Among the Dead

Darcie Dennigan
October 12, 2010
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I’ve spent some time among the shadows of this collection now, but didn’t yet have any galvanizing window into Merwin, or the book, which all reviews seem to tout as simple and profound (which sounds like an inspirational journey CD called Entering the Now, sold alongside scented courage candles, and not a book I’d want to read)–until! I read Caryl’s first Friday post, where she said his poetry was steeped in darkness. That’s a windowsill I’ll sit on.

Caryl wrote, Merwin suggests that to be fearful is to know one is alive. Is Merwin’s poetry formed from the dimness that, pushed into shape, becomes memory? –I think, after reading his memoir Unframed Originals (a good companion to the childhood memories section of Shadow of Sirius) …yes.

In the memoir’s foreword, Merwin describes the impetus for his project: After my parents died and I had before me all the information that I was likely to have, I was struck again, of course, by its utter inadequacy. (Do you hear within this sentence the last line in “A Likeness”? I have only what I remember.)

The final chapter in the memoir, La Pia, reminds me of the short poem “Blueberries After Dark”:

So this is the way the night tastes
one at a time
not early or late

my mother told me
that I was not afraid of the dark

and when I looked it was true
how did she know
so long ago

with her father dead
almost before she could remember
and her mother following him
not long after
and then her grandmother
who had brought her up
and a little later
her only brother
and then her firstborn
gone as soon
as he was born
she knew

In fact, the La Pia chapter, 45 pages to the poem’s 20 lines, covers much of the same territory:

with her father dead– Hanson Hoadley Jaynes, dead a few days before Christmas
almost before she could remember –she was two
and her mother following him–Bessie Morris
not long after–when she was six
and then her grandmother–Anna
who had brought her up–my mother had lived twelve years under Anna’s many roofs
and a little later–she was 24
her only brother–Morris–when she talks of him it seems that there was a time when there was only Morris, and that that time never left her
and then her firstborn–Hanson
gone as soon –15 minutes after
as he was born–he was in every way perfect. But some negligence or clumsiness on the part of the doctor…

Caryl asked too if his poetry was born from the chant or charm or moan that stays our sometimes tortured souls? In the memoir, Merwin conjures La Pia, the woman who stands outside Purgatorio, begging of Dante to be remembered. Merwin writes of her,

A voice so shy and yet so intimate would not have carried far...Who is she, the shade standing on the nether side of mortal existence, at the foot of the mountain of liberation, to which she has not been admitted? What relation does what we now remember bear to the woman who suffered…?

Traveling abroad, he recognizes La Pia in a heavy Greek woman who has been wronged by her son and who asks him to intervene. He recognizes her too, in his mother, whose conversations he recounts in the present tense even years after she has died. La Pia’s moan, Remember me, both haunts and stays Merwin.

“Blueberries After Dark” reads like a skeleton of the memoir chapter. I miss the skin and clothes, the layers in his prose that create multiple resonances. I miss the details that make his memories inevitably and only his–his voice only his own, and not an anonymous wisp in the wind. At the very least, I’d like the poem, the bones, to be steeped in black tea. Stained. But I’m a prose person at heart maybe. Maybe you can show me what I’m missing in poems like this one?

Merwin suggests that to be fearful is to know one is alive. I do not feel fear in this poem (wonder, marvel, questioning, yes), but I do in the memoir. There, he seems like Dante, out of place, alive where everyone is dead. To be fearful is to know one is alive among the dead?

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