January 15, 2015
~Jane Frazier, Lincoln University of Missouri
W. S. Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning (2014) now serves as the poet’s twenty-seventh volume of poetry, an addition to the poet’s profound collection also well-known for its many volumes of prose and translations. Merwin’s spare, free-verse style which he has been employing since the sixties is still present, but this is not the same poetry philosophically as that of The Lice (1967) or The Carrier of Ladders (1970). The Moon Before Morning contains many observations of place and the natural world that offer a sense of the fullness of nature, a sense of the poet coming home to a world he feels comfortable in and feels a connection to. Like the rich, pastoral French landscapes of The Vixen (1996) or the traces of his at-homeness in Hawaii in The Rain In the Trees (1988), the poet often expresses in the current volume his feelings of a presence in the natural world, a completion, and at times a perfection. This is shift from the Merwin of the sixties who was often noted for his ontological distance from the world, his alienation from it, the mood in the poetry that the speakers had been left in world that they felt no psychological connection to.
But The Moon Before Morning is not all about that. It also often is about the poet looking back upon his years and the many places that he has lived and the conclusions he must draw from a life. To counterbalance joy in nature there is a sense of amazement at the brevity of time, how little time is afforded one to try and experience this life. In “Coming of Age” the tenuousness of existence works as the central idea: “It will not be enough / to recall stills from along the way / to glimpse from its hill / the long-gone night pasture” (22). After contemplating some images from his life which appear as snapshots from an album, the speaker ambiguously ends, “it will not be enough / it will be enough” (22). “The New Song” reiterates this theme, adding the fact that in youth there is the sense that time is endless. The poet wonders what he was thinking in his earlier years and perhaps how he could have been so oblivious to the passage of time. Juxtaposed to the mature poet’s recognition of time’s shortness is the song of the thrush “singing the new song” (30). Loss is somewhat mitigated by the presence of something as beautiful and small in nature as a bird’s song.
At times in the volume, however, absence and loss seem to control the thought. “Wild Oats” mentions that the narrator when young lived a life of travel and that lifestyle at the time gave him sustenance: “In my youth I believed in somewhere else / I put faith in travel” (90). In this poem, he notes that he calls a singing bird his “friend” but knows little else about him. Similarly, “After the Voices” deals with the passage of time and the realization that because so many people have been lost from the poet’s life that he is the only one who can remember the place of his youth: “I have no way of telling what I miss / I am the only one who misses it” (57).
Striking also in the volume is the concept of memory, which the poet illustrates through remembrances of friends and family. “Natural History of Forgetting” takes us through various moments in the poet’s life, which again he offers as pictures, often of childhood. The poem ends with the poet forgetting the past, undercutting any notions of a supportive Wordsworthian recollection here. “The Green Fence” too takes us through various encounters with children the poet had met in his childhood and who were held somewhat at bay by his overprotective parents. One gets the sense in the poem that we are looking at a life through a great distance, and, as in “After the Voices,” the place ultimately is remembered only by the poet himself.
Mingled with loss, the passage of time, and solitary memory are exquisite moments of at-one-ness with the living world. Merwin has for decades been replanting and reclaiming an ancient native palm garden of nineteen acres at his home on Maui. Images of this forest appear in some of the poems. It is in poems like “Garden Notes,” “High Fronds,” “Only Sparrows,” and “A Black Kite” that he transcends the absences of living and comes to moments of completion and joy. In “High Fronds,” the palms “stand out against” the beautiful, clear sky, and in the scene “nothing is missing” (20). “Garden Notes” too offers the perfection of the fronds of the palms “made of daybreak the morning sun / and the whole of daylight” (21). The poem continues, “there is no trace of regret / . . . / no sound / of hesitation on the way / no question and no doubt” (21). The Moon Before Morning, compared to some of his earlier work, is, I believe, more direct and accessible. There is sorrow in lost days and lost people, but there is a sense that like the plover in “Homecoming” (the book’s opening piece) that the poet has found a home in nature in Hawaii.
Merwin, W. S. The Moon Before Morning. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Print.