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Originally published Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

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

Author appearance

W.S. Merwin

The 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

"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

little drifter

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.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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