Regions of Memory

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

W. S. Merwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Carrier of Ladders (1970), is widely known as a poet and translator. A companion volume to the book under review, W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry (1987), edited by Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom and also published by the University of Illinois Press, celebrates Merwin’s achievements as a poet. Less well known but worthy of note is his work in prose. Merwin has published two books of fiction, The Miner’s Pale Children (1970) and Houses and Travellers (1977), ranging from very brief sketches to longer pieces that more closely resemble conventional short stories, with a strong mixture of parable and fable. He has also published an evocative memoir, Unframed Originals (1982). The rich diversity of the pieces gathered in Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose, 1949-82 should provoke a deeper appreciation of Merwin’s gifts as a writer of prose while offering new insights into his poetry.

The volume is divided into four sections containing fiction, autobiographical essays, political and ecological pieces, and essays and statements on Merwin’s own poetic practice and theory. The first section, “Other Worlds, Other Selves: Fiction,” begins with the short story “John” (1949), a piece of juvenilia written when Merwin was in his very early twenties. Already Merwin illustrates some of the preoccupations characteristic of his poetry. For example, the story begins “Once upon a time,” a fairy-tale opening that locates the story in a place and time outside a strictly historical setting; this lack of historicity forms a major thematic concern in Merwin’s prose and poetry, for he believes that history, that which is remembered, can overshadow that which exists in the present or can distort that which was the actual past.

The next tale, “Return to the Mountains” (1963), is a more mature work of art; it takes place in a “bit of high country far away from any cities” and moves in an atmosphere of “part recollection, part fulfilment,” a condition similar to the ambiguity of time and place of fairy tales. The story comprises two events. In the first, the narrator meets a dark, beautiful girl whose family of mountain shepherds has moved away, leaving behind the nameless, elusively attractive daughter, who, when she was young, was strangely able to “see the animals.” Her ability to “see” animals extends not only to those that are useful to humans for food and clothing but also to “the others,” animals that had “never been owned.” Thus, this story contains two elements common to Merwin’s work: a preoccupation with the vagueness of language and an obsession with animals, both real and mythic.

Ever since the publication of his first book of poetry, A Mask for Janus (1952), Merwin has been recognized as a poet whose creative process insists on the structures of myth to make order and sense out of experience. As in most ancient myths, the mountain setting of “Return to the Mountains” suggests that the story is located in a sacred place where a unity between man and nature exists, a unity threatened by man’s obsession with technology and progress. Next, the story is placed in a seasonal time frame. The first part of the story occurs in winter, the second in summer. In myth, winter’s barrenness reveals the basic constituents of existence often obscured by the excesses of summer. Finally, there is the use of animals in a mythic manner, demonstrating Merwin’s concept of the poet’s mythic task of “tracking over empty ground/ Animals I never saw” (The Lice, 1967). Animals occupy a central place in Merwin’s work not only because they are real creatures threatened with extinction by man’s rapacity but also because they are mythic creatures that represent unconscious or preconscious energy residing in the depths of the mind and soul.

In the second part of “Return to the Mountains,” the narrator meets the bestial “others” mysteriously referred to by the mountain girl whom he met in the first part of the story. Ten years later, having left his city-oriented wife behind, the narrator climbs a mountain near the one he scaled in the first half of the story. This mountain is different from the one in the first half because the past can never be recaptured exactly as it was. Lost in a fog while climbing at night, the narrator is surrounded by a herd of the “others.” At this point in the story, the action and the setting directly recall some of the poetic images and themes from Merwin’s well-known book The Lice. Consider the following poem from this book:

THE HERDSClimbing northwardAt dusk when the horizon rose like a hand I would turn asideBefore dark I would stop by the stream falling through black iceAnd once more celebrate our distance from menAs I lay among stones high in the starless nightOut of the many hoof tracks the sounds of herdsWould begin to reach me againAbove them their ancient sun skating far offSleeping by the glass mountainI would watch the flocks of light grazingAnd the water preparing its descentTo the first dead

In the story as in the poem, the narrator climbs so that “distance from men” produces a separation from the worldly concerns that blind civilized people to the innate wonder of the mythic animals that live under their “ancient sun.” The story ends, as does the poem, with the “first dead.” The poem’s ending ties in with the rather surrealistic descent of the narrator in the story to a remote, fog-bound village dominated by a severe, archaic building in which many glass doors reveal old women sewing up the bodies of dead middle-aged women. The doors, symbols of separation and mythic...

(The entire section is 2528 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Choice. XXV, September, 1987, p. 127.

The Times Literary Supplement. January 22-28, 1988, p. 79.