The poet W.S. Merwin died on March 15. It’s a date he celebrated ninety-one times in his life. Each year as it passed, the anniversary made a mark on him. He felt his powers fading but the final moment lay hidden until the very end when he breathed his last. It was then, and only then, that he was able to truly celebrate. Finally, he knew the moment.
Merwin has written, “Send me out into another life / lord because this one is growing faint / I do not think it goes all the way.” Well, dear friend, you are now on your way. For Merwin, the meaning of existence was revealed through loss. His life, as it circled round that fateful day of his death, always felt strange to him, as if he was traveling through a fairyland. Creation is powerful and the hearts of men conceal wonders, so much so that the universe seems to have slid off-kilter. The most important moment of revelation is not birth, when everything is given, but death, where everything is taken away.
Here one of his better-known poems.
For the Anniversary of My Death
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
In the very last poem of his last published book. Merwin fittingly leaves us a meditation on departure.
As they were leaving the garden
one of the angels bent down to them and whispered
I am to give you this
as you are leaving the garden
I do not know what it is
or what it is for
what you will do with it
you will not be able to keep it
but you will not be able
to keep anything
yet they both reached at once
for the present
and when their hands met
Peggy Rosenthal writes in the Image Journal, “as Adam and Eve enter time, they enter inevitable loss.” The present is a double-edged sword. It’s the gift that takes away, of inhabiting each moment in plenitude but also the inability to hold onto it as it slides past. The horizon of past, present, and future is shifting sand and we are always in the middle term. We step out of the Garden and into the present, but the birth that brought us to this place has also delineated our boundaries. The special, intuitive knowledge of man to see the inner heart of nature, the flow of time through the universe, brings with it the sorrow and fear of death. In fact, it is death which is the culmination of laughter. It is loss that reconciles us. It is the final act of the tragedy that fully opens our eyes to the I AM to whom we bow our heads each moment we hear a wren sing, grieve the buds of a magnolia tree broken and cast down by a spring storm, or contemplate a poem by the irreplaceable W.S. Merwin.