“now I am becoming my own tree”

The Moon Before Morning, W. S. Merwin, Bloodaxe 2014, £12-00
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

9 x 6in wraparound 128pp
I could waste a lot of words reiterating how important and distinguished an American poet Merwin is, but instead will let his reputation speak for itself. This latest collection, The Moon Before Morning, contains some of the most luminous poems I’ve read for a while, but I feel, at four sections, this collection is over-long. Sections II and III contain the kernel of the collection, with some of the most memorable poems lodged here. Section I concerns poems of gardens, looking out of windows, ‘fronds’ in nearly every poem – these mark time and its passing. These poems are acts of intense scrutiny of the outside world, but from the stance of an old man pottering around his garden. As good as these are, I’d say this section could have been weeded down to a few poems which mark the poet’s old age and his present position in the world. That said, ‘Footholds’ speaks most powerfully about the evanescence of human actions and activities in the landscape:

Where I dug the logs into the rise
to make the steps along the valley
I forget how many years ago
their wood has dissolved completely now
yet I set my feet down in the same
places I did when the steps were there
Father and Mother friend upon friend
what I remember of them now
footholds on the slope
in the silent valley this morning

In Section II Merwin moves into more biographical and narrative modes, often delving into his childhood. In ‘Green Fence’, there is a fence built by the speaker’s father to protect the young son from the imagined baleful influences of the outside world. This fence, however, does not preserve anything but instead segregates and alienates the boy from people outside it. In similar terrain as ‘Footholds’ ‘Cancellation’ shows how all of the buildings which helped educate or form the boy who became the man are now demolished and yet:

(…) I still know
the way to it
down the avenue and across
and I carry with me the stories
weightless as shadows
of its cold walls

In ‘Relics’ we discover that before the speaker even knew the word ‘obsolete’ he loved the neglected, the derelict and decrepit, the broken-down, the rusty, and the spectral places brought to life in the poems quoted above. The recurring idea of the interstitial, nether world is most wittily explored in ‘Neither Here nor There’. Here, and in ‘Convenience’ Merwin casts a critical and penetrating eye over America’s love of soulless commercial spaces. ‘Convenience’ verges on the preachy for its itemisations of all that has been lost to erect concrete temples to our ‘convenience’, but ‘Neither Here nor There’ seems to perfectly distil the ethos of the airport:

An airport is nowhere
which is not something
generally noticed
by those inside it

yet some unnamed person in the past
deliberately planned it
to be there


you sit there in the smell
of what passes for food
breathing what is called air

Similarly in ‘The Latest Thing’ the songs of birds are forgotten in cities because the cities themselves are ‘made of absences’. In Section III we get a sense of a poet forming, of a boy growing up, tinged also with the closeness of poems which look back in retrospect on a life, such as ‘Wild Oats’ where the speaker is unrepentant:

I needed my mistakes
in their own order
to get me here


in my youth I believed in somewhere else
I put faith in travel
now I am becoming my own tree.

This sense of travelling far yet remaining rooted in place ties this section back to the first, and the final section explores most poignantly the prospect of getting older. Yet even here there is ample evidence to point towards a new lease of life, or another direction. In ‘Turning’ the speaker looks back on a life of rushing around, a hectic pace that did not allow him the chance to stop and touch others, and then:

this morning the Belgian shepherd dog
still young looking up and saying

Are you ready this time?

This does not sound like Les Murray’s ‘black dog’ of depression but a portent of taking control of one’s life through poetry. The four separate sections of this collection speak for different aspects and stages of Merwin’s life to create a sort of poetic bildungsroman, or to show the making of a poet, first in old age and then the journey to that age. Although I began this review by saying this collection could be shorter, the long and rich life it speaks for in such a singular way I can only admire.

Richie McCaffery

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