Rock, shadow, hole in ice, ring of trees, sky. W.S. Merwin passed from this life into the further reaches of Hawaii last Saturday. Certainly one of the great poetic voices through the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, Merwin captivated readers with his consummate literary skill, knowledge of literary traditions ranging through time and language, and his dedication to giving voice to what passes from our lives. Thirty years ago, a friend and fellow poet passed to me Merwin’s 1967 collection The Lice, and I’ve never read poetry the same. Over the next few posts, I’m going to think through a few of the poems from that landmark book, musing on its ethics, images and prosody as a way of paying homage to such an influential writer.
The title with its Baudelairean cast, its purposeful conjuring of an underbelly, an infestation receives echo and setting in a philosophical observation by an ancient greek natural philosopher, who at times portrayed himself as opposed to orthodox views held by his neighbors and Hellenes in general. This witticism attributed to Heraclitus appears in The Refutation of all Heresies written by Hippolytus of Rome, who catalogues the beliefs and sayings of non-Christian philosophers and theologians, notably Pre-Socratic philosophers like Heraclitus and Gnostic apologists. The particular selection which Merwin uses as an epigraph reads as follows,
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.”
Reading through Andrei Lebedev’s The Logos of Heraclitus: A Reconstruction of His Thought and Word, Heraclitus may be found pointing out quite often the limitations of the myth-making poets such as Hesiod and Homer. Again in The Refutation we read,
The teacher of most is Hesiod. It is him that they recognize as the one who knows most of all, although he did not know even Day and Night, for they are one and the same.
Heraclitus said that Homer deserved to be thrown out of the competitions and vapulated, and Archilochus likewise.
Vapulated: beat, flog, strike, whip. Yes, yes indeed. For Heraclitus, the matter of the day rested with what can be seen, heard and perceived; though, seeing and hearing and perceiving for Heraclitus meant seeing what is not at all apparent as one of his most famous fragments states,
The nature of things tends to be hidden.
Merwin’s choice of Heraclitus emphasizes the question that quite possibly all of philosophy attempts to puzzle out, what is real? What is illusion? The implications and consequences of not understanding the boys’ riddle, of not being able to distinguish what is right in front of you and all around appear immediately in the first poem in The Lice, “The Animals.”
All these years behind windows
With blind crosses sweeping the tables
And myself tracking over empty ground
Animals I never saw
I with no voice
Remembering names to invent for them
Will any come back will one
Saying look carefully yes
We will meet again
Here the poetic voice contests its own speaking, its own sound and concentrates instead on what is looked for and not found, what is named but not seen. Possibly a man remembering his childhood nomenclature for animals, possibly a reference to the Adamic project of naming our fellow creatures in the world. The poem opens with a regret of wasted time, of time spent inside–the world of the house, a world removed from the animals; and yet, by the concluding lines, a healing for this distance is offered, a healing relying upon greater sight and insight, and relying upon a promise “We will meet again.”
If we will not be deceived by appearances, whether they be lice well-hidden or meaning well-hidden, if we will look for traces which we then can track to those we have lost, those we have missed, then a reconciliation is possible. A note at the beginning of this book of absence, and also the possibility of presence.