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Ben Lerner reviews

Migration: New and Selected Poems
by W.S Merwin

534 pp. Copper Canyon Press, 2005. 40$ Cloth.

This review is 1,000 words
or about 3 printed pages long

The Emptiness at the End

The publication of Migration: New & Selected Poems provides us with the opportunity to track in a single volume W.S. Merwin’s evolution from traditional verse forms to unpunctuated lyrics that, at their best, seem to hover just above the page like heat above the highway. Reading the selected works one is aware that this formal movement is itself the great gift of Merwin’s poetry; a transition — a migration — from received forms and the confidence in cultural continuity they implicitly evoke to a poetry that structurally enacts the doubt, grief, rage, loss and destruction it describes. The trajectory of Merwin’s work is meteoric: its greatest flashes of beauty and insight are the product of traditional poetic impulses breaking up under the pressures of our atmosphere. One of his most memorable elegies, unfortunately omitted from this volume, consists of a single streak across the blank sky of the page:


Who would I show it to

The tiny poem is most compelling when read as an elegy for elegy, as mourning the very conditions of possibility for the transmission of culture. It is the peculiar nature of collective tragedy, of apocalypse, that it admits of no organized grieving, that it must be mourned, so to speak, in advance:

For the Grave of Posterity

This stone that is
not here and bears no writing commemorates
the emptiness at the end of
history listen you without vision you can still
hear it there is
nothing it is the voice with the praises
that never changed that called to the unsatisfied
as long as there was time
whatever it could have said of you is already forgotten (102)

This is the productive anxiety that pervades much of Merwin’s best work, the anxiety that keeps him from taking the human capacity for reference as an eternal given. In an era of nuclear weapons and radical ecological plunder, meaning is not necessarily a renewable resource. The Merwin canon can be read as an elegy for canonicity, as a poetic investigation of extinction in which the language of elegy itself is one of the most endangered species:


I want to tell what the forests
were like

I will have to speak
in a forgotten language (286)

Because it is against the backdrop of the conventional dexterity and confidence of the early poems that we can best appreciate the luminous debris that is his later work, Migrations is a major book.


It is his concern with extinction that explains Merwin’s consistent use of apostrophe (this volume’s few new poems are all apostrophic): addresses to the absent, the inanimate, the voiceless. The first line of the recent poem, “To The Words,” begins by expressing the perpetual betrayal of presence that is language: “When it happens you are not there.” The imperative that ends the poem — “say it” — is perhaps Merwin’s version of Pound’s injunction that we “make it new.” Merwin, who as a young man famously asked Pound for poetic guidance, has reduced Pound’s battle cry to the demand that we don’t let the collective memory imbedded in our language die; that we protect the incantatory power of poetic speech. Merwin, it must be said, is an unwaveringly political poet. The occasional courtliness of his manner has produced many forgettable poems, but he has no nostalgia for or tolerance of the disastrous grand narratives of the masters of Modernism. His political eloquence redeems for me the occasional grandiloquent phrase and I believe he has written some of the most powerful poems in the language against our species’ murderous sense of self-importance:

Gray whale

Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing (137)

Because the images of nature that recur in Merwin’s poems are never merely anthropomorphic symbols, but refer to the real and ever-increasing threat of destruction from concrete political processes, they accrue a higher symbolic power. Merwin not only tracks the literal impoverishment of our planet, but he makes it symbolize the impoverishment of our culture’s capacity for symbolization. The homology between a dying ecosystem and a dying linguistic system is the fearful symmetry of Merwin’s work:

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is (280)


I happened to read Migrations at the same time as Michael Palmer’s new volume, Company of Moths, and I was struck by the similarity of their poetry. Not only are they two of the most aurally accomplished poets writing today, but they are united by their common concern with representing absence — with making a presence felt as a loss — and with situating this fundamental poetic project politically. They both consistently return to a Romantic vocabulary of light and shadow, earth and sky, they both heavily rely on the genitive case, and some of their most remarkable lines sound remarkably similar. Compare “Some Last Questions” to parts of “Sun,” or, say, “Caesar” to “Song of the Round Man.” There are many significant differences, of course, but I find their commonalities more interesting — interesting because both poets have been held up as exemplars of incompatible poetic modes, dismissed for their vanguardism and conservatism respectively. I believe they are both masters of lyrical negativity — of silence, absence, erasure — and I think it’s important for young poets like myself to resist any pressure to choose between them. Merwin’s sensitivity to the threat of extinction, to the shared vulnerability of ecosystems and linguistic systems, of nature and grammar, and his willingness to hunt for forms equal to these themes, is what makes his writing more like Palmer’s than the poets likely to endorse his book. I believe Merwin’s true heirs are distinctly not the poets whose careers he has supported through the Yale Younger series, but rather poets like Peter Gizzi and Forrest Gander who combine an unmistakably lyric sensibility with a consciousness of the political and philosophical complexity of making meaning in dark times.

You can read more about Ben Lerner on his Jacket author notes page.

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