“The Shadow of Sirius” W S Merwin (Bloodaxe) Poetry Review

The Shadow of Sirius by W S Merwin

W S Merwin makes it look effortless, in “Note”

“Remember how the naked soul
comes to language and at once knows
loss and distance and believing
then for a time it will not run

with its old freedom
like a light innocent of measure
but will harken to how
one story becomes another…”

But behind that apparent ease is decades of experience and an instinctive sensibility to cadence of words and careful attention to rhythm.  The poems don’t have punctuation but the care taken with stress patterns and line breaks mean that punctuation isn’t necessary as the poems are naturally easy to read aloud.

In a collection that asserts, “I have only what I remember”, inevitably some poems will look back.  “Inheritance” concerns the passing down of a Webster’s dictionary from father to son,

“now its cover is worn as though
it had been carried on journeys
across the mountains and deserts
of the earth but it has been there
beside me the whole time
what had frayed it like that
loosening it gnawing at it
all through these years
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”

The tone of affection permeates the whole poem.  The vocabulary is kept simple and unsentimental as anything more complex would drown the poem.  W S Merwin is equally unsentimental in gentle poems touching on enduring love, eg in “To Paula in Late Spring”

“Let me imagine that we will come again
when we want to and it will be spring
we will be no older than we ever were
the worn griefs will have eased like the early cloud
through which the morning slowly comes to itself
and the ancient defences against the dead
will be done with and left to the dead at last
the light will be as it is now in the garden
that we have made here these years together
of our long evenings and astonishment.”

The focus and detail make these a pleasure to read.  A worthy 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner.


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