A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Neoclassical

How W.S. Merwin found his own turf--and everyone else's

W.S. Merwin
Summer Doorways
Shoemaker & Hoard

 

I hear you knocking, but you can't come in: 'Summer Doorways' author W.S. Merwin doesn't treat his memoir as a confessional
Shoemaker & Hoard
I hear you knocking, but you can't come in: 'Summer Doorways' author W.S. Merwin doesn't treat his memoir as a confessional

Poet W. S. Merwin takes the title of his latest memoir, Summer Doorways, literally: He describes many doorways, many houses he lived in or saw before the fall of 1948, when this book ends. We go from dormitories at his boarding school ("red brick buildings, late neocolonial") to a rich man's villa in Provence; from an abandoned mansion in the New England woods ("a very large frame house painted brown, so that it looked like a free-standing shadow in the forest") to a poor Portuguese woman's house built against the side of a chapel.

A narrative thread connects these houses. In 1948, Merwin, 21 years old and already a graduate of Princeton, sailed for Europe, where he stayed in Provence and then Portugal as a tutor to the children of wealthy Americans and minor European royals. This is not a story of triumph or natural privilege but of opportunities available to a talented, flexible young man. This is also the memoir of a doorway time, a lull both for the world--after World War II and before modern industry and tourism spread through America and Europe--and for Merwin himself, after his departure from his family and before the emergence of his own poetic voice and career.

Mostly, though, the doors have it. Merwin largely shuts us off from the emotions he experienced; the smithy of the soul is not open for public viewing. At least, not in the usual way. This beautiful book (strewn with lines like "the waves lashed the gaps in the wall that was the edge of Europe") winds along meditatively, the narrative voice almost passive.

The exception comes when Merwin writes of the land; then emotion flares. He describes the destruction of the New England countryside: "If the countryside I remember had to endure change, there is a certain relief in its having happened that way. It was not chewed at, dollied up, debased feature by feature, like so many remembered places, until it was unrecognizable and shameful before it was completely gone." The encounter with place becomes political. Who will govern this land, who will determine its future, how will we live in it together?

Merwin quietly indicts his wealthy hosts, who love their land but take it for granted, by contrasting their behavior with that of the country people around them. His host Alan Stuyvesant's debauchery reaches a climax when he is found in a hotel, "wandering half dressed, hopelessly drunk, looking for the bellboy," whom he earlier tried to wrestle into bed. While Stuyvesant sleeps off his champagne, Merwin and his friends walk along the nearby shore and discover some men bringing in a fishing net. They offer to help. "The net broke the surface," Merwin writes, "and the bright loom before sunrise glinted on the flipping silver curves caught in it as the long weight inched upward out of the water." It is a beautiful language that Merwin has forged to describe not glittering society or scintillating artistic ideas, but common work.

 

Summer Doorways is not a perfect book. It begins somewhere and wanders along without much structure for about 200 pages, then ends abruptly. But think of it as a loose poetic essay, and this shapelessness won't bother you. Readers may complain, too, about Merwin's skin-deep characterizations, particularly of his then-wife Dorothy, who seems to have no thought or initiative of her own. But the book is not about her or any person.

A more serious complaint is that the lovely loop of the first half of the book--in which 100 pages bring us again to the scene of the first page--gives way to a mostly linear narrative in the second half.

Yet Summer Doorways succeeds in showing how a writer born just before the Great Depression, a scholar of language, literature, and mythology, came to his mission, an unusual one for his time and background. Travel made him not an aesthete or a philosopher, but an activist. And an activist for something at once so basic and so distant--responsible, restrained use of common land--that you might miss it, though it runs through both his poetry and prose. As in the best political writing, Merwin takes the reader with him. He never issues a call to action, but a question resonates through this memoir: What have you seen that is worth saving?

 
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