Second Look: Revisiting W. S. Merwin's The Vixen
I first read W.S. Merwin's The Vixen in a contemporary poetry course taught by James Tate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was a graduate student in the MFA program in poetry. It was either spring or fall, I believe, of 1998. I have, associated with this book, a memory of sad, warm days, but I'm not sure.
I loved being an MFA student, although I was very unhappy all the time, without realizing it. I read poetry constantly and wrote all sorts of poems (on a manual typewriter that used to belong to my mother in high school, which I salvaged from my grandparents' attic), all of them failures. I was lucky enough to have Tate and Dara Wier and the late, amazing Agha Shahid Ali as teachers. All three were calm in their behavior while unpredictable in their interests, and all three were writing with great force and power.
My fellow students were bright and nervous, and we all had the sense that something very important was starting to happen, even if we didn't know exactly what it was. It's probably hard to imagine now, but at the time, we barely thought about publishing in magazines, much less a book. Of course, we wanted to, but that was really for "later." Hardly any of us had published anything, and almost everything we wrote we shared with one another and then changed or threw away or reused for some other purpose. We very much thought of ourselves as experimenters, practicers, apprentices.
My paperback copy of The Vixen is a very light tan color, with what looks like a painting of a fox on the cover. Actually, it's a not a painting or drawing, but a blurry, impressionistic photograph by Minoru Taketazu, presumably from his book Fox Family: The Four Seasons of Animal Life. It is described on Amazon.com with the following irresistible, tragic synopsis: "The life cycle of the Ezo fox, native to the northern islands of Japan, is captured in a photographic essay that follows the fox through the icy winter and birth of cubs in the spring to the family break up in the fall."
When I open the book, I see it's a first edition. I'm sure I must have bought it when it first came out in paperback, at Wooton's, a small bookstore right on the main drag in Amherst, where we went almost every day to lurk and wait to see who else would come in to hang out. That store is no longer there, though its former proprietor, Mark Wooton, is one of the co-owners of the marvelous Amherst Books, right around the corner.
On the first blank page before the title page, in pencil I see written in my handwriting
Wed 23 11:30
Tue 29 2:00
Wed 30 11:30
and it takes me just a few seconds to realize these are reminders of times I was scheduled to meet my new analyst, with whom I still, all these years later, sometimes speak (on the phone now from California).
At that time, my unhappiness, which I had always just taken for granted, had recently taken on the particularly virulent, malevolent, self-destructive form of a triangular love affair, composed of me and two of my fellow graduate students, a former couple. The whole thing was typical and destructive and inexcusable and humiliating and just generally a giant, psychologically inevitable train wreck. All the time I was trying to write poems, and I remember being very frustrated, in a poetic sense as well as a personal one. Looking back on it now, I can see, with a little tolerance and forgiveness, that I was just starting to really understand the possibilities of language as material, in the same way a painter might start at some early point to truly begin to know paint. But at the time, I was deep in the middle of many interrelated crises of confidence and couldn't see any way forward, except to thrash wildly in one aesthetic direction or another in the hope something would stick.
Some of my difficulties were inherent to the condition of being a novice. Some, however, were a result of the times. In the late 1990s, it was taken for granted, widely in poetry and especially in many of the top graduate programs in creative writing, that it was unsophisticated, retrograde, even manipulative to sully whatever was "poetic" in a poem with any kind of story or situation. Everyone knew a poet had to relinquish the crutch of narrative to write true poetry and not its mere, sad cousin, lyrical prose. To call a poem narrative was just a euphemism for square, unsophisticated, sappy, self-absorbed, and old-fashioned.
It was therefore a silent article of faith among the students (though not the professors) that any sort of anecdotal narration was by its nature incompatible with poetry. Of course, even a cursory study of poetry from almost any time period would quickly reveal this aesthetic position as patently incorrect. Yet this was an idea nestled firmly in the minds of many young poets at the time, including my friends and me.
When I think back on it now, I remember that this rejection of narrative was also bound up in an idea about who had the "right" to speak. At all costs, we young poets wanted to avoid the possibility of being caught out as writers who took on, unintentionally or otherwise, oracular, superior stances in our poems that made it seem as though we thought we were better than our readers.
Surely it was good and right that we were questioning the role of the speaker in poems. There had been decades at least of American poetry that had time and again fallen into what Keats called Wordsworth's "egotistical sublime," an ostensible celebration of nature, or the world, that was really about praising the poet's own superior qualities of perceptiveness. We still see this today, in those awful, typical poems in which someone goes for a walk in the woods or to a hospital to visit a sick loved one to see something beautiful and terrible that reveals the so-called truth of our existence. These poems have the not-so-secret agenda of holding the sensitivity and emotional depth of the poet (and by extension the reader, who is wise and thoughtful and cultured and emotionally advanced enough to be experiencing this marvelous poem) up for collective admiration.
What we didn't realize was that this stance of the egotistical sublime, however odious, was not inherently related to the use of narrative in poetry. What we wanted was beauty that obliterated all other consideration, that lyricism, that singing that can happen only in poetry. And it was right for us to want that. But we also didn't realize how incredibly difficult it would be, especially as beginners in the art, to take such a rigid and unnecessary stance that narrative could not, because of its very nature, coexist with the lyric.
The mood of The Vixen is elegiac, mysterious, historical. Centuries can go by in a few lines, and in many of the poems, a cyclical, prehistorical time can permeate the modern era. The speaker has bought an old house somewhere rural, in France. He walks and meets people, some of whom seem like ghosts from a different, ancient time. Something in his life is ending ("this time / was a time of ending this time the long marriage was over / the orbits were flying apart"), and there are symbolic echoes, not too heavy-handed but definitely present, of this in the condition of the old house, which must be rebuilt, as well as in the reappearance of this female fox, the vixen, in real and mythic ways. On his walks, the narrator encounters various inhabitants of the rural area where he finds himself. Some of the poems are dreams, some are general meditations about the time of the narrator's life, and some take place in a much older, sometimes medieval, sometimes mythic time.
The Vixen begins with a three-page poem, "Fox Sleep." Like an overture, in its five sections the poem moves through the various times and modes of consciousness that will appear in the rest of the poems of the book. The form of "Fox Sleep" is the same as all the rest of the poems in the book: long lines that extend almost to the right margin, every other line indented, no punctuation.
On a road through the mountains with a friend
many years ago
I came to a curve on a slope where a clear
flowed down flashing across dark rocks through its
echoes that could neither be caught nor
it was the turning of autumn and already
the mornings were cold with ragged clouds
in the hollows
long after sunrise but the pasture sagging like a
the glassy water and flickering yellow leaves
in the few poplars and knotted plum trees were
in a handful of sunlight that made the slates
on the silent
mill by the stream glisten white above their ruin
and a few relics of the life before had been
in front of the open mill house to wait
pale in the daylight out on the open
after whatever they had been made for was over
the dew was drying on them and there were
few who took that road
who might buy one of them and take it away
to be unusual to be the only one
to become unknown a wooden bed stood there on
a cradle the color of dust a cracked oil jar iron
wooden wheels iron wheels stone wheels the tall
box of a clock
and among them a ring of white stone the
size of an
embrace set into another of the same size
an iron spike rising from the ring where the
handle had fitted that turned it in its days as a
you could see if you looked closely that the
that turned in the other had been carved long
before in the form
of a fox lying nose in tail seeming to be
asleep the features worn almost away where it
had gone around and around grinding grain
to go into the dark and to go on and remember
This first section of the poem is essentially a description of things the speaker and his friend see on trip together in the mountains, particularly an old mill, which has the objects that used to be inside it now "arranged...to wait pale in the daylight out on the open mountain / after whatever they had been made for was over"; that is, they are now antiques, for sale. The grammatical structure and thought movement are, because of the lack of punctuation, fundamentally paratactic; the grammatical structure puts thoughts and events that in ordinary writing are usually organized hierarchically on the same plane, creating unexpected (but also very real) connections. As in so much contemporary poetry, therefore, the thinking is by its very nature associative, moving from one to another related, but not necessarily predictable, idea.
The poem is quick, leaping, intuitive. These qualities are, however, counterbalanced by the anecdotal and narrative: "On a road through the mountains with a friend many years ago / I came to a curve on a slope . . ." This narrative grounding situates the poem firmly, which then allows the poet to step out at will and make associations and observations and digressions that are often quite strange but always believable.
It is precisely this generous willingness to establish a narrative framework that allows the poet very quickly to move into a deeper state of perception: "I came to a curve on a slope where a clear stream / flowed down flashing across dark rocks through its own / echoes that could neither be caught nor forgotten." This movement, so natural and strange, is characteristic not only of this poem but also of Merwin's poetry throughout his career. It reminds me of Cezanne, who works in the areas where figuration starts to become abstraction, or Coltrane, who would by grounding his composition in melody be able to bring the listener along with him out into the far regions of chaos and noise and then return.
I often say to my students—and it is still so funny and strange to me to think that I am no longer a student but have them myself because in my mind, especially in relation to poetry, I will always be one—that without clarity, it is not possible to have true mystery. By clarity, I mean a sense in the reader that what is being said on the surface of the poem is not a scrim or a veil deliberately hiding some other hidden, inaccessible certainty. Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding. To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.
Merwin's poems have always been mysterious, generous, and clear, knowing in their unknowingness. Often this effect is achieved by means of telling a simple story. In this book, as in much of Merwin's poetry, the combination of narrative structure and associative/paratactic movement together make it possible for Merwin to do something else essential to the effect of these poems: to move quietly and confidently into an aphoristic, truth-telling mode that is somehow full of deep, personal compassion yet also disembodied. These aphoristic moments seem almost to emerge from the natural world as truths as undeniable as animals or weather.
Beneath their simple, generous surfaces, the poems are also often very complex, especially in their treatment of time. "The Furrow" begins in contemplation and ends in aphorism and therefore seemed at the time quite unfashionable, not only in its noble and unironic willingness to explore the psychology of the narrator but also in its overt thinking about the landscape as a metaphorical way to understand a human situation.
Did I think it would abide as it was forever
all that time ago the turned earth in the old garden
where I stood in spring remembering spring in another
that had ceased to exist and the dug roots kept
their black tokens their coins and bone buttons and shoe
made by hands and bits of plates as the thin clouds
of that season slipped past gray branches on which the
white petals were catching their light and I thought
something of age then my own age which had conveyed
to there and the ages of the trees and the walls and
from before my coming and the age of the new seeds as I
set each one in the ground to begin to remember
what to become and the order in which to return
and even the other age into which I was passing
all the time while I was thinking of something different
The it of the first line of the poem refers, most obviously, to the nearest antecedent, the furrow. The speaker is asking himself if, when he first dug the furrow and planted the seeds, he thought that it, this strip of dug-up earth, would always "abide as it was forever," continue for all time to be there the way it was. Of course, part of him did not, because he was planting seeds, which he presumably thought (or at least hoped) would grow. But part of him probably did assume or think (even though his conscious mind would have been aware in a logical sense that this was not the case) that the earth would always stay this way: dug up, disrupted, in a state of change.
In addition to the basic meaning of the first line and beyond this particular situation of gardening, this question obviously has a larger, more allegorical context. It seems not merely to be the furrow but also an unspecified feeling, maybe a state of being or a time in life. It's hard to say at the beginning of the poem. The peculiar combination of specificity (the furrow) and multiple possibility (the unspoken huge feeling or idea to which the word it also points) is what gives the poem its immediate air of significance. A furrow is, literally, an agricultural term. But it is also, more familiarly for most people, what a forehead does when one is confused or troubled. A reader can easily imagine the narrator, who in the third line is thinking about a previous stage in his life, with a furrowed brow, trying (like the reader!) to think through something important, right there in front of him but also a bit elusive.
This poem is characteristic of many in The Vixen. It begins with a clear, direct, narrative situation. Someone is standing and looking at "the old garden" and thinking about how he planted seeds there. But the more I read the poem, the more I realize how complex it is, especially in its relationship to time. There are, actually, at least four different time periods in the poem. There is the current time, when the speaker is looking at the garden. There is the earlier spring, when the narrator made the furrow and planted the seeds. And there is the spring earlier than that one, the one that the narrator is remembering he remembered as he planted: "I stood in spring remembering spring in another place / that had ceased to exist." And then there is the much older time when these objects—"their black tokens their coins and bone buttons and shoe nails / made by hands and bits of plates"— first found their way into the earth the narrator is digging up.
So underneath this seemingly simple poem is actually a complex layering of time and memory. Now, in the current time, looking at the garden, the narrator remembers how he thought at the time when he was planting that he knew something important about life: "I thought I knew / something of age then my own age which had conveyed me / to there and the ages of the trees and the walls and houses / from before my coming and the age of the new seeds as I / set each one in the ground."
Maybe he did know something important then. But he knows something even more important now. At that time, even though all he could see was change and disruption and the hope and efforts to start something new, a new stage in his own life was already coming to be. The poem ends with a statement that is not only particular to this narrator's life and experience but also feels aphoristic: we are always passing into new stages, while all the time we are thinking of something different. In isolation, this seems banal, but when this statement is reached at the end of the poem, it has the force of quiet revelation.
Paradoxically, wonderfully, when such statements seemingly come out of nowhere—reached by associative methods and not by accretive logic—they feel all the more convincing. And this, I think, is one of the things readers truly love about poetry, this ability to hear wisdom that feels truly wise yet also disembodied, as though it comes from the world itself.
At the end of another poem, "White Morning," the speaker and some other people go out to cut branches from trees in order to "cut handles that would last." The final lines of the poem cycle through many of the modes I have mentioned above, to chilling, enormous effect:
I could hear their wings dripping and hear small birds
breaking in their tongues the cold soaked
through me I was able
after that morning to believe stories that once
would have been closed to me I saw a carriage
the oaks there in full day and vanish I watched animals
I sat with friends in the shade they have all
most of the stories have to do with vanishing
Everything is there in those lines: the precision of natural description; the strange temporal time destabilization of seeing this carriage, maybe from a different era, that appears and disappears; and the last two lines, which quickly tell a little story, move paratactically into an observation, and then finish with anecdote.
Mostly though, reading them again and again, those last two lines of the poem fill me with sweet, contradictory feelings: agreement that "most of the stories" do in fact "have to do with vanishing," as well as sadness for the fact that so many of my beloved ones from the days when I was reading The Vixen have, like the "friends in the shade," also vanished to me now and joy in remembering the possibility of sudden awareness that reading and writing poems can at any time bring to me.