W S Merwin, “Long Afternoon Light” 1

You can find a link to “Long Afternoon Light” here.

As with so many of the poems in The Moon Before Morning, the sheer, almost incantatory beauty of this one draws you to read it again and again even as it continues to elude complete comprehension. The first three lines alone bear endless repetition for the hypnotic smoothness of their phonetic and rhythmical flow.

Although it’s smooth, this flow is made rich and subtle by the complication of syntax in line two. Here, “how long ago” is a parenthesis, and so logically it represents a syntactical disjunction, but the absence of punctuation and the seamless phonetic flow makes you read it not as a division but as an alteration of pace, like when the flow of a river bulges round and over a stone that doesn’t quite break the surface. Similar things happen later.

The strength and beauty of the poem depend on what might seem like contradictory qualities. These sharpen each other as complementary colours do. They’re interwoven so smoothly, with such a light touch, that you may barely notice how they work. Just within the first line, the topographical plainness of “small roads … in the foothills” is startled into a mysteriously vivid life by the insertion of the elusive metaphor of “written in sleep”. Light repeatedly plays against darkness, sometimes in a way that sounds almost paradoxical (for example in “with the bronze then deepening in the light“), although it’s true to the way some colours seem to intensify as light fades.

Concrete imagery plays against abstraction, vagueness and mystery, and images in close focus against a sense of distance and space. The delicate miniaturist images of the shy moss and the soundless crow give imaginative life to abstract musings and vistas of shadowy distance and then dissolve into them. The poem simultaneously stimulates the imagination and slips out of its grasp.

Part of the imaginative effect of the poem comes from a kind of subliminal transference from one phrase to another, a tingeing of one by the other. Animate and inanimate processes are drawn together, the sentient, purposeful movement of the crow lending an aura of animacy to the turning to itself of the moss and the slipping away of the moment, as if moss and moment were both small, shy animals.  In this way, the whole world of the poem is made to seem sentiently alive. Similarly the lengthening and merging of the shadows seems to echo the way paths stretch out and converge in the distance and the lengthening spatial perspectives of the last few lines, reaching away from the close-up on the moss, echoes or merges with lengthening perspectives of time as the poet muses on how the moment becomes history. The cross-over between imaginings of space and imaginings of time materialises the one and dematerialises the other, or makes both seem simultaneously material, almost tangible, and elusively immaterial.


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