O too dull brain, O unperceiving nerves
That cannot sense what so torments my soul,
But like torn trees, when deep Novembers roll
Tragic with mighty winds and vaulting curves
Of sorrowful vast sound, and light that swerves
In blown and tossing eddies, branch and bole
Shudder and gesture with a grotesque dole,
A grief that misconceives the grief it serves,
O too dull brain, — with some more subtle sense
I know you here within the lightless room
Reaching your hand to me, and my faint eyes
See only darkness and the night’s expanse,
And horribly, within the listening gloom,
My voice comes back, still eager with surprise.
Where it begins will remain a question
for the time being at least which is to
say for this lifetime and there is no
other life that can be this one again
and where it goes after that only one
at a time is ever about to know
though we have it by heart as one and though
we remind each other on occasion
How often may the clarinet rehearse
alone the one solo before the one
time that is heard after all the others
telling the one thing that they all tell of
it is the sole performance of a life
come back I say to it over the waters
William Stanley Merwin died four days ago on March 15. Merwin was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize twice, separated by 38 years, the first in 1971 and the second in 2009, putting him in rarefied air among poets with everyone looking up at Robert Frost who received four, a bit hoggish I think, having the inability to write crap for an extended period in his career so someone else could bring home some bling.
Merwin and MacLeish helped balance the scales in the poetry world by showing it is possible to be a poet and live to a ripe old age and not smoke and drink yourself to death prematurely with an anxiety ridden existance as the source of your muse or worse yet, stick your head in an oven like a few other Pulitzer prize winners. Fortunately, the Pulitzer committee does not take into account the theatrical nature of the poet’s self-destruction as a criteria for receiving the award. They only look at the body of work and in both MacLeish’s and Merwin’s cases the body of work is long and substantial. Each lived big lives and expanded the world of poetry through their contributions. MacLeish also a recipient of the Pulitzer in 1933.
The poem below snuck up on me. Preparing for this blog post, I read a number of MacLeish’s better known poems and kept coming back to this poem. I can’t explain why, other than it feels like a poem that is a private conversation between the poet and the reader in the quiet of the moment, a whisper in your ear, a confidence between a favorite uncle and his much younger protege, saying “pay attention, your life is happening, right now.” So pay attention and enjoy, both your life and this poem.
The Rock In The Sea
By Archibald MacLeish (1892 – 1982)
Think of our blindness where the water burned!
Are we so certain that those wings, returned
And turning, we had half discerned
Before our dazzled eyes had surely seen
The bird aloft there, did not mean?—
Our hearts so seized upon the sign!
Think how we sailed up-wind, the brine
Tasting of daphne, the enormous wave
Thundering in the water cave—
Thunder in stone. And how we beached the skiff
And climbed the coral of that iron cliff
And found what only in our hearts we’d heard—
The silver screaming of that one, white bird:
The fabulous wings, the crimson beak
That opened, red as blood, to shriek
And clamor in that world of stone,
No voice to answer but its own.
What certainty, hidden in our hearts before,
Found in the bird its metaphor?