Thursday, December 7, 2006


W.S. Merwin has been for many years one of my favorite poets. At one point or another he has lived all over the world, but for many years now he has lived and written in Hawaii, and many of his poems seem to arise from or connect to Hawaiian traditions of awareness of nature and respect for the land.

“Search Party” is a poem that has always resonated strongly with me. It’s one of a fairly small number of poems that I have made the effort to commit to memory. In it, Merwin finds a way to articulate with oblique efficiency a number of ideas that I personally feel to be true, and which are in fact connected to throughlines in my teaching. I often share this poem with my students at the beginning of the semester, more or less to set a tone. If I don’t do so at the beginning, I do so at the end, as a way of pulling some threads together. Here’s the poem:

Search Party

By now I know most of the faces
that will appear beside me as
long as there are still images
I know at last what I would choose
the next time if there ever was
a time again I know the days
that open in the dark like this
I do not know where Maoli is

I know the summer surfaces
of bodies and the tips of voices
like stars out of their distances
and where the music turns to noise
I know the bargains in the news
rules whole languages formulas
wisdom that I will never use
I do not know where Maoli is

I know whatever one may lose
somebody will be there who says
what it will be all right to miss
and what is verging on excess
I know the shadows of the house
routes that lead out to no traces
many of his empty places
I do not know where Maoli is

You that see now with your own eyes
all that there is as you suppose
though I could stare through broken glass
and show you where the morning goes
though I could follow to their close
the sparks of an exploding species
and see where the world ends in ice
I would not know where Maoli is

The question the poem raises, the questions student gravitate toward, is “Who or what is Maoli?” I think it’s possible to understand the primary intention of the poem without having a literal answer to the question. Maoli might be taken by many readers to be word invented by Merwin to denote the object of a spiritual quest, That For Which One Seeks. It turns out, however, that if you look the word up in a Hawaiian-English Dictionary, you will find that “maoli” in its adjectival form means “native, indigenous, aborigine, genuine, true, real, actual.” All of which, taken together as a cluster, seem an appropriate set of descriptors for the character of Maoli as it appears in the poem.

This is what we know: that the deepest mysteries of what is real, what is actual, what is genuine and true, remain inaccessible to us most of the time, obfuscated by “summer surfaces of bodies and the tips of voices like stars out of their distances,” and all the other things that may be mundane or may be beautiful or may be interesting, but which ultimately are distractions from the search for Maoli. And that even though the search may never be completed, our participation in it—or our choice to decline to participate—defines who we are.

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