Unframed Originals

by W. S. Merwin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023

In the opening paragraph of “Mary,” Merwin writes, “Once I imagined, with no way of saying it, that my parents, and everyone of their age, kept somewhere among them the whole of the past.” In many respects, Unframed Originals represents Merwin’s quest to recover the “whole of the past.” Yet from the outset it is a quest haunted by a sense of ultimate failure. Too much of his elders’ living memory was left unrevealed and then lost forever after their deaths. James Finn Cotter calls Merwin “a master of color and line” and suggests that Unframed Originals “belongs in the gallery of great word-portraits.” What is most important for Merwin, however, is not the portrait itself but what lies beyond the frame. In an interview with Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson, he states, “One of the main themes of Unframed Originals is what I was not able to know, what I couldn’t ever find out, the people I couldn’t meet.” Indeed, Unframed Originals describes absence and loss.

Socially, the conditions of loss center on the changing nature of the American family. As Merwin puts it, “I was convinced that I knew less about my family, and my parents’ families, than it was usual to know.” Yet the reasons for his ignorance are hardly unusual; the modern American family is marked by wide geographic dispersal: “My father referred to his family as ’the family,’ and he called us ’our family.’ His family was related to our family, but lived far away. Or we lived far away.” The family had been stretched thin by distance—a distance both caused and only partially alleviated by modern transportation. Images of trains and automobiles, for example, recur throughout Unframed Originals and take on a symbolic importance: “It seemed to [my father] then, probably, that many things, even most things that he considered his, were slipping from him. And that must have had something to do with his idea of going, in the new car, to visit the rest of Grandma’s children. . . .” Yet visits were brief and transient. The continuing day-to-day contact which reveals the lives of others in depth had been irretrievably lost.

Geographic distance is mirrored by a personal distance. Throughout Unframed Originals, one detects an aversion to self-revelation. “Reticence,” as Merwin puts it, “was one of the main things I was writing about. Indeed it was a very reticent family.” Merwin can only speculate tangentially on the conflicting motives for silence. He reveals the resentments and shame his excessively pious grandmother felt for his grandfather, but the explanation for their divorce goes no deeper than the simple pronouncement, “He drank.” While his own parents were never divorced, his mother, in a rare moment of candor, revealed that there was a time when she might have left his father for another man but decided against it. The motives for her temptation and her decision to remain were both lost within silence: “She would say nothing more on the subject.” Of his relationship with his mother, Merwin writes that “she has been so secret, and I have grown up in the habit of being so reticent with her, that it cannot be easy now to find what we want to say to each other.”

Perhaps even more insidious than personal reticence is personal indifference. Of his relationship with his father, Merwin writes,The past itself, the past of others, of places, of his family, most of his own past, seemed to hold no more than a wan, flickering interest for him, apart from a thin collection of dependable references treasured as proofs and names of feelings that he wanted to believe still existed and were his.

Whether caused by the changing conditions of social life, the personal reticence born of shame, or a simple indifference, the result is the same: The past slips away. As Mark Irwin points out, Unframed Originals is “haunting in the final realization that the past cannot be reconstructed, only glimpsed during privileged moments.”

Those privileged moments, however, serve as the rationale for Merwin’s recollections. There is an intimate revelation of detail in which one can glimpse “pieces of an order.” As Merwin observes, “I felt if I could take any detail, any moment, anything I could clearly see, and pay enough attention to it, it would act like a kind of hologram. I’d be able to see the whole story in that single detail.”

The order, however, is not so much personal as transcendent. W.H. Auden, on the publication of Merwin’s first book, characterized him as a mythological poet. The observation is no less true of Merwin’s prose. In the final section of Unframed Originals, “La Pia,” he writes,A line and its passage from the Purgatorio that have been running in my head all week on the mountain, like a tune, start up again: e riposato della lunga via. “And (you have/ thou hast) rested from the long way.” Via, the journey, with its continuing echo or reminder of vita; the journey through death that is the way of life, and of the poem. Not in the text, that echo, but summoned by it.

Like Dante’s Vergil, Merwin too makes a “journey through death.” As he attempts to come to terms with his mother’s death, she blends symbolically with the figure of La Pia, a minor character in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). Dante reveals very little of La Pia, essentially only her name and her plea to be remembered. Yet the figure of La Pia haunts Merwin. He reads over Dante’s lines “in the hope of hearing through them what is here to be remembered, something more, La Pia.” In much the same spirit, he recounts the remembered bits and pieces of his life, less for their own sake than for the echoes they summon. He would have the reader hear “something unplaceable but distantly familiar.” He would strike “a note that led back through [his] grandparents’ lives to the beginning, and before.” He would have each reader hear mythic echoes of his own originals.

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