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This Moment That Has Come Along With Me

William Coleman

Moth by Van Gogh

In the astonishingly intimate new documentary on the life and work of poet W.S. Merwin, Even Though the Whole World is Burning, poet Naomi Shihab Nye remembers writing in her journal when she was eighteen, on the day she first read Merwin’s work. "This is a voice that can save us," she wrote.

It is not often that we speak of authors this way. But Merwin is no usual writer. In a time of self-promotion, Merwin's a poet of deep relation, committed to putting life back into a world hell-bent on destruction.

Pollution, war, the extinction of language and species, the cruelty of mankind, the confusion of desire with natural or divine right—all have been exposed in the light of Merwin's poetry and prose.

In 1975, four years after channeling the money from his first Pulitzer Prize to those whose consciences would not allow themselves to kill other human beings in Vietnam, Merwin traveled to Maui, where he came upon a plantation that had been ruined by short-sighted industrial interest. The land had been classified as waste; it was irredeemable. He's lived there ever since, where, for the past forty-one years, he and his wife, Paula, have revived a rainforest. Eight hundred species of wild palm have flourished by his hand, including some—carefully carried from Brazil, Borneo, and Madagascar—that had been given to extinction.

"On the last day of the world," Merwin wrote nearly thirty years ago, "I would want to plant a tree."

 His new book, published in September, is called Garden Time. Blind now, reciting his poems to his beloved wife, gardening in the dark by touch and smell and taste and ear and by intuition born of careful attention, the eighty-nine-year-old Merwin continues to live in deep relation with the world. His poems are not "hopeful," for they concern themselves only with the present moment (which, like soil, is made wholly of what's come before). But because they are so made, because they enact an awareness of how the past informs our sense of presence, because they live according to moral commitments, and because they are so fully alive, reading Merwin is to become one with the conditions we hope for:

Ripe Seeds Falling

At home in late summer after the long
spring journeys and their echoing good-byes
at home as the year's seeds begin to fall
each one alone each in its own moment
coming in its blind hope to touch the earth
its recognition even in the dark
knowing at once the place that it has touched
the place where it belongs and came to stay
this is the place that I wanted to hear
to listen to the daylight and the dark
in this moment that has come along with me