W S Merwin, The Moon Before Morning, Review

Merwin is an American giant whose work I knew shamefully little till I read The Moon Before Morning. It was a revelation. There’s an immediate sensuous delight in the poems’ imagery and sound. The writing is in many ways exceptionally clear and at the same time richly evocative. Above all, its power seems to come from a combination of inner peace with a passionate love of the world’s gifts – a peace and a love it makes you share. Based on the little Merwin I’d previously read, I think this attitude to the world was achieved slowly and with difficulty.

Even at their briefest, the poems are too good to read quickly. Take the haiku-like “By the Front Door”:

Rain through the morning
and in the long pool a toad singing
happiness old as water

Skimming that, you’d miss its main point, which is to slow time down, to hold the radiance of the moment and feel within it the infinite similar moments that have preceded it. In “happiness old as water”, the point isn’t merely to understand that water brings joy to toads, that water is essential to life or that the deepest joy might be found in the simplest things; it’s to hold the thought in your mind and be brought in spirit to the feeling for essentials that it implies. Moreover, even in this tiny poem, the syntax isn’t quite straightforward. There are no puzzles but there’s a characteristic interweaving of different syntactical paths that lead to the same end but enhance each other imaginatively. For example, “happiness old as water” can be read as a comment on the first two lines, something that in an actual haiku would be preceded by a colon in English. However, it simultaneously reads as the object of the verb “singing”, so the toad is singing … happiness in different senses, both expressing its own happiness by song and magically, almost Biblically, creating happiness, singing it into being in the way that Aslan sings the Narnian world into existence in The Magician’s Nephew.

In longer poems the absence of punctuation makes you read carefully simply to follow the syntax. Often when you do, you find yourself enjoying the shapeliness of the phrasing and sentence construction, the surefootedness with which rhythm and syntax support each other to create a rich, precise, delicate and satisfying music, and the subtlety and intricacy of the thought, which evolves in constantly surprising directions, opening new perspectives, and itself needing concentration and close focus if you’re to follow it properly. The absence of punctuation has more profound effects on the reading, though. You’re made to actively discover the syntactical relationships between words, instead of having them all laid out by the signposts of punctuation. Even as you construe the poem in this way, your understanding of how it evolves syntactically is combined with the sense of another kind of relationship between the words and phrases, one in which, instead of being subordinated to their function in the sentence, they’re each luminously present in their own right, given their full range of meaning, floating together in a loose suspension.

I’ve said our pleasure in the clarity of the syntax is often strengthened by our active work in discovering it. Even when this is most true, it’s only half the story. It’s as if firm stepping stones crystallise under our feet and dissolve behind us. In that way Merwin embodies in his writing one of his strongest recurring themes, the elusiveness of being. Even as experience impinges on our consciousness it escapes expression and conceptual grasp, both because of the limitations of language and because we and all things are constantly changing in the flow of time. One of the most beautiful explorations of the first idea is “White-Eye”, which starts

In the first daylight one slender frond trembles
and without seeing you I know you are there
small foreigner to any word for you

One of the most beautiful of the second is “Young Man Picking Flowers”.

In other poems the absence of punctuation contributes to a remarkable combination of clarity and uncertainty that both speaks to and eludes the understanding, feeds it and makes it hunger for more. As we read these poems, syntactical boundaries and the meanings of individual words shift and shimmer in our minds, creating a rich flow of interwoven suggestions in which syntactical direction keeps changing. You realise the complexity of this flow if you try to pause it for unpicking but as you read it carries you along smoothly, like a river, never stopping you by puzzling you. “Long Afternoon Light” is one lovely example of this style.

W S Merwin, The Moon Before Morning, 128 pp, £12 pb, Bloodaxe Books.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which appeared in The North no. 53

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