Michael Redhill on W.S. Merwin


Once I came back to the leaves just as they were falling

into the rattling of magpies and the waving flights

through treetops beyond the long field tawny with stubble

a scatter of sheep wandered there circling slowly

as a galaxy ferrying the grey lights that were theirs

wading into their shadows with the stalks whispering

under them and the day shining out of the straw

all the way to the break in the wall where the lane goes down

into old trees to turn at the end and follow

the side of the cliff and I stopped there to look as always

out over the hedgerows and the pastures lying

face upward filled with the radiance before sunset

one below the other down to the haze along the river

each of them broader than I had remembered them

like skies with sheep running molten in the lanes between them

clonking of sheep bells drifting up through the distance

I watched the shadow climbing the fields and I turned

uphill to come to the top gate and the last barn

the sun still in the day and my shadow going on

out into the upland and I saw they were milking

it was that hour and it seemed all my friends were there

we greeted each other and we walked back out to the gate

talking and saw the last light and our shadows gesturing

far out along the ridge until the darkness gathered them

and we went on standing here believing there were other words

we stood here talking about our lives in the autumn

— From The Vixen, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1995

Poet W. S. Merwin is a polyglot of both form and language, writing out of a dizzying array of schools, as well as being responsible for a dozen of the most important translations of poetry. Most recently, he’s released an updated Purgatorio , but Merwin’s also one of the United States’ foremost translators of Asian and Indian poets, and a noted translator of Pablo Neruda.

Despite this restless intellectual energy, he’s extremely accessible and writes some of the most intimate poems you’ll ever read. In Gate , Merwin takes a number of conventional pastoral tropes and works them into a modern elegy on death. Although Merwin doesn’t speak directly of death, it is the lateness of the hour that pervades here, and more to the point, the voice of the poem is not looking upon his own death as much as he is remembering those who are lost.

The key trope in the poem is in the title. The “gate,” as simple an image for passage as one can imagine, is used subtly but persuasively in the poem. The voice, while out for a quiet, contemplative walk, comes “to the top gate and the last barn.” These details needn’t portend anything, but it becomes clear that this is a place of transformation, for “it seemed all my friends were there/ we greeted each other and we walked back out to the gate.” Here the poet gathers with those who’ve been lost and they simply stand at the top of the hill, looking out over the fields, and talk “about our lives in the autumn.”

Gate is also a marvelous evocation of a landscape that is familiar to many of us, but a landscape heightened by the beauty of Merwin’s language. So we do not merely have sheep wandering in hedgerows, we have “sheep running molten in the lanes between them” and a “scatter” of sheep “circling slowly/ as a galaxy ferrying the grey lights that were theirs.”

With those long, unpunctuated lines, Merwin creates a text with some of the force of prose, even with some of prose’s rhythms (“I stopped there to look as always/ out over the hedgerows”). This contemplative form lends itself to a benign sermonizing, but it is the transformations wrought between the lines, as well as in the progress of the poem’s narrative, that locks us into the emotion of the poem and signals to us (although it becomes explicit by the end) that this is not just a nostalgic wander through a beloved place. It may start there (all mythic journeys begin in the world), but it ends up on the banks of the poet’s version of the river Lethe. There, dead souls gather to drink on their way back to the living. And in Gate , Merwin’s lost ones drink from his cup and are brought back to continue the conversation of the living: “we went on standing here believing there were other words.”

–Michael Redhill. This column originally appeared in the Globe & Mail.