W.S. Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius deserved to win the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and not just because the book is one of his strongest in years. The collection, which explores loss, memory, and the continuum of time, lingers with readers the way light from Sirius reaches the earth – long after leaving its source.
In both cases, great distances are covered and what appears solid may not be. Yet for Merwin, the motion is both backward and forward, allowing for powerful insights and fresh perceptions about what we see, feel, and remember.
The first section focuses on childhood memories and the way they both shape one’s early impressions and are shaped by the lens of later years. In “Still Morning,” the third poem, past and present intersect, allowing Merwin to share a truth he might have vaguely sensed for years:
It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
Merwin beautifully renders moments so that readers can imagine – and feel – what he has experienced. Then he shifts from the physical realm to insights that leave an indelible mark – almost like a mist of light.
This movement happens over and over, whether Merwin writes about a broken glass, his father’s dictionary, or the taste of blueberries. Everything has a hidden depth or touches larger, unseen forces. Even a trolley bell conveys more than a sound or mood: “I could hear it coming/ from far summers that I/ had never known.”
The book’s second section recalls Merwin’s beloved dogs, a fitting choice in a collection named after the Dog Star. The walks he shared with canine companions, literally and metaphorically, point to the interconnectedness between humans and animals and the undying bonds we share. In “Dream of Koa Returning,” Merwin recalls looking at the river and trees
and all at once you
were just behind me
lying watching me
as you did years ago
and not stirring at all
when I reached back slowly
hoping to touch
your long amber fur
and there we stayed without moving
Some of the dog poems feel a bit sentimental, but that doesn’t detract from their merit or appeal. Readers still catch a glimpse of the eternal now in which the dogs – and much of the book – dwell.
That perception contributes to meditative, almost incantatory writing that remains consistent from start to finish. Some of the poems are difficult, requiring several readings. The challenge isn’t following the lines or images but keeping pace with a poet who easily leaps from the visible to the unseen.
Reading the poems aloud may help, since Merwin, the son of a minister, deftly uses both the sound and flow of language. And as a Buddhist and long-time resident of Hawaii, he’s acutely aware of the natural world. Time and boundaries are not what they seem.
This becomes clear at the end of third section, where Merwin employs the present tense to convey a sense of immediacy and a heightened awareness as his years on earth wind down. Yet where many poets don’t move beyond a deep sense of grief and regret, Merwin fully inhabits each moment and suggests a lasting presence that undergirds the temporal world. In “A Momentary Creed” he says:
I believe in the ordinary day
that is here at this moment and is me
I do not see it going its own way
but I never saw how it came to me
it extends beyond whatever I may
think I know and all that is real to me
it is the present that it bears away
These lines, which echo ideas expressed early in the book, challenge readers to expand their concept of reality – as a Pulitzer Prize winner should. What makes “The Shadow of Sirius” memorable, though, is the way it acknowledges great mysteries and unknowns, but shows how light reaches us still.
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.