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Giving thanks in a pandemic

Maverick Citizen

MAVERICK CITIZEN: READING IN THE PRESENT TENSE

Giving thanks in a pandemic

‘Migration: New & Selected Poems’ by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).

Locked down, locked in, many of us have had time to read more books than ever before. Readers, passionate about their own favourite books, are curious to know what writers have been reading during this bleak and lonely period? What was already on their shelves, what did they borrow, buy or read online?

In this, the second series of Reflexions: Reading in the present tense, Ingrid de Kok and Mark Heywood continue to invite established and younger writers and other creative artists to reflect on a text that moved them, intellectually engaged them, frightened them or made them laugh. Our reviewer today is Finuala Dowling who reviews Migration, New and Selected Poems by W.S. Merwin.

***

In 2020, everything I read or reread took on the tint of the pandemic. In Somerset Maugham’s Rain, I saw the explosive impact of quarantine; in David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life I paused to underline Ovid’s reverie about “the randomness with which the disease advanced, how it appeared in one house, striking down all but a single child… then leapt two houses to claim another victim”. I saw my own lockdown-induced remoteness reflected in the types of seclusion featured in Claire Keegan’s Foster, Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter, and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book

As if I expected at any moment to be interrupted by a siren or a shocking phone call, I read only short stories (relishing the brilliance of Mavis Gallant and Shirley Jackson) and books with slim spines, from Taylor Kressman’s Address Unknown to Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium. The only long book (over 500 pages) I coveted was W.S. Merwin’s Migration, a collection that spans most, but certainly not all, of a remarkable lifetime in poetry. 

Or did I really? On reflection, I only wanted that tome in order to bookmark the poems I already knew and loved — poems like On the Anniversary of My Death, When the War is Over, Losing a Language, and Place. Above all, in my imaginary selection of Merwin’s poetry, I wanted Thanks:

Thanks

W.S. Merwin— 1927-2019

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

From Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). 

From the opening line — the word ‘Listen’ standing on its own — the poem insists on having one’s attention; from start to finish there is no let-up of the urgent tone. Merwin’s signature punctuation-free style means there’s no comfortable place to pause, anyway. (He gave up the rational demands of commas and full stops with the publication of The Lice in 1967.) 

With unstoppable momentum the poem catalogues human situations in which the universal, collective “we” finds itself giving thanks. Although initially some of these have associations of plenty and a vestigial relation to happiness (“we are running out of the glass rooms/ with our mouths full of food to look at the sky/ and say thank you”), the poem increasingly signals a world in which there is very little left to give thanks for. 

And yet we do: 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you 

Re-reading those lines in 2020 was disconcerting. Was the poem really written nearly forty years ago, and not in the here and now of Covid-era hospitals and funerals?  Thanks proves what I’ve always suspected, that if a poem is written with enough depth of feeling, it will keep lighting the way for new generations of readers living through supposedly “unprecedented” times. 

Why, when we are “back from a series of hospitals”, and “back from a mugging”, do we persist in giving thanks? Who is the poem directed to? Who is receiving the reiterated “thanks” that “flow faster and faster”? 

“No one” is the answer: “with nobody listening we are saying thank you”. Though he started writing hymns for his preacher father at the age of five, Merwin does not have God in mind in this praise poem. Neither does he have nothing in mind. More of this later.

If there’s no one there to receive thanks, why offer it? Two possibilities strike me, the first of which is depressing to contemplate. Perhaps these “thanks” (sixteen in total) are simply a delirious version of our habitual exercise of phatic communication. 

Like “hello-how-are-you-I’m-fine-and-you” conversations, the poem’s thanks, in this reading, are close to being vacuous. 

The second possibility is more moving. Merwin offers up this dizzying litany of belated thanks as evidence of humanity’s heart-breaking, last-ditch, attempt to reconcile with Earth and the life it’s made possible. Despite illness, crime, urbanisation, grief, war, brutality, materialism, bureaucracy, deforestation, impending disaster and extinction, we love the world we inhabit/have been given, and hope against hope that we have not killed it.

Seen this way, the poem is an elegy written not after death, but in the throes of it. The darkness of its opening lines augurs the final dark. Our thanks are a form of farewell, or even a plea for forgiveness (a key word in Merwin’s earlier poem For a Coming Extinction), the equivalent of an estranged relative racing to a deathbed at the eleventh hour. Suddenly conscious that we are about to lose something of incalculable wonder, we rush outside, our mouths still crammed with the evidence of excess consumerism, to take one last look at the view. We bow from the railings of bridges like spectators astonished by the force of a river in flood; we flee “glass rooms” which should have been warning enough of the precarity of our existence. 

This view of the poem is corroborated by Merwin’s stated conception of the social role of poetry:

“I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time.” 

Merwin is always an oracular poet, vatic rather than phatic, but he hardly needs a prophetic gift to predict that Earth on its current course is doomed. What is striking is that he did not wait until the 1990s to inscribe in his poems the destructive effects of the Anthropocene. It was his theme from The Lice (1967) onwards.

I have not always enjoyed eco literature, even though I share its anxieties. Socially committed writing, when it fails to line up the subtleties of art with the demands of conscience, slides easily into self-righteousness, tediousness, literalism. This is not the case with Merwin. 

The poem Place is another one I’d bookmark if I had R500 to buy Migrations (most of the expense lies in the migration of Migrations from the US). “On the last day of the world/ I would want to plant a tree”’ is the opening line of Place. I’m a compulsive reader of literary biographies and memoirs, always looking for the miraculous connection between the life and the art, so I know that Merwin lived out his convictions, especially tree planting. He bought an eroded and poisoned pineapple plantation in Hawaii and restored it, over 43 years, to its original palm forest. 

In other ways, too, Merwin was a poet of conscience. During World War 2, he was incarcerated in a psychiatric ward for declaring himself a conscientious objector (before reaching this epiphany, he’d mistakenly enlisted in the Navy). Later he wrote poems against the Vietnam War, including the enduring When the War Is Over which briefly lists the advantages of a ceasefire (“We will be proud of course the air will be/Good for breathing at last”) before reaching its horribly ironic conclusion: “And we will all enlist again”.

Many of Merwin’s poems have this quality of universal truth, of acknowledging the ills of the world with wise forbearance while also rising above them. This may be why I like his work so much — in a secular age, he writes poetry that has some of the old, comforting beauty of prayer. 

He is often compared to Thoreau and Whitman but seems somehow less American than they. One reason for this may have been his early decision, encouraged by Ezra Pound — whom he visited in his asylum — to become multilingual, to travel, and to study world literature. In time, he developed a successful career as a translator of poems originally written in Latin, Spanish and French (languages he knew) but also twenty-seven other tongues, including Inuktitut and Urdu. 

In his long and enviable life, Merwin met many of the twentieth century’s most remarkable poets: not just Pound, but Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (who stayed with him in the French farmhouse he restored before moving to Hawaii), Galway Kinnell, James Merrill, and John Berryman. Towards the end of his life, his eyesight and hearing began to fail. But he wrote on, dictating poems to his third wife, Paula.

Merwin always looked death coolly in the eye in his poems. Air, which he wrote when he was still young and given to punctuation, ends with an existential acceptance of life’s “dust to dust” nature. These lines encapsulate the vocation of any true poet:

This must be what I wanted to be doing,
Walking at night between the two deserts,
Singing.

Later he wrote For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

As in Thanks, death comes as a moment of surrender to something unknown, which must nevertheless be greeted with a bow. It may be that no one is listening, but something is there worth bowing to. Like Merwin, I have shed the faith I was christened in, but am too full of imaginings and too in love with meaningfulness to accept that this is all there is. 

The day of Merwin’s death arrived on the fifteenth of March 2019. The poet had passed it ninety times before. DM/MC

Finuala Dowling is a poet and novelist.  Her poems recently appeared in the Bloodaxe anthology, Staying Human (2020). She has read at the Aldeburgh Literary Festival, Snape Maltings and at the Biennale Internationale des Poètes en Val-de-Her Marne in Paris and gave a reading tour in the UK in 2018. Pretend You Don’t Know Me (published by Bloodaxe in 2018 and by Kwela in 2019) brings together poems from her first four collections. Her most recent novel, Okay, Okay, Okay (Kwela) is longlisted for the Sunday Times/CNA fiction prize and The Man Who Loved Crocodile Tamers is due out in March 2022. A senior lecturer in UCT’s Centre for Extra-Mural Studies until the end of May, she will continue to offer creative writing courses on a freelance basis and to pursue literary interests.  You can follow her latest poems on Instagram.

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