The How Human World

Zach Savich
October 19, 2010
Comments 1

Caryl’s recent post beautifully connects our conversation about Merwin’s linguistic inclinations to how his poems step through an environment. There’s repetition that worries a sore; there’s repetition by which a river keeps itself going. The Shadow of Sirius also mentions many people who stand out from landscape, if less frequently than it includes rivers and light and stars. There’s Miss Giles, for example, “who had just retired / from being a teacher all her life” who takes the young Merwin (these poems feel too autobiographical for me to call the boy in them merely the speaker) for a walk; an actual mother and father; Billy Green who “explained to me about sex”“

Other poems characterize animals with similar, singular intimacy, as “A Horse Heaven” does when describing the oldest horses who “look at me / as though maybe they had once known me” and “Remembering the Wings” does for pigeons like those “elegant and amiable / two long indolent innocents / easy-come Bertie and Midnight.” These pigeons aren’t big-noun Birds setting off timeless echoes in the mind but actual birds alive with one in time.

Caryl talks about how Merwin engages with elemental nature. Do these characterizations of singular people and animals work differently? Or do they treat individual creatures (or memories of them) as though they are also environmental things, with the same focus the book brings to rocks and light? I threw the book against my reflection in the window overlaid on a tree and asked. The book opened to “Basho’s Child” and “The Odds,” facing each other on pages 70 and 71; these poems show two approaches to how humans in The Shadow of Sirius can be both parts of nature and distinct from it.

Case 1: The Water Becomes Words

In the “Basho’s Child,” we see a child who has already been “crying / dead for three hundred years” since “her mother carried her / out to the water noise / that would cover the sound of her crying” and left her there. The sound of the crying, which is the sound of nearby water, follows some men who find her the next morning–or her corpse, or her ghost–after they leave an offering and go on their way. For much longer, the sound of the crying, of the water, stays with one of them, a poet who will write about her, whose words are haunted by the cry, as the water’s sound haunts from and around the girl’s body. The human and the natural blend, transcending their converging occasion but retaining its inflection. The girl becomes water. The water becomes words. In the abstraction of language, which makes both the human and the natural into the same material syllables, the ocassion extends beyond simple divisions, simple time.

Case 2: Human Remainders

Merwin’s focus on people can also resist abstraction, so timeless nature is held at bay by a live moment. In “The Odds,” a letter from a friend describes the habits of a cold city, coming to focus on “the men keeping a fire going / in an old oil drum with holes / down the sides and feeding it whatever / turned up.” Two men stand by the barrel “with three gloves between them passing one / glove back and forth / while they stamped their feet.” The friend “had tried to tell whether / it was a right or a left glove.” This poem insists on a human moment; the glove is not an emblem for how we deal with cold, or even of compassion, but is a glove with a thumb on one side or another, kept in motion so one can’t tell exactly, can’t make it mean something beyond the image of exchange. The title refers not only to the “odd” glove but to the observing friend, whose participation is also a remainder, as is the one who receives the letter; in friend, in letter, in recipient, the particularity of the act remains.

These approachs to the human and the natural remind me of super long-exposure photographs in which human elements become what we know light by. You find that building sites and traffic lights create gridded smears–those grids are the overlying ghosts of our interchange, they’re real ideal expressions over time, much as time stitches the story of the crying child into a larger pattern. Simultaneously, one can insist on the aspects that stay steady in such a lightscape, or that are present for a quick shutter click among the ongoing. The passing of a glove. A walk with Miss Giles.

What looks like return, or nostalgia, can be recognition of a larger pattern, present in echoes?

Perhaps I am thinking about Time like Caryl’s writing prompt thought about a body-sized plot. Related prompt: Document everything that’s in a single moment, in a way that insists on the moment. Now document a single thing in many moments, even when that thing has changed or disappeared.

At a pumpkin fair the other day, I saw a juggler whose “trick” was he couldn’t juggle well–he kept losing or dropping fruit and purses and shoes. It was confusing for some of the children seated on bales around him. But then I realized: a juggler who loses an item becomes a magician. He made it disappear. One’s left with the motion of a hand, sometimes gesturing at (or like) leaves overhead, sometimes insisting on its own motion.

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