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Secret journeys

The Book of Fables W.S. Merwin Copper Canyon Press: 350 pp., $20 paper

July 08, 2007|Amy Gerstler | Amy Gerstler is a poet whose book "Bitter Angel" won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

IF there's such a thing as an "old soul," then W.S. Merwin surely is one. This has been evident over a long career, in his questioning, vatic voice and dreamy, meticulously crafted poetry. It's clear in his poems' commitment to the big mysteries and their explorations of archetypal disquiet, infinite bereftness and protective tenderness toward Mother Earth. You can even discern glimmers of Merwin's abiding identity as post-Presbyterian Zen poet and channeler of ancient paradoxes by comparing two iconic jacket photographs of this lionized writer, now nearing 80.

The early one shows a tousle-haired, vigorous dude in work shirt and jeans. Unapologetic Vietnam War protester, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets award conferred by W.H. Auden (another poet apparently not fond of his Christian names), translator from a handful of romance languages, Merwin gazes straight into the camera's lens. Clear-eyed and calm, he's not exactly smiling. His mouth sits a bit crooked, which makes him appear quizzical. His expression suggests that while observing the current moment, he is also navigating strange interior lands.

The William Stanley Merwin of the second, much later photo, a headshot, is an old man in profile. His white hair is cropped close. His expression is, if anything, livelier than in the shot of his previous self. He has refined and united the once-divided gaze that looks out at the visible world, drinking it up, while still conjuring dark, cryptic inner universes. And unlike the young Merwin, the wrinkled face of Merwin the elder exhibits a slight, dry smile.

And why shouldn't our current Merwin sport the ghost of a grin? He's received virtually every major American literary prize, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. At last count, he had more than 50 books of poetry, prose and translation to his credit. His translations include heavyweights such as Dante, Neruda, Euripides and Mandelstam. According to the biographical note from the publisher of "The Book of Fables," he lives in that tropical near-Eden, Hawaii, "where he raises endangered palm trees." All this looks like the epitome of a life well spent.

"The Book of Fables" is a compilation of two previous volumes of prose: "The Miner's Pale Children" (1970) and "Houses and Travellers" (1977). The pieces teeter along the divides between parable, fable, prose poem, fragment and short story. Have these books aged well? And what have they to offer us in this hefty new combined version, circa 2007?

The short answers are (1) yes, surprisingly well and (2) plenty, if your taste runs to dense, elegant prose shorts that probe dread and threat, shame and fears, and tensions between the material and spiritual worlds. There seems to be no statute of limitations on texts that plumb these competing realities, employing surreal touches and a variety of conceits and dictions, all unfolding in some lush fusion of past, present and future -- a world in whose dark, labyrinthine caverns we humans often lose our way.

Merwin's approaches to the nature of humanity, politics, love, memory, forgetting, mortality and "the unnamable stillness ... unseeing, unhearing, unfeeling, unchanging, holding within itself the beginning and the end" often replace the concerns of the individual with those of the collective. This makes his sensibility feel at least as much Eastern as Western. His fables lack the annoying morals that cap most versions of Aesop's. In fact, Merwin's fables often end on notes that seem the very opposite of conclusion. These endings enact a sort of inverse in medias res, ending rather than beginning things in midstream -- with images of descent, ascent, dizziness, something lurking and awry, an endless journey or a circular sense of eternal return. A far cry from "coming right with a click like a closing box," as Yeats famously wrote, Merwin's deliberate lack of a Western sense of closure bespeaks a dedication to uneasiness, to the open-ended, the perpetual, the multifarious -- an honoring of threads of consciousness that seem to have existed, as the saying goes, "since time out of mind."

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