Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Merwin's similes

I had a thought about W.S. Merwin's similes today. "Still Morning" is one of the great poems in his latest book, The Shadow of Sirius:


It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

Why would he think that the flying birds know nothing of the air they are flying through? They would, or might, know as much about the air as we do about the fact of age. To say that at this age (in his eighties), age knows nothing of age is to say that what it once thought would be the knowledge of age that would come with age turns out to be nothing. It doesn't feel different at eighty from at eight. Here, now, he sees the world as he did there, then.

How did he see the world then? The way we all did, before we were surprised by light or air or having a body or the voluptuousness of looking. When did we learn that air existed? We didn't used to know it, or if we knew, we knew it in our breathing, not in our knowing. That was knowledge before the knowledge came that we would die. And now, trying to recall that tacit knowledge of air, all we can do is find a simile for how we once breathed: the way the birds fly, without thinking of the air they fly through, the day that bears them up.

So let's say that this simile is false. The flying birds must know much about the air they are flying through in order to be able to live as they do. But trying to remember early childhood, and the not knowing of that time, we imagine it not as we imagine being a bird, but as we imagine a child imagining being a bird.

Would a child really imagine being a bird like that? I doubt it. But however a child imagines things, it seems continuous with that imagination to imagine a child imagining that way. We imagine childhood the way a child would - a child our age.

And an interesting thing about this similes is what it brings out, by contrast, about similes in general: Similes focus on the true. When you use a simile to make a comparison, the thing you're comparing your theme or subject to is something true and public. If the hangers rattle like madmen, it's because there is a way that real madmen cause disturbances.

But Merwin's similes are different. Part of their amazing economy is that both sides of the simile are figurative. His poetry has always been about the comparing of figure with figure, not figure with the already established truth. That's what give his poetry its gossamer quality, its fragility, its sense of subjectivity in every direction. Merwin's similes are as delicate as the things they're supposed to be stabilizing and explaining. And that's what this poem is about.


It's also what another poem in the same book is about, "Blueberries After Dark," which begins
So this is the way the night tastes
one at a time
not early or late

The night, every night of old age, turns out to be like a blueberry eaten at just the right moment, neither harsh and crude nor falling overmellow into the rotten mouth of death. That's good. How do we know it's old age? Because of the title: "Blueberries After Dark." It's not the night that brings the dark. The sequence of nights here are those that come after dark. The metaphor is half-joined to what it's figuring: in the night, each night comes at the right time. A clear and well-formed version of this metaphor might go something like: "In the late autumn, each night comes at the right time." But here night and the dark it brings are both simultaneously tenor and vehicle: the way they come together is the way subjectivity feels in Merwin.


I think that it's also the way subjectivity feels in Proust, partly because "Still Morning" reminded me of this great passage at the beginning of La Prisonnière:

Jadis, un directeur de théâtre dépensait des centaines de mille francs pour consteller de vraies émeraudes le trône où la diva jouait un rôle d’impératrice. Les ballets russes nous ont appris que de simples jeux de lumières prodiguent, dirigés là où il faut, des joyaux aussi somptueux et plus variés. Cette décoration, déjà plus immatérielle, n’est pas si gracieuse pourtant que celle par quoi, à huit heures du matin, le soleil remplace celle que nous avions l’habitude d’y voir quand nous ne nous levions qu’à midi. Les fenêtres de nos deux salles de bains, pour qu’on ne pût nous voir du dehors, n’étaient pas lisses, mais toutes froncées d’un givre artificiel et démodé. Le soleil tout à coup jaunissait cette mousseline de verre, la dorait et, découvrant doucement en moi un jeune homme plus ancien, qu’avait caché longtemps l’habitude, me grisait de souvenirs, comme si j’eusse été en pleine nature devant des feuillages dorés où ne manquait même pas la présence d’un oiseau.


In the old days, a theatrical producer would spend hundreds of thousands of francs to constellate with real emeralds the throne where the diva played the empress role. The ballets russes have taught us that the simplest play of light scatters, directed rightly, gems just as sumptuous and more varied. This decoration, already tending towards the immaterial, is nevertheless not as graceful as that by which, at eight in the morning, the sun replaces the decoration that we are used to seeing there when we don't get up until noon. The windows of our two bathrooms weren't smooth but textured with an old-fashioned artificial frosting, so that we wouldn't be seen from outside. The sun suddenly yellowed that glass gauze, turned it gold, uncovering within me a young man from longer ago, hidden for a long time by the force of habit, intoxicated me with memories, as if I had been right out in nature looking at golden leaves which didn't lack even the presence of a bird [since Albertine is whistling].
One of the things he'll be remembering was the sun he longed for because it might mean that Gilberte would go out: he watches for "cet or inaltérable et fixe des beaux jours" - that fixed, inalterable gold of a lovely day.

And Stevens of course:

to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained... --"A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts"


Rabbit Light and Frosted Glass

1 comment:

  1. A friend writes:

    ...both recall to me Bergotte's patch of yellow:

    He noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. 'That’s how I ought to have written,' he said. 'My last books are too dry. I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour… like this little patch of yellow wall.’