Poet ponders life's contrasts in "The Shadow of Sirius"
"The Shadow of Sirius" is master poet W.S. Merwin's latest collection. Merwin will read from his work Nov. 7 as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures' poetry series.
Special to The Seattle Times
W.S. MerwinThe author of "The Shadow of Sirius" will appear as part of the Seattle Arts
& Lectures series at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, at Benaroya Hall.
Sponsored by Seattle Arts & Lectures and the National Endowment for
the Arts. For tickets, call 206-621-2230 or go to www.lectures.org.
"The Shadow of Sirius"
by W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press, 117 pp., $22
It's a poet's job to keep us tuned in to what's real, to observe and distill life as it slips from present to memory. That's exactly what W.S. Merwin does once again in his latest collection "Shadow of Sirius." In his characteristic, contemplative way, Merwin offers simple lines of unpunctuated verse in an incantatory flow, almost hypnotic, like waves washing a beach. He begins with a classical appeal to the muse:
You that sang to me once sing to me now
let me hear your long lifted note
survive with me
the star is fading
I can think further than that but I forget
do you hear me
Then Merwin proceeds with a group of personal poems that recall childhood moments ("my mother told me/that I was not afraid of the dark/and when I looked it was true"), the death of a father, the inheritance of a Webster's dictionary that became a well-worn poet's tool.
The second section of the book deals with darkness and mourning, centered on a stunning rendition of "Little Soul," a poem attributed to the Emperor Hadrian. Here is Merwin's version:
Little soul little stray
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone
after the way
you used to make fun of things
Merwin later explains his attachment to the poem, which he first read in college, and how this translation came to him recently, fully formed, after decades of mulling in his subconscious.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Merwin, 81, graduated from Princeton in 1948 and was launched as a poet when he won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1952 for his collection "A Mask for Janus." W.H. Auden judged the contest. In 1971, Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection "The Carrier of Ladders," making a point of donating the prize money in protest against the Vietnam War. Merwin used his poetry as a strong voice against the war and, later, in support of ecological causes. In addition, he has published nearly two dozen books of translations, among them a version of "Sir Gawain & the Green Knight," Dante's "Purgatorio" and the Spanish epic "Poem of the Cid."
The apparent simplicity of Merwin's verse is well-earned rather than casual. The unpunctuated phrases waver between meanings with deliberate ambiguity, anchored in painterly images. Occasionally Merwin shapes his verse into formal patterns. In the third section of "The Shadow of Sirius," the poems come across as daily meditations — on the landscape, the seasons, favorite Chinese poems, the furrows left by a mole — beginning with Merwin's poem "Cargo."
The moment at evening
when the pictures set sail from the walls
with their lights out
unmooring without hesitation or stars
they carry no questions
as their unseen sails
at the beginning and the end
wing and wing
bear them out beyond
the faces each set in its instant
and beyond the landscapes of other times
and the tables piled with fruit
just picked and with motionless
animals all together known
in the light as still lives
they sail on the sound of night
bearing with them that life
they have been trying to show
from dawn until dark
Merwin will be in Seattle to read from "Shadows of Sirius" on Nov. 7 at Benaroya Hall. Not all good poets are good readers. Merwin is. It should be a memorable evening.
Sheila Farr is the visual arts critic for The Seattle Times.
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