Friday, October 22, 2010

Hearing the leaves and the breathing shore

W.S. Merwin, the current American poet laureate, long ago renounced the city for a life of poetic retreat on the island of Maui, where he writes and plants trees, restoring the natural forest surrounding his home.  In The Compass Flower (1977), the first book published after his move to Hawaii, he looked back without fondness on city life, where 'the light of the streets is the color of arms kept covered' and 'the veins of the sleepers remember trees.'  Living in the city myself, I can't help feeling something of a reproach in poems like this.  'Are you modern', he asks in 'What Is Modern' - the lack of a question mark adding extra weight to the enquiry.  Well, yes, I think, and not ashamed to be counted as an admirer of Joyce and Mies and Mondrian...  Then he asks: 'Is the first / tree that comes / to mind modern / does it have modern leaves.'  Well, right now, yes (see below), but I take the point - real trees aren't 'modern' and we should see them for what they are. In another poem, 'Native Trees', Merwin complains that his parents never knew what the trees of his childhood were called, and it's not just trees that we fail to register: among the ironic 'Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field' Merwin asks 'What and where was the last   bird you noticed / do you remember   what sort of bird it was'.  

Piet Mondrian, Trees in Blossom, 1912

Merwin has written some of the best known modern ecopoems, like 'Place', where he says that on the last day of the world he will plant a tree, and 'Witness' where he suggests that a forgotten language is needed to tell what the forests were like.  However, in these poems the trees are ideas of trees and it is perhaps surprising not to find in his books more poems of place that specify and describe the island's natural features in detail.  A poem like 'Anniversary on the Island', which you can hear read by Garrison Keiller at his Writer's Almanack site, gives only a general idea of the landscape - backdrop to an idyllic life, waking day after day as 'the light rises through the drops on the leaves', watching 'the long waves glide in through the afternoon' and at night 'hearing the leaves and the breathing shore.'  Perhaps Merwin's interest in the island's trees is ultimately more direct and practical - he is one of those artists who has created his own landscape and the intention is that it will be preserved after his death by The Merwin Conservancy and Hawaiian Coastal Land Trust.

Fifteen years ago Dinitia Smith interviewed Merwin for the New York Times. 'I'd got lost looking for W. S. Merwin's house on the Hawaiian island of Maui, driving along roads lined with palms and sugar cane, then turning into a dense area of ironwood and heliconia trees. It was almost like rain forest here -- pink and red hibiscus, ginger flowers filled with rain from the night.  Then, suddenly, there he was, as if he'd somehow materialized out of the rain ...  Over the years, Merwin has almost reinvented himself in the 19th-century Romantic ideal of the poet at one with nature. When he isn't writing, he's down in his forest, trying to restore it to its primeval state. In conversation, he refers constantly to "the environment," to a tree that doesn't belong in Hawaii but was brought here by merchants or missionaries, to a geothermal project on a neighboring island that he's campaigning against. ... One afternoon, in the rain, Merwin takes me on a tour of the garden. "That's a koa tree, what Hawaiian canoes were made from," he says as we trudge along a wet, rocky path. "I put that in as a tiny tree." We come to an eroded ledge, one patch he hasn't restored yet. "See there, that's what it used to be like. It wants to be a forest!"'

No comments: