Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Letters to/from Home: W. S. Merwin, PRESENT COMPANY

In a pond or small lake, you can let your boat drift -- the ripples are small, the currents gentle, and a breath of wind moves you idly across the bay toward waterlilies or along the nesting grounds of families of ducks or geese. It's the essence of a summer dream, and I recall being desperate to escape my younger siblings so that I could take the rowboat out on Lake Gerard and just linger in this way, without their eagerly splashing oars.

There are still such places within literature, especially within the poetry of established authors. And they are rich with image, with thought, with the scented wine of long mulling. For today, let the rivers of change wait for us -- W. S. Merwin's 2005 collection, PRESENT COMPANY, flutters its ribbons of poems in the soft breeze.

Each title in this collection begins with "To" and Merwin even allows a bit of humor with one title, "To ---." But for the most part these are thick, resonant ribbons of meditative discourse, of assertion from the pinnacle. And though the first entry is "To This May," the second asserts the terrain: "To the Soul":
Is anyone there
if so
are you real
There is no answer embedded in the rest of the poem, only a wave of the hand in dismissal even of the large question. And this is significant, because it is the smaller questions and notes, the niggling ones, that erupt in detail here. "To the Face in the Mirror" speaks to "you" -- "you with the white hair / now who still surprise me /day after day / staring back at me /out of nowhere."

This ribbon of aging, of surprised discovery, threads through the collection. I like "To the Grass of Autumn," where:
now you are as the fog
that sifts among you
gray in the chill daybreak
the voles scratch the dry earth
around your roots
hoping to find something
before winter
and when the white air stirs
you whisper to yourselves
without expectation
or the need to know.
For those of us marveling at what time has done, is doing, here is a poet and set of poems, rarely formal but always as measured as a long stride, to capture the colors and chills, the soft and hard, of these years. 

Of course, it's tempting to pick up a "new and selected" of Merwin's work, but this is a volume I'd recommend in its fullness -- all 100+ missives out to the universe and in to the heart.

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