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W. S. Merwin

March 15, 2019

William Merwin was one of my first poetry heroes. I loved his poems and he seemed to me a model of a life devoted to poetry. I also admired the fact that half of his published work is translation of other poets into English–an invaluable gift. He had the equivalent of perfect pitch for language, so that when he began to write unpunctuated poems, and then poems with caesuras, they weren’t hard to follow. The absence of visual clues simply means you have to lean in and listen more closely. One of my favorites is “Strawberries,” in which the speaker describes a vision after his father’s death, one that includes a boy driving a wagon loaded with strawberries, and then a dream when he finally falls asleep. Near the end of the poem he wakes from the dream:

up in the morning       I stopped on the stairs
my mother was awake     already and asked me
if I wanted a shower       before breakfast
and for breakfast she said        we have strawberries

And this opening of the poem “Yesterday,” a dialogue between two men talking about their fathers that could be an opera duet, music made of words and white space:

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father….

Another favorite is “Fly,” featured on this blog June 21, 2018.

I was lucky enough to know Merwin a little. I first met him in the early seventies when he came to Boulder, Colorado, to stay with the poet Bill Matthews. I opened the door one day, and there he was standing on the step, smiling, his face surrounded by dark curls. He had a small cloth bag slung over his shoulder, everything he’d brought with him. He was smart, kind, funny, supportive. Over the years we had some lovely conversations. I was delighted when I met Paula, who was a loving companion but didn’t take any guff. I’m glad they had so many years together.

He had a beautiful reading voice, hypnotic. I have it on vinyl, tape, and cd, and I’m sure you can find it all over youtube. I’m going to be going back to favorites, and to poems I haven’t read (I joked that he could write faster than I could read), but right now I’m inevitably hearing his beautiful poem “For the Anniversary of my Death.” The first time I read it I thought, “Oh! Why did I never think of that?” Because I’m not W. S. Merwin. Please share your memories and favorite poems here.

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic

March 10, 2019

That Republic? It’s ours. And his. And so many others. Kaminsky’s stunning follow-up to Dancing in Odessa, consists of a two-act play in poems set in another country, framed by a first and last poem set in this one. I believe great art changes us–not by comforting us, but by challenging us, and sometimes by devastating us. When I sat down with Deaf Republic last weekend I read it cover to cover, though I hadn’t intended to. I couldn’t stop, despite how painful it was. And once I’d finished I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t sleep. I thought of Beckett: “…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.” I felt utterly changed, and yet I knew at the same time that nothing would change, that we humans don’t much, that I don’t. Even so, I think everyone should read this book. I’m not going to quote any of it here. Don’t read reviews first, or read about it. Just get it and sit down alone in a quiet room and open it to the first page, then let me know your thoughts and feelings when you come out.

Poems about Music

January 2, 2019

I think that poetry aspires to the power of music: the ability to convey thoughts and emotions directly, head to head and especially heart to heart: wordlessly. And yet poets love words and language, so we make our music out of those. Out of those and lines and white space. It’s very difficult, and almost paradoxical, to write poems about music, when music speaks so beautifully for itself, but I can think of a few poems that manage it. Here’s a favorite of mine, by the Swedish poety Tomas Transtromer (translated by Robert Bly). I hope you’ll post your own favorites, with some commentary about why you chose them.

ALLEGRO

After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

For the New Year

December 31, 2018

Amidst all the noise, this quiet welcome.

TO THE NEW YEAR
W. S. Merwin

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

PETER EVERWINE: “A Radiant Clarity, a Luminous Stillness”

November 27, 2018

Peter Everwine, the wonderful poet and lovely man, died on October 28th of this year. It’s a big loss, most immediately to the Fresno poetry community, and also to the wider community of poets and writers. In the wake of his death, there’s one grace note, one gift of good timing. Peter’s last reading, on September 12 at Respite on the River, was beautifully filmed and is available here. Peter was a banjo player as well as a poet, and the film opens with a trio of musicians, including Megan Mohigian–who told me about Peter’s death, sent me the link to his reading, and introduces him here. The reading itself begins at 6:22.

My semester as Distinguished-Poet-in-Residence at Fresno State was one of the best times I had during my years of teaching as a visiting writer, and meeting and spending time with Peter was one of the highlights. The poetry community there centered on Phil Levine and his lovely wife Franny, Connie Hales, Chuck Hanzlicek, and Peter, and radiated out from there to include other poets and writers, students in the program, and others just drawn to the conversation. I’d read and loved Peter’s first book, Collecting the Animals,early on, and the man behind the poems turned out to be charming, funny, sly, warm, lovely. In the copy he gave me of his book Working in the Song Fields: Poems of the Aztecs, he wrote “for Sharon–These songs–not Monk or Mingus, but no moldy figs either. Much love, Peter.” The subtitle above comes from a blurb by Ed Hirsch on the back of from the meadow: Selected and New Poems, published in 2004, and I can’t imagine a better description of his work. I’m including a couple of favorites here, but I urge you to watch him in person. And stay to the end to see a beautiful picture of Peter as a young man playing the banjo.

A SMALL STORY

When Mrs. McCausland comes to mind
she slips through a small gap in oblivion
and walks down her front steps, in her hand
a small red velvet pillow she tucks
under the head of Old Jim Schreiber,
who is lying dead-drunk against the curb
of busy Market Street. Then she turns,
labors up the steps and is gone . . .

A small story. Or rather, the memory
of a story I heard as a boy. The witnesses
are not to be found, the steps lead nowhere,
the pillow has collapsed into a thread of dust . . .
Do the dead come back only to remind us
they, too, were once among the living,
and that the story we make of our lives
is a mystery of luminous, but uncertain moments,
a shuffle of images we carry toward sleep—
Mrs. McCausland with her velvet pillow,
Old Jim at peace—a story, like a small
clearing in the woods at night, seen
from the windows of a passing train.

AFTER THE FUNERAL

We opened closets and bureau drawers
and packed away, in boxes, dresses and shoes,
the silk underthings still wrapped in tissue.
We sorted through cedar chests. We gathered
and set aside the keepsakes and the good silver
and brought up from the coal cellar
jars of tomato sauce, peppers, jellied fruit.
We dismantled, we took down from the walls,
we bundled and carted off and swept clean.
Goodbye, goodbye, we said, closing
the door behind us, going our separate ways
from the house we had emptied,
and which, in the coming days, we would fill
again and empty and try to fill again.