March 2006

Gilbert Purdy


Present Company by W.S. Merwin

Mere months after Copper Canyon Press has released Migration, W. S. Merwin’s selected poems (and recent winner of the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry), the volume is incomplete. Merwin’s latest, Present Company has appeared, and the poet, a fixture on the literary scene now for over 50 years, begins yet another phase.

It is evident from this most recent volume that Merwin is aging gracefully in his nature sanctuary on the Hawaiian island of Maui. His once vaunted “sustained line,” while not altogether given off, is less and less in evidence with each succeeding volume. He has grown more comfortable with himself with the passage of years however much he remains skeptical of our cultural ideas of “self.”

The poems that comprise Present Company are elegies, of a sort, dedicated “To…” the various people, places and things that have graced his life. The only tension that informs the book is that between the normal 80-ish desire to speak of “the greater verities” and the long inculcated post-modern reaction against there being any such thing. The result is some 100 poems of sustained interest regularly punctuated by flashes of unusual insight. The reader will not have to be approaching 80 in order to recognize the sentiment of these lines “To Lingering Regrets”:

O lovely and mournful
with downcast eyes
appearing to me as
you are turning away
to stand silent and late
in a remembered light
touched with amber

Some verities would seem in fact to be greater and “regrets” are among them. Surely those who claim to have none suggest that they somehow have not grown to achieve their full humanity, a problem which these lines, among many others, prove Merwin does not share.

What is not in the least universal is the persistent animism of so many of the poems, in Present Company, each addressing a cherished companion. The recipient of the poem “To Grief” is as much a being as the recipient of “To Paula,”“To the Corner of the Eye” as “To the Next Time.” Merwin is Ulysses and his departed teeth are those companions who did not survive the Odyssey. He and the few who remain sit beside the hearth. Sitting there he addresses another companion in the poem “To Smoke”:

you have always been warning
us too late and only
as you were leaving

As for Merwn himself, he would seem to be the most tenuous of the existents, as evidenced by lines such as these from “To Myself”:

I am sure you
were here a moment before
and the air is still alive
around where you were

The implication (especially in the context of his life’s work) is that the poet W. S. Merwin is more a cosmos than a person. Over his nearly 80 years, the abstractions, habits, emotions, identifications, observations and material components that have populated that cosmos have matured to achieve their own independent identities. All of them are alive in their own right. By process of elimination, almost, what is left over is the true self, numinous and ungraspable.

Be a poet cosmos or individual being, or his experiences separate existents or not, he is sure to have few thoughts about the nature of writing itself. While Merwin is no exception, he is surprisingly restrained on the topic, and prone, as always, to address it from his own private dimension. It speaks even more highly of him, then, that what he has to say “To the Story” is so insightful both for writing and life:

as it passes before you what you will
never manage to remember later
the missing key

to the present and its unrepeated
life and so you will have to make it up
as plausibly

as you can out of odds and ends of what
someone wrote down or you may remember
if memory

serves you or you will conjure from those same
elements and selves summoned out of some
other country

The narratives of pen and life are both problematical and absolutely essential. The poet of Present Company has lived a life wrestling with ”the story.” So intensely so that he has come to understand that the reticence of a few hard-won words can say more.

Present Company is not among W. S. Merwin’s three or four best volumes. All the more eloquent, then, the fact that it must be lived in for a while before all of its nooks and unique corners can be fully appreciated. More impressive still, it teaches us that even in these harried, careening times, that so often leave one behind long before one has had the chance to grow gracefully older, it remains possible with a little luck and a lot of honest questioning to have a bit of wisdom to pass along.

Present Company by W. S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press
ISBN 1556592272
140 Pages