Reading by Lightning

W.S. Merwin

At Campbell Hall, UCSB, Thursday, April 13.

Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott

Ten minutes into the reading, he is already taller, broader, shining. Halfway into the reading, he is towering, too bright to look at. He has stopped telling stories, giving explanations. He introduces a poem with a phrase, if that; mostly he reads and reads. However level his voice, it has taken on the exoticness and poignancy of a bassoon. William S. Merwin has become an ocean swimmer in a body of work in which it would be easy to become lost.

Merwin’s versatility was evident at Campbell Hall last Thursday night. In slightly more than an hour, we heard a political poem, autobiographical poems, historical poems, poems dense with description, philosophic poems, poems on classical subjects, poems heavy with metaphor, story poems, an elegy, a lullaby that rhymed, a city poem, some odes, and several self-reflexive poems. It is also true that the subject matter of his poems was wide-ranging and at times surprising.

Read together, though, the poems seemed difficult to categorize. Any of them could have worn nearly any of the labels, and their subjects all, in the end, came back to the same place. Merwin did read the poems in chronological order, putting most of them in historical or geographical context, yet the poems over-spilled these containers and ran together. “Air,” one of the earliest — “This must be what I wanted to be doing, / Walking at night between the two deserts, / Singing” — sounded no less of-the-moment than “Nomadic Flute,” one of the most recent: “but I know better now/ than to ask you/ where you learned that music/where any of it came from.”

Those of us who grasp for a firm thread of intellectual comprehension in our poetry were given instead this stream, in which seemingly graspable objects surfaced and then floated away, “this reading by lightning / scarcely a word this nothing this heaven.” We were given to understand that in trying to grasp anything — “you who are not / lost when I do not find you” — we are fools. This realization perhaps sounds traumatic. I walked away grateful.

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