Green with Beasts

Green With BeastsGreen with Beasts, W. S. Merwin’s third book of poetry, was published in 1956 by Knopf, and was written when the poet was not yet thirty years old. My well-used reading copy is of the British edition, published that same year in London by Rupert Hart-Davis. Dust jacket curled at the edges, lamination stripped and blistering, it doesn’t matter if the dog steps on it or a few raindrops constellate a page—a good reading copy as they say. And though the interior remains nearly perfect and unmarked, blue and black blotches of ink identify several previous owners: Stepney Public Libraries and Shoreditch Public Library (wonderful name Shoreditch). On the verso of the title page, in small print, I read that the book was printed “by the Ditchling Press Ltd., Ditchling, Sussex” (not only is Ditchling another wonderful name but it is also the village where type designer Eric Gill and poet David Jones once lived).

The poems in Green with Beasts are not easy to read, at least not for me. And because of the difficulty, and because it is a collection I return to, the poems have become something of a gauge to my progress as a reader of poetry; the language—steeped as it is in the old ways of biblical English, of Latinate manuscripts, and of classical verse—remained impenetrable to me as a college student in my twenties when I had a working knowledge of mathematics and engineering but no knowledge of the rhetoric, the grammatical inversions, or the ambiguously woven syntax that textured the tapestry of these poems. Nonetheless, in a few of the shorter poems and in certain passages of the longer poems, I could glimpse, momentarily, lands and animals and people I wished to know, as through a dusty pane of glass. Over the years, as I’ve acquired a hard-fought familiarity with our literary traditions, its techniques and its stories, the poems have opened up, as if waiting patiently for me to catch up, remaining where the poet placed them: “in a still place of perpetual surprise.”

detail from title page
detail from title page

Two of the poems, ‘The Mountain’ and ‘The Station,’ have been long time favorites of mine, having listened to them innumerable times as recordings. This time, after reading through these favorites, I find my way to the poem ‘The Wilderness’ and read it through a number of times, familiarizing myself with its inversions, following its switchbacks and switchforwards as if climbing a footpath into the mountains. Formally, the poem is a sonnet—its fourteen lines cut into two four-line stanzas and two three-lined stanzas. In subject the poem sets out to explore our need to experience wilderness, maybe even our need to invent the idea of wilderness.

The romantic idea of wilderness as sublime landscape, ideally isolated and without humans, is a kind of Eden with Adam and Eve cast out. Experience and common sense, on the other hand, informs us that we cannot enter a wilderness without diminishing it; we cannot even look upon it without taking something. For one as “hungry to look” at the world as I am, almost gluttonous for dragonflies and wildflowers, the final stanza contains a difficult remonstration:

“And famine is all about us, but not here;
For from the very hunger to look, we feed
Unawares, as at the beaks of ravens.”

The poem warns that we are never detached from what we observe, be it a butterfly or some human tragedy, that there’s no such thing as a purely objective observer. Even if we believe we are moving about the world without the appetite of a consumer, we are still connected and sustained by it, even if “unaware” of what we are consuming. And so, to some extent, we are implicated in the death of wilderness, or at the very least the death of the idea of wilderness.

H. L. Hix, in his excellent study Understanding W. S. Merwin, emphasizes the themes of ecology, of ecological apocalypse, and of myth that enter into Merwin’s poetry at this time…and never leave. One of the reasons I’ve kept an interest in the writings of W. S. Merwin is this unabated passion for this world. Reverence would be the proper word for it. Faced with the tragedy of numerous ecological and political crises—think of the well known poems ‘The Last Ones,’ ‘For a Coming Extinction,’ ‘Losing a Language,’ and ‘Unchopping a Tree’—so many of his poems are elegies and lamentations, though they are also joyous, humble and full of reverence.

“Listen: more than the sea’s thunder
Foregathers in the grey cliffs: the roots of our hair
Stir like the leaves of the holly bush where now
Not games the wind ponders, but impatient
Glories, fire: and we go stricken suddenly
Humble, and the covering of our feet
Offends, for the ground where we find we stand is holy.”
– from ‘White Goat, White Ram’ in Green with Beasts

And as we know from Karl Marx (if not from our day to day experience), “All that is holy is profaned.” But how exactly is this holy ground profaned? One way is through the practice of private property and the economic pressures that force owners into production. With capitalism so rampant at present it’s hard to imagine a world without private ownership of land, but it is well worth the effort to think along these lines and to work at relieving the legal pressures binding the land into production.

“From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, the must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”
– Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3 (pg 776, International Publishers, 1981)

W. S. Merwin, caring for the land he possesses in Hawaii, has made a point of leaving it for the next generations in an Improved condition. In 1977, he purchased nineteen acres of spent agricultural land. Over the intervening years, he has gardened and planted and nursed the land back to forest, indulging his passion for propagating and rearing endangered palm trees. In 2010, Merwin partnered with the Hawaii Coastal Land Trust to establish The Merwin Conservancy, which will safeguard the land for generations to come.

“They knew themselves tenants, merely, till the country
Turns from them to their children. You feel they would never
Say the place belonged to them: a reticence
Like love’s delicacy or its quiet assurance.”
– from ‘In the Heart of Europe’ in Green with Beasts

Mute Objects of Expression

Dragonfly wing by Vicinum
Dragonfly wing, a photo by Vicinum on Flickr.

April 3, 2013. Windy, temperature in the mid to lower 40s, increasing cloud cover throughout the afternoon. When the forecast predicted a high of 50, I had hoped for the kind of spring day that might call forth the first butterflies, but it didn’t happen—too windy, too much snow on the ground, not enough sun to tip the scales from winter to spring. I went for a short walk anyway, almost out of spite.

I chose to look around the trails and woods on the south-facing slopes below St Olaf. The prairie planting outside the parking lot, beaten flat by winter snow and ice, made for easy walking. Instinctively, I rounded the margins of several small catchment ponds, drawn to the open water. From the ponds I climbed across a few expanses of snow to reach the woods. There was no hope of finding anything flying—too cold, too cloudy—so I made for a tree, upright but dead, to look for beetles, its disassembling branches scattered on the ground like so much wreckage.

Examining a fallen branch, prying off a loose layer of bark, I found a dragonfly wing tucked into a narrow cavity, then, a few inches away, a second wing, in a separate chamber. I face this discovery in silence. The sun mumbled in my face. The wind jabbed its fingers into my ears. How did these get here? I wondered. Images, the mysterious museum pieces of memory and imagination, flashed into existence, sequentially. A suitcase. A room full of books. An empty rocking-chair. A broken porch swing. Forgotten storm windows. Glass containers on display in an out-of-business antique store. A still life of dusty objects in the attic of an abandoned house. Then words, the worker ants of the mind, began to arrive; as if from habit, they rose from the deep recesses and unknown tunnels of language. Sawdust. Though there was no saw, only the rasping jaws of beetle larvae, horntail grubs, and carpenter ants. The soft rot following fungal expeditions through the solid wood. Dizziness. Disorientation. Not sadness.

The first wing, more exposed to the elements, was tattered, the transparent cells clouded and opaque, and beginning to crumble like an ancient codex into the wood chips. The second wing, better protected beneath the bark, sparkled in a sheath of dew. I’ve seen a derelict factory that looked like this, dull sheet-metal siding, long tiers of multi-paned windows with much of the glass broken out, providing passage for pigeons. “Factory windows are alway broken,” wrote Vachel Lindsay. The cells of the wings—the rows, the columns, the groupings—have become a periodic chart of the elements of oblivion.

Most likely ants had carried and pulled the wings in as far as they could. Their tunnels became too narrow to admit them further, so the wings became decorations, septums dividing the antechambers at the entrances to their nests. The veins of the wings became ladders and bridges that allowed passage into previously unreachable rooms of reality, a cubist artwork on the order of Robert Delaunay’s painting ‘Simultaneous Windows on the City.” Here was the insect equivalent of Marcel Duchamp, artfully presenting the detris of the world. Here was a scavenging Joseph Cornell placing the found objects of the world into a box. Each wing became a relic, of blue skies, of fleeting life. And surely both wings qualify as one of Francis Ponge’s Mute Objects of Expression.

Then, from the parking lot above me, out of my line of sight, voices of students or professors skittered over the snow drifts and into consciousness, sounding almost like bird song, before the slam of car doors, before the spark of engines, started me toward home.

Dragonfly wing