Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle
March 15, 2019 7:39 PM   Subscribe

Two-time poet laureat and two-time Pulitzer prizewinning poet W.S. Merwin has died at age 91. In a publication career that spanned 66 years, from 1952's A Mask for Janus to 2016's Garden Time, with highlights that include Pulitzer Prizes 38 years apart (1971's The Carrier of Ladders and 2009's The Shadow of Sirius), Merwin was one of the best-known and awarded poets of his generation, whose work wove together politics, spirituality, observation of nature and the human condition.

It Is March

It is March and black dust falls out of the books
Soon I will be gone
The tall spirit who lodged here has
Left already
On the avenues the colorless thread lies under
Old prices

When you look back there is always the past
Even when it has vanished
But when you look forward
With your dirty knuckles and the wingless
Bird on your shoulder
What can you write

The bitterness is still rising in the old mines
The fist is coming out of the egg
The thermometers out of the mouths of the corpses

At a certain height
The tails of the kites for a moment are
Covered with footsteps

Whatever I have to do has not yet begun
posted by drlith (39 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

One of my favorite poets. . . .
posted by kozad at 8:10 PM on March 15


To the New Year
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
posted by skycrashesdown at 8:19 PM on March 15 [7 favorites]

He's not a name familiar to me but the two poems posted so far in this thread are very evocative and I appreciate them. He apparently was a giant, and I'm ashamed my education never included him.

posted by hippybear at 8:26 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]

posted by socialjusticeworrier at 8:29 PM on March 15

Oh fuck. Not shocking, but oh fuck.

posted by Iridic at 8:36 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]

Saying to myself, remember this.
posted by Oyéah at 8:53 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]

posted by jj's.mama at 8:55 PM on March 15

My cousin Gene (he's really only a second cousin) has a shoe he picked up at Dachau. It's a pretty worn-out shoe. It wasn't top quality in the first place, he explained. The sole is cracked clear across and has pulled loose from the upper on both sides, and the upper is split at the ball of the foot. There's no lace and there's no heel.

He explained he didn't steal it because it must have belonged to a Jew who was dead. He explained that he wanted some little thing. He explained that the Russians looted everything. They just took anything. He explained that it wasn't top quality to begin with. He explained that the guards or the kapos would have taken it if it had been any good. He explained that he was lucky to have got anything. He explained that it wasn't wrong because the Germans were defeated. He explained that everybody was picking up something. A lot of guys wanted flags or daggers or medals or things like that, but that kind of thing didn't appeal to him so much. He kept it on the mantelpiece for a while but he explained that it wasn't a trophy.

He explained that it's no use being vindictive. He explained that he wasn't. Nobody's perfect. Actually we share a German grandfather. But he explained that this was the reason why we had to fight that war. What happened at Dachau was a crime that could not be allowed to pass. But he explained that we could not really do anything to stop it while the war was going on because we had to win the war first. He explained that we couldn't always do just what we would have liked to do. He explained that the Russians killed a lot of Jews too. After a couple of years he put the shoe away in a drawer. He explained that the dust collected in it.

Now he has it down in the cellar in a box. He explains that the central heating makes it crack worse. He'll show it to you, though, any time you ask. He explains how it looks. He explains how it's hard to take it in, even for him. He explains how it was raining, and there weren't many things left when he got there. He explains how there wasn't anything of value and you didn't want to get caught taking anything of that kind, even if there had been. He explains how everything inside smelled. He explains how it was just lying out in the mud, probably right where it had come off. He explains that he ought to keep it. A thing like that.

You really ought to go and see it. He'll show it to you. All you have to do is ask. It's not that it's really a very interesting shoe when you come right down to it but you learn a lot from his explanations.
posted by Iridic at 8:57 PM on March 15 [10 favorites]


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
posted by jameaterblues at 9:09 PM on March 15 [10 favorites]

No, not after Mary Oliver--!
I always forget how much I enjoyed his poetry.
Who would I show it to
"Elegy", W.S. Merwin
posted by invokeuse at 9:13 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


He was also a great translator.
posted by omegar at 9:20 PM on March 15 [4 favorites]

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
posted by not_the_water at 9:39 PM on March 15 [13 favorites]

He was also a great translator.

He published a translation from Dante recently. Now most poets who try that seem to go for Inferno, but he did Purgatorio, which I think is interesting.
posted by thelonius at 11:10 PM on March 15

Native Trees

Neither my father nor my mother knew
the names of the trees
where I was born
what is that
I asked and my
father and mother did not
hear they did not look where I pointed
surfaces of furniture held
the attention of their fingers
and across the room they could watch
walls they had forgotten
where there were no questions
no voices and no shade

Were there trees
where they were children
where I had not been
I asked
were there trees in those places
where my father and my mother were born
and in that time did
my father and my mother see them
and when they said yes it meant
they did not remember
What were they I asked what were they
but both my father and my mother
said they never knew
posted by thelonius at 11:12 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


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
posted by thelonius at 11:18 PM on March 15 [4 favorites]

posted by Mister Bijou at 1:52 AM on March 16


Comet of stillness princess of what is over
high note held without trembling without voice without sound
aura of complete darkness keeper of the kept secrets
of the destroyed stories the escaped dreams the sentences
never caught in words warden of where the river went
touch of its surface sibyl of the extinguished
window onto the hidden place and the other time
at the foot of the wall by the road patient without waiting
in the full moonlight of autumn at the hour when I was born
you no longer go out like a flame at the sight of me
you are still warmer than the moonlight gleaming on you
even now you are unharmed even now perfect
as you have always been now when your light paws are running
on the breathless night on the bridge with one end I remember you
when I have heard you the soles of my feet have made answer
when I have seen you I have waked and slipped from the calendars
from the creeds of difference and the contradictions
that were my life and all the crumbling fabrications
as long as it lasted until something that we were
had ended when you are no longer anything
let me catch sight of you again going over the wall
and before the garden is extinct and the woods are figures
guttering on a screen let my words find their own
places in the silence after the animals
posted by verbminx at 2:17 AM on March 16

I had the pleasure of hearing him read his poems. One of the great ones.

posted by LeftMyHeartInSanFrancisco at 3:28 AM on March 16

posted by Bob Regular at 5:08 AM on March 16

Not early or late

Is it I who have come to this age
or is it the age that has come to me
which one has brought along all these
silent images on their shadowy river
appearing and going away as the river does
all without a word though they all know me
I can see that they always knew where to find me
bringing me what they know I will recognize
what they know only I will recognize
to show me what I could not have seen before
then leave me to make sense of my own questions
going away making no promises

From Garden Time. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2016

He has always been writing about death and silence, and about life and language. I spent a year or two, a little while back, reading one of his poems every day. The master of the "turn."
posted by Peach at 5:52 AM on March 16 [5 favorites]

posted by gauche at 6:07 AM on March 16


Sitting over words
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing
not far
like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark
the echo of everything that has ever
been spoken
still spinning its one syllable
between the earth and silence

posted by Cash4Lead at 6:29 AM on March 16 [6 favorites]

posted by LobsterMitten at 7:23 AM on March 16

posted by Going To Maine at 7:50 AM on March 16

posted by doctornemo at 8:16 AM on March 16

posted by mmiddle at 9:57 AM on March 16


First forget what time it is
for an hour
do it regularly every day

then forget what day of the week it is
do this regularly for a week
then forget what country you are in
and practice doing it in company
for a week
then do them together
for a week
with as few breaks as possible

follow these by forgetting how to add
or to subtract
it makes no difference
you can change them around
after a week
both will help you later
to forget how to count

forget how to count
starting with your own age
starting with how to count backward
starting with even numbers
starting with Roman numerals
starting with fractions of Roman numerals
starting with the old calendar
going on to the old alphabet
going on to the alphabet
until everything is continuous again

go on to forgetting elements
starting with water
proceeding to earth
rising in fire

forget fire
posted by namasaya at 10:05 AM on March 16 [7 favorites]


Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day

The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
And ours

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Our sacrifices

Join your word to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important
posted by Rust Moranis at 10:51 AM on March 16 [6 favorites]

Well, that one made me cry on my front porch.
posted by tavella at 11:52 AM on March 16 [2 favorites]

Whenever I go there everything is changed

The stamps on the bandages the titles
Of the professors of water

The portrait of Glare the reasons for
The white mourning

In new rocks new insects are sitting
With the lights off
And once more I remember that the beginning

Is broken

No wonder the addresses are torn

To which I make my way eating the silence of animals
Offering snow to the darkness

Today belongs to few and tomorrow to no one
posted by faineant at 12:28 PM on March 16 [1 favorite]


I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don't lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you're older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write
posted by invitapriore at 1:30 PM on March 16 [7 favorites]


Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
posted by arachnidette at 2:06 PM on March 16 [3 favorites]

"Dream of Koa Returning," about his dog, always makes me cry.

Sitting on the steps of that cabin
that I had always known
with its porch and gray-painted floorboards
I looked out to the river
flowing beyond the big trees
and all at once you
were just behind me
lying watching me
as you did years ago
and not stirring at all
when I reached back slowly
hoping to touch your long amber fur
and there we stayed without moving
listening to the river
and I wondered whether
it might be a dream
whether you might be a dream
whether we both were a dream
in which neither of us moved

posted by Beardman at 4:34 PM on March 16 [8 favorites]

"Where he gets his spirits
It's a mystery. But the stuff keeps him musical:..."

From, 'A Drunk in the Furnace'.
posted by clavdivs at 9:53 PM on March 16

posted by bird internet at 6:45 AM on March 17

posted by exlotuseater at 2:25 PM on March 17

posted by dlugoczaj at 10:20 AM on March 18

We were not born to survive
Only to live.
posted by Oyéah at 8:05 PM on March 19

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