The Moving Target

by W. S. Merwin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

The Moving Target catalogs Merwin’s ventures into the dark void of possibility available to humans. As before, Merwin finds little hope. “Noah’s Raven,” for example, explains why that bird did not return to the ark with the message that the deluge had passed, that God would once again establish his covenant with humans. On leaving, it realized it had nothing more in common with humans; their kinds would henceforth be alienated. By refusing to bring back empty promises, the raven signifies that it sees little hope. Similarly, “Dead Hand” illustrates in two lines that this most human of organs continues to clutch even after death; its only value to anyone resides in the metal and mineral of its rings.

“Lemuel’s Blessing” develops from an allusion to Christopher Smart, an eighteenth century poet who suffered from religious mania and was considered insane. Merwin suggests that only madmen can see accurately in a world that has chosen madness as a way of life. Smart prayed that Lemuel “bless with the wolf,” the traditional and mythical enemy of humans—arguing, that is, that releasing wolves on humans would paradoxically purge them of their own beastliness. He goes on to call the wolf a “dog without a master,” hinting that humans are destroying themselves by failing to practice the mastery for which they were created. Finally, he notes that the Lord will care for the wolves of the desert, implying that humans who have chosen to abandon nature deserve no such care. All these points tally with Merwin’s theme. The poem goes on to show humans reveling in the dogginess of their lives.

In “The Saint of the Uplands,” the saint laments that his message has fallen on deaf ears, in two ways. He is no more than his followers, hence undeserving of being considered a saint, and he has no more to give them than they can find for themselves. Yet instead of learning that simple point, they persist in building a shrine to him, in which they perpetuate their ignorance. Perhaps the most striking poem in the book is “The Crossways of the World etc.,” which certainly prefigures the next turn in Merwin’s development. Unlike his earlier work with its broken lines, stanzas, and phrases, it looks like abbreviated, interrupted, and unpatterned musings. The imagery is entirely of loss and failed connections, which reflects the overwhelming sense of devastation in Merwin’s vision of human reality.

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