“The Moon Before Morning” by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press, 120 pages, $24)
All at once he is no longer
young with his handful of flowers
in the bright morning their fragrance
rising from them as though they were
still on the stalk where they opened
only this morning to the light
in which somewhere unseen the thrush
goes on singing its perfect song
into the day of the flowers
and while he stands there holding them
the cool dew runs from them onto
his hand at this hour of their lives
is it the hand of the young man
who found them only this morning
Superlatives stake out a dangerous terrain for the critic; they tempt us to make absolute statements and inflexible pronouncements – all for the sake of our own security rather than for the sake of truth. Even so, it’s impossible for me not to claim that W.S. Merwin is the greatest poet writing in America today.
At 86, he possesses the vigor and vision of his younger self. Indeed, in the meditative poems that make up “The Moon Before Morning,” his majestic 27th book of verse, he blurs the distinction between past and present, reveling in the epicenter of awareness; the pinnacle of perception; the fluid, overflowing splendor of the now.
Saturday morning and the trades
are back trading out of the east
offering their samples of cloud
each the only one of its kind
and each of them changing even
as it is offered only once
without a word except the one
sound of hushing to say that this
is all happening in secret
this unrepeatable present
only today for the lucky one
Merwin’s greatness lies in his ability to indwell his poems with a seasoned mindfulness, and by extension to instruct us, to entrust us, to do the same. Shunning punctuation, his verse embodies the holistic power of creation, tumbling down the page, accumulating meaning, ending in an all-at-once epiphany.
Like a maestro with his chorale, Merwin controls the music of his poems by the length of the poetic line. Enjambment becomes the mark of his singing – every break signals a new beginning of spirit, energy and breath.
His is an elemental elegance, expressed with discipline and care, equilibrium and grace. Few poets writing today can harvest so much beauty from so little diction. Each poem expertly weighs its words, placed judiciously in the plainspoken lines. Each poem renews itself on the page like a blossom of astonishment. Each poem shimmers as a practice of sheer presence.
oh gossamer gossamer breath
moment daylight life untouchable
by no name with no beginning
what do we think we recognize
“The Moon Before Morning” arrives fresh on the heels of “The Shadow of Sirius,” Merwin’s second Pulitzer-Prize-winning volume. That book reinterpreted the past in the light of the present. This one seeks the brightness of the soul in the shadows of memory. Forgetting and remembering form its echoing motifs. As does the fragility of words, which come to the poet out of a sacred emptiness, taking him, he says, always by surprise.
o forever invisible one
whom I have never mistaken
for another voice
nor hesitated to follow
beyond precept and prudence
over seas and deserts
you incomparable one
for whom the waters fall
and the winds search
and the words were made
One cannot read this book without a strong sense that Merwin’s career has culminated in a birthright of enlightenment. From his idyllic home in Maui, where he fosters and preserves tropical forests, he has stripped his poetry to the bare essentials.
He finds the absolute in rocks, trees, flowers and seeds, in clouds clutching the horizon above the infinite sea.
Which raises the questions: Nature or the self? Which comes first? Which predominates? For Merwin, neither. They are the same, just as his younger and older selves are the same, merging into one persona.
Thus his poems bespeak a profound unity of being. The totality of the whole resonates in each part. This makes Merwin a member of the vast wisdom tradition in the West, in which he mines the movements of consciousness with seemingly effortless skill. From each new poem, we reap the benefit of his reverence, his seeing, his purity of heart.
The wind lifts the whole branch of the poplar
carries it up and out and holds it there
while each leaf is the whole tree reaching
from its roots in the dark earth out through all
its rings of memory to where it has
never been he holds in his fingertips
the moment just before the beginning
Just as with the earlier poems of “The Shadow of Sirius” – highlighted by intense inwardness and a clarity of attention – so here Merwin pursues an ecstatic homeland, shaped by the seasons of the Earth, the shadings of an ever-fading light, the formative events of an exceptional life.
Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age
For Merwin, the familiar worlds of nature and the self bear witness to something more: the timeless, boundless gift of creation. No one conveys that gift better than he does with his deep soul and sensitive insights.
May he keep blessing us with his superlative gift for many more years to come.
Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.