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Shambhala Sun | January 2011
You'll find this article on page 96 of the magazine.


Susan Dunlap on W.S. Merwin's "Vixen"

Comet of stillness princess of what is over

 high note held without trembling without voice without sound

aura of complete darkness keeper of the kept secrets

of the destroyed stories the escaped dreams the sentences

never caught in words warden of where the river went

touch of its surface sibyl of the extinguished

window onto the hidden place and the other time

at the foot of the wall by the road patient without waiting

in the full moonlight of autumn at the hour when I was born

you no longer go out like a flame at the sight of me

you are still warmer than the moonlight gleaming on you

even now you are unharmed even now perfect

as you have always been now when your light paws are running on

the breathless night on the bridge with one end I remember you

when I have heard you the soles of my feet have made answer when

I have seen you I have waked and slipped from the calendars

from the creeds of difference and contradictions

that were my life and all the crumbling fabrications

as long as it lasted until something that we were

had ended when you are no longer anything

let me catch sight of you again going over the wall

and before the garden is extinct and the woods are figures

guttering on a screen let my words find their own

places in the silence after the animals

W.S. 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.”

“Vixen” 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.

Viewed 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 other time.”

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.”

There’s 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.

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