W. S. Merwin’s new book-length story of the impact of Western civilization on the indigenous peoples of Hawaii is an epic narrative told simply but powerfully. While focusing on the extraordinary lives of two characters, the rebel outcast Ko’olau and his loyal, stoic widow Pi’ilani, Merwin’s three-hundred-pages-plus poem includes legend and history, legends of the past and legends in the making. The heroism of an oppressed, nonliterate people reacting against a culture that steals their land, suppresses their religion, and ultimately attempts to determine the lives of natives with the cold heart of Christian certainty is unfolded with both impressive technique and credible historical authority. Set in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, Merwin’s narrative captures a people and place in rapid transition, moving from the primitive past of magic to a world of Westernized values and conceits. Yet the story is also both personal and striking, with the imagery drawn from places and events both undeniably and tragically all too familiar and harshly unique in the American past.
On many levels, The Folding Cliffs is an achievement for both the Hawaiian people and Merwin personally, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author draws from many wells to shape this epic. From the beginning of his poetic career, Merwin established himself as a student of international mythology, cultures, and traditions, beginning with A Mask for Janus (1952), The Dancing Bears (1954), and Green with Beasts(1956). His lifelong theme of humanity’s separation from nature and its consequences, again predominant in The Folding Cliffs, made The Lice(1969) Merwin’s most noted book to date. On several levels, The Folding Cliffs, while not as technically difficult as his earlier verse, is a return to the political and ecological concerns of The Lice, including the motifs of generational change, historical sweep, and the betrayal of nature. The Folding Cliffs also reiterates themes of Merwin’s The Vixen (1996), which was built on descriptive details of country life and examples of human stupidity and inhumanity.
The Folding Cliffs brings together these characteristics of Merwin’s previous verse and drama, along with lessons learned from his translations of French and Spanish literature as well as the understanding of Hawaiian history and culture he has gained from his living in Haiku, Hawaii, since the mid-1970’s. In the decades since, he has worked on rebuilding an old pineapple plantation and collected native oral histories for his respectful essays on the island of Kaho’olawe. While exploring the conflicts between modern natives and the U.S. military, Merwin began interviewing contemporary lepers, and the poetic outgrowth of these multiple interests helped shape the content of The Folding Cliffs, an important story in its own right but perhaps even more significant for the way it is told in Merwin’s broken-back line structure.
The story is framed in the mind of Pi’ilani, a woman born in 1864 looking back over her own past as well as that of her people. As widow of the rebellious Ko’olau, who championed the cause of lepers after he contracted the disease on the island of Kauai, she seeks to determine the sanctity of his grave, which opens the door to her memoirs. Pi’ilani’s youthful, premarital setting is framed by stars and water as well as the cliffs, which will serve as both shelter and metaphor for her adventure. She begins her tale surrounded by the words of women, each seemingly separate from the world of men apart from her betrothed, the singer of stories, in the pristine, beautiful world.
The past is first opened with the retelling of the origins of the gods, notably Pele, the fire goddess, who is quickly juxtaposed with the fire and thunder of white men on ships surrounding the islands. The pace of history is first evident with the coming of Captain James Cook to the islands and the natives’ quick understanding that the English are not gods. After the first encounter, trade is established, with the islanders offering fruit, fresh...
(The entire section is 1703 words.)