August 12, 2010

Echoes: What has escaped us, we bring with us

Having read and enjoyed W. S. Merwin's 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning book of poems, 'The Shadow of Sirius' (Review) in July, I have been reading his earlier poems this month - collected in his National Book Award winning book, 'Migration: New and Selected Poems'. What a treasure trove of poetry from this great poet - the mind reels at the number of poems in this collection! So,  started with some of his poetry from the 1960s: The Moving Target (1963), The Lice (1967) and some from The Carrier of Ladders (1970) and then jumped ahead to more recent poems from The River Sound (1999) and The Pupil (2001). It is like trying to drink from a fountain and overwhelmed, I have set it aside for the time being.

So, couple days ago, I moved on to a book of prose by Merwin: The Book of Fables, which I had picked up at the library recently along with a book of Selected Prose by the poet, John Ashbery. I have not read the essays by Ashbery yet - many are art criticisms; Ashbery in addition to being a amous poet also writes serious art criticism. However, I started with the Merwin book prose after reading a review of the book in the WaPo, where Michael Dirda writes:
...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. (emphasis mine)
I thought I was really going to love it! Well....the update after two attempts to read a few different prose pieces is that somehow things are not clicking. A handful of the pieces (most are half to one page long) were good but most are too abstract and none of them snared me with their beauty! Maybe it is just me... maybe I just need to come back to it later in a different mood. Sometimes poetry (for example, some of Ashbery's poems) and abstract prose can be like that -- they exist on a very different mental plane than I am at.

In any case, here is one excerpt from a short piece called Echoes that I did enjoy:

Everything we hear is an echo. Anyone can see that echoes move forward and backward in time, in rings. But not everyone realizes that as a result silence becomes harder and harder for us to grasp -= though in itself it is unchanged - because of the echoes pouring through us out of the past, unless we can learn to set them at rest. We are still hearing the bolting of the doors of Hell, Pasiphae in her byre, the cries at Thermopylae, and do not recognize the sounds. How did we sound to the past? And there are sounds that rush away from us: echoes of future words.

So we know that there are words in the future, some of them loud and terrible. And we know that there is silence in the future. But will the words recognize their unchanging homeland.
P.S. I take the title of this post from the preface to his ground-breaking book, The Lice, in 1967:
"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.” - Heraclitus

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