W.S. Merwin lives in Hawaii, on the flank of a sleeping volcano, with a garden of palm trees—hundreds of palm trees. Just imagine: a garden of palm trees! They crop up everywhere in his work. Jamaica Kincaid has been to visit them, and has said they are extraordinary. This garden, which used to be a pineapple plantation, is now a garden of native plants, that is, a refuge for the ordinary.
A sleeping volcano, then; an old pineapple plantation; a garden sanctuary.
It’s this fact—a garden, with hundreds of palm trees—that marks so much of Merwin’s work: extravagant, reverent, plain and unpretentious, beautiful, ruthless.
The Moon Before Morning, Merwin’s latest book of poems, is a coda to his 2008 book The Shadow of Sirius. It is an echo, it asks the same questions differently.
Like its predecessor, Moon is interested in questions of place, of memory and loss, of time. But Sirius looks at friends, the earth, rivers, fields, and Moon gazes at trees and sky. The poems in The Moon Before Morning have lost the intensely social quality of the poems in The Shadow of Sirius, stripped it bare or distilled it down. Take these lines from “After the Voices”:
and their absences were no more noticed
than were those of the unreturning birds
each spring until there were no words at all
for what was gone but it was always so
I have no way of telling what I miss
I am the only one who misses it
Rather than calling to friends and places long gone to mark the losses of time, this voice has abandoned—is abandoning—the lovers’ language of loss and longing. He moves outwards: to the sky, to the migrations of birds and seasons, to an “always” outside of language. Time here is so acutely personal, so moored in what’s no longer there that its texture begins to fly apart.
One poem, “Long Afternoon Light,” appears in both books. It stands between the books like a friendly echo: “and yet we trust without giving it a thought / that we will always see it as we see it once / and that what we know is only / a moment of what is ours and will / always be ours we believe it as / the moment flows away out of reach”.
Two motions, two gestures: to hold an instant and to feel its loss. Both books play with the notion that to remember is instantly and already to have lost. Seize the moment, watch it go.
And although time’s passing is always, after all, exactly that intimate, Merwin’s specific feel for the eternal is remarkable here too. Merwin is 87 this year, and The Moon Before Morning is the poetry (sensitive, fond) of a person who has no reason to expect to see the spring again, who looks well on the world and will miss it. It’s the poetry of a life’s reckoning, both final and eternal, with time and memory: “oh gossamer gossamer breath / moment daylight life untouchable / by no name with no beginning”.
How sad that all sounds, but actually it’s not at all. Observant but not mournful, Merwin is moving into rare territory, and the sense of adventure is clean, exhilarating: a plunge in cold water.
This is because in their exchange of friends and intimacy for the sky, the poems in The Moon Before Morning gain something grownup and playful, something hard to pin down.
This thing has to do with the book’s title, and it has to do with palm trees. It has also to do with another recurring image in the book, which is the moon and stars invisible in the daylit sky. The garden we see again is not the traditional space for play between fixity and change, wildness and structure or even, really, memory and the new. What it is instead is a small, plotted, seen world—finite sensual and familiar, everything we have known, life—that Merwin sets against what lies beyond the garden: expansive space, something outside of time, dim and unknown.
And what might that be, and where might it lead? Merwin has a habit of lopping words off at the branch: he invariably uses “frond,” for example, instead of “palm frond,” and “palm” rather than “palm tree,” not an unusual habit but one that says a lot about his project here. In “High Fronds,” for example, the trees “have no shadows / and no memory / the wind has gone its own way / nothing is missing” and there the poem ends, drifting off without punctuation like most of the poems in the book, resting simply where it must.
Stars in the daylit sky. Nothing is missing. In fact though the fronds are obviously metonymic, incomplete and gestural. They motion both towards the palm that roots them to the world and to the visual pattern (there, not-there) of the air around them when seen against the sky. It’s this quality of being both there and not there, both a presence and an emptiness and the whole of the picture they compose, that connects the poems in The Moon Before Morning: memory is the index of a thing already gone, a resurrection but the resurrection of a ghost. And the only promise of life is not-life, a return to bare sound without language and a place outside of time.
“High Fronds” notably recalls another poem about time and loss which shares its skyward gaze, Philip Larkin’s “High Windows.” Like Larkin’s poem, the object of Merwin’s vision is the prize of his efforts, the thing we’ve come for: this is the point. Comprehension, the ability to see the whole picture, to grasp both parts in the mind and hold them there at once. The desire to remember, in the face of what is lost. The smallness of being in the world, of loving it and knowing you must leave.