On Merwin's THE LICE

On September 24th I'll be leading a discussion at Open Books on W.S. Merwin's collection The Lice, recently released in a 50th anniversary edition by Copper Canyon. Here's a short preview of the discussion:


“Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he.” So says Caesar in the second act of Shakespeare’s play, knowing what’s true of himself is true for mankind more broadly. Substituting “humans” for “Caesar” in the above formulation, one approaches something of the prevailing mindset in W.S. Merwin’s collection The Lice. These are poems that often mirror creation mythology in their tone (“Animals I never saw / I with no voice / Remembering names to invent for them”), while adumbrating modes of uncreation. As humans, we have made of the earth “A small place / Where dying a sun rises.”

Earlier this summer, as Shakespeare’s Caesar—via New York’s Public Theater’s production—re-entered political discourse, I returned to the speaker of W.S. Merwin’s poem “Caesar,” who we find “Wheeling the president past banks of flowers / Past the feet of empty stairs / Hoping he’s dead.” As Adrienne Raphel observes, the leader here is both “tyrant and puppet,” and Merwin’s poem reminds us that the President (and all political power) is the product of both collective imagination and visceral violent devices. The poems in The Lice, first published in 1967, explore these realms of violence and imagination, person and politics, nature and human.

While the poems in The Lice occasionally touch on specific past events (the Vietnam War, JFK’s assassination), their cumulative impact feels prophetic. We see noble mythologies of war and peace unravel as the planet unravels: “One must always pretend something / Among the dying.” Grace, if allowed, is inhuman: “Tonight once more / I find a single prayer and it is not for men.” Among animals, one most beastly.

On one hand, it’s as the servant says to Caesar, passing news of the augury: “Plucking the entrails of an offering forth, / They could not find a heart within the beast.” But on the other, we have the force of language—not a consolation so much as an elucidation—within Merwin’s book: “If there is a place where this is the language may / It be my country.”