The Shadow of Sirius

by W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press 2008
Reviewed by Jason Bredle


Speak, Memory

merwin cover

W.S. Merwin has written, translated and studied a lot of poetry during his lifetime, and his newest collection, The Shadow of Sirius, undoubtedly demonstrates the payoff of that work. While deceptively simple, the poems effortlessly pursue themes lying at the core of human experience: childhood, impermanence, mortality and memory. They’re beyond poignant and possibly even beyond his best work. They’re essential.

Sirius is divided into three sections loosely separated but also linked thematically – the first a recollection of youth, the second a series of ruminations on death, and the third a less definable hodgepodge of observation. The focus of sections one and two allow them to resonate a little more powerfully than three as actual “sections,” but all remain effortlessly lyrical and all convey a general message that when one sits and reflects upon everything in old age, these are the most important things in a lifetime. Simultaneously, age seems to have transcended time for Merwin. In “Still Morning,” he writes:

It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words

What proceeds in section one is quite a phenomenal display of memory and poetic expertise combining to result in simple, profound moments. In “The Pinnacle,” Merwin writes of a friendship he had with a teacher he once admired, and of the impermanence of that relationship:

she was beautiful
in her camel hair coat
that seemed like the autumn leaves
our walk was her idea
we liked listening to each other
her voice was soft and sure
and we went our favorite way
the first time just in case
it was the only time
even though it might be too far
we went all the way
up the Palisades to the place
we called the pinnacle
with its park at the cliff’s edge
overlooking the river
it was already a secret
the pinnacle
as we were walking back
when the time was later
than we had realized
and in fact no one
seemed to know where we had been
even when she told them
no one had heard of the pinnacle

and then where did she go

I could quote most of section one here and it would be equally as powerful, but I’ll refrain. The poet captures the general essence in “A Likeness,” in which he writes “I have only what I remember.” Moments from childhood, things we remember of people we’ve known, these are what ultimately resonate as important in our lives, and these things are typically remarkably simple, enhanced by a sight, smell or sound.

The book turns more specifically to ideas of impermanence and mortality in the more compact section two. “By Dark” works as a metaphor for the act of dying itself:

When it is time I follow the black dog
into the darkness that is the mind of day

I can see nothing there but the black dog
the dog I know going ahead of me

In “Dream of Koa Returning,” a consideration of the loss of an animal results in the consideration of impermanence:

I looked out to the river
flowing beyond the big trees
and all at once you
were just behind me
lying watching me
as you did years ago
and not stirring at all
when I reached back slowly
hoping to touch
your long amber fur
and there we stayed without moving
listening to the river
and I wondered whether
it might be a dream
whether you might be a dream
whether we both were a dream
in which neither of us moved

I don’t really know what I can say about that passage other than the fact that it deserves ten billion enthusiastic thumbs up. It’s quite a revelatory moment in a brief period of text – the speaker sitting, thinking of his dead pet, then regarding both his own and his pet’s impermanence – and isn’t this what poetry is supposed to be about?

As I mentioned, section three seems more a mixture of daily meditations. It’s not quite as focused as the first two, but reverberates quite well. In one of the most powerful pieces in the section, “Shadow Hand,” the speaker thinks of a roof repairman he once knew:

yesterday after all these years
I learned he had suddenly
gone blind while still in his sixties
and died soon after that while I
was away and I never knew
and it seemed as though it had just
happened and it had not been long
since we stood in the road talking
about owls nesting in chimneys
in the dark in empty houses

Again, a revelation found in a brief moment, another revelation leading to a reflection on the impermanence of all things. Ultimately, “Worn Words” summarizes the essence of this book the best:

The late poems are the ones
I turn to first now
following a hope that keeps
beckoning me
waiting somewhere in the lines
almost in plain sight

it is the late poems
that are made of words
that have come the whole way
they have been there

As such, The Shadow of Sirius acts in itself as a collection of late poems. They are made of words that have come the whole way, that have been there. In a world of so many poetry projects with so many complicated agendas, this collection both reemphasizes and illuminates the importance and relevance of good poetry.