ABOUT A POEM
Susan Dunlap on W.S. Merwin's "Vixen"
of stillness princess of what is over
note held without trembling without voice without sound
of complete darkness keeper of the kept secrets
the destroyed stories the escaped dreams the sentences
caught in words warden of where the river went
of its surface sibyl of the extinguished
onto the hidden place and the other time
the foot of the wall by the road patient without waiting
the full moonlight of autumn at the hour when I was born
no longer go out like a flame at the sight of me
are still warmer than the moonlight gleaming on you
now you are unharmed even now perfect
you have always been now when your light paws are running on
breathless night on the bridge with one end I remember you
I have heard you the soles of my feet have made answer when
have seen you I have waked and slipped from the calendars
the creeds of difference and contradictions
were my life and all the crumbling fabrications
long as it lasted until something that we were
ended when you are no longer anything
me catch sight of you again going over the wall
before the garden is extinct and the woods are figures
on a screen let my words find their own
in the silence after the animals
Merwin, the new United States Poet Laureate, is a long-time Zen
practitioner, who studied with Robert Aitken. Merwin has said of poetry:
“It’s close to the oral tradition, … close to song. You have to hear it
before you can understand it.”
is a wonderful example. Long before I had any idea of its meaning, I
was caught by its lushness, its flow, like water gurgling over stones.
Later I became intrigued by the individual phrases that could be
describing the timeless center of zazen: “Comet of stillness”; “high
note held without trembling”; “without voice”; “without sound.” There is
the sense of awareness that comes from sitting practice: “patient
without waiting.” Tenses change abruptly from present to past, to
present to future, as if all events share the same universal moment.
on another level, Merwin’s intriguing phrases are mysteries, or perhaps
almost koans. One year I contemplated a phrase a week. “Princess of
what is over,” the poet wrote. But think of fairytale princesses. They
are all about the future, about living happily-ever-after. Does the
princess of what is over—snatched away, dead—symbolize delusory hope for
what is already gone? Or does she symbolize something else entirely?
Another mystery: What kind of stories are so dangerous as to be not
merely blackballed and whispered in private, but destroyed? Who or what
would destroy them? And, as if to balance that, there is the following
phrase: “the escaped dreams.” There’s one to ponder. And most delicious
of all, “sibyl of the extinguished window onto the hidden place and the
structure—the lack of punctuation—allows us to connect a word to the
previous or following phrase. Just now, after years of reading the
following section as, “warden of where the river went [,] touch of its
surface sibyl,” I saw it as “touch of its surface [,] sibyl of the
extinguished window onto the hidden place and the other time.”
so much more to be said about this poem. But the real pleasure is in
reading it again and again and letting meanings emerge.
A longtime Zen student, Susan Dunlap has written twenty-one mystery novels and numerous short stories. Her stories feature Berkeley Police Officer Jill Smith, forensic pathologist-cum-private investigator Kiernan O'Shaughnessy, meter reader Vejay Haskell, and most recently, stunt double Darcy Lott, who is also the assistant to the abbot of a Zen center.
As seen in the January 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun.