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Archive for the ‘W.S. Merwin’ Category

poem is leaning against bread case on top of counter

 

To Luck

by W.S. Merwin

In the cards and at the bend in the road
we never saw you
in the womb and in the crossfire
in the numbers
whatever you had your hand in
which was everything
we were told never to put
our faith in you
to bow to you humbly after all
because in the end there was nothing
else we could do
but not to believe in you

still we might coax you with pebbles
kept warm in the hand
or coins or the relics
of vanished animals
observances rituals
not binding upon you
who make no promises
we might do such things only
not to neglect you
and risk your disfavor
oh you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
as often as we can
without understanding

 

 

Maryland is one of the best places to get a really good steak-and-cheese (that’s a sub sandwich, for those who haven’t had the pleasure), so when I was back in my old digs last week I decided to chow down at a local deli. Turns out the deli didn’t offer the best version of that delicacy, which should be greasy and mayonnaise-y and held together in a crusty roll, but I couldn’t be disappointed because it was good enough, and just eating it brought back a nice memory of passing a foot-long steak-and-cheese around the table with my sisters, each having a bite till hardly anything was left for my husband who bought the sub in the first place.

 

Just so, reading this ode to luck—-more of a hymn actually—brings to mind the luck that has shaped my life, the good luck which is so often just the absence of bad luck.

 

The poem feels ancient and dark, the second half in particular. It frightens me a little. Bad luck lurks around the poem’s edges, and I wonder if the person who found “To Luck” pocketed it as a talisman or tossed it over her shoulder like salt.

in his younger days–very handsome!

W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Princeton, and after a year of graduate study in Romance languages, traveled through Europe working as a translator and tutor to children from wealthy families. In 1976 he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism, eventually settling on an old pineapple plantation in Maui, where he still lives today with his third wife.

 

Merwin’s circle has included many luminaries of the poetry world—he was classmates with Galwell Kinell, pupil to John Berryman, and friend of James Wright, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

 

 

He was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and donated the prize money from the Pulitzer he won to a draft resistance movement. He continues to work as an activist, these days focusing on saving the rainforests of Hawaii.

 

He’s won too many awards and honors to list. I’ll just mention he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 2010 Poet Laureate of the United States, and leave it at that.

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poem is taped to trashcan

Yesterday

By W.S. Merwin

 

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

                                             –

he says the last time I saw my father

he was asking me about my life

how I was making out and he

went into the next room

to get something to give me

                                             –

oh I say

feeling again the cold

of my father’s hand the last time

                                                             –

he says and my father turned

in the doorway and saw me

look at my wristwatch and he

said you know I would like you to stay

and talk with me

                                                                           – 

oh yes I say

                                                                           –

but if you are busy he said

I don’t want you to feel that you

have to

just because I’m here

                                                                          –

I say nothing

                                                                          –

he says my father

said maybe

you have important work you are doing

                                                                    –

or maybe you should be seeing

somebody I don’t want to keep you

                                                                     –

I look out the window

my friend is older than I am

he says and I told my father it was so

and I got up and left him then

you know

                                                                     –

though there was nowhere I had to go

and nothing I had to do

 

 

In honor of W.S. Merwin, the new poet laureate of the United States, I taped this poem to a trashbin in a small garden area of an outlet shopping mall. I wasn’t mocking Merwin or the office. It was just that on a blindingly bright day (oh why was I wasting it at the outlets?) the side of the trashcan was the only place with enough shade to get a decent close-up. 

I was attracted to this poem because at the outset it was so simple to understand, a trait I like in poetry more than people.  The language is straightforward.  No fancy words and not a single metaphor.  And it’s written in dialogue, the most reader-friendly form of writing around.

But the more time I spend with “Yesterday,” the more complicated it becomes.  The two principal speakers, the  I of the poem’s narrator and the I of the older friend as he narrates his own story, can get convoluted. Take the first line:  “My friend says I was not a good son.”  The sentence can be read two ways.  It could be a direct quote, as in, My friends says, “I was not a good son” or it could be a paraphrased accusation:  My friend says (that) I was not a good son. The meaning is cleared up in the next few lines, but the reader is disoriented from the get-go. 

Merwin could have made this poem a whole lot easier if he used some darn quotation marks, but how different a poem it would be with them. The confusion of the I’s shows how the narrator shares his friend’s guilt over neglecting a father. Identifying who the  I is is further complicated by the addition of a conversation within the conversation.  There are actually four speakers:  the poem’s narrator, the friend in the present moment, the friend’s father, and the friend in the past when his father was still alive. To track the identity of the speakers, the reader has to follow the carefully constructed line breaks, the white space, the verb tenses, and the verbal tics of each speaker.

Is the poem’s narrator giving his friend the kind of half-attention that the friend gave his father?  His responses to his friend’s story seem rote and distracted (oh yes and I understand). Except for the part where he remembers his father’s cold hand, he seems as distanced from the friend’s conversation as the friend was from his father. The friend is older than the speaker, suggesting the father-son dynamic is repeated in the friendship.  At one point, the speaker even looks out the window, just as the friend looked at his watch while his father was speaking. Both gestures signal the desire to be elsewhere.

There’s a whole culture of emotional disengagement here that struck me as distinctly male.  The fathers and sons feel deeply but are unwilling to open up.  Come on, fellas, I thought, only connect!  Unfortunately E.M. Forster stepped aside for Harry Chapin, and I started humming “Cat’s in the Cradle.” In both Merwin’s poem and Chapin’s dreary song there’s a cycle of fathers and sons failing each other.  The desire for closeness never happens to both at the same time, and men’s lives are full of regret for missed intimacy.

But as I thought about it, I realized this emotional laziness or fear or whatever and wherever it comes from is not limited to the male sex.  I could write my own poem that begins, “I was not a good daughter.” When I visited my father in his last year, all he wanted was for me to sit in the living room with him and listen to him tell me whatever was on his mind—his musings on politics, science, and religion, his three main interests. “When you’ve got a minute,” he’d call to me as I busied myself in the kitchen.  A minute.  That’s all he asked for. 

Finally I would settle on the couch, legs crossed, arms crossed, thinking of the other things I needed to do.  He’d talk in his weakened voice, and as he did, he’d look at his hands, flipping them from palm side to nail side.  He had macular degeneration and could hardly see his hands, but perhaps this was a habit of old to give him the air of thoughtful speculation. I had never noticed it before.  Now I could hardly stand it. When I would sit with him, everything in me was burbling up wanting to run away.  A fault of mine.  A sin.  What I can’t undo.

I find this poem remarkable.  It reads like a slacker poem, idle, aimless and affectless.  But it lurks in the back of my head, sharp and knowing.

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