This section contains 1,333 words
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Critical Review by Judith Kitchen
SOURCE: "Skating on Paper," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 578-95.
In the excerpt below, Kitchen examines the convergence of style and theme in Travels.
W. S. Merwin's most recent book, Travels, is permeated by a healthy nostalgia for what has been lost to us—a sense of history, an identification with place, a connection between generations, the old forms in art. Everything is seen as though through the window of a passing train, briefly illuminated and then receding into the world of memory. The preface poem, "Cover Note," appears separately and sets an elegiac tone (whose echo of Baudelaire signals as well a literary nostalgia):
Hypocrite reader my
variant my almost
family we are so
few now it seems as though
we knew each other as
the words between us keep
assuming that we do
I hope I make sense to
you in the shimmer of
our days while the world we
cling to in common is
Merwin searches for a reader, doubting the ability of new generations to "behold our true meaning" and to conjure, from our images, the "rustling of / / paws in high grass the one / owl hunting along this / spared valley …" Many of the subsequent poems reiterate this fear. In a series of poetic biographies or "written lives," Merwin recalls the checkered history of colonization; the cutting of sandalwood from the Hawaiian hillsides; the Plains Indian, Frank Henderson, who held onto his lost traditions through drawings; the Russian-born botanist who traveled the Amazon and whose knowledge of plants saved his life; the stories of countless "forgotten" people. There are two ways to speak for others, the poet claims in "Writing Lives"—one is "to tell / the lives of others / using the distance as a lens / / and another way / is when there is no distance / so that water / is looking at water."
Interestingly, Merwin's characteristic lack of punctuation and his enjambed lines enable him to speak both ways, sometimes simultaneously. The flow of words acts as an interior monologue; each moment of pure observation is layered with response, memory, insight—all rendered in a rush of images and commentary tumbling over each other, much like the experience itself. On the other hand, since many of these poems are fairly long narratives, the reader not only becomes aware of the distance between the poet and his subject but also the "doubled" distance between the reader and the poet and the poet's subject. Merwin's lines are themselves a distancing factor at times; the constant enjambment and internal fusion can create a kind of stutter, nearly stopping the flow as the reader backs up to reposition himself in a phrase. The result is a kind of artificial removal by which a reader is kept from easy engagement with the "story" of the poem. For example, the following lines from "Lives of the Artists" demonstrate how the reader must sort through the syntax:
the strange moon the new hunger they had no
words for and he would have years before
the wagons changed him and he came back
to meet Reverend Haury
who always knew
better and made him a bright Indian
teaching with white words but
The lines rush on, but the reader has to struggle to make sense. However, a closer look at this poem (and many of the others) reveals that there is method here. The poems are written in syllabics, each stanza reiterating the pattern which shapes its poem. Lines which at first glance seemed slack take on the tension of structure, become part of a greater whole. By noting the pattern, the reader participates in an aesthetic process.
But Merwin's line is most effective in the several short lyric poems clustered near the end of the book. In these, the structure created for the ear and eye provides a framework within which Merwin, almost in counterpoint, constructs the cadence of a voice and a complex syntax which culminates in a powerful sense of loss. The lines (and phrases within the lines) are suspended; their deliberate slippage points both backward, toward the poem's inception, and forward to its conclusion. The poem spins, centered on its images, in a vortex of its own making. There are many such poems in Travels, and I love most of them. "On the Old Way" admirably demonstrates what is meant by "lyric time," in which the overlay of present on past creates a simultaneity where is and was are one and the same:
After twelve years and a death
returning in August to see the end of summer
French skies and stacked roofs the same grays
silent train sliding south through the veiled morning
once more the stuccoed walls the sore
pavilions of the suburbs glimpses
of rivers known from other summers leaves
still green with chestnuts forming for their
only fall out of old dark branches and again
the nude hills come back and the sleepless
night travels along through the day as it
once did over and over for this was the way
almost home almost certain that it was
there almost believing that it could be
everything in spite of everything
The "only" fall of the chestnuts and the transitory life of the poet are set against the permanence of the landscape and the recurrence of the natural cycles. Time is the culprit, or rather, the knowledge of time that forces the poet to acknowledge the "almost" and the "in spite of" that tell him death is irrevocable. Memory surfaces in the words "again" and "come back" and "once." The title of the collection comes into play—the poem is a form of travel, a journey into time and place, into a moment so intense it is nearly unbearable.
The intensity of the lyric moment is echoed and expanded in a series of poems where the syllabic structure again is crucial—this time in order to reinforce the interiority and yet allow the poem a further range. So it is that "Kites," for example, can move inexorably from its opening ("No one who did not have to / would stay in the heaving sepia / roar of the unlit depot hour / after hour") to its soaring conclusion ("the kites will be / watching from their own element / as long as the light lasts / neither living as the living know / of it nor dead with the dead / and neither leaving nor promising / the hands that hope for them"). When Merwin adds rhyme, "Search Party" takes on the sheen of formal elegance and "The Day Itself" (the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Poem for 1989) becomes witty and ironical. "Immortelles" alternately hoards and then relinquishes an emotional energy so that it embodies, in one sustained and convoluted sentence, Merwin's grief at his mother's death and a deep longing for the unchanged world of childhood, the glass flowers that needed no water.
This collection fascinates me. Throughout, Merwin holds onto an established habit of line but finds in certain more traditional forms and techniques a renewed sense of what the line is capable of accomplishing. (Some readers will be reminded of the poet's early books, which established him as a master of classical forms.) Travels takes shape almost in spite of its unwieldy premises and the crisis of readership at its core. No, the poem does not bring back the fields and farmland or the sweet smell of sandalwood forest. It will not make recompense to the lives lost to history.
It will not stop wars or stay death. Merwin, for all his acute awareness of loss, writes not to alter the world but to honor it. Finally, as in "Inheritance"—which can only be termed a sensory ars poetica—the poem is like a perfect pear whose true taste can never quite be recalled. It may slip from communal memory, or surface in the future to be savored in other circumstances:
… and now it was always like this with our tongues our knowledge and these simple remaining pears
In practiced hands the compulsory figures appear effortless. In most of the poems of Travels, Merwin has his proportions right. His tightrope lines are tethered to a larger vision.
This section contains 1,333 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)