Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What We're Reading: New Poetry

The Moon Before Morning, by W.S. Merwin.

You come to a time in your life when the poet heroes of your youth all seem to be saying their farewells. The elegiac nature of Charles Wright’s latest book of poems (previously reviewed here) has that feel, and a major section of the poems in the octogenarian W. S. Merwin’s latest collection may at first seem to share something of that spirit as he takes a look back over the formative experiences of his life as a poet. And yet these poems, however much they may look back, do not have the sound of someone speaking with a voice concerned about a life passing. They are not wistful, an old man’s nostalgia or regret. They feel, on the contrary, wholly consistent with what has always been Merwin’s poetic project, one in which he has tried to capture thought and experience in a poem that has presence and immediacy. Here the ethereal ghosts of the past, be they people or places, have a constancy of meaning that can be summoned, held in hand, and unfolded in the present moment. What we might call recollections are, for Merwin, experiences that live outside of time, and Merwin’s poetic expression of them indeed seems to dismiss the very notion of memory as something sequential, temporal and historical. Memory is not a troublesome or dubious excursion, as it is for so many modern writers. It is a state of re-contemplation and equanimity. For Merwin, nothing is imperfectly recollected or felt. This remarkable surety, this continuity of being, is something we want to believe in. It is the source of much of the power in Merwin’s verse.
The individual poems in In the Moon Before Morning are not poems occasioned by moments of inspiration expressed in some self-conscious craft of poem making. They are, rather, the habiliments for a way of apprehending the world that have become second nature to the poet. You wonder if Merwin has not reached some point in the practice where he could have a thought that was not a poem. The poems here are shorter than those in most of Merwin’s previous work. A few poems in The Moon Before Morning are more like his earlier work with their ingenious manipulation of imagery and a bit of an edge. "No Flag" and "The Prow of the Ark" are two favorites here.

I remember talking to a friend not too long ago about what his infant son might “remember” from these days in his young life, wondering about why our earliest years are a blank in conscious memory and if yet on some level there are things we “remember” from those days deep down, things that were formative and important and that have something to do with who we each become. This poem from The Moon Before Morning considers the same questions. It is, I think, also representative of the character of this collection:


As though it had always been forbidden to remember
each of us grew up
knowing nothing about the beginning
but in time there came from that forgetting
names representing a truth of their own
and we went on repeating them
until they too began not to be remembered
they became part of the forgetting
later came stories like the days themselves
there seemed to be no end to them
and we told what we could remember of them
though we always forgot where they came from
and forgot that it was forbidden
and whether it had been forbidden
but from forgotten pain we recognize
sometimes the truth when it is told to us
and from forgotten happiness we know
that the day we wake to is our own.

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