His influences are deep and personal. His father was a Presbyterian minister; he knew John Berryman and R.P. Blackmur at Princeton; Robert Graves’s son Merwin was his tutor for time. Now he lives with is wife Paula in Hawaii, on a 19-acre palm forest, which he planted from seed. Earlier this fall, the Merwin Conservancy announced permanent protection for the forest, in cooperation with the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust.
Merwin’s new collection begins with a scene in this forest garden in a poem called “Homecoming.”
I looked across the garden at evening
Paula was still weeding
The poem is typically (for Merwin) unpunctuated. The assonance and half-rhyme between “evening” and “weeding” fold the lines together, suggesting the core thematic structure: couple and place.
Likewise, in “Theft of morning,” the beautifully described (anapests — “to the sound” — accented with alliteration and internal rhyme) palm garden grounds the meditation.
Early morning in cloud light
to the sound of the last
of the rain at daybreak dripping
from the tips of the fronds
into the summer day
I watch palm flowers open
pink coral in midair
among pleated cloud-green fans
as I sit for a while after breakfast
reading a few pages
with a shadowing sense
that I am stealing the moment
from something else
that I ought to be doing
so the pleasure of stealing is part of it
Stealing moments is a theme of age. In the sonnet “Young man picking flowers” the poet delights in twisting up time and age to nullify their effects. Beginning here:
All at once he is no longer
young with his handful of flowers
in the bright morning…
and then ending:
the cool dew runs from them onto
his hand at this hour of their lives
is it the hand of the young man
who found them only this morning
The couplet’s question becomes almost a non-question because of the absence of question mark and because of Merwin’s precise tightening of line and thought by the repeated words (“hand,” “them,” and “morning”). Notice that the man is “young man” at the end.
In “Beginners,” time and memory hold hands for a moment and explain the game.
As though it had always been forbidden to remember
each of us grew up
knowing nothing about the beginning
but in time there came from that forgetting
names representing a truth of their own
and we went on repeating them
After this running start in rhymes (“nothing,” “beginning,” “forgetting,” “representing,” “repeating”), he goes on repeating variations of forgetting and remembering until “the day we wake to is our own.”
Merwin repeats the word “frond” frequently in the first section of this collection, anchoring us firmly in that garden home. It appears first in “Theft of morning,” and then recurs in several other poems, often aligned with time of day (to be precise, of course, for the garden changes with the light and weather). “White-eye” starts: “In the first daylight one slender frond trembles / and without seeing you I know you are there…” In the poem “From the gray legends,” “the screen of fronds” appears “before daylight,” and then in the poem “One day moth” he starts this way:
The lingering late-afternoon light of autumn
waves long wands through the arches
of fronds that meet over the lane
A poem titled “High fronds” gives us the image from a distance:
After sundown the crowns
of the tallest palms
stand out against
the clear glass of the eastern sky
that have no shadows
and no memory
the wind has gone its own way
nothing is missing
In “Garden notes,” the repetition summarizes itself at its zenith, encompassing all times of day and night:
All day in the garden
and at night when I wake to it
at its moment I hear a sound
sometimes little more than a whisper
of something falling
a seed in its early age
or a great frond formed
of its high days and nights…
“A breeze at noon” brings the repetition of “frond” to a close when the moment
drops a dead Pinanga frond
like an arrow at my feet
and I look up into the green
cluster of stems and gold strings
beaded with bloodred seeds
each of them holding tomorrow
and when I look
the breeze has gone
The word “frond” shares doubled consonance with “friend,” which Merwin repeats in the poem “Footholds.” The lines, specific in their setting of time and place, favor memory over forgetting.
…Father and Mother friend upon friend
what I remember of them now
footholds on the slope
in the silent valley of this morning
Wednesday with few clouds and an east wind.
The word “echo” takes over as a primary repetitive motif in the second section of the collection and beyond. Again, the repetitions shift in their references, beginning with “Another to Echo,” which offers praise to Echo, the famous nymph in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses who could only repeat the last words of others, and who loved Narcissus in vain.
you incomparable one
for whom the waters fall
and the winds search
and the words were made
Later, in “Garden music,” the echo as sound and echo as memory of sound coalesce.
In the garden house
the digging fork and the spade
hanging side by side on their nails
play a few notes I remember
that echo many years
as the breeze comes in with me…
And in “Variations on a theme,” the penultimate poem in the collection, Merwin personifies memory in the line “thank you for friends and long echoes of them”.
In an interview with Bill Moyers shortly after The Shadow of Sirius was published, Merwin mentioned having been pleased and encouraged to hear that children had no trouble understanding his poetry. To test this, I chose a few poems from this collection to share with my five-year-old daughter. I picked “The palaces” for its clouds like “gray cliffs / icebergs in other lives” and for words like “white-knuckled,” “pocket” and “crag.” My daughter wanted more. She asked, “What comes after that?” And so I continued with “Old plum tree” and “Old breadhouse,” which won her approval, too.
Reading the poems aloud confirmed another of Merwin’s comments in that interview: that poetry relies heavily on the sense of hearing. The poems are full of sounds — the dripping leaves, the whisper of things falling in the night, those echoes, real and figurative. However, his use of “frond” seemed to me particularly visual. I remembered learning that the filtering of light through fronds and other kinds of leaves can even act like pinhole cameras, projecting images of the sun or moon across the ground, a fact I once used for watching a solar eclipse. But Merwin turns the strong visual aspects back to sound.
In “Lear’s wife,” the speaker says twice “I looked at the world” (visual). But the poem’s hinges are fastened to “if he had listened to me / it would have been / another story” and “only Cordelia / did not forget / anything / but when asked she said / nothing” (auditory). In “Another to Echo,” Merwin begins “How beautiful you must be / to have been able to lead me / this far with only / the sound of your going away” (visual metamorphoses to auditory). In “From the gray legends,” the color and texture of Arachne’s weaving opens the poem and carries its thread through to the end, all reflected in the strong visual of Minerva’s gray eyes. The only sound here, “all night her own bird answered only / Who”, is another uppercase exception to Merwin’s usual punctuation rules.
The silvery language hidden in plain sight on these pages only awaits a little breath of reading to reveal the pure way that dawn itself listens.
A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.