Of Paradise Lost: W. S. Merwin’s “After the Dragonflies”


“After the Dragonflies” by W. S. Merwin

Dragonflies were as common as sunlight
hovering in their own days
backward forward and sideways
as though they were memory
now there are grown-ups hurrying
who never saw one
and do not know what they
are not seeing
the veins in a dragonfly’s wings
were made of light
the veins in the leaves knew them
and the flowing rivers
the dragonflies came out of the color of water
knowing their own way
when we appeared in their eyes
we were strangers
they took their light with them when they went
there will be no one to remember us

When I lived in Kentucky and kept up a flower garden, I’d hear every now and then a whizzing sound above my head, look up, and see a dragonfly moving swiftly to snag its mid-air prey between its long legs. I never thought much about them as such. They were simply there.

I regret that now and am unlearning my indifference. Dragonflies, like many other insects, are disappearing, a reality Merwin hints at in this melancholic poem, treating mutability and, with it, loss; a nature tapestry vanishing before our very eyes.

The journal Biological Conservation informs us that 40% of insect species, and that’s in the millions, are in serious decline. “If we don’t stop it, entire ecosystems will collapse due to starvation,” says University of Sydney researcher Francisco Sánchez-Bayo.  Our fate will be to perish with them.

Lamentably, dragonflies, these bejeweled aerial acrobats, are among those insects suffering decline. Fundamental inhabitants of freshwater ecosystems, their loss would have immeasurable consequence.  Along with climate change, habitat encroachment and degradation have contributed to their falling numbers.

Folklore has it that dragonflies are emissaries of good fortune. And so it seemed for some 300 million years. Members of the phylum Arthropoda, they comprise some 5,000 species in varied sizes and hues.

Merwin’s poem, abjuring punctuation to simulate conversational flow, employs a temporal schema of past, present, and future to depict the incipient fate of dragonflies and, by implication, of other fated creatures, once of prodigious number, now facing not only decline, but future extinction. Contrast looms large in the poem’s time’s sequences.

The poem opens with the persona’s conjecturing past aeons before Man, when dragonflies “were as common as sunlight,”the double use of “were” in the opening lines contrasting their present decline. The simile associating their once prodigious numbers to the sun’s plentitude dazzles in its originality.

Employing kinetic imagery, the persona visualizes a former halcyon indulgence of lingering dragonflies amid time’s seeming suspension: “hovering in their own days/backward forward and sideways.”

Or like the varied probings of memory: “as though they were memory.” And, I might add, like the poem in its past, present and future interweave.

The jarring “now” in its emphatic positioning at the beginning of the fourth line transitions readers fully into the present with its glaring contrast.

Despite the miraculous artistry wrought by evolutionary mechanisms over vast stretches of time, there exist “grown-ups” who, suffering a disconnect with nature and “hurrying” to other pursuits, have never seen a dragonfly

That “they do not know what they/ are not seeing,” harbors the poem’s concluding warning. Not only does the present suffer a nature deficit, but future generations may never know dragonflies existed.

Exiled in the present, humans lack cognizance of that primordial garden, if not Edenic paradise, of teeming dragonflies, diaphanous creatures born of water, instinctual, spontaneous, integral eco entities not knowing Man:

the veins in a dragonfly’s wings
were made of light
the veins in the leaves knew them
and the flowing rivers
the dragonflies came out of the color of water
knowing their own way

The alienation motif follows with Man’s trespass. In time’s vast unfolding, the dragonflies had not known us: “when we appeared in their eyes/we were strangers.”

Unable to live in a human world, it’s as though they took flight, with consequential, if not incalculable loss for mankind. This is our future and the penultimate line stuns: “they took their light with them when they went.”

Creatures of a once thriving abundance, the dragonflies are extinct! We have come full circle, the sun’s plentitude of the opening line gone dark.

On a scientific note, dragonflies are often depicted as translucent creatures associated with the sun. Merwin, a mindful observer of nature and diligent keeper of a garden, was aware of this: “the veins in a dragonfly’s wings/were made of light.”

Biologically, we know they possess a variety of opsin genes that encode light sensors  (science.com

The poem’s last line serves as warning: “there will be no one to remember us,” signifying our own ultimate demise, both as individuals and as species, as our survival cannot be severed from nature’s fate. 

It also returns us to the “After” of the title, perhaps initially problematic. Now we know its why. In the immediate of a world devoid of dragonflies, we will have suffered a grievous loss beyond boundary. Merwin’s gift lies in making us feel that loss.

If nature’s eclipse emerges as seemingly ineluctable in this eco-poem, its melancholy consequence lies with Man as its implied source.

Merwin wrote this poem in 2016 when in his late eighties, going  blind, and just three years before his death.  If you look at the poem’s dictional element closely, you’ll notice its many verbal seeing and light allusions, beginning with the sun simile of the poem’s opening. The poem’s imagery is consistently visual.

Dragonflies are often described in biology depictions as translucent, their heads virtually a gigantic eye.  

–rj

William Carlos Williams’ “Willow Poem”: Defying Temporality

“Willow Poem”

It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loath to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river—
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.

ANALYSIS

Here is a poem for our fall season by one of my favorite poets. For me, it speaks ultimately of that tenacious defiance in the context of mortality, “oblivious to winter, “ which should define the way we live our lives up to the very end.

Less robust in tone than Dylan Thomas’ more famous “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night,” it nonetheless succeeds in its implied imperative and proves no less skilled in its artifice. Intriguingly, the persona exhibits empathy for the willow—and why not?—for the tree is like ourselves, fated for that long sleep (note repeated “grow paler”), yet resilient.

Williams had a penchant for writing poems in vernacular language, unlike his fellow modernists such as Eliot and Stevens, rendering his poetry highly accessible by the public. A physician tending to progressive, if not socialist, beliefs, this simple language represented a linguistic practicum of his credo.

Having said this, I would contend Williams remains a sophisticated poet in his subtlety of technique, careful observation of the natural world, and ability to extract human relevance—all of this true of “The Willow Poem.”

Take, for example, its fourteen line construction, usually suggesting the traditional sonnet mode, except it doesn’t conform to the iambic pentameter meter, closed couplet, or sestet formulae. I take this as deliberately mirroring the poem’s theme of resistance, if not rebellion, a tree transcending autumnal demise, or at least holding out amid nature’s seasonal rhythms.

In abandoning typical sonnet protocol, Williams nevertheless manages to maintain unity, implementing language and even occasional meter in an otherwise free verse poem.

Notice the many dictional occurrences of of words ending in er: “over,” “river,” “paler” and “winter. “

Note the heavy spondee element in the poem’s frequent preference for monosyllabic diction: “The leaves cling and grow paler,/swing and grow paler” (ll. 6-7). Not least, there is the word repetition throughout.

Absent of human intrusion, the poem’s sole subject is the tree. And yet human application is suggested in its personification. An imagist poet proclaiming ‘no ideas but in things,” Williams is faithful to his creed. The tree remains a tree, yet emerging from the persona’s non-intrusive observations are potential analogies to the human quest to indulge and survive amid Nature’s ceaseless flow and inevitable sovereignty.

The willow’s river location hints at passage. A “swirling” river, it suggests Nature’s dynamism. The summer has gone. Fall, season of decline, suggests ending. Yet the tree appears impervious to Nature’s laws. Its leaves, “nor/bitten by the sun/turned orange and crimson, “ appear transcendent over temporality.

Continuing personification amplifies an ambience of resistance, its leaves “as loath to let go,” even as incipient change, and the mortality it confers, coalesce here in the increasing pallor of the leaves.

Archetypal elements, e.g., “summer,” “river,” winter,” nuancing generation, decline and death, further foreground the poem’s resonating Nature’s cyclic rhythms, without nullifying what Schopenhauer termed Wille zum Leben, or what I prefer to call “life force, “ or self-preservation instinct present in all Nature.

Simple, yet sublime, the poem validates William’s artistic acumen and esteemed standing among modern American poets.

— rjoly

An Upstart Poet I Like a Lot

I’ve had this love affair with poetry since my earliest days, relishing metaphors that translate life from prose to camera, the sheer musicality of it, the crossword deliberation it compels, the tension of its paradoxes capturing life’s myriad, inherent subtleties; above all, its ability to mine deep, probing shafts of sub-subterranean memory and feeling I had thought beyond retrieve.

It follows then that I’m always on the lookout for good poets to swell the hosts of poets like Larkin, Wilbur, Pinsky, Levine and others that provide me good company in the winters as well as summers of life.

Just the other day I made a new acquaintance in pursuing my just in-the-mailbox New Yorker and immediately I knew I’d found a friend I wanted to keep.

Maybe you know him already, Gary J. Whitehead, though for me he’s a new artist in town and one I predict will swim into renown among aficionados of good poetry.

Whitehead, a Princeton grad and Teacher of the Year recipient, teaches English and Creative Writing at Tenafly high School in New Jersey and has received numerous awards for his verse.

How lucky can high students get to share class-time with the likes of a gifted artist like Whitehead! He’s published three collections of his poetry thus far with a fourth, Strange What Rises, about to be published.

You’ll find his poetry absent of the metaphysical, yet never banal in its quotidian pursuits captured in poems such as “Making Love In the Kitchen” and “Lot’s Wife,” which are uncanny for infusing metaphor into the prosaic small deeds and events of ordinary life, granting new ways of viewing their ritual component in our lives. In this, he reminds me a lot of the late Richard Wilbur.

I especially like his passion, which is nice to come upon in an often circumscribed aesthetic aloofness among poets. I think passion frequently makes for good teaching as well. Perhaps it’s this passion that churns my emotions into butter whenever I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, just maybe my favorite old-time poet who passed so terribly young and unrecognized.

Let me try this early Whitehead poem (2002) on you and see if it fits. I think you’ll see what I‘ve been saying:

First Year Teacher to His Students

Go now into summer, into the backs of cars,
into the black maws of your own changing,
onto the boardwalks of a thousand splinters,
onto the beaches of a hundred fond memories
in wait, where the sea in all its indefatigability
stammers at the invitation. Go to your vacation,

to the late morning cool of your basement rooms,
the honeysuckle evening of the first kiss, the first
dip and pivot, swivel and twist. Go to where
the clipper ships sail far upriver, where the salmon
swim in the clean, cool pools just to spawn.
Wake to what the spider unspools into a silver

dawn dripping with light. Sleep in sleeping bags,
sleep in sand, sleep at someone else's house
in a land you've never been, where the dreamers
dream in a language you only half understand.
Slip beneath the sheets, slide toward the plate,
swing beneath the bandstand where the secret

things await. Be glad, or be sad if you want,
but be, and be a part of all that marches past
like a parade, and wade through it or swim in it
or dive in it with your eyes open and your mind
open to wind, rain, long days of sun and longer
nights of city lights mixing on wet streets like paint.

Stay up so late that you forget day-of-the-week,
week-of-the-month, month-of-the-year of what
might be the best summer, the summer
best remembered by the scar, or by the taste
you'll never now forget of someone's lips,
and the trips you took—there, there, there,

where snow still slept atop some alpine peak,
or where the moon rose so low you could see
its tranquil seas...and all your life it'll be like
some familiar body that stayed with you one night,
one summer, one year, when you were young,
and how everywhere you walked, it followed.
"First Year Teacher to His Students" by Gary J. Whitehead, from Measuring Cubits While the Thunder Claps. © David Robert Brooks, 2008.

–rj

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo”: A Close Reading

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                              RECUERDO
                               by Edna St. Vincent Millay

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you! for the apples and pears,
And we gave all our money but our subway fares.

It seems almost an anomaly to do a close reading of a poem that seems to not withhold anything in its meaning. Millay tells us that the poem entails–its frame if you will–an all night ferry ride, to and fro, of two companions, ending with the two giving away their previously purchased fruit to a woman either on the ferry or on shore at ride end in the early morning, saving for themselves only their subway fare.

Presumably, this is a poem that captures the frenzied excitement of two lovers, for whom time together, even in a humble setting and with little money (they had bought fruit), is what matters. Millay’s lover-friend, Floyd Dell, one of many, tells us in a 1959 letter that Millay had done the ride with Nicaraguan poet Salomón de la Selva, later affirmed that year by Millay’s sister, Norma, who offered the poem’s Spanish title, “Recuerdo” (i.e., “I Remember”), as evidence. (De la Selva is a lover Milford misses in her biography of Millay (Savage Beauty 2001).

Famously, the poem’s initial two lines, “We were very tired, we were very merry,/We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry” repeat themselves at the beginning of each stanza. Intriguingly, we anticipate a “but” to set up the contrast between the states of fatigue and exuberance, but it doesn’t occur, adding complication, perhaps suggesting the fervency of their passion. The omission could also imply a fatigue leading to silliness.

In their repetition, Millay ensures her readers’ focus on the activities themselves, separately depicted in each stanza: looking into a fire, leaning across a table; lying on a hilltop underneath the moon (stanza 1); eating fruit (stanza 2); buying a morning newspaper, hailing a mother, her head “shawl covered,” to whom they give their remaining fruit (stanza 3).

The references to looking into the fire and lying on a hill-top under the moon may initially appear incongruous in a poem supposedly confined to an all night ferry ride. A closer reading, however, implies they had exited the ferry at some point, perhaps to visit a tavern or café, enjoy the warmth of a fire and, later, lie on a hill top and gaze at the stars before reboarding: “And the whistles kept blowing….”

The mother appellation suggests the lovers’ own freedom from the encumbrances of marital. love. As such, this is a poem intrinsic to the Greenwich Village bohemianism of that era.

While the poem is sparing of the usual metaphors, it turns sharply poetic in the exquisite “And the sky went wan and the wind came cold,/And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.”

As such, it reflects the poem’s latent contrast between their practiced frugality and the plenitude of their love, reinforced at poem end in their giving their fruit away.The poem haunts with its rhythms–hexameter lines replete with feminine and masculine rhymes along with occasional near rhymes, alliteration and assonance, coalescing into a sensuous ambience.

Redolent with the nuances of memory, the poem sparkles with the effulgence of new love and idealization of a day that endures because of it. And like Whitman, the poem sanctifies the individuality of everyday experience. Despite the denigration of Modernists, the poem’s fundamental strength lies in its very simplicity, affording accessibility and enjoyment.

–R Joly

 

 

 

 

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