Jan/Feb 2014 Reviews & Interviews

A First Progress Report

The First Four Books of Poems
W. S. Merwin.
Copper Canyon Press. 2000. 256 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-139-6.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! It has proven to be considerably more difficult than I had expected. I've returned to the poems again and again, but there is so much in them, as a whole, that I still am not yet ready to speak to them. The first book—A Mask for Janus—is as intelligent and inconsequential as most Yale Younger Award winners. The second—The Dancing Bears—is an attempt to repeat the initial success, precisely as might be expected.

The third book begins to show more substance, though, and we begin to expect that this poet may break free of the success that threatens to stunt him, to keep him within a certain range. At first, I was put off by the concept of Green with Beasts: it being a sort of bestiary. I even found it difficult to convince myself not to skip past it with a middling intention to return when I felt I could give more to it. More problematical still, part one of the book seemed to justify my resistance to some degree: not, to be sure, so much as I had expected, but enough to cause me to struggle.

But the poems "Two Horses" and "White Goat, White Ram" taught me that, however much my fears might prove partially justified, there was something new afoot, something intriguing, and it was enough to get me through to part two. The poet was trying to do something I had not seen done before. A remarkable command of the language, a precocious patience—a fact clear from the first page of the first book—was allowing him to do it with effect.

I call his patience "precocious," but few poets ever achieve it. Even fewer as our lives become ever more overwhelmed with incident and marketplace. The picture he is carefully drawing in "Two Horses" invites the reader to imagine the human element being absent including her or himself. Actually, in "Two Horses" it is fading, in "White Goat, White Rain" gone.

The poet realizes the limits of his attempt. The very language he needs in order to achieve it inherently contains its failure. He is dealing in approximations: "We use these / To designate what was before us, since we cannot / See it in itself..." The ideal is not possible; language has only its poor words to offer, its astonishingly poor words. He begins to understand that the point is to approach description asymptotically. Enormous efforts are necessary in order to carry it the tiniest bit closer, that is to say, to make it "poetry."

It is difficult to find the source of this in the earlier books. To this point, he has only questioned this experience himself enough to fill four poems with it, arguably only two.

I didn't remember the poem "White Goat, White Ram" appearing in Merwin's Migration: New and Selected Poems (2003), and I went to its table of contents to correct my memory. But it isn't there. He seems no longer to appreciate it as much as the 15 poems he selected from the volume, only one of which seemed to me clearly to be a better poem.

At first, I thought that the ending must have seemed too derivative to him, too immature. Derivative it is. The reader suddenly becomes the goat at the side of the road, a road which she, only marginally conscious, doesn't even know is a road. To her it is only a contrasting slash of color across the field. In this fashion we are brought to the edge of perhaps vaguely perceived slashes across our own landscape:

There are the angels. We are dumb before them, and move
In a different mystery; but may there be
Another road we do not see as a road, straight, narrow,
Or broad or the sector of a circle, or perhaps
All these, where without knowing it we stand
On one side or another? I have known such a way
But at moments only...

But for all these wondrous angels are borrowed from Rilke, approached from a wholly different point of view, they keep their mystery. The mystery may even be deepened.

If anything will typify this third of the books of The First Four Books of Poems, it will be the remarkable capability Merwin will display trying other exceptional poets' styles. "Burning the Cat"—arguably the best poem in Green with Beasts—could have been written, with satisfaction, by Robert Frost himself. "The Eyes of the Drowned Watch Keels Going Over" is a rewrite of Williams' "The Yachts," generally well done, but Williams' the better poem, a classic.

Then again, perhaps the poem "The Fog" is the best poem in Green with Beasts, with its grim realization:

Ships were not shaped for haven but if we were
There will be time for it yet. Let us turn head,
Out oars, and pull for the open. Make we
For midsea, where the winds are and stars too.
There will be wrung weathers, sea-shakings, calms,
Weariness, the giant water that rolls over our fathers,
And hungers hard to endure. But whether we float long
Or founder soon, we cannot be saved here.

While it contains the unfortunate "Make we / For midsea" and is an overly dramatic metaphor to carry the meaning he seeks to communicate, it also contains "wrung weathers," and a determination not to stick close to the shore, that will make him a far better poet.

I suspect that "White Goat, White Ram" did not survive to appear in the selected poems because it ended with an oracular voice which Merwin eventually rejected. "The Fog" did not make the cut, either, the tone of high drama having long since been discarded as well.

The promise of the decision Merwin made at the end of "The Fog" came to fruition with the title poem of the next volume: The Drunk in the Furnace. It is the final poem of the volume. The first poem, "Odysseus," is written as if the departure described in "The Fog" is already far behind him, together with the drama he felt at its inception. The poet has been long at sea and knows that the experience is mostly about surviving endless daily repetition intact: "Always the setting forth was the same, / Same sea, same dangers waiting for him / As though he got nowhere but older."

As enormously skilled as he is, the poems that follow struggle to find a voice. Precisely portraying the endless small details that make up our lives, giving those details each their exactly proper weight and still seeing the honor of the lives, is a much greater task than the mysticism or the drama toward which he'd plied his words before. Now and then they achieve the task, blaze strangely up, as in the poem "The Climb":

Where the lurching cripple, drunk as a kite,
Scrapes, thuds, and snuffling half the time
On all fours, hauls himself upward
On the stairs over their heads...

Again, as strong as the poem is, by the measure and mode of the time, the poem does not merit a place in Migration.

The last three poems, actually, close out The Drunk in the Furnace with a kick (as is said of long-distance running), but the final poem announces the arrival of a poet of the highest grasp. The poems until that point are surprisingly bland, here and there blaze up with the frustration of a remarkable poet who seems to have found himself at an impasse. Although the blandness is actually a strict self-control, wholly intentional, it is, perhaps, too obvious that such is the intention. They are rigorously in the prevailing mode. A dozen other poets (all of them of considerable talent, be sure) could have written them.

With The Drunk in the Furnace, the hint of a new pattern emerges: one of a succession of explorations each marked by a volume. With the next volume, it will become clear that even so stunning a poem as the title poem does not tempt the poet to declare that he has reached his port. For all of his struggles, he has not emerged in possession of a style, but, rather, a task.


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