Readers familiar with Merwin’s fluid, organic form will find it embodying meditations and narrative poems about journeying in Travels. The mythology of many of these poems follows the romantic idea that the past is another country. The narrative consciousness of these poems, sometimes in the guise of a number of historical adventurers and naturalists, often drifts back into a deep past only to discover endless regression and evasiveness, except for a few visionary glimpses. Those moments often have, ironically, little to do with a concrete reality but with an elusive moment of aesthetic comprehension.
The keynote poem of the collection, “The Blind Seer of Ambon,” reveals what is at the core of many in Travels. The “seer” is a historical figure, a seventeenth century naturalist named George Eberhard Rumpf who lived in the Dutch East Indies and wrote about tropical herbs and plants. Contemplating his life as a namer and observer of life forms in a strange land, he also meditates on the fluidity of life that resists definite naming, for that which is named inevitably passes away and is lost: “I may have seemed somewhat strange/caring in my own time for living things/with no value that we know/languages wash over them one wave at a time.” This fluidity, the stream of life, also washes over his own life as he loses his wife and daughter to an earthquake, six books of flower studies in the sea, and eventually his own eyesight. But “sight” is transformed to vision inextricably associated not so much with words but a direct relation between the tactile reality of small life forms and a kind of music of life:
one day I was looking
at infinite small creatures
on the bright sand
and the next day is this
hearing after music
so this is the way I see now
I take a shell in my hand
new to itself and to me
I feel the thinness the warmth and the cold
I listen to the water
which is the story welling up
I remember the colors and their lives
everything takes me by surprise
it is all awake in the darkness
Blindness and loss strangely create even stronger evocations of the reality of what had been a strange and distant world.
In several of the striking narrative-lyric poems of Travels, Merwin uses naturalists and travel adventurers as his subjects. Aside from Rumpf, there are also poems about William Bartram, Gregorio Gregoroievich Bondar, the Scottish naturalist David Douglas, and explorer-traders Don Francisco de Paula Marin and Manuel Cordova. Accounts of Cordova’s experiences as a gun trader with South American natives form the basis of the sustained narrative “The Real World of Manuel Cordova.” The “real” becomes elusively ironic as Cordova’s sense of being and identity flows in and out of the wild, heart- of-darkness world he encounters. Cordova the gun trader is taken captive and captivated by the natives. Metamorphosis and transformation of being are central themes of this poem as Cordova’s consciousness moves between the civilized and wild worlds. He becomes part of the “dream” of the natives as “he was learning/ that they had been dreaming the same dream.” Sharing the tribe’s dream, the chief shows him the secrets of their forest as “he went on seeing/ everywhere something/ the chief was letting/ him know even while he was dreaming/ what they were all dreaming/together flowing/ among the trees entering/ cat fur monkey voice owl wing.” Thus in his...
(The entire section is 1461 words.)