Jan/Feb 2017  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Simple Beauty of Tending Each Thought

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Garden Time.
W. S. Merwin.
Copper Canyon Press. 2016. 96 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-499-1.

Like the flowing river that appears periodically throughout W. S. Merwin's Garden Time, the poet's thoughts gently flow where the lay of the land will take them. The image is so natural as it meanders through the poems, it suddenly becomes clear this might be part of why they have gone without punctuation all of these years. Without it there is a subtext of unobstructed flowing, consciously or not.

Stray memories bob to the surface. The memory of Hanson, the brother he never knew, stays with him:

they came and told her
that he was perfect in every way
and said they had never
seen such a beautiful child
and then they told her that he was dead

The simple understatement of the loss is compelling. Merwin had yet to be born, but he knows the story. His mother needed to tell it perhaps in order that some little bit of her first son might live. Or perhaps for some momentary release from sorrow. The true reason is a river-reason with no name.

But she also told the story of "The Laughing Child" of him:

                    ...I was lying there laughing
she told me about it later it was
something that reassured her in a life
in which she had lost everyone she loved

He still carries the gift of it, of being a gift:

I wake again into the laughing child.

Looking back over 60 years of poetry and prose, it is perhaps too easy to think the story explains a lot about the life they describe.

The words are simpler now, the images simpler. This, too, is part of what Gardening Time says. He meditates upon the scene on a porcelain cup, remembers a stone lantern he once coveted, a cowbell once given him as a present. The poet approaches being submerged in the river. Intellectual complexities are falling away.

The animism that is a trademark of Merwin's poems remains but is less prevalent, more muted. Memory walks with him. The notes issuing from a piano "are not in the keys." They wander in search of each other, "listening for their way." It is all just part of the flowing.

In "Variations to the Accompaniment of a Cloud," like a brief eddy, however, there is an allusion, of the sort he mostly put aside so many years ago, to T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday." Reading the earlier poem, we find humble acceptance. We also find a sense of resignation that Merwin does not bring over from it. Eliot tells us he rejoices "that things are as they are." In him, the rejoicing is accomplished in spite of the realities. In Merwin there is no trace of spite, only acceptance. He treasures it all.

Life is gently slipping away, taking earsound and eyesight with it. The garden tools are hiding. Memories are leaving without any particular sign of him struggling to hold on to them. Others are arriving, after many years, unexpected guests visiting for the first time. They have not aged a day.

Nothing has a name, in the end, for all our industry at giving names to everything. Everything just is.

nothing we saw then ever had a name
and the river flowed on behind us

Now he simply watches it flow, surprised and grateful for the happiness it still brings.

as I wake into my remaining days
another morning in my life with Paula
taking me by surprise like the first one

Looking at it from the outside, yes, but soon to be merged with it, himself no longer a self, properly nameless. Soon there will only be the river "that was always on its own way."

But for now there is Gardening Time, the simple beauty of tending each thought.


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