On the anniversary of the death of W.S. Merwin


The Licuala peltata Merwin planted next to his zendo. Photograph courtesy of Sara Tekula for The Merwin Conservancy.

On the anniversary of the death of W.S. Merwin

Every year, I await the day when the frogs awake from their winter slumber and start singing. Last year, that day was March 15. It was raining. I was battling the flu. That morning I wrapped myself in a blanket and, lying on the couch, immersed myself in W. S. Merwin’s translation of the opening poem of Fourth Vertical Poetry, written by the Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz.

              Life draws a tree
              and death draws another one.
              Life draws a nest
              and death copies it.
              Life draws a bird
              to live in the nest
              and right away death
              draws another bird.

              A hand that draws nothing
              wanders among the drawings
              and at times moves one of them.
              For example:
              a bird of life
              occupies death’s nest
              on the tree that life drew.

              Other times
              the hand that draws nothing
              blots out one drawing of the series.
              For example:
              the tree of death
              holds the nest of death,
              but there’s no bird in it.

              And other times
              the hand that draws nothing
              itself changes
              into an extra image
              in the shape of the bird,
              in the shape of a tree,
              in the shape of a nest.
              And then, only then,
              nothing’s missing and nothing’s left over.
              For example:
              two birds
              occupy life’s nest
              in death’s tree.

              Or life’s tree
              holds two nests
              with only one bird in them.

              Or a single bird
              lives in the one nest
              on the tree of life
              and the tree of death.       

              (Vertical Poetry, Northpoint Press, 1988)

I set the book down and closed my eyes. Two forests. Two trees. Two birds. Two nests. I saw the poem as an exquisite response to Hakuin’s kōan: What is the sound of a single hand? The phone rang. It was a friend in Hawai‘i calling to tell me Merwin had died peacefully in his home in Haiku earlier that morning.

My grief tried to take the shape of a nest, to hold Merwin in the stillness of sitting. But I was thick with fever, and it felt like I was on a ship rolling over slowly undulating water. It was hard to hold his death such that my heart would accept it. The news of his death felt like a seed pod covered with spines. How to hold such a thing? I tried to imagine Merwin changing state, I thought of the sound of rain hitting the leaves of the palms in his garden, of it pouring off the giant, serrated leaves of the fan palm (Licuala peltata) outside his zendō. I thought of him sitting there—rain, shelter, Merwin all a singularity—how the sound of rain waters the roots of mind. A bowl, a clay pitcher, a spider’s web. Summer light in a Mirabelle plum. Figures disappearing in the shadow of an oak tree. So much of his life and practice was about holding and letting go. And then the fever became too great. I slept. My dreams, a tangle. The fever rising and falling. And then something pulled me from my dreams and into late afternoon light.

The frogs had started singing. I stepped out on the porch and into a world saturated with their song. In their song, I heard Merwin’s song. He was dispersing across our world, the flash of his passing had arrived and awoken the frogs from their winter slumber. And for an evening, he sang to me as a pond ringed with frogs. The tears that had refused to fall that morning broke free. A river takes a mountain, a mountain takes a cloud. I saw then Merwin as a forest who had taken the form of a human. I saw each of Merwin’s poems as a tree. Each tree composed letterforms, jewels suspended from Indra’s net, language that refused to strangle what it grew around. I understood Merwin as a living forest that is also poem and voice and bird and the planting of a single seed and the never-ending clarification of cause and effect. Just as the old man in Baizhang’s koan was released from the body of a fox, Merwin was released from his human body.

Much love to you, dear teacher.


          Brilliant Axe Handle

                              for W.S. Merwin

              The axe cut both the tree
              and the tree’s shadow,
              month after month,
              his name worn smooth
              by his own hands.

              Near the end of the season,
              he searched the trees,
                                       each branch,
              to see if they held a new handle,
              and he carried away their shadows.

              He turned the shadows in his hands,
              felt their weight, listened to their ringing,
              until he found the one that felt right,
              and from it carved a new handle,
              holding the model
              in his own hand as he carved.

              New trees sprouting
              where the shadows had fallen,
              illuminated without words
              in the standing sun.

              —Ian Boyden, March 15, 2020

Constellations of Humanity

Each luminous dot on this map represents one reader of this poem. As the number of readers increases, the stars begin to cluster and form an increasingly detailed constellation. My intent is to show how brightly a poem glows across our world. I welcome your light.

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