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I Was Frightened, And I Could Feel That

To start, a reader’s history (mine), and a sort of confession: the first book of Merwin’s I ever really loved was prose. This makes me feel at once exposed–for aren’t poets always and in every case sworn to promote the line, the music, the measure, the rhyme?–but there it is–a fact and beginning. The Miner’s Pale Children, released in 1970 (seen here, with a youthful curly-haired Merwin donning the cover) is a terrifying collection of short stories and short-short stories and maybe bits of travel guide and fable and memoir and warning. I say this as background, or context, or one-reader’s-past with Merwin before The Shadows of Sirius. Since this initial encounter I’ve come to adore his poetry, but, The Miner’s Pale Children is what somehow always remains in my chaotic brain–as well as the text I cite or lend out when claiming an utter love of Merwin.

Let’s look.

When you open the book, dear Reader, you’ll discover the long lines and non-stopped blocks that often signify prose, but also, a lyric mode of spooky story-telling that clearly echoes Merwin’s poetry. From “The Dwelling”:

“Once when I looked at myself there was nothing. I could not see any size, any shape, any color. I could tell that I was still there because I was frightened, and I could feel that. When I began to think about myself it kept coming down to that, as though that was the only thing to remember. Yes, that was the only thing I could remember about myself clearly and accurately. I was frightened. That one thing went back until I vanished with it. The point of that disappearance could be considered a kind of beginning. And now to the original dread this new fear was added: that I might forget that I was afraid, and so vanish again, entirely…”

This is a (roundabout) way of reaching my initial response (gut-, heart-, ear-, sight-) to The Shadows of Sirius, which–to me, at its best, like all of Merwin’s work–is steeped in darkness.

The darkness of: night, loss, lack, grief, anger, recollection, melody. The dimming of memory and sight. The honing of a second-sight and deeper recall. And also, darkness as contrast–the better to measure the light of our love by.

Or: the sense of unfamiliar we experience when–stripped of vision, late at night in a dark room, buried by blankets, sans stars–we can’t feel which way our face is facing. Or: (as Zach suggests) the dizzying vertigo of being perched (alone) at the top of a ladder. The darkness of day, of living with shame, or of sorrow or age or of heartache.

Merwin suggests (in the passage above) that to be fearful is to know one is alive (the lip’s tremble, the skip of the heart, the unnatural dart of your vision…)–and I can’t help but to be fascinated (and terrified) by this proposition. (I must be alive!! I must be alive!! I am frightened!!) I also wonder, while reading Merwin’s obsessive turns toward the unseen, the unknown, the unheard, and the murky–about the upside of anxiety. The strength in tension? The honed edge (like a night’s blade) of one’ own shadow?

And just a few more questions: Is Merwin’s poetry (or verse in general) formed from the dimness that, pushed into shape, becomes memory? From the scattering of darkness upon light? From the chant or charm or moan that stays our (sometimes) tortured souls? And if so, what sort of attention must we pay as readers to receive this glorious sense (gift?) of fright? This gut-turning embodiment of the pain or wonder of another? And–is the accepted task (to read poetry) therefore empathy? Entertainment? A relief? Art?

Perhaps Merwin’s attention to darkness, absence, and fright–to all of the unknown–most amazes me because he is so terribly consistent (these ideas arise not only in almost every poem in The Shadows of Sirius, but in most of Merwin’s writing). I hope to continue with these ideas, especially near the end of the month, closer to our favorite haunted holiday (shall we go as Merwin for Halloween this year? A miner’s pale child? A shadow?) But for now, the start of a favorite “nocturnal” poem from The Shadows of Sirius:

By Dark

When it is time I follow the black dog
into the darkness that is the mind of day

I can see nothing there but the black dog
the dog I know going ahead of me

not looking back oh it is the black dog
I trust now in my turn after the years

when I had all the trust of the black dog
through an age of brightness and through shadow (…)

Are you spooked? Do you thrill at a glimpse of your own end? Is anyone else afraid–and therefore–out there?