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Second Glance: “Today belongs to few and tomorrow to no one”

By (January 1, 2010) No Comment

The Lice
W.S. Merwin
Atheneum, 1967

Reprinted fully in:
The Second Four Books of Poems

By W.S. Merwin
Cooper Canyon Press, 1992


Reprinted partially in:
Migration: New and Selected Poems
By W.S. Merwin
Cooper Canyon Press, 2005

There is something enigmatic about W.S. Merwin. For the past 32 years he has lived in Hawaii, restoring a former pineapple plantation on the lip of a volcano to its original rainforest state. He is a practicing Zen Buddhist. He stares out of photographs with pale, wise, blue eyes. The Shadow of Sirius, his latest book of poetry, which won him his second Pulitzer Prize, has been called “personal, generous and empathic” for its renderings of childhood, memory, and nature. He is growing old.

But before we get comfortable consigning the much-lauded octogenarian to the status of benign elder-statesman, we would do well to remember his unsettling early work. We should revisit the implacable menace of poems like “The Asians Dying”:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

The nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed
The dead go away like bruises
The blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlands
Pain the horizon

In other words, we ought to read The Lice.

This slim and devastating 1967 volume cemented Merwin’s reputation as one of his generation’s foremost poets. Critic Edward Hirsch called it one of “the most influential poetry books of the 60s.” Reviewing The Lice in 1968, Denis Donoghue praised the collection’s resounding apocalyptic note, “dramatically sustained by the impression of man as a stranger on this cooling planet.” Laurence Lieberman, writing for The Yale Review, proclaimed that it perfectly captured “the peculiar, spiritual agony of our time”:

This book is a testament of betrayals; we have betrayed all the beings that had power to save us: the forests, the animals, the gods, the dead, the spirit in us, the words. Now, in our last moments alive, they return to haunt us.

The Lice is indeed a book of hauntings. And like many hauntings, it is open-ended and unceasing: four decades after its publication, The Lice still jars. Stanzas drift up from the page like the smoke of doused fires: distant war, abandoned land, helpless animals, and impotent, oblivious human beings. The sense of inevitable destruction is personal as well as global. The anonymous and inexorable violence of “The Asians Dying” sits across the page from “When You Go Away,” which describes the effect of a lover’s absence: “The painters work all day but at sundown the paint falls/Showing the black walls.”

The dominant shading of the poems is not black but white: bones, fleece, and ice, white set against darkness. Snow at night brushes against glass towers in “The Mourner.” In “After the Solstice” white hair is “caught in the thorns of the abandoned vineyard.” “Looking East at Night,” Merwin sees moths flying at the white hand of death in darkness, an illumination he mistook for the rising moon:

Whose light then
Do you reflect

As though it came out of the roots of things
This harvest pallor in which

I have no shadow but myself

These poems disturb. Some speak in the hushed impersonal tone of warnings; others burn cold with fury. Throughout, they work to undermine false hopes and callow justifications. In The Lice, man has irreversibly decimated the natural world. None of us are exempt from the destruction which surrounds us. The poems take place on lonely slopes and in isolated pastures which force the reader to survey stretches of desolate land, admitting no recourse. In one poem, extinct animals with “eyes full of cotton” prowl the earth, looking for a way home which they will never find. “Tonight once more/I find a single prayer,” he writes, “and it is not for men.” The Lice takes its title and uses as its epigraph a passage from Heraclitus of sly reversal, which undercuts humankind’s pretensions to knowledge:

All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

This suits the book’s mood—whatever humans think they possess is always slipping from their grasp or sinking out of view. Many of the poems are laced with paradoxical statements that resound with the terse, cryptic wisdom of ancient Greek fragments: “You that lose nothing/Know nothing” and “Everything that does not need you is real”.

Insofar as human intentions and human knowledge appear in this volume, they are broken down. Our intentions and ideas are but small, futile deceptions which pale next to the inevitable violence of our deeds. In the short poem “When The War Is Over,” Merwin begins with statements of untethered, communal optimism then jabs a knife in them:

When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again

Whatever promises humans make, they betray. Merwin is not on the side of Homer; he is on the side of the lice. Animals, earth, and plants possess the real poetic power here. Mankind, with his attempts at narrative, is impotent. The poet himself realizes “that my words are the garment of what I shall never be/Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy.” Even such a first-person confession possesses a ringing, impersonal air. Humans are always on the outside of the world of these poems. The Lice does not tell stories. Like many others in the collection, “When The War Is Over” builds its power through a collusion of images. With two exceptions (“Some Last Questions and “The Last One”) the 63 poems in The Lice lack punctuation. This gives them an open, spoken quality, as though they emanated from rather than stood outside of the natural forces they depict.

In The Lice, the poetic voice speaks with such forceful urgency that the need for orienting commas, periods, and question marks does indeed fall away. Merwin has recounted how, at that time, he began to feel that “punctuation was like nailing words onto the page.” In his famous 1969 essay, “On Open Form,” he wrote that instead of composing manipulable patterns, modern poetry should aim for an “unduplicatable resonance…like an echo except that it is repeating no sound.”

The idea of an echo which repeats no sound suits the ghostly, reverberating quality of The Lice, where blindness and despair rattle with endless variations. The repetition of an echo, or a wave. In “The Wave,” one of the signal poems of the collection, a long wave causes harbors and finally shadows to retreat, while those caught in its wake are mute, powerless, and beginning to sink. “The light was full of salt and the air/Was heavy with crying for where the wave had come from/And why.” Everything caught in its wake disappears, whether sand or artificial “glass corridors”; hope or languages. At the end of the poem the wave asks “where next as it breaks.” It is one of the most subtle and sinister lines in The Lice. The blind force of a wave which breaks onto shore, cleansing, obliterating, and always preparing to wash in again, perfectly encapsulates the inevitable and on-going destruction The Lice depicts, as well as the harsh ebb and flow of the book itself.

But the definitive statement of that destruction — and of The Lice — comes in the adjacent “Whenever I Go There.” The narrator announces at the outset, “Whenever I go there everything is changed”. But he gives no locational details about the place he describes. Instead he sees bandages and white-colored mourning, new insects sitting on new rocks:

And once more I remember that the beginning

Is broken

No wonder the addresses are torn

To which I make my way eating the silence of animals
Offering snow to the darkness

In this poem something as seemingly indissoluble as the beginning has been broken. The “addresses are torn” but the narrator makes his way towards them anyway, taking for granted what Merwin renders as paradox: that something eaten can be made of its silence. He has no offering but cold, insubstantial snow, nothing to give the offering to but darkness. The present is icy and solitary, but not as empty as the future. The poem ends suddenly, with the bleak, assured admonition: “Today belongs to few and tomorrow to no one.”

It is an unremitting view, and in the years after The Lice, Merwin moved away from it. In contrast to the focus and lyric violence of The Lice, later poems resound with celebratory and reflective notes as often as they echo indictments. Merwin, who in an interview once described walking city streets as a boy and having to reassure himself that there was still ground under the concrete, has never lost his ecological consciousness. But starting with 1977’s sublime The Compass Flower, nature begins to yield more than frozen, violated vistas. It contains also what Edward Hirsch calls “a dream of pastoral or ecological wholeness.”

When asked why he moved beyond what he calls “the dumb, searing vision” he felt after writing The Lice, Merwin explained:

[O]ne can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us.

This is fair warning to those engulfed in the agonized intensity of The Lice. Despair and anger have the ability to disfigure not only their objects but their originators; those who spend too much time in darkness run the risk of impairing their ability to make out the light.

But we also need poets to sensitize us to the world’s horrors, poems which shake us to attention. For those times when complacency threatens just as much as devastation, The Lice remains, its unmoored stanzas whispering, creeping, and shaking off the page.

Ingrid Norton has written for publications ranging from The Chronicle of Higher Education to Soundcheck Magazine.