In our discussion this month, I hope we’ve treated Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius like he treats his father’s dictionary in “Inheritance.” The poem depicts a book with a “cover worn as though / it had been carried on journeys,” though it has been “beside me the whole time.” What really “frayed it like that” is the “care and indeed affection / turning the pages patiently / in search of meanings.”
That “indeed” before “affection” affirms it. It also makes the sleight of syntax, in which “care and indeed affection” become what turn the pages, make sense: affection itself is what acts, is what affirms, adding miles to what has been beside one the whole time.
This poem has subtle humor (the dictionary peddler offers Merwin’s father the book “at an unrepeatable price”), a direct link between life and language, and the blurrings of motion and time we have blogged on and on about this month. But I want to focus my last contribution on a part of Merwin that might go without saying: he “indeed” continually arrives at defensible tenderness, at affection that is not redemptive but a quality of perception itself.
I don’t think this is a minor point. In the interview Tyler posted last week, Merwin presents empathy as an imaginative act. If I say affection similarly requires the imagination, I don’t mean it’s unreal. Rather, it makes the real real.
This is good for me to remember: in poetry, imagination doesn’t just taxidermy fantastic items into improbable assemblages with neon thread but permits each leaning in, each taking truly of language. There is the more obvious imaginative act when Merwin describes the dictionary binding as “the color of wet sand / on which thin waves hover.” But a more primary dimension of imagination grounds the poem “at my elbow at the table,” permitting the positing that follows.
In Merwin, this primary type of imagination, which permits and posits, is not merely language–a voice going on one follows because it is speaking–but achieved through an affectionate regard for language. This attitude about his materials distinguishes Merwin’s heavy sentiments from the sentimental, which might show similar subjects and stances but with language only as conveyance, not as postage stamp, envelope, and ink of everything sent. Throughout Sirius, we see this concern with the many small muscles of time and nature and throat the make speech possible, that we learn speech through.
Is Merwin’s affection sometimes reached, or conveyed, through the affectation of style and craft? No less than these flowers I’ve affected to arrange in a jar for you.
I like this quality of affection because, while it can seem nostalgic, its goal is not nostalgia; it doesn’t rest with the resurrection of a restored nostalgic detail or the reflective experience of its loss, but uses nostalgia to engage the present. Nostaliga is part of “living in the moment,” after all. In Merwin, one does not look back to regard the lost sublime but treats looking back itself as sublime; the focus is on the looking, the act. We see ourselves doing it and are among it. Eden isn’t lost but only ever exists when I stand here today, bend to this keyhole, and find a portion framed, surprised to see I have been there.
Where we stand is like the “long dusty patch / of high ragweed” Merwin describes in “Empty Lot.” The coal company has left it vacant “in case they ever should need to sink an emergency shaft to miners / in trouble below.” The poem imagines the “muffled thump of a blast under us” and listens “for picks ticking in the dark.” The kinds of absence we’ve talked about with Merwin–I’d like to consider them as the clearing of a lot, so one can hear more closely what’s tender in the ragweed. This requires desertion so that the looking, the listening, the affectionate imagining can be primary acts. Clear the lot. There are people below.