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  • Revisiting Merwin
  • Daniel T. O'Hara (bio)
The Lice (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition)
W. S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press
96 Pages; Print, $15.00

I first read The Lice a year or so after its initial publication in 1967 by Atheneum/Macmillan Press. I had read some of the poems in journals that would be included in Merwin's next volume of poetry, The Carrier of Ladders (1971) and wanted to read his earlier work. I was not sold on the "experimental" quality of these volumes in which punctuation was dispensed with, despite the precedent of earlier twentieth and nineteenth century poets. I found it to be a trick, a way of increasing the maximum potential for ambiguity and multiple meanings without taking responsibility for it: less intentional art than unconscious spontaneity, as much on the reader's part as the poets. Through the years, as Merwin persisted in this style, I came to hear the poetic voice parsing the units better, and now going back to this anniversary volume—half a century!—I find that the experiments of the poet in his late thirties work after all, without any trickiness leaking in. It might mean only that this seventy year old reader has grown up with this ninety year old poet.

The title of the volume is provided by its Heraclitus epigraph:

All men are deceived by the appearances of things even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they Said to him, "What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us."

I confess that aside from the idea of being deceived (and self-deceived, perhaps), I still do not get this Heraclitean wisdom. But then I never got "the way up is the way down" and other such gnomic gems. That all things flow and are on fire, that I could get, especially in the late 1960s in the US. And this is where the relevance of the volume, if not the epigraph, comes in. For many of the poems, perhaps as much as half in The Lice, can be read as critical reflections on the US's deepening, destructive, and self-destructive involvement in Vietnam and the growing protest movement it spawned. Indeed, many of the poems can also be read as sympathetic responses to this protest movement and others: the civil rights and ecological ones most clearly.

Reading today the first poem in The Lice, "The Animals," I can see it better as about universal extinction than simply aping the "deep image" poetry of Robert Bly at the time, who sought via translation as well as his own work to incorporate the surrealist experiments of European and especially South American poets. Often such imagery was apocalyptic but also as often obscurely so, which this first poem can still seem to be, without any key:

All these years behind windowsWith blind crosses sweeping the tables

And myself tracking over empty groundAnimals I never saw

I with no voiceRemembering names to invent for themWill any come back will one

Saying yes

Saying look carefully yes We will meet again

If we read the poem from where the speaker is coming from in relation to these invisible animals, the future, then this poem and really all of them in The Lice make brilliant sense. Seen from the stance and perspective of a post-apocalyptic setting, whether due to nuclear war, racial strife, revolutionary and reactionary turmoil, a new dark age ecological disaster worthy to rank with what we now call the previous great six extinctions, or all of the above, the speaker is a ghost of the lost future, telling himself what he needs to hear—here the Heraclitean theme of deception/self-deception comes into play—to go on living, creating, and finding his own voice in the process. If we remember how at this time James Dickey wrote celebrated poems about hunting and World War II (he was said to be a bomber pilot) that celebrated the traditional masculine mystique, even as it...


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