Reading: For The Anniversary Of My Death by W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin (b. 1927) is an American poet who became famous as an anti-war poet in the 1960s. He later developed an interest in buddism and deep ecology and moved to an old banana plantation on Maui, Hawai, which he restored to its original rainforest state. I read a timeless poem about celebrating the anniversary not of your birth, but of your death:

For the anniversary of my death
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

It’s a neat invention: celebrating your deathday instead of your birthday. The detail that we don’t know (thank god) which day it will be can be dealt with. Merwin mentions the last fires (cremation? He is a Buddhist after all). The astronomical metaphor seems to be a black hole, a collapsed star whose gravity is too strong for light to escape. It’s ‘beam’ is not visible light, but perhaps some kind of Stephen Hawking effect. Or the gravitational ‘beam’ that pulls everything inward and into spaghetti, like Neil the Grass Tyson explains.

In the second stanza he likens life to a strange garment. He observes himself with the gentle eye of a detached soul, a soul well versed in feeling detached. The love of one woman (Mr. Merwin married once, in 1983, to Paula Schwarz). The shamelessness of men could refer to the destruction of nature. Of course it does.

Three. Days. Interpreters will rush to point out the biblical, but let us not. After the rain the wren (brown insectivorous bird of the northern hemisphere) sings again and Merwin sums up the practice of his religion in a striking formula: bowing not knowing to what. It’s not a perfect rhyme, there is some difference between the sounds and I’m sure critics and do a dissertation on that. We just observe it’s an awesome formula for a religious experience that honestly accepts our ignorance in these matters.