Oct/Nov 2008 Reviews & Interviews

The Silence That I Hear Now

The Shadow of Sirius
by W. S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press. 2008. 140 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-284-3.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! The reader who may read half way through The Shadow of Sirius and ask him or herself just what is afoot need not feel particularly dense. First of all, Sirius doesn't make an express appearance at all, throughout the volume, unless it is in a single reference in the first poem, "The Nomad Flute":

the star is fading
I can think farther than that but I forget

The poem is a call to the flute to continue to sing to the poet, to sing through him. It seems, from several references in the poems, that poetry comes and goes in him these days. Perhaps it always did. It has, after all, only been three years since W. S. Merwin's previous volume: more or less the standard for him over the past twenty years. If poetry deserts him, it doesn't stay away for long.

"The star," it is safe to say, is indeed Sirius. But the title of this volume is not "The Star Sirius." It is The Shadow of Sirius, quite a different thing and all to the point. Not "The Shadow Created by the Light of Sirius," but The Shadow of Sirius: the shadow cast by Sirius.

I should warn the unwary reader, at this point, that I am about to give away the ending of Merwin's book, subject of this review. Or not so much give away the ending as explain the title, which, in this instance, is much the same thing. The experience of coming to realize the nature of "the shadow" through its various manifestations, slowly revealed, poem by seemingly innocuous poem, until one must go back and reread those poems with new eyes, is remarkable.

Those, then, who wish to go through the experience of discovering The Shadow of Sirius as they go along, and returning to read the poems (many of which may have seemed, upon the first reading, uncharacteristically vague and even sentimental) with a new understanding of what it is they are struggling to communicate, should not read beyond this point. Suffice it to say that the book is well worth reading, exceptional for the way it gradually dawns on the reader that she or he is being offered an expanded perspective in a language at times strangely lyrical. I strongly suggest reading the book before going further and hope that you will come back to this review in order to enjoy comparing notes, sharing the experience.

Sirius is also known as "The Dog Star" due to its prominence in the constellation Canis Major. The "dog days" of summer are the days in which the constellation appears in the night sky. The dog days being the hottest days of the year, Sirius has long been symbolic of the sultriest days of human passion. In "The Nomad Flute," quoted above, the star is, only now, during Merwin's early 80s, "fading." The symbol, the metaphor, that is to say, has been expanded. Sirius is passion itself, blazing in the sky of youth and palely glimmering in the octogenarian sky.

In Merwin's previous volume, Present Company, he objectified the company he had around him, as he approached 80 years of age, most of which was made up of failing body parts, memories of past friends and family, his feelings and of common abstractions. He accomplished this by writing poems to them, poems with titles such as "To My Teeth," "To the Unlikely Event," "To Grief," etc. In the poem "To the Shadow," he addresses the recipient as:

twin shape formed of
nothing but absence
made of what you are not

The description is a crystallization of the shadow as symbol as it has evolved throughout his poems, a definition toward which he has been making his way. It remains operative these three years later: the shadow of Sirius is Sirius's "twin shape formed of / nothing but absence".

What, then, is the twin shape of human passion, human life force? What is, at the same time, its absence? It's shadow? The temptation may be to answer "memory," and it is as good a word as any, but, if a single word would suffice, the title The Shadow of Sirius would be purely ornamental and the poems either tangential or sentimental. There is no single word.

Memory is as active an experience as any life has to offer. It is diverse to the point that it must be embraced and explored in order to be understood. As Sirius fades, there remains the vital experience of inhabiting the shadow cast by its waning. In the poem "Youth" Merwin explores memory-as-portal:

...only when I

began to think of losing you did I
recognize you when you were already

part memory part distance remaining
mine in the ways that I learn to miss you

The line break at "remaining" is not spurious. Youth remains, even as it departs, as its own shadow, "its twin shape formed of / ...absence."

Language itself, in which poetry is written, is organized memory. Thus the poem "Note" cautions us to

Remember how the naked soul
Comes to language and at once knows
Loss and distance and believing

Semantic memory is collective and historical. It comes at the cost of the loss of most unmediated personal experience. Words are charged with their meanings at the distance of memory and we cherish those words as our greatest gift regardless of the immediacy that is lost. The gift is so vital to us that mystery religions worship the word as the sacred creator of all existence, a mystery understood by our most cherished poets.

This semantic distance underlies even the simplest recollection. Merwin's often lyrical remembrances of his past are so nicely turned, at their best, that we might forget the fact. In the poem "The Song of the Trolleys" he remembers the clatter and bells of a passing trolley as:

...one of the carols
of summer...

One might be tempted to call this simple and delightful poem "pure," in the sense of being unsullied by any mediation. But even so simple a poem can only be a product of the superimposition of language upon the original experience and the poet's relationship to both.

The trolley proceeds into the distance, telescoping memory into memory (absence into absence) as it does:

...its singing
receding in its growing
smaller until it was gone
into sounds that resound
only when they have come to silence

Not only did the singing resound in the silence that followed it at the time but it resounds again in the silence captured in the poem. In this simple poem, then, there is the mediation of language (absence of immediacy), of the resounding silence (absence) of the trolley having passed and of the resounding silence of the memory (absence of absence) of the trolley having passed. Yet, ironically, silence itself is an unmediated primary experience as all absences are.

The Shadow of Sirius also consists of imagination or dreams, the products of memory arranged in haunting, unusual patterns, not quite found in life, as in numerous poems in the volume. It includes the memory of favorite poems and stories, themselves originally memories, the echoes of things unsaid as well as things said.

Memory does not only begin "within" us. The earth also remembers. In the poem "One Valley," Merwin seeks the source of one such memory, the source of the river that formed the valley, but finds "no sign of it":

where the roaring torrent
raced at one time
to carve farther down
those high walls in the stone
for the silence that I hear now
day and night on its way to the sea.

The river itself is remembered in those stone walls and the silence (the "absence") that the poet "hears" flowing to the sea. The absence is not the river but the earth's memory of the river which the poet, in turn, remembers. It is its own primary experience, not a distant, faded, inexact replica of the original river.

As The Shadow of Sirius approaches its end, W. S. Merwin adopts the semantic convention of immediacy: the present tense. (It should be clear by now that, in the strictest sense, it can only be a convention.) The transition is accomplished so unselfconsciously that nothing seems out of place. In case the reader somehow thinks, after all that has been said, that the poet is intent to live in the past, he provides "A Momentary Creed":

I believe in the ordinary day
that is here at this moment before me


there is no place I know outside today
except for the unknown all around me

It is a creed he has always held to, momentary as everything in life is momentary, as everything exists in the moment, the shadow of our passion included.

In the poems that follow—the concluding poems of the volume—the stars hurdle through the unimaginable spaces "not concerned about ever arriving," the shadow suddenly erupts into eternal morning, the thrush singing a joyful laughter "whether or not there is anyone listening":

yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all of memory waking into it

Only now do we even begin to know what the shadow of Sirius is. Only now can the word "memory" begin to suffice, now that the poet has filled it with memory, reminded it of itself.

The Shadow of Sirius is arguably W. S. Merwin's finest volume of poetry since The Rain in the Trees (1988).


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