Secret journeys

Amy Gerstler is a poet whose book "Bitter Angel" won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

IF there’s such a thing as an “old soul,” then W.S. Merwin surely is one. This has been evident over a long career, in his questioning, vatic voice and dreamy, meticulously crafted poetry. It’s clear in his poems’ commitment to the big mysteries and their explorations of archetypal disquiet, infinite bereftness and protective tenderness toward Mother Earth. You can even discern glimmers of Merwin’s abiding identity as post-Presbyterian Zen poet and channeler of ancient paradoxes by comparing two iconic jacket photographs of this lionized writer, now nearing 80.

The early one shows a tousle-haired, vigorous dude in work shirt and jeans. Unapologetic Vietnam War protester, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets award conferred by W.H. Auden (another poet apparently not fond of his Christian names), translator from a handful of romance languages, Merwin gazes straight into the camera’s lens. Clear-eyed and calm, he’s not exactly smiling. His mouth sits a bit crooked, which makes him appear quizzical. His expression suggests that while observing the current moment, he is also navigating strange interior lands.

The William Stanley Merwin of the second, much later photo, a headshot, is an old man in profile. His white hair is cropped close. His expression is, if anything, livelier than in the shot of his previous self. He has refined and united the once-divided gaze that looks out at the visible world, drinking it up, while still conjuring dark, cryptic inner universes. And unlike the young Merwin, the wrinkled face of Merwin the elder exhibits a slight, dry smile.


And why shouldn’t our current Merwin sport the ghost of a grin? He’s received virtually every major American literary prize, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. At last count, he had more than 50 books of poetry, prose and translation to his credit. His translations include heavyweights such as Dante, Neruda, Euripides and Mandelstam. According to the biographical note from the publisher of “The Book of Fables,” he lives in that tropical near-Eden, Hawaii, “where he raises endangered palm trees.” All this looks like the epitome of a life well spent.

“The Book of Fables” is a compilation of two previous volumes of prose: “The Miner’s Pale Children” (1970) and “Houses and Travellers” (1977). The pieces teeter along the divides between parable, fable, prose poem, fragment and short story. Have these books aged well? And what have they to offer us in this hefty new combined version, circa 2007?

The short answers are (1) yes, surprisingly well and (2) plenty, if your taste runs to dense, elegant prose shorts that probe dread and threat, shame and fears, and tensions between the material and spiritual worlds. There seems to be no statute of limitations on texts that plumb these competing realities, employing surreal touches and a variety of conceits and dictions, all unfolding in some lush fusion of past, present and future -- a world in whose dark, labyrinthine caverns we humans often lose our way.

Merwin’s approaches to the nature of humanity, politics, love, memory, forgetting, mortality and “the unnamable stillness ... unseeing, unhearing, unfeeling, unchanging, holding within itself the beginning and the end” often replace the concerns of the individual with those of the collective. This makes his sensibility feel at least as much Eastern as Western. His fables lack the annoying morals that cap most versions of Aesop’s. In fact, Merwin’s fables often end on notes that seem the very opposite of conclusion. These endings enact a sort of inverse in medias res, ending rather than beginning things in midstream -- with images of descent, ascent, dizziness, something lurking and awry, an endless journey or a circular sense of eternal return. A far cry from “coming right with a click like a closing box,” as Yeats famously wrote, Merwin’s deliberate lack of a Western sense of closure bespeaks a dedication to uneasiness, to the open-ended, the perpetual, the multifarious -- an honoring of threads of consciousness that seem to have existed, as the saying goes, “since time out of mind.”

Merwin’s layered sense of time and multiple lives also seems more Eastern than Western: “Each remembered his former life only a little more clearly than we remember ours, in this world.” Or “Is this her first existence?” Or “The true present is a place where only one can stand, who is standing there for the first time.” All this might sound unbearably abstract, dour and Twilight Zone-ish, but it isn’t. One thing grounding these pieces is a wealth of detail. Merwin is an ace at describing architecture, the habits of animals, rivulets of thought and feeling, geography, tools, physical work, customs, plants, history, the seasons, suffering, landscape and myth. In his use of carefully calibrated, achingly lovely details and apt images, he strikes a balance between the world we know with our senses and those occult regions we are only intermittently privy to -- realms we partly crave and partly fear the very mention of.

Like dreams, these prose pieces are full of locked doors from which voices or music leak, night train rides, felled trees, unreadable street addresses and misleading signs, dark town squares, reversals of chronology, strange invitations, images of freedom and confinement, and an affinity for secrets and secret keepers. Images and bits of narrative interlock and accrue in ways that seem both mad and methodical.

Though the dominant tone of the pieces is somber, Merwin has a bit of the trickster in him. “Shine On, Tottering Republic,” “Make This Simple Test” and “The Medal of Disapproval” are all examples of his satiric mode. And Merwinland is sometimes delightfully, sometimes eerily animistic (“Even things divulge the form of their desires”). We get a vivid sense of a shoelace’s giddiness and loss of self upon breaking. The secret lives of items in our dresser drawers are subjects for investigation, including forms of surveillance that invariably fail to catch the canny beings in the act.

Merwin notes of the poetry of Jean Follain, which he has translated from the French, that “Follain’s concern is finally with the mystery of the present -- the mystery which gives the recalled concrete details their form, at once luminous and removed, when they are seen at last in their places....” The same might be said of this worthy and impressive collection. *