Friday, December 18, 2009


The other day, in the context of a process reflection on a poem I had attempted, I had reason to speak of a dictionary I have had with me for fifty years. Yesterday I was in the library looking at the new books on display, thinking I'd see if there were anything I might want to read over vacation, and there was W.S. Merwin's 2008 volume of poetry The Shadow of Sirius, in which I discovered this poem, testimony to what a writer who knows what he is about can do with a dictionary as a jumping off point:


At my elbow on the table
it lies open as it has done
for a good part of these thirty
years ever since my father died
and it passed into my hands
this Webster's New International
Dictionary of the English
Language of 1922
on India paper which I
was always forbidden to touch
for fear I would tear or somehow
damage its delicate pages
heavy in their binding
this color of wet sand
on which thin waves hover
when it was printed he was twenty-six
they had not been married four years
he was a country preacher
in a one-store town and I suppose
a man came to the door one day
peddling this new dictionary
on fine paper like the Bible
at an unrepeatable price
and it seemed it would represent
a distinction just to own it
confirming something about him
that he could not even name
now its cover is worn as though
it had been carried on journeys
across the mountains and deserts
of the earth but it has been here
beside me the whole time
what has frayed it like that
loosening it gnawing at it
all through these years
I know I must have used it
much more than he did but always
with care and indeed affection
turning the pages carefully
in search of meanings

I'm taken with the arc of the poem, the way it moves. We start in the present moment with the dictionary at hand, move into the memory of being forbidden to touch it, and from there into the imagined past as Merwin tries to account for its origins. (I particularly like the way we are moved so quickly and seamlessly into the mind of Merwin's father as he reflects, in looking at the dictionary, that it would "represent a distinction just to own it confirming something about him that he could not even name." There are books that have spoken to me in exactly that way when I first held them in my hands.) Back into the now, looking at the cover worn "as though it had been carried on journeys," and then the elegant little dismount at the close, with Merwin's recollection of "turning the pages patiently in search of meanings."  It's a poem about a book, a poem about a son, a poem about a father, a poem about being a writer and about knowing your tools. Smooth as sunrise, this one.

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