The Last Poem I Loved: “Separation” by W. S. Merwin


I can still visualize the Providence Amtrak Station in painstaking detail. The vividness of this recollection persists despite the fact that I’ve only been inside the building a handful of times. The pseudo-colonial light fixtures, the burnished wooden benches reflecting the lamplight, the suspended MBTA advertisement above the café. Yet those are just lingering details. The layout of the station, its structure, is what comes through with extraordinary clarity. At the center of the terminal is an upward curvature (it is not deep enough to be called a dome), flooded with light. It is invisible from the exterior unless viewing the building from a distance. It is more an architectural hiccup than a feature. This almost-dome coincides with a set of concentric circles formed by the positioning of the benches and the pattern of the tiles. Around the circumference of these circles are equidistant sets of swinging doors, tucked into the four corners of the terminal. I remember not wanting to walk you to your track. I did not want my last glimpse of you to be the sliver of space between two swinging doors as they lose their momentum, eventually returning to their stationary position. It was just over a year ago that I was left standing at the center of the terminal and I could feel the radius between us growing in distance.

Over the past three years, my senses have sharpened in response to certain stimuli: the vibration of a text message, the dial tone of a Skype call, the subtle scent of ink on a handwritten note. I would be remiss if I did not mention that these associations are, of course, bittersweet; however, that word has become hollow through its overuse. I did not find an adequate replacement to describe how I felt until this past June. I was two weeks into another stretch of long-distance when I happened upon W. S. Merwin’s “Separation,” a simple, heartrending three lines:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

In such a brief poem, Merwin captures the aftermath of parting ways and the relentless associations that remain after separating from a loved one. They are not only visceral, but tangible. The reverberations of absence refuse to be contained in the mind and forcibly permeate the senses. Merwin’s longing is a synesthetic one, simultaneously visual and palpable. As the needle stitches, it colors as well; it is impossible to separate the two processes. A certain song (too numerous to list) begins to play on the radio and I suddenly smell your cucumber-green tea deodorant, and I momentarily deceive myself into thinking you are nearby.

“Separation” expresses the paradoxical intersection of the instantaneous and the enduring. Threading a needle is an action contained in a minuscule fraction of time; however, once completed, the needle remains indefinitely threaded. I do not feel freshly severed from you as each day goes by. I do not compulsively relive the train station goodbyes. And yet, I still feel tied to those points of departure and feel them tug at me constantly.

W.S . Merwin does not explain longing; his poem merely asserts it. In A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Roland Barthes writes “From word to word, I struggle to put ‘into other words’ the ipseity of my Image… at whose end my final philosophy can only be to recognize—and to practice—tautology. The adorable is what is adorable. Or again: I adore you because you are adorable, I love you because I love you” (20-21). “Separation” is likewise a tautology. It says ‘I miss you because I miss you.’ When I miss you, I do not focus on the variety of reasons behind that sensation, but rather the simple fact: I miss you.

Tariq Adely is a writer and translator of Latin American poetry who currently lives in Providence, RI. His work has appeared in Aldus, a Journal of Translation and is forthcoming in Recess Journal and Jet Lag (时差). More from this author →