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THE SHADOW OF SIRIUS.

THE SHADOW OF SIRIUS by W.S. Merwin

Copper Canyon Press. 2008. $22.00 cloth. ISBN 97815565843

It is no paradox that W.S. Merwin, an octogenarian, and one of the most prolific and adaptable writers of his generation, continues to sing of a disappearing world. At one level these are the Zen-guided, misty disappearances of demarcations: "numberless autumn"; "the bird that lies still while the light goes on flying"; that which is "never mine and never not mine"; the many people who forget their names; and "the dead" who "are not separate from the living." This non-dualist philosophy of Merwin's is perfectly expressed in his smooth, unpunctuated poems, calmly voiced and carefully illuminated with spare, vivid images. There is no overexcited narration (it's tonality rather than personality), no linguistic fireworks to awe the reader. Yet Merwin rarely nods. There is an alert simplicity in nearly every poem. In the unassuming "Youth of Grass," he describes the year's first cutting of hay.
 ...this night comes in
and the owl cries across the new spaces
to the mice suddenly missing their sky
and so the youth of this spring all at once is over
it has come upon us again taking us
once more by surprise just as we began
to believe that those fields would always be green


For Merwin, a poet committed to deep ecology, these sad disappearances are often much more ominous than seasonal and cyclical change. Continuing the journey of his 2005 Migration: New & Selected Poems, which won the National Book Award, the dwindling and extinction of animals remains a sad chill under The Shadow of Sirius. In "The Silence of the Mine Canaries" he tells us
The bats have not flowered
for years now in the crevice
of the tower wall when the long twilight
of spring has seeped across it

Gone also are the birds: swallows, robins, cuckoos, nightjars, tits,
thrushes,

the blackcap that instructed Mendelssohn
I have seen them
I have stood and listened
I was young
they were singing of youth
not knowing that they were singing for us


Many of us can identify with these memories of animals we used to see. And Merwin reminds us that the tragedy is ours, as much as theirs, for we have the ability to remember their calls as the lost music of our youth.

Critics have accused Merwin of leaving people out of his poems, but I can't think of a more human memorial to a colorful friend than the elegy "Shadow Hand."
Duporte the roofer that calm voice
those sure hands gentling weathered tiles
into new generations or
half of him rising through a roof
like some sea spirit from a wave
to turn shaped slates into fish scales
that would swim in the rain Duporte
who seemed to smooth arguments by
listening and whom they sent for
when a bone was broken or when
they had a pig to kill because
of the way he did it only
yesterday after all these years
I learned that he had suddenly
gone blind while still in his sixties
and died soon after that while I
was away and I never knew
and it seemed as though it had just
happened and it had not been long
since we stood in the road talking
about owls nesting in chimneys
in the dark in empty houses


Like the French roofer admired for his variety of skills, Merwin has mastered the art of poetry several times over. Praised by Auden for his technical virtuosity over fifty years ago, Merwin moves easily into the twenty-first century. In poem after poem the language is beautiful and current, as in "The First Days," where the speaker reaches
... the house door at evening
one old verb in the lock turning
and the fragrance of cold stone as once more
the door cedes in a dark hush
that neither answers nor forgets


The old adage, you learn the rules to break the rules, applies profoundly to Merwin, who has melted the strictures of high art into a thoroughly seamless, unlabored, and seemingly simple poetic style. This ease also allows for sleepy revisitations like "A Letter to Su T'ung-p'o" which, like a hundred other tributes to Chinese poets, lovingly brushes those overly familiar musings on time, moonlight, and dreams without so much as rippling the thousand-year connection. A more obvious disappointment arrives at the end of the engaging narrative, "Inheritance," where the speaker describes his father's old dictionary: "I know I must have used it / much more than he did but always / with care and indeed affection / turning the pages patiently / in search of meanings." Such reflections would be moving in a letter, even an essay, but poetry demands more. Merwin, of course, understands this, but he also has the confidence to give us poems that are so plain spoken and immediate, he entitles them notes. In "Note" he tells us to
Remember how that naked soul
comes to language and at once knows
loss and distance and believing


I would venture to say that a few poems in this collection would not be publishable in our best journals were they not by Merwin. This is not to say they are weak poems, but much of our poetry establishment has come to weigh perceived difficulty, extreme form, or language gymnastics above the mind's clearest messages. Perhaps the greatest advantage of a very successful writing career is that one may write and publish the poems one wants to write and publish. The Shadow of Sirius may be showing us some of the best poetry written today, but unlike the impossible shadow cast by the sky's brightest star, the book also shows the earthly possibilities of simple completeness in a writer's mature work. More than an achievement in poetry, this is an achievement in writing.
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Author:Hughes, Henry
Publication:Harvard Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2008
Words:969
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