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Migration: New and Selected Poems

By W.S. Merwin 

Original and Current Publisher: Copper Canyon Press     

Patrick Rosal writes:

Some Questions about Questions… and Vanishing

In Migration: New and Selected Poems, W.S. Merwin has a poem called “St. Vincent’s,” (originally published in The Compass Flower) which feels elegiac now that the West Village hospital is shut down.  “I consider that I have lived daily and with / eyes open and ears to hear / these years across from St. Vincent’s Hospital.” The poem accrues a series of memories through litany: “I have seen…” and “I have come upon the men in gloves taking out / the garbage at all hours…” and “I have seen one pile / catch fire…” and “I have noticed…” The speaker acknowledges his own neglect; he’s one of many witnesses who has taught himself to ignore the sirens and to abandon the emergency arrivals, a disregard that suggests how complicit he is in a city’s blindness to suffering. He has been a part of a machine of erasure.

When I consider the fate of St. Vincent’s hospital, I wonder, what does it mean for a poem to outlast its subject (particularly a poem that points to erasure)? It gives the illusion of endurance and maybe even perpetuity. But even a “fixed” structure is mutable. Consider the plastic arts for a moment: there are materials that decay, rot and rust. The elements of a place—its weather—change the feel and appearance of these materials. Conventionally, we think of such changes as a kind of ruin (though the most interesting architects and sculptors, to me, must imagine decay as a part of the structure’s substance).

We might say, ruin is essential—and sometimes beautiful.

In poetry, the elemental forces of language and history can also alter (i.e. ruin) a poem on stratospheric and/or molecular scales, though we’re often unaware of the transformations, sometimes gradual and miniscule, sometimes acute. Point is, a poem like Merwin’s “St. Vincent’s” continues to interact with the world it renders. Both language and the subject(s) it refers to are changing dynamically.

Merwin’s poem is, in part, a meditation on (and praise of) evanescence and vanishing. Most telling, the poem returns briefly to some beautiful observation, but lands ultimately on the interrogative, wry and ironic:

several of the windows appear
to be made of tin
but it may be the light reflected
I have imagined bees coming and going
on those sills though I have never seen them

who was St. Vincent

(The poem’s irony is doubled by the fate of St. Vincent’s, isn’t it: the hospital gone; the Saint also now long gone…)

What I admire most here is the movement between memory and question. We live in an era in which certainty is privileged over questioning. I think about how interrogation holds a powerful place in our public imagination—if only by its distortion and its absence. In the dimmest precincts, it’s a bloody process. I often ask my students what makes a good question and what questions suggest about power. Who gets to question whom? What kinds of questions might map the disappearances of our time?

I don’t know of a good poem that doesn’t traffic in investigation/questioning. Sometimes those poems are explicitly comprised of interrogatives. The widely anthologized “Some Last Questions” appeared originally in Merwin’s earlier collection The Lice. Published in 1967, the poem’s interrogation of the body and its accompanying surrealist responses are brutally understated. The interaction seems both formal and magical.

What is the head
             A.  Ash
What are the eyes
             A.  The wells have fallen in and have

The tongue according to the nameless respondent is “[t]he black coat that fell off the wall / With sleeves trying to say something.” Meanwhile, the hands are simply “Paid.” What is the disjuncture between the straight-forward, simply composed questions about the body and the somewhat hallucinatory answers? The responses are not just strange in the images they depict, but in their hacked syntax: “What is the silence / A. As though it had a right to more.” (One notable poem in Migration is composed entirely of questions, “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field.”)

Migration is a 500-page book that collects a half a century of Merwin’s poetry. There’s much to mine. I suspect that the poems of The Moving Target and later consist of the work we have come to admire. Because it’s impossible to provide a survey of a survey of a life’s work in this short post, I did want to make my recommendation for a poem I hadn’t encountered in anthologies, but which I have come to enjoy deeply, called “The Houses.”

In it, a boy is brought to the woods by his father for some curiously innocuous reason, and as his father starts a fire and cooks hot dogs, the boy is permitted for the first time to run off by himself. On two occasions, the boy sees two different houses, reports them to his father who insists there are no houses there, that is his property. The boy is scolded and warned “not to tell stories.” The houses magically seem to appear and disappear and we are left with what resonates deeply, I think, with many who love the imagination: the profound sadness and private joy of what the boy has seen and can’t speak of or explain.

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), which won the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry and the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Tin House, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, the Beacon Best, and Language for a New Century. (Photo credit: Stephen Sullivan)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Carl Phillips, John Balaban, Carol Frost,
Lawson Fusao Inada, Julie Kane

The Year in Literature: Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • W.S. Merwin (1927- ) was born in New York, NY.
  • Merwin has published more than thirty books of poetry and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry twice (in 1971 and 2009). 
  • Merwin was named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2010.

Bill Moyers  The Journal: W. S. Merwin
Poet W.S. Merwin joins Bill Moyers for a wide-ranging conversation.

Watch the full episode. See more Bill Moyers.


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