WS Merwin has a stunning historical poem called Odysseus from 1960. I first heard it on a poetry tape or CD and said out loud — Oh, yes! What was that?! I played it again. I was driving on Stockton street near Union Square in SF. It was around 1998. I’m a sucker for terse historical poetry. Here are some lines:Always the setting forth was the same, same sea, same dangers waiting for him as though he had got nowhere but older. Behind him on the receding shore the identical reproaches, and somewhere out before him, the unraveling patience he was wedded to….
Penelope, his wife is the unraveling patience he was wedded to… Penelope, whose job was to weave by day, secretly unravels the weavings by night, so she won’t finish her work and have to chose a suitor among the unappealing gold-diggers trashing her downstairs rooms, men who have waited over a decade for her to complete her work. Odysseus carries the continual confusion of being becalmed or moved about by the gods, until his mind no longer can hold the certainty of reaching Ithaca, his home. Metaphoric expertise carries the reader into new realms. It takes Merwin 17 lines to take us to the inner state —with not a word wasted.<> <> <<>> <> <>
When my son Solomon died, the short Merwin poem called Separation felt true and wise. Its strength was sustaining and held the painful paradox — presence and absence at the same time.Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.
This morning I came upon a poem by poet and Stanford Professor Emeritus WS Di Piero called: There Were Such Things [in 2014 Pushcart Prize XXXVIII, Best of the Small Presses from ZYZZYVA]. I was stunned by where it took me. Here it is:
There Were Such Things I knew the words would be waiting for me, how various sounds play in the mouth and mind, each time a different estero in my heart like your bracelet’s lost coral scale, your bone hairpin, the lipstick smudge sliding off torn tissue a special event each time, thing by thing, word by word. I knew these creatures, as before, would be waiting in their familiar names, in dowicher, willet, whimbrel and coot or snipe or curlew, that I could speak and speak. Where were you that day? Why weren’t you with me? But what waited there was something else. Muscling nonstop around each other, dingy leopard sharks shadowed the shallows, the light dying on their silty backs. They seemed to be themselves the moving waters. They were the swimming absence of the words they drove away, part of the new vocabulary of exclusions, of what might have been birds, symmetric in their bones like umbrellas, the feather and flesh of what was now elsewhere.
I love the wordplay in the first part, then come the 4 lines:Dingy leopard sharks shadowed the shallows, the light dying on their silty backs. They seemed to be themselves the moving waters. They were the swimming absence of the words they drove away…
What just happened? The knowable just expanded. The sharks are vivid, then they shift to moving waters then
They were the swimming absence of the words they drove away.
Crazy Good! The absence of words drove away the new vocabulary.
Sharks appear. Sharks are an attention-grabbing image— then they are an absence… then they shark into “the vocabulary of exclusions” [an invisible contrast to, say, dowicher, willet, whimbrel]
Finally, an introduction of birds, symmetric in their bones like umbrellas,… now elsewhere. The metaphors work so well they appear and vanish, you can see through them, participate in the graceful dance of paradox.
This is an area of experience that feels true, but new, unexplored. I can still see the sharks, the excluded umbrella-birds. Clean. Solid. Bravo.