In the Fall of 1975, I was one of a handful of people sitting in a classroom in the Buchanan Building at the University of British Columbia. It was the noon hour. A few people ate sandwiches, some conversed in hushed tones.
I don’t remember any introduction. A tall man walked to the front of the room. He wore a waist-length sheepskin vest, held a walking stick in one hand and a book of poetry in the other. He looked at his audience with sharp, intelligent eyes and, without wasting any words, began reading his poems.
It was the poet, W.S. Merwin. He enthralled me with his formidable poems about the natural world, classical/mythological themes and spirituality. It was an eye-opening experience to the 20-year-old me. Here was a real poet! Intense, purposeful, at times abstract and obscure. Larger than life!
A magnetic presence, that day
Since those early days, Merwin published over 50 books of poetry, translations and non-fiction, was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate, 2010-11. In his latter years, he was a practicing Buddhist and an ardent conservationist. He notably restored a former pineapple plantation in Hawaii (also his home) to its original flora and fauna.
He died in his sleep earlier this year in his home on Maui, Hawaii 1. There wasn’t much fanfare, but his contributions to literature and the cultural fabric were substantial.
Over the years, I’d read his poems in the New Yorker, Atlantic or various collections of poetry. They often brought back that magnetism I experienced that afternoon at UBC, with the aroma of tuna sandwiches in the air.
A poem of bread
I recently stumbled on one of Merwin’s poems that may touch readers of this blog:
for Wendell Berry
Each face in the street is a slice of bread
somewhere in the light the true hunger
appears to be passing them by
have they forgotten the pale caves
they dreamed of hiding in
their own caves
full of the waiting of their footprints
hung with the hollow marks of their groping
full of their sleep and their hiding
have they forgotten the ragged tunnels
they dreamed of following in out of the light
to hear step after step
the heart of bread
to be sustained by its dark breath
to find themselves alone
before a wheat field
raising its radiance to the moon
— W.S. Merwin
I arrived near the end, like the people in the poem, a little lost, a little forgetful. But I was astonished in the last three lines when we find ourselves before the wheat field, “raising its radiance to the moon.”
If we are bread, and the “true hunger” passes us by, we are lost. And yet here we arrive at the wheat field, the source of our existence, our essence, and it is the radiance within us who raise our essences to the moon.
What is bread, really?
Mostly it’s a loaf on a plate at the dinner table. Or part of great sandwich. Or something baking in the oven, its heady aroma permeating the kitchen.
And yet we can dream of bread and see it in a different context. We can see it as a means of bringing us closer to others at the dinner table (as in the boaters in “Les Canotiers de la Meurthe”). It can remind of us our love and humanity, as I often see when people pick up their loaves and hold it close to their hearts.
And I love how Merwin brings the slices of bread, the faces in the street, back through their confusion to the wheat field rising from the earth. It’s uplifting, humble and somehow holy.
That slice of bread makes a great piece of toast, with a little butter and jam. But a great poet can remind us of bread’s “dark breath” and the light emanating from a wheat field in the dark!
To the staff of life!
if you’re interested, read this beautiful obituary from the March 15, 2019 New York Times.↩