A student of dark and light

In his 20th volume of verse, W.S. Merwin contemplates matters such as faith, family, mortality, and the natural world in his signature free-floating, run-on lines.

The title can be understood as meaning either the aperture of the eye, through which light enters, or a student, one who learns. Throughout the book are images of darkness, signifying loss and estrangement, and light, describing enlightenment and hope. With his understated yet vivid style, Merwin imbues such well-worn imagery with new insight that is occasionally startling.

Now in his 75th year, Merwin proves himself as open to (and engaged with) the world as when he was a young man. In "Flights in the Dark,'' the poet quietly observes "the great moths of December,'' watching "their eyes/ on the door near midnight/ memories of the sun/ near the solstice/ and their wings made of darkness.''

In "Unspoken Greeting,'' he notes the "hushed light before the sun brings back the reflections of/ syllables/ cool instant when the colors lie deep in a breath before meaning.''

Although "The Pupil'' is one of Merwin's most personal collections in recent years, the book also offers some political poems. In "The Fence,'' an elegy for Matthew Shepard, the gay university student murdered in Wyoming, Merwin contemplates the cowardice of Shepard's killers: "it was time to find somebody/ like themselves but different/ in a way they could give a name to/ point at make fun of and frighten.''

And in the powerful "Feast Day,'' Merwin expresses outrage at the Pakistani custom of bear baiting, a cruel form of public "entertainment" in which the bear is killed in a horrific manner.

"[T]his is the time of the pain of the bears/ their agony goes on at this moment/ for the amusement of the wedding guests,'' he writes, adding that the guests say that "they can tell from the way the bear/ screams something about the children to be/ born of the couple sitting there smiling/ you may not believe it but the bear does.''

In one of the book's most intimate poems, Merwin honors his late poet/friend Ted Hughes, and the friendship he thought would never end: "[T]here were so many streets in London/ they were always going to be there,'' he writes, "there were so many days to walk through them.../ it was only a question of where and when.''

If there is a weakness to "The Pupil,'' it is that a number of these poems seem slight and forgettable, too evanescent to mull over again after an initial reading.

It is when Merwin presents a specific place (such as the New Jersey of his youth) and a person (such as his late father) that the poetry comes alive, and that his ruminations on darkness and light have a deeper meaning.

In his most effective poems, Merwin is able to convey heartbreak in just a few brief lines ("You left just as the stars were beginning to go/ the colors came back without you'') and to expose his own defiance and vulnerability: "it seems that I have forgotten nothing/ I believe I have not lost anyone.''

Merwin is one of America's most prolific poets, and when his work is driven by intense purpose, he remains one of our most profound.

• Carmela Ciuraru, a freelance writer in New York, is editor of the anthology 'First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems That Captivated and Inspired Them' (Scribner).

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