By Dark

May 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin

We went to hear W. S. Merwin talk and read last night. I thought it was last year I heard him at the Library, but it was 2 ½ years ago. It’s been a seismic 2 ½ years, yet still memory reshuffles things.

Merwin’s voice was a little weaker, with more of that static you hear in the voices of the elderly, as if they’re on the far edge of the transmission band. He talked about poetry and language both evolving as an attempt to express the inexpressible. I’m not sure I believe that about language, or even poetry. The fact that we can never say exactly what we mean is always the subtext of what we say, but is it what matters most? “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Merwin quoted, defining “wildness” as everything that gets away from us, that essential reality we can never hold onto, that art evokes for those with a mind to listen. This is his most persistent theme: his poems are full of what is there and not there at once, his faintly melancholy, meditative tone like fingers endlessly sliding the same silky stone from thumb to pinkie, registering that coolness, smoothness, darkness, mystery.

In J. D. McClatchy’s introduction he talked about Merwin as a visionary poet—the thesis of the term paper I wrote on him 40 years ago, in Russell Banks’ Contemporary Poetry class. I wondered where that girl went, who was so madly in love with poetry, who would have gone to a dozen events in the last month, if she’d been here, if I were still her.

Fitzroy woke me this morning, wedging his purring face under my nose, then noisily chewing on my hair until Charles lured him out of the room, and I went back to sleep. I dreamed that I woke up and was depressed. Instead of trying to write, I went for a walk in a neighborhood that was new to me. I felt exhilarated and so happy to be in New York. I remember pale pink cobblestones and a dusting of snow. Then a woman spoke to me, referring to a climate event in a distant country, and I tried to say something about how extreme weather is moving like one big storm across the earth, but the gestures I used to illustrate my point—hands up and churning the air—were alarming, and I realized that what she saw was a stereotypical New York crazy lady. I felt sad that I could no longer communicate appropriately.

Merwin recited a half dozen poems. Three of them were elegies for dogs. Here’s one.

By Dark

When it is time I follow the black dog
into the darkness that is the mind of day
I can see nothing but the black dog
the dog I know going ahead of me
not looking back oh it is the black dog
I trust now in my turn after the years
when I had all the trust of the black dog
through an age of brightness and through shadow
on into the blindness of the black dog
where the rooms of the dark were already known
and had no fear in them for the black dog
leading me carefully up the blind stairs.

W.S. Merwin

Let it Snow

December 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

I found this image on She said it’s an illustration from an old children’s book, in the public domain, but doesn’t name the artist or book.

I woke up wanting to write about Joe Lieberman (let’s boycott Connecticut until they get rid of him), Christmas—should I send an e-card to all those I love, but haven’t contacted lately just because—when I decided to check out the paper, and got annoyed with Frank Rich’s choice of Tiger Woods to epitomize the falsity of the past year and decade.

My views of monogamy are well known to those who read this blog. Still, I wouldn’t want to be married to Tiger. Yet there’s an enormous difference between what he did and what the financiers and Bush administration did, and I refuse any facile connection.

Maybe it’s because my parents gave me a book of Greek myths when I was seven, a book whose size and pictures and even the look of the words I still remember. The stories of gods and mortals sunk deep into my imagination. There were also the Blue, Green, Red and Yellow Fairy Books and J.M. Barrie and C.S. Lewis to populate my inner world. I grew up rich with stories and characters, and the penchant for celebrity fetishizing never took hold. (Exception: The Beatles. But I was 9.)

Most everyone agrees that the crux of our current problems is people believing only what they want to believe, refusing all signs of danger if it means giving up pleasure, profit or comfort. The corollary to this is that, human-natural as this tendency is, it’s gotten worse.

Yes, no, maybe. We shouldn’t forget that the growth of systems of industry and finance follow their own evolutionary laws; that numbers matter; that much or our world is fueled by machines that can “think” much faster than we can. Our computers aren’t conscious or malevolent (yet), but they make individuals and more importantly, groups and segments of the population, able to do things bigger and faster than ever before. Think acceleration, exponential functions and speeding cars hitting patches of black ice.

This doesn’t explain Dick Cheney, but then nothing does.

Which brings me back to Christmas and the sound of snowplows outside. I want to walk in the new snow. I miss having a house I could throw a party in—miss the old days in Newcastle, N.H. when my mother would serve champagne with breakfast on Christmas morning while we opened the red velvet stockings decorated with handmade felt toys and the letters of our names, beautiful stockings with bells on the toes that she’d sewn for us years earlier. After the stockings and the blizzard of presents, we’d have eggnog made with whipped cream (more like zabaglione than anything else) and we’d all drink too much and spend the afternoon in bed.  I was young and in love and bed was a very sweet place to be.

I do regret that my mother so often was left to cook the dinner by herself. But some years she had a lover too. She was the age I am now and she had a house big enough to throw a wedding in, with the Atlantic ocean just outside, and three not-too-bad kids.

Nobody had a computer and Joe Lieberman hadn’t been elected yet.


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

--W.S. Merwin

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