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For the Anniversary of His Death

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Now It Is Clear

Now it is clear to me that no leaves are mine

no roots are mine

that wherever I go I will be a spine of smoke in the forest

and the forest will know it

we will both know it

— W.S. Merwin

Earl Fowler

Former U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin once observed that in the matchless short stories of Russian physician Anton Chekhov, “the gentleness, the decency, clarity, and authenticity of Chekhov himself … comes through.”

The same applies to the relationship between Merwin’s writing — prose and plays as well as poetry — and the personal qualities brought to bear on his work by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, who moonlighted (sunlighted?) as a consequential conservationist.

The 19-acre palm forest that Merwin and his third wife, Paula Dunaway, planted and tended on land once designated as industrial wasteland (deforested, overgrazed and “pineappled,” as Merwin called it) on the Hawaiian island of Maui is now a lush oasis run by a small arts and ecology organization called the Merwin Conservancy.

The collection is a biodiverse Noah’s Ark for palms, a tropical Walden in the Pacific, comprising more than 2,740 lianas, shrubs and trees representing more than 400 species and 125 genera, with nearly 900 horticultural varieties, many of them rare and endangered. It is a spectacular and indispensable refuge, one of the largest and most extensive palm collections anywhere, in a rural neighbourhood of the unincorporated community of Haiʻku on the island’s north shore.

If, like my wife and I, you have circumnavigated Maui in a rental car, as drifts and droves of gormless tourists do every day, you likely have driven straight past the place off Highway 360, just north of the Koolau Forest Reserve, without being aware of its existence. But it’s an Arcadia of branching and unbranched, fan-leaved and feather-leaved, inflorescent, rattan-bearing, windblown, whimsically named denizens coaxed from seeds no bigger than chives. Some examples: Parlour Palm and Ivory Cane, Solitary Sugar and Weeping Cabbage, Bedang Dong Noda Noda and, my favourite, Fishtail Lawyer Cane.

Now, lemme get this straight. You put de lime in de coconut, you drank ’em bot’ up?

According to the conservancy’s mission statement:

We inspire innovation in the arts and sciences by advancing the ideas of W.S. Merwin – his life, work, house and palm forest – as fearless and graceful examples of the power of imagination and renewal.

To fulfill this mission, the Conservancy maintains the house and palm forest as a place of stillness and reflection for retreat, study, and contemplation through a residency program for creative visionaries and thought leaders from Hawaii and across the world. We engage both local and global communities through our Green Room literary and environmental salon series, through dynamic multimedia storytelling projects, and through innovative collaborations with various artistic, scientific and educational leaders and institutions.

Oh, the line to Paradise Regained forms on the right, dears. Make sure to bring some sunscreen and a wide-brimmed Tilley hat.

Being a soppy old sod, I’m usually in tears at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas Eve, so I might not have this quite right. But personally, I prefer the mission-completed statement of Clarence Odbody, AS2 (Angel Second Class), inscribed in the first-edition copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that he bequeaths to George Bailey: “Remember, no man is a failure who has fronds.”

Mark Twain, by the way, will come up again before we’re out of here.

But that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m here to mark the fourth anniversary of the death of one William Stanley Merwin, who was 91, blind and all written out when he died at home in his sleep on March 15, 2019. (Dunaway, who like Milton’s daughters had served as the poet’s amanuensis as his vision was failing, recording new poems by dictation, had been issued her wings two years before, as she slipped the curly bonds of earthworms and gleaming greenery.)

With the Earth fast approaching the same equinoctial vantage point on our annual circumgyration around the sun, it’s an opportune time to reproduce a few of my favourite Merwin poems and pay homage to this remarkable man, who wrote more than 50 books of poetry and prose — when not cradling miracles in his garden or translating great and obscure literary works from Middle English, French, Italian (including Dante’s Purgatorio), Spanish (Pablo Neruda), Russian (Osip Mandelstam), Latin, modern Greek, Vietnamese, Welsh, Portuguese, Romanian, Sanskrit, Yiddish, Japanese, ancient Egyptian, and, what the hell, let’s throw in some Quechua and Inuktitut.

This is from a paperback titled The Second Four Books of Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1993). Port Townsend, by the way, is a scenic Victorian town on the Quimper Peninsula about halfway between where I’m writing this and Puget Sound, which will also come up again before we’re out of here:

For the Anniversary of My Death

By W.S. Merwin

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

It’s a profound meditation on shedding the strange garment of corporeality, notwithstanding our ignorance about the timing of our deaths: clear, authentic and concise as a Chekhov tale. And as for momentous endings, beginnings, alphas and omegas, I also cherish this poem from Merwin’s 1988 book The Rain in the Trees, published by A.A. Knopf:


By W.S. Merwin

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water

touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

So yeah, whether or not you’re a fan of indirect, unpunctuated narration, the man could write.

“Punctuation basically has to do with prose and the printed word,” Merwin once said in a Paris Review interview. “I came to feel that punctuation was like nailing the words onto the page. Since I wanted instead the movement and lightness of the spoken word, one step toward that was to do away with punctuation.”

Here’s one more to be savoured and pondered by we who invented forgetfulness and forget everything. Read it slowly:

For a Coming Extinction

Gray whale

Now that we are sending you to The End

That great god

Tell him

That we who follow you invented forgiveness

And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand

And I could say it

One must always pretend something

Among the dying

When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks

Empty of you

Tell him that we were made

On another day

One must always pretend something among the dying. So this is from Margalit Fox’s obituary for Merwin that appeared in The New York Times on March 16, 2019:

Stylistically, Mr. Merwin’s mature work was known for metrical promiscuity; stark, sometimes epigrammatic language; and the frequent use of enjambment — the poetic device in which a phrase breaks over two consecutive lines, without intervening punctuation.

“It is as though the voice filters up to the reader like echoes from a very deep well, and yet it strikes his ear with a raw energy,” the poet and critic Laurence Lieberman wrote, discussing “The Lice,” a collection whose bitter contents were widely understood as a denunciation of the Vietnam War. He added:

“The poems must be read very slowly, since most of their uncanny power is hidden in overtones that must be listened for in silences between lines, and still stranger silences within lines.”

It was as poetry editor of The Nation magazine in the sixties and for his involvement in the anti-war movement — along with such peers as Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Robert Duncan and Yusef Komunyakaa — that Merwin first garnered a loyal following among the reading public.

In those days, he was flitting back and forth between small apartments in Greenwich Village and a derelict stone house in southwest France, slowly and painstakingly wriggling out of a second unfortunate marriage, foolishly losing most of his money to a crooked friend of a friend, and going on epic sailing adventures with his friend George Kirstein, the publisher and principal owner of The Nation from 1955 to 1965.

Merwin’s “The Wake of the Blackfish: A Memoir of George Kirstein,” included in a terrific 2004 collection of essays titled The Ends of the Earth, is a fascinating character study of an older and ultimately tragic man with a “louring charm” who was more like a father to Merwin than was the incurious, sanctimonious minister who raised him.

“The Wake of the Blackfish”, incidentally, includes one of the pithiest descriptions I’ve ever come across of an unhappy marriage between two people who seem to have shared only an abhorrence of divorce: “My parents stared out of opposite windows.”

Merwin’s narrative of 19th-century Hawaiʻi, The Folding Cliffs, was hailed by poet and friend Ted Hughes as “a truly original masterpiece, on a very big scale. … Merwin’s sinuous, infinitely flexible voice has created a new kind of narrative verse: the tragic history of Hawaiʻi, suffered through one family, told almost as if by a native, with a point-blank simplicity and effortless saga-like realism.”

The saga-like realism didn’t play nearly as well to “native” Hawaiian Kapalai‘ula de Silva who, in her searing 2001 review archived by the Kaʻiwakīloumoku Pacific Indigenous Institute, accused Merwin of creating “a masterpiece of literary colonialism,” appropriating and altering Pi‘ilani Ko‘olau’s critically unknown memoir Kaluaikoolau!, and straying from the truth with “way too much originality.”

The trouble in paradise, I suppose, has been two and a half centuries of paradise in trouble — ever since James Cook first took those fateful steps ashore at Kauaʻi in 1778. But indisputably, Merwin’s move to Hawaiʻi in the mid-seventies and his studious immersion in Natura naturans and Buddhist ways of thinking and seeing informed and transformed his poetry from that point on.

Aside from the Pulitzers he received in 1979 and 2001, Merwin was presented (among other honours) with: the U.S. National Book Award for Poetry, the first Tanning Prize bestowed by the American Academy of Poets for mastery of poetry, the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Bollingen Award and the Golden Wreath award of the Struga Poetry Evenings. In 2010, the year he turned 83, the U.S. Library of Congress named Merwin as the country’s 17th poet laureate.

When he announced his decision to donate his 1979 Pulitzer award to antiwar causes, Merwin was rebuked in a letter to The New York Times by W.H. Auden, no less, who considered politicizing the prize unseemly.

Merwin’s reply:

If I had behaved, in the circumstances, as though I thought that the only permissible response to the award was silence, there would have been real grounds for questioning my respect for those connected with the giving of it. Is it, after all, dishonoring the present distinction to use it to register once again an abhorrence at being swept along, as we are, and most of the time anonymously, in this evil?

The son of a man he described as “a distant, unpredictable and harsh” Presbyterian pastor, New York-born Merwin grew up writing hymns as early as five and talking to backyard trees at their homes in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania.

After attending Princeton on a scholarship, studying with R.P. Blackmur and John Berryman, marrying young (his first mistake) and setting off to Spain, Merwin wound up as a tutor to a son of English poet, novelist and critic Robert Graves at his homestead in Majorca. Moving on to London, Merwin befriended fellow American prodigy Sylvia Plath and her lusty husband, the aforementioned Hughes, who would serve as poet laureate of the U.K. for 14 years until his death in 1998.

In the summer of 2000, Merwin received an earnest request from an acquaintance who was selling books to West Coast U.S. Navy bases. He quoted from that letter, sent by a sales rep for now defunct book retailer Borders Group, in an article published in the May/June 2001 edition of The American Poetry Review,:

As part of my job, I have begun selling books to the U.S. Navy bases in Puget Sound, and to individual crew members on carriers and subs. The public relations officer for the region tells me each Trident submarine has a small library.

What books should I recommend to the 18 to 24 year old crews, and their 35 to 45 year old captains, those men responsible for the maintenance and deployment of the deadliest weapons on earth? Could any poem, novel, or short story cause anyone to interrupt their learned sequence of actions, once they have been ordered to launch? What words do I hope these men have read, and thought of, before they push buttons?

Ideas, constructs of imagination, cause men to push buttons. I assume other ideas might cause men not to push buttons. Perhaps that’s a romantic notion. For me, right now, these are no longer speculative philosophic questions. I presently have the opportunity to place books into those small libraries, which bored sailors visit frequently during the long months at sea.

What five books would you recommend?

What five individual poems?

… How much can we believe in our own language, our literature, how far does it reach?

These are questions and a challenge even a celebrated author, renowned for his oracular wisdom, doesn’t face every day.

Merwin’s response:

It was a request that I could not help but take seriously. It raised further questions at once, some of which can never have final answers. For one, is it part of the real purpose of literature to purvey ideas with a view to directing action? Dante thought so, within his perceptions of the closed horizons of his theological universe. The prophets of Israel evidently thought so, with their earlier intimation of a God of righteousness. Euripides, Aristophanes, perhaps most of the Greek dramatic poets thought so. Thoreau must have thought so, some of the time, at least, and Emerson. But there have been great writers, perhaps in every generation, who would have denied any such notion, or would have sidestepped or ignored it.

After careful contemplation and making admittedly uninformed guesses about the young crews and their captains, Merwin’s choices on the prose side were (and here we are again) Chekhov’s short stories, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the Essays of E.B. White, the final Lewis Thomas collection of essays called Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and finally, though Merwin was not a Christian, Danish theologian/existentialist Søren Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.

Merwin gives compelling justifications for including each of those books, but since poetry was his uncontested area of expertise, I’ll hurry over first and open the back porthole so I can let the Trident drawbridge down. Here’s one little chair for one of you, and a bigger chair for two more to curl up in, and for someone who likes to rock, a rocking chair in the middle:

The poems, I think, should be left to speak for themselves, with no comments, and if possible, in the order I have given them. But I want to mention two that I have excluded, two that I love and that move me as much as those I have chosen, but that seem perhaps less appropriate, for reasons of accessibility.

Dylan Thomas’s “Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London,” I hesitated about simply because I thought that if the reader were not used to modern poetry the very density of the language might make the poem seem impenetrable. And Shakespeare’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” which to me is indispensable, and I do not know how an action with such foreseeably destructive consequences could be taken with that poem in one’s head, but it is just archaic enough in language and form, perhaps, not to be fully available at first to readers unused to its conventions.

I confined my five choices to poems written since the middle of the 19th century, and all but two of the poets, as I write this, are still alive.

1. William Stafford, “Earth Dweller”

2. Stanley Kunitz, “Touch Me”

3. Gerald Stern, “The Dog”

4. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “The End of the Owls”

5. Emily Dickinson, “I reason, Earth is short”

I like to imagine them up on a board, perhaps one at a time, a day at a time, then repeated. Or a tape of them (which might then include the two others I did not choose, since poems read aloud are more likely to be heard) that could go the rounds like a book. There is a feeling of hope in the thought of Gerald Stern’s dog and Stanley Kunitz’s longing and Emily Dickinson’s questions being heard in the depth of such voyages.

The three poets still alive when Merwin wrote this have all died, two very recently and all — like Merwin himself — after long, productive lives. Kunitz was 100 when he last touched base in 2006, Stern 97 when he set out, tireless traveller, like the beam of a lightless star last October, and Enzensberger 93 when he made his final bow, not knowing to what, a month later.

As someone once noted in the heat o’ the sun, golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

So as my fourth “deathday” tribute to a beautiful soul, here are the five poems Merwin recommended for those lonely nights under the waves, between the buttons. Each applies, mutatis mutandis, to our own choppy berths glaring on existential radar screens.

Seemingly doomed to travel footpaths that ravel into veins carved into the ground by browsing ungulates, and finally into scrubby dead ends where we perch precariously on the rubbly edges of precipices — or maybe that’s just me — how much can we believe in our own language, our literature? How far does it reach?

Earth Dweller

By William Stafford

It was all the clods at once become precious; it was the barn, and the shed,

and the windmill, my hands, the crack

Arlie made in the ax handle: oh, let me stay here humbly, forgotten, to rejoice in it all; let the sun casually rise and set.

If I have not found the right place,

teach me; for somewhere inside, the clods are vaulted mansions, lines through the barn sing for the saints forever, the shed and windmill rear so glorious the sun shudders like a gong.

Now I know why people worship, carry around magic emblems, wake up talking dreams

they teach to their children: the world speaks. The world speaks everything to us.

It is our only friend.

Touch Me

By Stanley Kunitz

Summer is late, my heart.

Words plucked out of the air

some forty years ago

when I was wild with love

and torn almost in two

scatter like leaves this night

of whistling wind and rain.

It is my heart that’s late,

it is my song that’s flown.

Outdoors all afternoon

under a gunmetal sky

staking my garden down,

I kneeled to the crickets trilling

underfoot as if about

to burst from their crusty shells;

and like a child again

marveled to hear so clear

and brave a music pour

from such a small machine.

What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

and it’s done.

So let the battered old willow

thrash against the windowpanes

and the house timbers creak.

Darling, do you remember

the man you married? Touch me,

remind me who I am.

The Dog

By Gerald Stern

What I was doing with my white teeth exposed like that on the side of the road I don't know, and I don't know why I lay beside the sewer so that the lover of dead things could come back with his pencil sharpened and his piece of white paper. I was there for a good two hours whistling dirges, shrieking a little, terrifying hearts with my whimpering cries before I died by pulling the one leg up and stiffening. There is a look we have with the hair of the chin curled in mid-air, there is a look with the belly stopped in the midst of its greed. The lover of dead things stoops to feel me, his hand is shaking. I know his mouth is open and his glasses are slipping. I think his pencil must be jerking and the terror of smell—and sight—is overtaking him; I know he has that terrified faraway look that death brings—he is contemplating. I want him to touch my forehead once again and rub my muzzle before he lifts me up and throws me into that little valley. I hope he doesn't use his shoe for fear of touching me; I know, or used to know, the grasses down there; I think I knew a hundred smells. I hope the dog's way doesn't overtake him, one quick push, barely that, and the mind freed, something else, some other, thing to take its place. Great heart, great human heart, keep loving me as you lift me, give me your tears, great loving stranger, remember, the death of dogs, forgive the yapping, forgive the shitting, let there be pity, give me your pity. How could there be enough? I have given my life for this, emotion has ruined me, oh lover, I have exchanged my wildness—little tricks with the mouth and feet, with the tail, my tongue is a parrots's, I am a rampant horse, I am a lion, I wait for the cookie, I snap my teeth— as you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and lonely.

The End of the Owls

By Hans Magnus Enzensberger

I speak for none of your kind,

I speak for the end of the owls.

I speak for the flounder and whale

in their unlighted house,

for the seven cornered sea,

for the glaciers

they will have calved too soon,

raven and dove, feathery witnesses,

for all those that dwell in the sky

and the woods, and the lichen in gravel,

for those without paths, for the colorless bog

and the desolate mountains.

Glaring on radar screens,

interpreted one final time

around the briefing table, fingered

to death by antennas, Florida’s swamps

and the Siberian ice, beast

and bush and basalt strangled

by early bird, ringed

by the latest maneuvers, helpless

under the hovering fireballs,

in the ticking of crises.

We’re as good as forgotten.

Don’t fuss with the orphans,

just empty your mind

of its longing for nest eggs,

glory or psalms that won’t rust.

I speak for none of you now,

all you plotters of perfect crimes,

not for me, not for anyone.

I speak for those who can’t speak,

for the deaf and dumb witnesses

for otters and seals,

for the ancient owls of the earth.

I reason, Earth is short

By Emily Dickinson

I reason, Earth is short—

And Anguish—absolute—

And many hurt,

But, what of that?

I reason, we could die—

The best Vitality

Cannot excel Decay,

But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven—

Somehow, it will be even—

Some new Equation, given—

But, what of that?

But, what of all that damnable evanescence? What for? Not for the fruit.

Just this. I’m adding this to a great poet’s syllabus. Remember this:

Black Cherries

By W.S. Merwin

Late in May as the light lengthens

toward summer the young goldfinches

flutter down through the day for the first time

to find themselves among fallen petals

cradling their day’s colors in the day’s shadows

of the garden beside the old house

after a cold spring with no rain

not a sound comes from the empty village

as I stand eating the black cherries

from the loaded branches above me

saying to myself Remember this

So maybe it is partly for the fruit. In the earth full of the dead. And the clouds passing.

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