Life-Portrait in a Concave Mirror

Zach Savich
October 5, 2010
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Through my window: trees I cannot name. Yellow in streaks, toward orange and brown. At this hour, they’re yellowed equally by early light. Indistinguishable: the famed colors of New England’s October; the syrupy hues of morning. The two tints twine like water from a wrung towel. What’s the yellow of age. What’s the yellow of clear light low around a drainpipe, choked on the unturned leaves.

W.S. Merwin is here, not just in my question and its gleam of mists and mellow fruitfulness; not just in the smell of apples, which seems remembrance itself, rather than tied to specific memories. He’s also present company because of how my observing folds back on me. When I describe the trees, I imply my face, composed before the wraparound woods. I feel myself becoming time, in marking it. I want to call this effect concave, the curve a sphere has if you are in it.

If John Ashbery is our poet of the convex, the sphere of his atmospheric mirror bent (theoretically) to include everything extending at infinite distances from his figure, is Merwin’s mirror concave, so a figure finds himself surrounded, overtaken, and closely held? Ashbery, born two months before Merwin in 1927, asks Where Shall I Wander. Merwin, similarly prolific, says in The Shadow of Sirius, “Here it is once again this one note,” the phrase bending nearer, curling in.

This may seem like an older man’s note, but Merwin has been hitting it since long before he wrote of “the clear note” that other poets had heard “that will go on after me” in his “Lament for the Makers.” As Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking showed a mind long-tuned to astute grief (generational, political, personal) report from startlingly grievous loss, Merwin’s most recent book takes into older age the themes of loss and return he’s followed for ages. “See how the past is not finished,” he writes in “My Hand.” “Almost a thousand years later / I am asking the same questions,” he writes in “A Letter to Su Tung-p’o.” “But I have been listening to it / since I was young and its voice is the same / though the leaves have changed and the seasons / and some of the longings,” he writes in “Walled Place above the River.”

Here is the entirety of “Worn Words,” which emphasizes how meaning accrues by the way one wears language. The words become physical; imagine all the times a life-long writer has used the words “they” “have” been” “there.” A concave effect: we see that language has also been wearing us.

The late poems are the ones

I turn to first now

following a hope that keeps

beckoning me

waiting somewhere in the lines

almost in plain sight

it is the late poems

that are made of words

that have come the whole way

they have been there

In The Great Fires, Jack Gilbert speaks of an artist’s late works as depending more on craft than magic; one knows how to reach heights, with care, despite perhaps not wishing to as before, having fewer illusions of–abracadabra!–glory and transcendence. Merwin’s craft, however, has always relied on the spellbinding magic of his measuring breath (“As long as we can believe anything / we believe in measure”), while the mind shifts like sewing needles through it. Concave: in how the themes are of turning and turning back, not solely to the past but in the present; in how the themes turn back on themselves, as well; in how the words turn back on one after years. We find the eternal also ages, which is good. It looks a little like us.

In “Parts of a Tune,” we see Merwin’s good humor about such turnings (the word, of course, is tied etymologically to verse, “the furrow / turning at the end of the field”). The poem begins with “one old man” who “keeps humming the same few notes / of some song he thought he had forgotten” and ends with “some of the words” coming “ back to him now / he smiles hearing them come and go.”

Toward a theory of concavity: in these poems, the resting and running heart rates can feel similar; Merwin idles in high gears. This steadiness conjures a tenuous screen that bends at the touch of the human breath, billowing out so the edges curve in toward one’s ears. Merwin doesn’t “lie down where all the ladders start,” as Yeats resolved to do, but perches on a high rung, balancing so he may look past the roof, at cloud-height, the mind changing barometrically, shingles rough in the foreground.

Which way does his breath bend you? I look forward to being a weather vane here this month blown.

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