A poet’s gifts

In loss, there is life

merwin
“. . . a repairer of dissolution and ruin” / The Merwin Conservancy

On the same day that New Zealand’s Muslim community was shattered by the Christchurch mosque attacks, a poet renowned for gentleness of nature and compassionate insight died at his home in a town with the poetically apt name of Haiku, on the island of Maui.

W. S. Merwin was one of the most acclaimed poets of his generation. His words evoke some of humanity’s deepest longings and fears—about loss, absence, memory and the fleeting nature of life.

But he was also a poet of hope and loyalty to the heart’s affections, virtues he displayed not just in his words but in the other great project of his life: the restoration of seven hectares of barren land with his wife, Paula, in their adopted Hawaiian home.

The land was an abandoned pineapple plantation when Merwin bought it. Over the years it had been deforested, overgrazed and then cultivated to the point of exhaustion.

One day in 1977 Merwin planted a palm tree in this impoverished soil. The next day he planted another. And the next, and the next. Today that once desolate plot of land has become one of the largest palm collections in the world, with more than 2700 palms of more than 400 species. A living treasury of palm DNA.

Merwin was once described as “a channeler of ancient paradoxes.” One of his poems that I cherish contains such a paradox. Called “Separation,” it is just three three lines long, but, oh, the longing in those lines:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

How can it be that something that goes so sharply and painfully through the heart of a person can pull such threads of colour in its wake? We see something of that paradox in the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedy. An attack meant to divide and scatter has instead brought people together in demonstrations of solidarity and love.

Merwin was known as “a repairer of dissolution and ruin.” His words and example encourage us to rebuild, and show us how.

For more about Merwin’s work and words, go to the Merwin Conservancy website.