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W. S. Merwin: Apotheosis of the Lepers.

Part One

When I first read The Folding Cliffs, W. S. Merwin's oddly neglected and undervalued masterpiece, I was taken by surprise. The work struck me as such a radical departure from any of his many distinguished volumes of original poetry, prose poems, and translations from various languages, I felt dumbfounded. I'd closely attended to the many key milestones in his career and noted--mostly with pleasure--a number of decisive shifts in his prosody and range of poetic diction. Perhaps the most notable constant over the decades following his fifth book, The Moving Target, was the unswerving proclivity to drop all punctuation from his verse. For a while, I felt that nothing Merwin had previously written could begin to account for his genius to bring off a three-hundred-twenty-five page historic verse narrative, employing an unprecedented form that was an amalgam of a mid-length novel and a cohesive visionary lyric. One irreducible long poem. A Homeric epic targeting the plight of a small cadre of lepers fending for themselves in a remote valley of Hawaii surrounded by buttresses of stone--"folding cliffs"--while they were besieged by government troops and fought to maintain their freedom and independence in the late nineteenth century. Then I slowly grew to recognize that all of Merwin's earlier works had prepared him for this monumental challenge.

Merwin had been living in Maul for twenty-odd years when he completed his historic verse narrative. His chief source for the facts of the true story that undergirds and propels this epic work is the diaristic account of the heroine Pi'ilani's life, as reported by her to the journalist John Sheldon, who had kept his promise to present her tale in its original Hawaiian language format. Merwin pored over the version edited and translated into English by Frances Frazier, and he vowed to preserve intact all such details "as have come down to us," while refashioning the tapestry of events in his verse narrative--his "fiction" he modestly terms this revelatory historic chronicle. He would guard against any errors or distortions, since many of the "facts" already "have been moving toward legend."
 * 


William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying is an experiment in form that soars beyond prose fiction's usual parameters. In The Folding Cliffs, W. S. Merwin, too, radically broadens the accustomed scope of poetry. Faulkner lifts the usual slices of Southern vernacular speech from dialogue, and lets the varied characters' voices fully govern the shape and duration of their elocutions. The spoken units vary from a single brief sentence to many pages. Management of the form, from unit to unit, comes alive in a special new way. And to a singular astonishing degree, the form in Merwin's epic poem takes on a life of its own, as well.

The book is comprised of seven titled chapters, each a block of forty numbered sections. Despite the near-prose sweep and momentum of the separate units, most passages can be scanned as pentameter lines of blank verse. Merwin's prosody varies from taut to slack with impressive alacrity; his brisk rhythms shift to slower cadences with frequent surprises. In short, his metrical adventurousness keeps the reader as engaged with music of the line as with marvels of the story. Not since his early breakthrough books--The Moving Target and The Lice--has the excitement of the discovery of form matched, or even surpassed, the dynamic of new themes or leaps of vision. Throughout the hundreds of pages of The Folding Cliffs, a reader partakes of the writer's adventure in surprising himself, again and again, with the unforeseen versatility and inventiveness of his plunging columns of verse. The page-long units keep coming alive in new ways, such that the dancelike sashaying of clauses around line-breaks and subtle zigzagging of alternate line indents may seem to articulate the characters' physical moves in nature even more vividly than the verbal content.

John Hollander has most astutely clarified the full range of possibilities that Merwin explores in framing life episodes with his singular one-page verse capsules: "Merwin's wondrous poem totally reinvents the ways in which the structures and units of verse frame different sorts of episode, scene, vignette, and sequence in a way that is as readable as it is exciting." (1) It may well seem that Hollander is referring to an innovative work of fiction, rather than poetry. And perhaps the case can be made that Merwin has made the greatest strides since Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959) in widening the scope of verse to import from prose fiction many strategies that are wrongly supposed to be outside poetry's purview. Other narrative poets would be well advised to follow Merwin's lead here, much as a whole generation had taken Lowell as model before him.

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I first became aware of the special reciprocity between the whirling stanza form and prodigies of the Hawaiian landscape during my repeated perusals of Pi'ilani's account of her first shaky descent into the valley (#23, Part 5, The Valley). With hairsplitting clarity, Merwin reveals her two distinctly separate adventures of discovery. Pi'ilani is learning to walk all over again as she adjusts her new pace and rhythm of footfalls down the path, and simultaneously, she finds that her mental capacity to sort out time sequences is advancing to new thresholds she has never crossed before in her thinking. And in rereading this page, I became struck by the line-by-line interchange between the author's stanzaic propulsion and the character's physical and mental new strivings. All these fresh awakenings ring true, particularly, as Pi'ilani commences her drift into the mystical hinterland of the Kalalau Valley:
 That first time that she had climbed down the steep crumbling
 narrow path along the top of the ridge that flared out into the
clouds over the valley when she looked back on it
 afterwards the way came and went in the braid of later times when
she had travelled down that trail something
 of each emerging just as the trail would appear where the clouds
parted and then they would cover it again
 There would be nothing below her and small echoes drifting up
through deaf cloud ... 


The side-to-side divagations and rolling indents of the form give this mind/body adventure a full verisimilitude it would surely lack otherwise. A reader is somehow carried into the visceral pulls and torsion of Pi'ilani's four clamberings down from the High Edge as she glides in and out of her New Heaven, New Earth (in D. H. Lawrence's phrase), moves which recall those of Alice voyaging back and forth through the looking-glass. Pi'ilani's chary footfalls seem to find their own special continuum in a visionary spiral winding outside of time. Her succession of four entries and exits from the valley keep finding their own independent orbit beyond the linear order of happening, "When she looked back on it/afterwards the way came and went in the braid of/later times."

Pi'ilani enjoys a special gift of time travel, such that she is able to guide her wayward locomotion both vertically and horizontally, at once. She relives each previous occasion in the spirally wound "braid" of now, of today. Her unique mode of mental acuity is a memory weave like a slide show of past events, in which no variation of weather or landscape is ever lost, "something / of each" previous occasion "emerging" as her new steps down the trail prompt or trigger her wide mind's-eye panorama. Her gift as prescient creative historian, then, is an exemplar that perhaps mirrors W. S. Merwin's pioneering art in this book.

Merwin's innovatory form is a cross between blank verse and what is often called a verse paragraph. Leanings to prose rhythm, prose free flux and momentum, achieve a spiraling descent that is a riveting verbal and prosodic counterpart to Pi'ilani's layer-by-layer partitioning of time consciousness. Merwin's chosen form, then, lends itself naturally to mirroring these fluctuations of mind. My further claim is that twirling gyrations of the stanza units provide special opportunities for the author to render in verse physical or mental events that would otherwise appear to leap impossibly beyond normal limits. Highly improbable or extrasensory incidents are given a great boost of credibility by the mimesis of the form. The workings of the poetic structure, in and of itself, make phantasmagoric events ring true, which might otherwise seem exaggerated beyond belief.
 * 


Other poignant examples of this leveraging buoyancy of Merwin's whirling verse columns are #32 in Part One, Climbing, and #24 in Part Six, The Cliffs. In the first poem, Pi'ilani has become bewildered by her husband's account of four men miraculously carrying the hugely obese old Judge down the narrow precipitous trail to the valley:
 ... she had tried for a moment and had not been able
then or ever to conceive ... how four of them with him slung between
them
 could have found footing on this draped hair of trail and the Judge
had been dressed up for the journey in his town clothes
 wrapped in his robe and wearing his blue spectacles and the broad
hat with the peacock feathers around it ... 


The immense spirit of kindness of the valley folk, mostly non-lepers, is perfectly incarnated in this act. The team effort of the four men gingerly transporting the spiffily dressed Judge flourishing his peacock-feathered broad hat is a superhuman feat that perhaps matches Ko'olau's subsequent triumph against those many troops in battle. The vignette that circumscribes this action with plain language illustrates Merwin's vivid portraiture at its most incisive. But his style is lucid, transparent, rarely calling attention to itself.

The oscillating swings of the verse cadence subtly vivify the winding passage of the five linked men down that "draped hair of trail," and we readers are stunned, once again, by the effortless matchup between the line matrix and graphic portrayal of events. Merwin's verse paragraph is superbly malleable and lends itself to a richly variegated range of topics and scenes. The form becomes so integral a part of the specialized portrayals, we may come to feel that they could not be so well realized with a less architectonic line grid.

A second prime example of the closest fit of form to the novelties of scene is the ludicrous toppling of many troops, one upon another, down the cliff face when Ko'olau nails one of them with his rifle. Two shots both hit their mark, just after troop Anderson had jubilantly shouted his thrilled discovery:
 ... I have found the trail--and the two shots rang out
 the echoes ricocheted through the sounds of bodies thudding down
and rocks rolling and the scree sliding around them
 no one saw where Anderson fell from the ledge overhead Evanston
climbing below him was knocked from his handhold
 and slid down onto Aulton who in turn fell onto sergeant major
Pratt and Miller fell onto all of them
 Johnson who had been poised on a loose rock fell onto the scree to
one side dropping his gun and he rolled down they guessed
 six hundred feet and they were all sure he must be dead and they
picked themselves up cautiously covered with blood
 barely able to stand and Pratt said--We will retreat now-- 


We may assume that this one instance of slapstick comedy springs directly from the details as relished in Pi'ilani's memoir.
 * 


Perhaps the single most rigorous challenge to the author's sparkling columns of verse is the effort to make his form encompass the upper reaches of Pi'ilani's transcendent spirit. The destiny preordained for her at birth by her name, Climbing Heaven, is accelerated during her first encounters with the valley. Her first descent down the rugged trail, her first night in a valley home, and her first whole days and weeks each find her crossing threshold after threshold in her mind's ascension. And Merwin's verse paragraph explores new ingenuities to accommodate her surges.

Pi'ilani's first descent--#23, The Valley--was discussed earlier. In #25, we follow the slow stages of her awakening to her new environs as she mentally forages through her largely sleepless first night perched on "a heap of rags and moss." Her attention becomes fixated on the chain of unfamiliar smells of this makeshift guestroom:
 Kaleimanu made distant sounds in his sleep as they put him
 between them and she lay gazing up at the black above her in the
smell that kept soaking into her
 smell of damp and dirt smell of decaying wood and moss smell of
rags age mouths with no teeth old food incontinence
 rancid and bottomless ... 


This compact nugget of olfactory images is a special bonus of Merwin's avoidance of all punctuation marks. The dense texture of the words creates the illusion of a linked series that is wholly continuous and uninterruptible. The style perfectly evokes the psychic state in which the one sense, set apart, totally dominates her awareness. The mind's-eye of Pi'ilani's nostril, here, rises into the far upper reach of the book's sublimities. A mystical vision that is so well grounded in the senses is a great rarity.

In #28, Pi'ilani's time compass has much expanded from one night to weeks, or longer, and the sensory mode has switched from the nose to the ear. But the sound images are totally unfamiliar and beyond the physical ear's normal range:
 Pi'ilani would look back on those first days in the
valley
 first days first weeks she could not tell how long it lasted
that time that season that age in itself and it would seem
 to be a sound ringing all alone that she had not heard before and
could not call to and even when
 she could no longer hear any echo of it there was its silence and
she went back in silence to something
 she thought had been there even in the new strangeness
 of whatever she had touched ... there
she knew it had been and she had breathed it and looked
 through its air for however long it lasted and she could turn to
it in her mind afterward and see it as a clear
 suspended time when she had once had everything ... 


She is recalling her earliest days and weeks in the valley, but when she tries to measure the exact time frame of her one most profound breakthrough, the one which she will ever afterwards remember as the "suspended time when she had once had everything," she cannot finally tell "how long it lasted / that time that season that age in itself." That "suspended" moment, in recollection, has expanded into a whole epoch of her life, the period of utmost fulfillment. An "age in itself." Its beauty, as if timeless, now seems everlastingly present.

But her memory of that special "sound ringing all alone" continues to prevail as the clarion cry of this great advent in her life. Sound images keep looming in her nostalgic flights back to that era, and we note with pleasure how meticulously this extended moment of her life's time has been set apart and bisected by Merwin's hyperkinetic stanza. His form subtly renders and recapitulates her inner geography of mind. That remarkable stretch of "suspended time" is projected by his line weave as a geography in its own right. The juggling of many repetitions of the word "it" across the non-punctuated lines suggest the electric randomness of "the new strangeness of whatever she had touched," and finally, it becomes totally pure--an essence beyond sound or its echoes--that she can inhale. It saturates the air about her, and she finds that she has "breathed it and looked / through its air." Somehow, Merwin's twisting metric has intuitively mirrored this visionary process for readers. And he has translated this unique drama for us that Pi'ilani spelled out in the Hawaiian alphabets of her memoir. But his translation is one of immense trajectory--not simply a transcription of one language to another, as in his accustomed role as translator. Rather, his human empathy crosses over the privacy threshold to her great love for the land.

Merwin's verses have given us a highly creditable account of Pi'ilani's soaring into a zone of Nirvana materialized. A vision of Paradise actualized as a measurable expanded moment of time. The lofty zone is embodied in that special unique "sound ringing all alone," its echo, and lastly a new kind of silence that is begotten of it. She came to know "it" as the pinnacle of happiness. The time "when she had once had everything."

Part Two

Story-telling is extolled as one of the highest art forms in this book. Throughout the poem, we are reminded that the entire narrative backdrop has been drawing on Pi'ilani's actual memoir. We may gather from Merwin's prefatory "note" that he kept communing with the English version of Pi'ilani's original Hawaiian text. Indeed, her account of the events must be a spellbinding tale in its own right, and she a gifted memoirist.... But the two most virtuosic story-tellers openly portrayed in The Folding Cliffs are Kua and his emulator Kaleimanu, Pi'ilani's little son. The child comes to seem more like Kua's understudy than his pupil during his apprenticeship, since he will finally surpass his model. Kaleimanu commits his very being to embracing and perpetuating all the best stories he has garnered from family and friends.

One of the great enigmas that this poem explores is the process whereby actual life events are transmuted into myth or legend. This dynamic is partially spelled out by the interaction between Kaleimanu and his two principal male sires, his father Ko'olau and close family friend Kua. Kua, in turn, had mentored Ko'olau during his formative youth. The magical reciprocity between life incidents and myths that evolve out of them unfolds in the course of verbal exchanges between each of the men and the precocious boy, a visionary frail child since birth.

Kua, though unschooled, is formidably self-educated in basic ranching skills, Hawaiian mythology, and recent history. Kua's two most richly detailed stories exhibit the wide range of this book's art of narration. Two opposite poles--reality vs. legend--are more clearly differentiated in Kua's renderings than in most of the long poem. In one extended tale, the actual historic events are clearly predominant. Kua's account of the early years of the "wild" cattle imported from America--the Texas Longhorns and Durham Bulls--is solidly fact-based. But legendary overtones crop up when he concludes the story by depicting the mere twenty-five bulls, or so, that overcame the cruelest deprivations of the elements. Those earliest survivor bulls have become a rare toughest breed, since over a hundred punishing years had weeded out the weaker stock. The amazing endurance of those hardy bulls, recalling Paul Bunyan's ox, flirts with the apocryphal:
 ... the bulls charging on unchecked by bullets that barely
 dented their skulls the huge hearts driving them on even with
holes torn in them and always Me'eawa
 saying he knew that those wild cattle had been crossed with the
same power on the mountain that made the giant
 men of the cliffs with the one red eye ... 


At this point in the narration, the threshold between actuality and legend starts to blur.

At the other extreme, Kua recites the tale of "Lahi the boy who ate birds." While the beautiful mythic element prevails throughout this account, the core of fantasy will finally become duplicated in the central real-life drama of the book's heroic battles between Ko'olau and the troops invading the lepers' sanctuary. The tale of Lahi comes to have the saving power of prophecy. It provides the survival lessons for Ko'olau's ultimate victory against huge odds in the exchange of firepower.

All the same, Lahi's story is pure myth--a masterful short poem in its own right. It is the most telling and full-blooded legend presented in this volume. Perhaps Kua is prescient, and knows that by sharing this battle myth with both Ko'olau and Kaleimanu as they are on the verge of their pivotal descent into the valley (the three "stood in a ring"), he prepares them for the remarkable David/Goliath victory to come. Such luminous stories afford both pleasure as art and instruction in battles for survival. The stories are beautiful, a joy for their own sake. But they are also an education.

The tale of Lahi, which foreshadows the method of Ko'olau's single-handed triumph over the many soldiers, is a special case of life imitating myth. While Lahi became actual chief, surprisingly replacing his own father at his story's finish, Ko'olau becomes a symbolic fugitive chief. And unlike the elected Hawaiian king, who was so easily toppled and deposed by the "foreigners," Ko'olau allies himself to the forces of nature in the valley, and he becomes indomitable. He cannot be conquered by the army.

While there is usually no clear-cut separation between fact and myth in these stories, there is a continuum of sorts that runs between life happenings and legend that evolves naturally out of them. But a most important distinction is the absolute gulf between either fact or myth and the outright lies that the "foreigners" had invented to shore up their own version of the truth--"playing cards with their own stories that they said were us."

The other remarkable story-teller is Kaleimanu, whose sickliness coupled with clairvoyance was evident from infancy:
 ... for all Pi'ilani's nursing her child he
stayed small as a fledgling and never put on weight
 his bones remained thin and nothing about him grew large except his
head and his bright eyes which soon followed them
 and lit up at the sight of any of them... 


The child's whole brief life seemed destined to be a living metaphor:
 He was a story catcher he said and if a story flew by him he would
catch every word and keep it
 alive and later we would find that he knew it all the way through
but he wanted to hear it again
 to be told it again and he said he knew that stories were hiding
all around him in places telling themselves
 and he said that each of them knew where it was going-- 


Stories, then, are living entities. They give voice, they know, they travel, they grow. Palpable, each is a separate being which has an independent life of its own. Kaleimanu, the "story catcher," reveals early on that he has a rare gift as caretaker and transmitter of stories. Perhaps he mirrors Merwin's genius as a translator of poetry from a multiplicity of languages. His elders start to recognize that he is a secret laborer for us all, doing the noblest work. His mentors--Kua and Ko'olau--may tease him when he questions them, but they do so with respect and reverence for his calling. They tender the vibrant stories to him and anchor them to the geographical sites--rocks, cliffs, streams--that lay claim to their earthly origins and ongoing purchase upon the land.

The many exchanges between Kaleimanu and his two counselors take on the semblance of dialogues, finally. The two voices--boy and man--may sweep each other into a trance of wisdom. They are finding their way together, keeping up the illusion that the man is the teacher, child the learner. But both participants in the discourse teach, both learn. Apart from infrequent joking, Kua and Ko'olau try to stay literal, exact, in their answers to the child. He won't abide--without challenge--any lies. Their dialogues walk a rich quavery line between fact and fancy that renders the actual into a higher visionary mode:
 How wild are they--Kaleimanu asked--Oh they are wild
 as lightning--Ko'olau answered--How big are they-- They are
bigger than any bulls you saw down below there
 They can pick up a horse and rider and throw them both over their
shoulders--How did they get there--the child asked 


Usually the men resist hyperbole in their replies, since the facts, themselves, are pervaded with wonder. Likewise, Merwin's lucid style in this book avoids superfluity or excess, since the events nearly always provide their own astonishment.

Kaleimanu's name translates into the cryptic "Wreath of birds," and from early infancy he became entranced by all the birds he saw, or heard:
 ... his eyes went with the lines of birds over the sea when
the sun
 was going down he would make that high sound of them as they went
that cry so thin a thread too fine to be seen not beginning there
 one day he told me that flowers and leaves in the leis had all been
picked and ended but that in bird leis
 the birds were flying only they were birds from before and from
afterward so that nobody could see them ...
 He said that when we hold a bird what is in our hands is not the
bird any more and that when we look at birds
 we see only a little of them ... 


The child's mind embraces a very special metaphysics. His parable of the birds matches his fabulous story about the autonomous life of stories. Lives of birds, like story lives--two most durable entities--antedate their current voicings. They have a continuity and perseverance that flows, unseen, from before to after. Bird cries--"so thin a thread too fine to be seen"--have no definitive beginning, nor ending, today. They are an essence carried in the wind and light, always present, but the particular birds borrow it, pick it up, then put it back. It never dies.

To suggest that Kaleimanu ultimately surpasses his teachers is not so much a matter of the vast number of stories that he keeps in his repertoire. Instead his imaginative grasp enables him to reanimate the tales and invest them with his own creative fantasy.
 * 


One of the most vivid and moving poems in The Folding Cliffs is the unit that depicts the flowering of the love affair between Ko'olau and Pi'ilani. Though they have been close pals since earliest childhood, when the great passion suddenly takes hold of them, the transport is visualized as a big wave:
 ... both found themselves lifted up as when a wave
arches itself under a canoe and the whispering hull
 pauses like a caught breath and then is flung forward racing down
the blue slope that keeps curling out from in front of it
 they felt themselves hurtling in a single rush with no thought of
anything else no sense of before or after
 yet it seemed to them that they were not moving at all and everyone
around them could see what was happening... 


This last cue that all eyes in the community are dumbstruck by these lovers hints that they are already becoming iconic leading lights of their whole social network. The great wave that has borne them aloft will sweep beyond their extended family to the outer limits of native peoples in the township of Kekaha. The exhilarating charge of their love will rouse one and all to take heart, once again, from their beautiful--if lagging--native traditions, as conveyed by the finish of the poem about their burgeoning rapture:
 ... those who knew
 Pi'ilani and Ko'olau were overtaken by pleasure at the
thought of them and a sense that something was turning out
 right at last and that all of them were reflected in it and when
they repeated the stories they thought of Pi'ilani
 the face and presence of Pi'ilani and of Ko'olau who
could have been a chief they thought and one of their own
 they gathered more often as they said they used to do in other
times and in spite of all that had happened
 for a while they imagined they believed their own stories ... 


This central poem begins with a surprisingly inclusive tally of all the various ethnic classes of songs popular in Hawaii at this historic moment, since the ecstatic couple find themselves singing, by turns, virtually every genre of song they've ever heard. But now all songs have been renewed and transfigured for them by the wave that carries them along: "And they sang the foreigners' hymns/ ... Pi'ilani and Ko'olau had been/hearing that singing all their lives but not as they were / beginning to hear it on the wave that was running with them."

Often we've heard in these verses that various sects of this multi-ethnic society would tune out, or repulse, the songs of their non-kindred neighbors. But the ever-resilient love of this couple generates a spirit of purely altruistic joy in every form of singing which spills over from them to all those whom their voices touch. The poem takes into account a full litany of the history of songs in late nineteenth-century Hawaii, a medley of indigenous old and recent melodies, as well as those imported by the wide range of foreigners--Scandinavians, Europeans, Americans. In this vision of renewal all songs from every ethnic source find a new scale of merging with the others. They come alive with a new gusto that totally recapitulates Pi'ilani's and Ko'olau's private history of singing, and likewise becomes a springboard for all their neighbors to embrace their full communal inheritance of music.

This couple is becoming a secret class of royalty. A prince and princess in their community. So when the dreaded leprosy strikes them, they cannot be marginalized. They carry the central beauties and virtues of their tribe with them when they spin off into exile. On the pretext of quarantining the pestilent minority, thereby ridding their society of the infectious few, the foreign invaders have struck at the core of the indigenous people's solidarity, not a mere peripheral element of the sickly. The later battle against the cadre of armed lepers is as much an assault upon the whole native tribe as theft of their homestead and the toppling of the official royals and their governing council.

Larger than life, the portraits of Pi'ilani, Ko'olau, and their son Kaleimanu suggest that a divinity, of sorts, tinges some humans. Or is it an inborn aristocracy of being, drawing on best Hawaiian traditions of earliest known ancestors? Today's shining exemplars can take into their souls best strains of the past from touching Nature in ways that transcend their bodies. Like that special breed of bulls that survived Nature's worst deprivations, it is often speculated that the mountain's being has been "crossed with theirs."

This book's great strength accrues from its conviction that the expulsion and banishment of the lepers is--at bottom--a colonialist ruse to squelch the whole native population, not just the stricken souls. The Folding Cliffs is incandescent in its vision of vaulting from the few to the many. The plight of those noble victims who are socially and bodily disadvantaged is raised to a white heat in the battle scenes, especially. The authenticity of known events and human braveries that undergird this story is as commanding as the detailed accounts of the so-called Salem Witches in Arthur Miller's classic play The Crucible. Merwin's epic poem, too, is Sophoclean in its tragic scope.
 * 


The Great Wave appears twice in the course of the book. In both instances, the image looms into Pi'ilani's transcendent vision, and hers alone. The wave seems visited upon her in each case, and she passively accepts its advent. Love and war. When she falls in love with Ko'olau, the wave remains mostly subliminal--she is only vaguely aware of it, though it transports her for many days. Years later, when a huge wave appears to be approaching her across the calm sea with the visual starkness of a hallucination, we discover that she has foreseen the armed rebellion by a makeshift squad of local citizens against government troops in a failed attempt "to take back the power/from the foreigners and return it to the Hawaiians." She must be clairvoyant, since the big looming wave disappears in an eye-blink, which exactly mirrors the abortive revolution that flops so ludicrously the next day. Evidently her power of prophecy has been bequeathed to her by Kawaluna, Ko'olau's grandmother.

This scene begins just before dawn. Pi'ilani has wakened with a start and steps out to her porch facing the sea. She is so shocked to view "a dark form" sitting at the top of the steps, "she stopped breathing." Kawaluna quickly reasures her by putting her arm around Pi'ilani, and they watch the first light on the sea together without saying a word. And then "Pi'ilani leaned her head/on Kawaluna's shoulder." For all its quiet, this poem emerges as the crucial moment in the relationship of the two women, which had been foreshadowed by many previous exchanges between them. Pi'ilani has been undergoing a long tacit apprenticeship to her spiritual guru. Kawaluna selected her from the many possible younger legatees for the gift of her supernal powers. In this culture, education by way of one-to-one close tutoring clearly holds sway over any formal classroom exercises. Kua's instruction of both Ko'olau and his son Kaleimanu is the other key example in the book of learning by apprenticeship. The proof that this form of pedagogy is dominant is the surpassing success of the pupils. Ko'olau becomes matchless among his peers in hunting bulls, marksmanship with a rifle, tossing lariats, riding horseback, etc. Kaleimanu becomes the eerily supreme story-teller. And Pi'ilani attains visionary powers second to none, even to her instructress Kawaluna.

The immense tidal wave is exclusively Pi'ilani's vision. It's a fleeting premonition of the political catastrophe that will soon engulf them:
 ... she felt Kawaluna's arm around her and it was the
next
 of the days in which they were learning how little they knew
about how their lives were being directed
 from somewhere out of sight and by decisions they never heard made
then from the capital came word of a rebellion 


Pi'ilani is the chosen one. Her connection with the natural world--mountains and sea alike--runs deepest of them all. The spirit powers of Kawaluna have been passed on to her. But she adds to that a full-blooded pragmatic gift for grappling with the most arduous challenges of day-today living. She is the quintessential Hawaiian woman, balancing worldliness and transcendent life in equal portions. She is the true heiress, predestined by the natural order to carry the old-time myths and living legends into the future. Hence her surprising complicity in later years with the foreign press to grant interviews, and thereby vouchsafe the private travail and odyssey of her husband and son for the sake of the public record.

Though Kawaluna clearly has picked Pi'ilani to be her prime disciple in spiritual tutelage, her guidance extends to the whole family. They come to rely on her instincts totally for advice about weighty decisions. She is the one who chooses the best day for the family troop to begin their secret odyssey into the valley of Kalalau to join the fugitive lepers in their hideaway and refuge. Early on, she cross-examines Ko'olau to alert him for the trials he will face in leading the family on their arduous trek into the valley. But she never gives direct advice. She delivers her message like a Zen Buddhist. As if she is a selfless medium, Great Nature seems to be speaking through her:
 Kawaluna ... began to ask her own questions as though her voice
were coming from somewhere else so they could hardly hear her
 she asked when he had first gone into the valley what path he had
entered by and where he had gone the first time
 which stream he had followed ... and then he asked her whether she
had ever been there but instead of answering
 she sat looking straight at him and said nothing at all ... 


Kawaluna is a catalyst. She prompts. She triggers insight with her questions. She never replies to their queries directly, but subtly guides them to discover for themselves like a non-directive therapist. And she foresees Ko'olau's earliest glimpses of the valley as steps in a rehearsal for caretaking of his family's long vigil to come.

When Ko'olau, Pi'ilani and Kaleimanu were born, their midwife Kawaluna secretly hid their umbilici in shore rocks, a ritual insuring their strong engagement with the earth--their staying in close touch with their natural environs for all of their days. But Pi'ilani's life will carry this process much further than the others, since it ripens through many phases of her aging. Kawaluna is the wizard of the spirit world, the transcendent life. But Pi'ilani's command would become more comprehensive. It's largely a wisdom of the senses. The body in action. In her later years, she is able to pursue an aggressive mind/body course of worldly action that matures into a grounded metaphysics.

When Mr. John Sheldon, a scion of a newspaper mogul, wanted to interview the aging Pi'ilani to glean her version of the events that transpired in the valley during her family's years in hiding, she was disinclined to accept the offer. She would prefer not to tamper with those sacred memories. But when she kept hearing about the lies that were circulating in the township of Kekaha, she overcame her initial reluctance and finally let herself be persuaded to become the sole memoirist of this book's amazing story. The various gossipers had given her untold grief, since she discovered that they were "playing cards with their own stories that they said were us." She felt that this crime against history was a most shameful abuse, and she wanted to set the record straight. She gave herself over wholly to the task of preserving the actual facts from the taint of forgeries--much as W. S. Merwin has vowed to do in this book that he modestly calls his "fiction," which shall not "belie such facts as have come down to us." Not that the bare essential facts remain static in history, since he would have us know that "some of them have been moving toward legend since they occurred."

The author follows Pi'ilani's lead in cherishing the known details of the narrative, but along the way, he lets himself become enravished by the mysterious interface between fact and legend. And this seesawing duality generates the unflagging intensity of the three-hundred-twenty-five pages of The Folding Cliffs. Pi'ilani's tale is so much more than Merwin's primary source--her partnering Voice never strays too far from the poet's irradiance.

Part Three

As in works of the great classic novelists, Merwin's character portraits in The Folding Cliffs vivify a wide range of the Age's ethnic prototypes. While Kawaluna and Pi'ilani are two distinct exemplars of lofty Hawaiian womanhood, Ko'olau is a natural-born leader and warrior, Kua a self-educated wise tutor and expert rancher, Pastor Rowell a well-meaning but pedantic non-Hawaiian. Judge Kauai, born and reared in Waimea, is the one dependable and articulate spokesman for the Age's politics. His urbane witty voice keeps us abreast of all sudden shifts in the government power base, and his grasp of Hawaiian history across many generations provides readers with a clear context for the steady ongoing erosion of the rights of indigenous citizens.

Judge Kauai's encounters with the book's arch villain, Stolz, climax in a particularly revealing dialogue in the compelling poem #39 near the finish of the volume's richest block of forty verses, The Valley (Section 5). This lyric epitomizes the book's agility to gracefully blend a lengthy vocal exchange into the verse's unbroken flow. The dialogue unfolds with the dramatic piquancy of a scene from a play. The two men represent allegorical incarnations of type, but also fully shaped human identities. The Judge opens the talk with a double-edged greeting, "It is some time.., since you lit up / my doorway come in come in word of your arrival / went before you." Right off, the Judge is testing the combative waters--how much derisive half-concealed sarcasm can he get away with?
 Stolz said--And now I have come to tell you that the time has
come for the lepers in this valley to go to the settlement
 on Moloka'i and I want to know whether you will agree to go
willingly--The Judge said--Do you think I became
 sick willingly--You will get medical treatment there-- Stolz told
him--How many have they cured by now--the Judge asked
 And those others who are sick in your family can go with
you--Stolz said ... and the Judge laughed--Willingly--he said
 willingly and forever Well as you have not come for us yet I see
no reason to say no today--
 You are being sensibte--Stolz said--I am continuing to act as
though I had a choice for as long as I can
 the Judge answered--Watch out for your head as you leave-- 


The Judge's sense of humor and unfailing civility prevails. His insults and ironies are bluntly forthright. But Stolz is in such narcissistic denial he misses all the barbs. Hears only what he wants to hear. Stolz seems hypnotized by the self-congratulatory sound of his own voice, but deafened to his opponent's innuendos.

Earlier, as Stolz muses upon the huge new German "Krupps Howitzer" gun which he has imported to Kauai to arm his troops for battle with the lepers, his stream of consciousness reveals the narrow limits of his intellect:
 Newly arrived the performance it promised its caliber
 weight of projectile range number of rounds possible in a given
time accuracy all of it on paper
 the gun scarcely uncrated the crew not yet named ... 


Merwin's compressed style here adroitly mirrors Stolz's robotic mind-set. Piling up the cold stats, the unpunctuated series is linked by swift accretions to give us a profile of this rogue's stunted mentality.

In contrast, the Judge's ardent breadth of humanity is best shown to advantage in his eloquent chant of gratitude for the boundless kindness of the small band of non-lepers in the valley, neighbors to their dying and disfigured comrades. Poem #29 in The Valley, the Judge's psalm of praise, is surely one of this book's noblest monologues:
 ... I believed only a part of the welcome they
extended and I thought it came only from
 the lepers here in the upper part of the valley the ones for whom
Knudsen has been getting the medicine
 for you to bring and even when I had let them know that I was
scarcely able to walk any more
 and would never be able to climb down the trail and they said they
would carry me I set out only partly
 believing and thinking that if I fell it would be better than
rotting away as a favor to those
 who pray for a world without us and then they picked me up ... but
I learned that they had carried down others before me
 though maybe no one so heavy and still they treat it as no big
thing and some go daily to houses
 to move those who cannot stand up ... 


The Judge's voice is triumphantly distinctive. No one else can sing praises as he does, and no one else can fling verbal barbs at villains with his sardonic panache. And only he can document--with unswerving thoroughness-- the political wiles of the "foreigners" and their native toadies, who would filch the last shreds of self-governance from the family of Royals. "Piracy," he correctly terms it.

Robert Louis Stevenson's voice nearly matches the Judge's in his letters exposing the demagoguery of the Christian church elites. Both voices of moral suasion attain a nobility of keen-eyed witnessing ... But they are squelched, at last, by the overriding forces of greed.
 * 


The leading churchman of the book is Pastor Rowell, a Caucasian expat from New England who establishes a much-needed public grade school that is attended by Pi'ilani, Ko'olau and his older sister Niuli. (Niuli is destined to be the first member of her family to contract leprosy.) The two consecutive pages devoted to the portrayal of Pastor Rowell holding forth in his "new school for native children" are both superior poems in their own right. They are self-sufficient independent whole lyrics, as well as crisp links in the ongoing narrative. The pair is among the best of those poems which stir the reader to take special notice of Merwin's resilient form. These classroom vignettes reveal the interplay between various polarities that come into opposition throughout the book: two rival languages, English vs. the old Hawaiian vernacular; two competing religious faiths, Christianity and the native polytheism (and later in the text, Catholic leaders battle with the dominant Christian potentates, dual sets of missionaries jostling for rank); and two subtly vying modes of education, formal school pedagogy as against one-on-one tutoring, or apprenticeship.

The Pastor, himself, is an intriguingly ambiguous figure. His many drawbacks as a teacher typify the stateside Americans' complacent hubris, but his sincere commitment to his charges and rigors of discipline go a long way toward filling the scholastic void of the community. For all his best intentions, though, he comes off as a comic buffoon when he struggles to teach native kids rules for parsing sentences of their own language:
 Whatever the pastor pronounced to them in that voice
 that was not the one he talked in and not the one he spoke in
when he stood up during the church service
 and not the one he used for English with other foreigners whatever
words the pastor uttered from the moment
 they walked through the door onto the dead wood each syllable of
their own language articulated so carefully
 that it did not sound like their language at all not only because
every sound that he uttered
 with that round deliberation was always wrong in his particular
way but because it was coming from those
 particular clothes that face mouth regard that way of turning and
staring at them and because those words although they
 were like the words of their own were really arriving out of some
distance that existed for him but not
 for them.... 


As in most of this long poem, Merwin's style is so plain and open in its clarities it rarely calls attention to itself. The rhythmic heft of this opening is enhanced by the way the three repeats of "not the one" are woven into the shifting flow of the lines. For me as a reader, this juggling of the syntax with no punctuation creates a special instance of the blend of prose sweep retarded by concision of line-breaks, giving our ear a music that fuses the best qualities of prose and verse.

One line in the passage most reveals through its texture the stifling opaqueness of the pastor's tone in the small room--"particular clothes that face mouth regard that way of turning ..." We may well wonder how the students can even draw a breath, much less think logically, in such a constricted atmosphere. The relentlessly plodding buildup of items in this non-punctuated series perfectly evokes the rigidity of the teacher's manner. Merwin's stylistic device of accretions strung out in a single line, as here, is often employed to give a pithy compressed glance at a character's bearing or mind-set. The same device is utilized later in this unit to reveal the hopeless frigidity of letters of the Hawaiian alphabet chalk-scrawled by the teacher on the blackboard:
 ... each letter looked like it was
 white whether large small straight or flowing and it was in itself
silent in a black sky ... 


This superb trope is the last of a quick succession of four metaphors which all comically illuminate different shades of the teacher's failure to clarify the lesson, while he struggles to convey the static forms in boldface or cursive of the Hawaiian words and letters to the native speakers. The chasm he cannot cross is both technical and spiritual, the one thwarting execution of the other:
 ... they were only
 partly in what they were saying and the rest somewhere out of
sight like hands making shadows the air in the room
 was hard to see through like water but they repeated the names of
the solitary letters that they
 said every day the threads of a seamless garment and he showed
them what each letter looked like it was
 white whether large small straight or flowing and it was in itself
silent in a black sky where his hand drew it
 and it stayed there meaning a sound that it did not have 


At first reading, this pileup of metaphors may seem to run amok. The nine lines are at sharp variance from Merwin's lean stylistic norm in this book. But the many-layered resonance that slowly accumulates as the lines unfold suggests that a number of subtler motifs important to the work as a whole are seething below the surface. The issue of a racial divide which pervades the passage becomes most overt in the word "white" at the start of the key line. The pastor's clamoring whiteness is abruptly muted in the next line--"silent in a black sky where his hand drew it." And the clash between teacher and students is widened by the barrier of social class, since the pastor's children were never allowed to play with "the little natives."

Perhaps the most compelling issue addressed by the close linkage of four metaphors is the gulf between rival languages, the indigenous mother tongue which is swiftly being supplanted by the verbiage--spoken and written alike--of the invaders. All of the tropes partake of the irreparable breach between peoples, but the worsening distance keeps coming back to the language gaps: "... those words although they/were like the words of their own were really arriving / out of some distance that existed for him but not / for them."

To my ear, the urgency of the linguistic motif may keep coming back to a personal struggle of the author's. The string of metaphors seems to grapple-- if tangentially--with the perplexities of a poetry translator's art. The hidden pressure behind these captivating images may well be a carryover from Merwin's five decades of superior work as a translator of poetry from a wide diversity of tongues, an ongoing enterprise. The extra reverberations that well up from this passage, then, may spring from the author's misgivings over the necessary imperfections in a lifelong pursuit of best likenesses (or imitations, to use Lowell's term for it) of the original foreign language texts. The struggle, of course, is to make the English versions be faithful to both the letter and spirit of the original works and to produce readable and exciting new poems, as well. Hence Merwin's deep overtones of empathy--even partial identification--with the pastor's efforts, despite his satiric debunking of the churchman's shallow hubris.

Moreover, Merwin--himself a Caucasian expat from the continental states--might still feel a distance, of sorts, from his many Hawaiian friends and fellows, despite his decades as a resident of Maul, and yes, even after having received the Governor's Award for Literature of the State of Hawaii.

In the second poem of the pair, Pastor Rowell quickly reveals himself to be even more dictatorial and pedantic in professing strictures of religion than the rules of language arts or math:
 ... they learned to pray with their eyes closed and say
together
 that they believed in the only god and his son who was killed
back when nobody remembered and he taught them
 that the old gods had never been ... 


In class discussion, Ko'olau's older sister Niuli is a student singled out for special censure when she misspeaks in reply to his question about her faith, "I believe in one god and I/believe in my father--and she stopped with the pastor / looking at her pebble to pebble and he told them all / that other foreigners would not be so patient with them ..." The phrase "pebble to pebble" deftly evokes the chilled abyss between them. They talk past each other. Nothing connects. Rowell then delivers a punitive minisermon accusing her of "indolence," and warning all of the students that their families' untidy life style will make them vulnerable to the worst diseases--"I have seen your beds/on the damp ground in the dirt the dirt." This speech may seem to cast a ghastly omen--or curse--upon Niuli, in particular, since she is marked to be the first member of her family to contract leprosy, and indeed, her expulsion from Kauai by the presiding doctor occurs so quickly her brother and parents are blindsided. No chance to protest ... The pastor evidently has initiated the religious sophistry--soon to become popular among foreigners--that a vengeful god has punished the native Hawaiians with leprosy for their non-Christian ways. And indeed, his arrogant pose suggests that he may be capable of viewing himself as God's instrument for inflicting leprosy on Niuli first--among her classmates--for having spoken an accidental sacrilege. This specious rationale for indigenous people contracting the disease, exclusively, rather than the "foreigners," will gain wide public currency in the course of this tale's time frame.

Part Four

Often, though randomly it seems, particular units in The Folding Cliffs emerge as self-sufficient independent lyrics. Whole brilliant poems, apart from their context in the ever-sweeping story line, flare out. These frequent set pieces keep the reader on the alert to catch such lyric gems on the fly. Kua's spellbinding recital of the enchanting myth of Lahi, "The boy who ate birds," is balanced by Kua's earnest poem recounting the history of the Texas Longhorns and Durham Bulls imported from America and the few surviving wild Hanalei Red Bulls that defied Nature's most grueling punishments. The poem of the climactic encounter and dialogue between the Judge and his antagonist Stolz deftly lays bare the inner workings of both characters. And soon after, we relish the Judge's soaring monologue of awe for the Elysium of kindness. The pairing of satiric poems debunking Pastor Rowell's antics in his improvised parochial schoolhouse for "the little natives." The two wave poems. The first giving a graphic shape to the rapture that sweeps Pi'ilani and Ko'olau into their blissful love. The second, Pi'ilani's hallucinatory vision of a tidal wave that forecasts the bungled mini-revolution. And finally, the death-knell poem of Pi'ilani chanting love cries of farewell to Ko'olau's leprosy-riddled corpse. Then Pi'ilani's follow-up-poem chanting farewells to the Valley of Kalalau, where her husband's and son's remains are buried in plain view. Perhaps the book's single most unforgettable passage is this soliloquy, of Shakespearean intensity and stateliness, a searing love poem to the very site, the place itself, espousing each of the land's sacred nooks as you might revere each zone of a human lover's body, in turn.

This lavish book contains a number of love poems of that special genre. They hypnotically portray one woman's love affair with the land. Pi'ilani is swept through various stages of falling in love with the particular landscape, itself, as if it is a human personage--from baptismal initiation of first love to her chants of farewell. The most eloquent poem is her final song of leavetaking to the whole valley, which had acquired the semblance of an itemized map of her daily life in that place. The locale would come to magically duplicate her own austere features. At last, it wore a face like "the face of her days."

Again, this remarkable lyric is a companion piece to the other single most compelling love poem in the book, #34, Part 1 (Climbing), in which Pi'ilani gives vent to her grief over her husband's still warm body, just moments after his death. The two elegies--an improbable pairing--both climax in her litany of sung love chants. In the first poem, she mourns Ko'olau while patting a sea shell like a child in her lap. Her laments are cries of consolation to his undying spirit:
 ... she picked up a shell and started to pat it rocking slowly
forward and back chanting under her breath
 first she chanted to him by name by the name that she had called
him all her life and already she could hear
 the difference--Ko'olau Ko'olau you are going you are
going now you are still here you are going
 you are not sick any more you are not dying now but if you want to
come back Ko'olau come back come back-- 


This dirgelike vignette may become, for readers, a prototype of soul-fortifying rites to be performed for a newly-dead beloved. The pathos of grief, here, is assuaged by spiritual rapture.

In the later poem, which appears in the final Part 7 (The Shore), she addresses each of her love chants to "one part of the cliffs and the valley after another." Successively, they had sheltered and nurtured and protected her family during their long vigil in hiding--"curtained cliffs," "rock face," "green hollow above the water-falls," etc. Her tellingly individuated list suggests that she apportions her love to the sacred nuances of each site, by turns. Love for her dead husband has resurfaced as limitless love for the deep canyon, starting with his secret burial ground and expanding its embrace to take in the whole valley. The identification of one beloved with the other--the man, the sacred land--is unmistakably revealed when she bids her final adieus to them both in lines of stunning tenderness:
 ... You Waimakemake that kept us safe from the
soldiers' bullets I will remember you
 with love until I am nothing but bones in the ground You Koheo
that embraced us and Pune'e
 where we were never hungry ... You rock face of Kalahau that broke
the flights of the bullets everywhere around us
 You Oheoheiki that welcomed us and fed us and shaded us through
the hot days and kept us dry in the winter
 you were like a parent to us and you Kaluamoi that cradled us when
we needed you and hid us from the hunters
 ... and you Kalalau
 where I am leaving hands and arms that I love eyes that I love
faces that I love you that hide them and keep them
 I am going away now I will not set eyes on you now you will be
hidden from me now ...
 * 


We may well wish to trace the course of Pi'ilani's gift for paranormal bonding with particular Hawaiian land tracts back to the special moments of her birth and its aftermath. Kawaluna, her husband's grandmother, was the midwife who presided over her birth, and secretly, she spirited away the newborn's umbilicus to the seashore, then deposited it in a hollow place in the rocks, chanting prayers to the place for her future safekeeping. The spiritual matriarch of the family, as indicated by the translation of her name--The Age Above--she is a clairvoyant who communes with the great spirits in nature. She performs the same rites at the births of Pi'ilani's husband and son. And she usually participates in the bestowing of names on the children she delivers. The names are often prompted by images appearing in her dreams the night prior to the births. The names are linked both to myths and to hallowed land sites, and they come to resound with the ring of fatelike authority. It appears that both unshakeable identity and prophecy of their future lives is conferred upon each of them by their names, as vouchsafed by the dream world.

Ko'olau--a shortened form of Kalua i Ko'olau--signifies The Grave on the Windwardside. Hence, his early death and burial site were fated at birth. Kaleimanu means Wreath of Birds, and indeed, the child's uncanny power to simulate bird cries, and his wizardly perception of the movements and traits of birds, surpass all others in his family. Kua, their family's best friend and tutor in daily life's tactical skills, is named after twin rocks. The mythology of the rocks both-informs his wisdom of Hawaiian homecrafts and keeps him anchored in earthly tasks. How well he knows, perhaps better than most, that his name has been borrowed, lent to him--it belongs to the permanent earth site that celebrates its origins and will be returned at his death. And finally, Pi'ilani, Climbing Heaven, is destined to pursue a life of ascent through a wondrous succession of mystical states grounded in her body's acute senses, and paradoxically, she passes one milestone after another in her ascension while sinking ever deeper into the valley.

All varieties of Pi'ilani's heaven-climbing experience must have been chronicled in her memoir, and Merwin appears to have happily partnered all of them--he, too, scaling the heights and depths of her lofty mind's adventure. And taking her treatise as intermediary, her voice as a mouthpiece, he finds the needed disguise and leverage to project his own love of the Hawaiian myths, landscape, and native peoples. But he must know in his bones that he can never truly partake of the last direct essence of the indigenous people.
 * 


That early unbreakable linkage with the Hawaiian terrain, a prize birthright, gave Pi'ilani and her husband and son access to a privileged alliance with the varied land plots of the valley. They could become invisible, as no one else. Again and again, the family trio nestled into a recess in the valley that afforded ideal hideaway, as if the land willed to shelter and protect them from pursuers. At best, they found the rare sites that gave them a three-hundred-sixty-degree panoramic view of their environs, while they remained hidden from almost any vista, near or far. The three crucial occasions for such welcome invisibility were the family's need for concealment from the soldiers hunting them in the valley; Ko'olau's climbing into the "long hollow between rock walls" when he became the flawless sharpshooter picking off Stolz and others who were firing rifles at him and his family; and finally, Pi'ilani's choosing a never-to-be-found grave plot for her husband and his rifle. When she returned three times to check on the burial site, no one ever spotted her there and it was always evident that the plot had remained free from tampering.

From early childhood, Pi'ilani's bonding with the land grew most intense whenever she visited the mountains. Indeed, when she climbs the mountain for the last time prior to her final descent into the valley, she eerily seems to be taking the body of the mountain inside her:
 She was at home in the night on the mountain and she felt the
mountain at her back the black underneath of it behind her
 going down to its dark root under the sea ...
By a special symbiosis, the mountain is grounded in her, she too in it:
Her head was toward the top of the mountain and she was sure
 that she was on the other side of the mountain hearing the sound
of one of the streams there and water falling
 from higher in the valley and the night rain beginning ... 


Throughout her long ascent, she is flooded with memories of her child days and first excursions to the mountain. She often met the men and horses returning from the hunt:
 ... the horses suddenly there with leaves in their
manes and the raw meat slung
 behind the saddles the polished horns swinging and a vast
blackening crater dripping in her mind the red cliff
 where the neck had been and the hacked off bull's head riding
upside-down with its tongue dangling and its eyes staring
 at the ground ... 


The fabulous "old stories" the men told thrilled and charmed her, never to be forgotten. Always, her reentry through these woods is the rite that flashes recollection of the tales she heard at each turn in the path. Memories don't just come back, but they are "all lit up in her again." She is so wedded in spirit to the mountain, the landscape, each key land zone delivers its cache of saved myths and tales.
 * 


It should come as no surprise that Pi'ilani will quickly develop as strong and steadfast a bond with the great Valley of Kalalau as her lifelong kinship with the mountain. Moreover, the abiding presence and majesty of the valley pervades this book. So much more than just an extraordinary locale, it nurtures a bewitching second life--a higher life of spirit--for those who reside there, lepers and able-bodied canyon dwellers alike. That three-thousand- foot-deep valley in Waimea must be a dizzying sight to behold, and those novices first coming upon the "high edge" adjacent to the sudden gulf in the land may well be dumbfounded by the view:
 ... We came to the high edge
 at Kilohana where the trail climbs on but the whole world falls
away in front through the clouds and the valley
 of Kalalau appears to be as deep as the sky-- 


We repeatedly hear of that High Edge, which is the exclusive gateway into the valley, the sole margin of crossover between the world of the free lepers and the other world from which they have been banished. Pi'ilani will trudge down from this narrow cliff-ledge four times, then never again.

The immense valley--the lepers' sanctuary--bears the historic title The Straying. Like the lepers themselves, it departs--or strays, so to say--from terrestrial normalcy. It is the concave mirror image of the convex mountain. Clouds and circling birds keep appearing oddly below, not above. To apprehend this geography, we need to plumb it with the help of metaphor. Ocean and sky seem to trade places, as if the earth's atmosphere has become aqueous:
 ... the great bay in the air as deep as the mountain the
valley of Kalalau
 its measureless hollow Kalalau The Straying they could see through
white clouds threads of surf unrolling
 slowly into shadow the cliffs hung steep as blankets on a
fence.... 


The "measureless hollow" of the canyon is visualized both "as deep as the mountain" and "as deep as the sky." To be attuned to the mountain, to bond with it as does Pi'ilani, easily translates into bonding with the inverse terrain. But her conversion comes slowly.

When her family climbs warily down from the High Edge, they soon find that they have descended into an enchanted abyss where they will be reborn. It is a magical reentry into the island's womb. A natal leap into a new life. And it is also a way to reclaim the immense kindness of those earliest Hawaiians, unspoiled....

Pi'ilani makes three return trips to the valley, always spurred by false reports that her husband's grave has been discovered, and that both his remains and gun have been snatched for profit. These rumors partake of a long history of thieves hunting for Hawaiian buried treasures, whether human leavings, bones of the old chiefs or assorted valuables: "All my life ... I heard about what had been found with the bones and taken away / gold and canoes and carvings and spears thieves have been taking them / for a long time." Clearly, there was a thriving black market for stolen grave holdings. Her husband Ko'olau's posthumous reputation as a hero grew stronger over time, and hence, the supposed value of his gun and bones grew proportionately larger. Thus, Pi'ilani's determination to quell the false rumors is unflagging. Her obsession with guardianship matches the thieves' relentless craving to find holy or notable gravesites for monetary gain. These petty thieveries may be perceived to be symbolic of the horrific seizure by "foreigners" of the native people's total birthright and inheritance, their just land bequeathal wrested away from them, acreage by acreage, as the historical narrative of the book unfolds.

The malfeasance of colonialism at the heart of this poem climaxes in the ouster of the royal family, the deposing of the king and princess and mockery of their emissaries, while the imposters fill the void with their so- called "provisional government." The Judge, with his customary terse wit, condenses the vast takeover into one word--"piracy."

When Pi'ilani approaches the valley for her final visit, she discovers that she must slowly perform rites of reentry. Standing near the High Edge, she looks down at the clearwater pool, apparently motionless, that feeds the stream which will soon plunge over the edge into the deep chasm. She knows, instinctively, that this time she must undergo a kind of nonchurchly baptism in the currents if she is to recover her ghostly other being. An unknown alter ego. The other side of herself. Only then can she hope to resume the remainder of the immanent life of her dead son and husband, whose spirits do still partially electrify their graves:
 ... she knelt in the wet moss
 to put her mouth to the cold pane and drink from it with her eyes
open at first and then she closed them
 and plunged her head and hands into the unseen current for a long
breath overhearing the voices in the water
 talking ... she drank again and lifted her head to stare at the
face below her in the stream with the sky
 under it and the eyes burning from their dark places she looked at
it feeling that she knew nothing about it ... 


Pi'ilani is puzzled to not recognize her own reflection in the water. The sky appears to be under the stream. She sees her own eyes "burning from their dark places." She has become enigmatic to herself, but bravely pursues the next scary leg of her journey. Thus, before her descent she enacts the rites, one by one. Open-eyed, she drinks the water. Eyes shut, she plunges her "head and hands into the unseen current" and overhears "voices in the water/talking." Whose voices? They are the spirits of her dead son and husband, still inhabiting the life of the stream. Finally, she stares at the cryptic face of herself. She knows "nothing about it, "but her deep intuition knows.

When Pi'ilani returns for the third and last time to check on the grave, she becomes convinced--as never before--that the grave will never be discovered. Twice, she had been accompanied by escorts until her final secret ambles to the grave. But this time she does the whole laborious excursion by herself, and when she communes with this sequestered land plot, she recognizes the utmost safety of the refuge: "... a place from which you could see/anyone coming and never be seen it appeared to her/to be untouched, undisturbed, unnoticed how could it/be taken away from him ... when it was what he had always been." This place was no lucky find. His name, Kalua i Ko'olau (The Grave on the Windwardside), had prophesied his early death and burial here. It was fated at the time of his birth. And only those perfectly in touch with their landscape, as is Pi'ilani, are empowered to find and claim these special earth plots, where they can both have a full panoramic view of their environs and be invisible to pursuers.

Pi'ilani's main pretext for several arduous hikes back into the valley was to reassure herself that Ko'olau's grave had remained intact, but an ulterior motive grew stronger over time, and finally took full command of her psyche. At first, she found that she could amazingly reconnect with the spirits of her dead husband and son. Their aura was powerfully swirling near the burial grounds, and she took joy in their intense afterlife being. Nature seemed to harbor their wakened spirits, and she happily re-engaged them, if for a limited time only. In later visits, it became more difficult for her to connect with them:
 ... it was the same place that she knew and had kept in her
mind
 when she was not there but it seemed that she had not seen it
before in its own light and age in which she was
 a stranger like a dream that had vanished upon waking and now the
grave was part of the place and its fight and age
 it was looking past her at something she could not see that must
be all around her in the daylight and the shadows ... 


It would seem that gradually nature repossesses us, one by one. Even so, Pi'ilani felt compelled to follow out this process to whatever heart's fulfillment might still be possible. She would play out the series of necessary rituals to enable her to complete her ongoing land-extended spirit life with Ko'olau and Kaleimanu, and then find closure. A decisive--if unforeseeable-- finish.

Afterword

W. S. Merwin visited Champaign-Urbana recently to participate in a panel discussion of Dante's Divine Comedy, as well as to donate a new installment of his papers to the archives of the Rare Book Room of the University of Illinois Library. His new translation of Dante's Purgatorio and Pinsky's recent Inferno prompted the organizers of the panel to invite these two poets. During his informal and more intimate exchange with a smallish number of us, we asked Merwin whether he had plans to translate Dante's Paradiso. "No," he said. He had been particularly drawn to Purgatorio, since this book is so resonant with "our ongoing lives today." It is a portrait of who we are. But he seemed disaffected with Dante's vision in Paradiso, and though his skepticism of that idealized congregation of souls as not ringing true to our lives in the present did prevail that day, he struck me as ambivalent. His role as political antiwar activist and staunch environmentalist was uppermost during our Q. and A.

Since Merwin's Purgatorio was published shortly after his watershed poem, The Folding Cliffs, I presume that he was working on the Dante manuscript and his own epic poem simultaneously. And indeed, a case could be made for viewing the vision of his long poem as partly a disguised take on Dante's hierarchical topography. The descent of Pi'ilani's family into the Waimea Valley, a deepest canyon in the Americas, is an approach to a semi-paradisiacal community. By an odd geographic inversion of Dante's Inferno, we find that the lowest quadrants of valley folk have revived heights of generosity of spirit that had faded out of daily life among native Hawaiians many generations ago.

The Judge's eloquent two-page monologue of tribute to the brotherly heroics of valley folk is the most telling portrait of their plethora of kindness. Grace and sublimities abound there. We soon perceive that they inhabit a new Empyrean which sweeps back across the time threshold to the earliest known Hawaiians, supreme in their arts of selfless giving. The great near-forgotten legacy has been implanted in the many non-lepers of the scattered longtime community of Kalalau. Their great passion of humaneness was evidently begotten by the prolonged influx of families of lepers. Their compassion is as extreme, in its way, as the opposite vigilance of the "foreigners" and their local cronies to banish the lepers. In his astonished praise for these valley helpmates, the Judge seems to be acting as Merwin's spokesman. And the Judge's mild skepticism of whether the lost tradition of Old Hawaii is truly rekindled here may also be modeled after the author's own reservations about a societal paradise in our day:
 ... we have heard in the stories
 that people once treated each other this way but I thought that
was long ago and probably was made up ... 


Perhaps the author means to suggest that this scattered valley neighborhood in Hawaii might be the nearest approach of a human community to a Paradiso in our time. A heaven now ... Nevertheless, we don't--and cannot--have it today.

NOTE

(1.) Book jacket for The Folding Cliffs, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

LAURENCE LIEBERMAN has published fourteen books of poetry and three volumes of literary essays. His recent collections include Hour of the Black Mango Moon and The Regatta in the Skies: Selected Long Poems.
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Author:Lieberman, Laurence James
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1U9HI
Date:Mar 1, 2012
Words:13812
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