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W. S. Merwin’s Garden Time is a book about aging, about the practice of trying to live one’s life in the present. The recurring themes are loss and old love, memory and forgetting, and a kind of precognition that the whole of what we are was with us from the beginning —Allan Cooper

garden time

Garden Time
W. S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press, 2016
96 pages, $24.00

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We seem to live many lives before we die. One of the great joys of growing older is when one of those accumulated moments comes back with sudden clarity, when we least expect it. We are young and old, male and female, and sometimes even two redstarts perched on a plum twig return to find us:

…in the dusk
two redstarts
close together before winter
lit on a plum twig
near my hand
and stayed to watch me

(“Portents”)

W. S. Merwin’s Garden Time is a book about aging, about the practice of trying to live one’s life in the present. The recurring themes are loss and old love, memory and forgetting, and a kind of precognition that the whole of what we are was with us from the beginning:

ONE SONNET OF SUMMER

Summer has come to the trees reaching up for it
it has come in daylight without a sound
it arrived when the trees were dark in sleep
they dreamed it and woke knowing it was there
but I am an autumn child and my first
summer I was here but was not yet born
I heard the leaves whisper on their branches
and the cicadas growing in their song
I listened to all the language of summer
in which the time was talking to itself
I was born in autumn knowing the sound of summer

There are many questions in this book, questions about life, death, and the passage of time. The opening poem repeats the phrase “would I love it” several times like a mantra:

THE MORNING

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
and all those that I have forgotten
would I love it this way if I were somewhere else
or if I were younger for the first time
or if these very birds were not singing
or I could not hear them or see their trees
would I love it this way if I were in pain
red torment of body or gray void of grief
would I love it this way if I knew
that I would remember anything that is
here now anything anything

Memory is a major theme in “Black Cherries”– how we store the past, those moments of clarity and understanding and carry them forward. In this poem a synergy is created between the goldfinches “flutter (ing) down through the day” and Merwin eating black cherries:

Late in May as the light lengthens
toward summer the young goldfinches
flutter down through the day for the first time
to find themselves among fallen petals
cradling their day’s colors in the day’s shadows
of the garden beside the old house
after a cold spring with no rain
not a sound comes from the empty village
as I stand eating the black cherries
from the loaded branches above me
saying to myself Remember this

A small poem called “Rain at Daybreak” is about living firmly in the present. It ends with a Zen-like koan: “there is no other voice or other time.” W. S. Merwin first came to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism with Robert Aitken in 1976. Merwin doesn’t wish to chat about Buddhism in a casual way, and I respect that. But in an interview with Ed Rampell of The Progressive (October 25, 2010) Merwin talks a bit about this, and the connection between Buddhism and Christianity:

Certain things, if one pays attention and is concerned about them, in one’s temperament, in one’s outlook on the world, in one’s attempt to understand something about the world, certain things confirm what one is groping one’s way towards. I didn’t have the words for that, but there it is… For me, there are various places where one can find things like that. Blake, or Daoism, there are even things in the New Testament. I’m not a Christian but I think Jesus was an amazing occurrence on the planet and I think we’ve made of him something that he never was or ever wanted to be. But there are incredible things that he said. I heard a Japanese teacher say where Christianity and Buddhism are very close is when Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” If it’s not there, it’s nowhere.

Merwin also understands that at this time, many of us have less and less knowledge of the natural world. In this excerpt from “After the Dragonflies” he begins:

Dragonflies were as common as sunlight
hovering in their own days
backward forward and sideways
as though they were memory
now there are grown-ups hurrying
who never saw one
and do not know what they
are not seeing

Rather than being stewards of this planet, we have literally lost touch. Merwin seems to imply that what we do not know, or do not want to know diminishes us. The poem ends with “there will be no one to remember us.”

And yet there are ways to reconnect with the world. Thoreau built his small cabin, ten feet by fifteen feet near the shores of Walden Pond as part of his mission to live in a closer relationship with the land. For Merwin it was Maui, where he bought three acres of land depleted by erosion, logging and pesticides. Over the years, he and his wife Paula built a house there and began restoring the land. The Merwin Conservancy is now 19 acres and contains over 800 varieties of palm trees. It is “one of the most comprehensive palm forests in the world.” (Merwin Conservancy, biography.) Merwin doesn’t speak of meditation as such in his poems, specifically Zen sitting or zazen, but it seems that his translations, his own poetry, and his work as a gardener in his palm forest are all a personal form of meditation. We could say there is a connection between his creative life, his gardening life, and what we might call his spiritual life. They flow into one another and form a kind of third consciousness. When we spend more time in the natural world, our reservoir of fear, which is immense in this century, tends to lessen. Then there can be commerce between the human world, the natural world, and the invisible world where the old gods – if we’re lucky – step out to meet us. In “Voices Over Water”, Merwin says “There are spirits that come back to us…some of them come from the bodies of birds.”

§

There are moving, heartbreaking poems about childhood in Garden Time. As a friend said to me recently, when we hear the right words that express our loss and our grief, our visceral response is to weep. “Loss” is about his stillborn brother and how his mother tried to come to terms with it. Merwin understands loss; he also understands how our attempts to dismiss it rarely work. In this poem Merwin faces it head on, naming it in the opening stanza:

Loss was my brother
is my brother
but I have no image of him

his name which was never used
was Hanson
it had been the name
of my mother’s father
who had died as a young man

her child had been taken away
from my mother before
she ever saw him

to be bathed I suppose

they came and told her
that he was perfect in every way
and said they had never
seen such a beautiful child
and then they told her that he was dead

she sustained herself by believing
that he must have been dropped
somewhere just out of her sight
and out of her reach
and had fallen out of his empty name

all my life he has been near me
but I cannot tell you anything
about him

In the second poem Merwin becomes his mother’s way to find her life again – the laughing child. Nowhere in this collection is the sense of the past as extant in the present more evident. It is one of the finest poems of the last 60 years.

THE LAUGHING CHILD

When she looked down from the kitchen window
into the back yard and the brown wicker
baby carriage in which she had tucked me
three months old to lie out in the fresh air
of my first January the carriage
was shaking she said and went on shaking
and she saw I was lying there laughing
she told me about it later it was
something that reassured her in a life
in which she had lost everyone she loved
before I was born and she had just begun
to believe that she might be able to
keep me as I lay there in the winter
laughing it was what she was thinking of
later when she told me that I had been
a happy child and she must have kept that
through the gray cloud of all her days and now
out of the horn of dreams of my own life
I wake again into the laughing child

The Canadian poet Alden Nowlan said we experience these moments somewhere “between tears and laughter.”

§

Many of us would agree that poetry is one of our oldest and most poignant forms of expression. The poem is a container for those things that move us profoundly but which many of us can’t quite put into words. The poet names things, gathering them in images which centre and focus our experience. Here are a few of Merwin’s ideas about the uniqueness of poetry, again from The Progressive interview:

Poetry uses the same words as prose but it’s physical. It was that way – poetry may be the oldest of the arts. Because it’s probably as old as language itself. Its closest relation would probably be music and dance. Those three things together; before the visual arts, the first Paleolithic paintings, and things like that. Anyway, it’s very, very old, and theories about the origins of language suggest a different source for it, very close to poetry, in the origins of language itself. A number of theorists think it comes out of an inexpressible emotion, something that was just so, so urgent that the forms of expressing it weren’t adequate to it.

The final poem in Garden Time is called “The Present.” We don’t know for sure if Merwin means the present, the now, or a gift which has been given. Coleman Barks in one his poems says “mountain laurel overhanging the water, letting blossoms go to keep us constantly in the same thought with the falling rain: the gift is going by.” Merwin says:

As they were leaving the garden
one of the angels bent down to them and whispered

I am to give you this
as you are leaving the garden

I do not know what it is
or what it is for
what you will do with it

you will not be able to keep it
but you will not be able

to keep anything
yet they both reached at once

for the present
and when their hands met

they laughed

Hands touching, then laughter: W. S. Merwin catches those urgent, inexpressible moments in his poems. Like Han Shan, the Chinese recluse poet, he faithfully tends the garden of compassion and sudden awareness that is inside all of us.

—Allan Cooper

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allan cooper

Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.

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  3 Responses to “The Inexpressible Moment: Review of Garden Time by W. S. Merwin — Allan Cooper”

  1. Thank you for this. Beautiful

  2. Thank you, Allan. This gives a very sensitive introduction to Merwin’s powerful poems.

  3. Thanks for doing this fine review. Now, I’m going trough my bookcases to find what I have of Merwin’s poems.

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