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In the Magic Circle

The Lost Upland: Stories of Southwest France

by W.S. Merwin
Knopf, 307 pp., $22.00

A number of modern poets have tended to explore aspects of their sensibility and of their surroundings more boldly in prose than in poetry. Baudelaire excelled at the critical essay; his prose poems and intimate journals complement Les Fleurs du mal in subtle ways we are still exploring. Hofmannsthal made a major poetic statement in The Letter of Lord Chandos (1902). Rilke speaks to many of us through the intense scenes of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I could make a strong case for Rimbaud and even for Mallarmé as poets sometimes at their best in prose. Dylan Thomas came down to earth in his ripely sensuous stories. And a sound rule of thumb tells us that poets have been the best critics of poetry.

The fine command of prose by a poet gives to The Lost Upland a strong appeal in a genre that alternates between description and narrative. In the first two stories, “Foie Gras” and “Shepherds,” Merwin finds his range and his voice for depicting the rhythms of life in one of the oldest rural regions of France. “Blackbird’s Summer” is a 150-page novella whose appeal lies in its discovery of listenings and revelations among the most ordinary moments of unfamiliar lives. I shall try to explain why I find The Lost Upland Merwin’s most impressive book as well as a rare achievement.

The translations Merwin has published from his earliest years have disciplined his language and his mind. They now add up to fifteen volumes, ranging from The Poem of the Cid to Jean Follain’s poetry. Translating for a living has helped Merwin avoid the confinements and hypocrisies of creative writing programs. Two visits to Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital when Merwin was eighteen steered him in the healthy direction of a career as an independent writer.

Through twelve or so collections Merwin’s poetry has followed a fairly common trajectory. His early formalist writing sometimes seemed to hover in midair between the attractions of Pound and of Stevens. With his fourth book, The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), he found a diction of his own. The cultural and political gales of the Sixties drove many young American poets toward a freer line and engaged subjects. While he was living primarily in France, Merwin’s poetry not only adopted a loose line; for a time he eliminated all punctuation, as Apollinaire had done. In 1971 Merwin announced he was giving his Pulitzer Prize money to Draft Resistance (after appearing at first to refuse the award). Yet his poems alternated primarily between family motifs from the Lackawanna region in Pennsylvania and French goat sheds. In the early Eighties he began reeling in his verse structures, and tried out a clumsy typographical experiment emphasizing the caesura by means of a channel down the center of the page dividing all lines in two.

Looking again at Merwin’s substantial published poetry I have the impression of one underlying theme. He returns over and over again to the basic act of noticing, of paying attention. Around that fragile encounter of subject and object, everything else becomes embellishment, the necessary ritual that frames and protects the fleeting moment of revelation. This remark applies also to the highly miscellaneous collection, Houses and Travellers (1977), which includes several successful prose poems.

The stories that make up The Lost Upland are linked by their association with a single region in southwest France where Merwin bought a house and lived for several years. His previous prose collections have tried out earlier versions of portions of these stories. Since the names of all but major and distant towns have been changed, I cannot pinpoint the area. It apparently lies east of Bordeaux and south of Limoges near the Lot River. The three stories also form a sequence of statement, variation, and full elaboration corresponding to their lengths (50, 100, and 150 pages respectively). “Foie Gras” appeared in The New Yorker, “Shepherds” in The Paris Review. “Blackbird’s Summer” is published for the first time. It could easily stand alone, but the overlap and contrast of the three pieces achieve a cumulative effect, like collage, like sampling different vintages of wine.

Monsieur le Comte, the central character in the first story, attempts with declining success to survive on his minor aristocratic lineage, his stories, and his knowledge of the countryside and its history. In order to support his family and a decaying château, he is reduced to taking in paying guests from foreign countries and to dealing in antiques. Obese from an addiction to foie gras, the colorful and contemptuous count gradually becomes a rundown scrounger and petty thief. His neighbors both despise him and laugh at him. At the end, after being caught stealing cans of foie gras from the new supermarket, he tries to die in state in his Renaissance room. The burial is a fiasco because of his oversize coffin. The tale has become a cartoon of a lost nobleman, whose attempt to keep up appearances turns him into a grotesque imposter—Don Quixote in reverse.

In “Shepherds” Merwin puts aside the quiet ventriloquism by which we hear the count’s gossip and endless prevarications. After the third-person narrative of “Foie Gras,” the second story opens in a distant key. “For a few years I had a garden in a ruined village.” While the narrator cultivates his vegetables and flowers, the two sheepraising neighboring families (they do not speak to each other) gradually accept him and exchange visits and favors. One shepherd named Michel, considered totally backward by the other family, has refused to install electricity and clings to a small flock, traditional practices, and bare survival. Michel is not above using the almost invisible stone shelters built by the Gauls to protect themselves from wind and rain. Merwin’s imagination responds carefully and beautifully to a man-made symbol that conforms to the contours of nature.

Each of the shelters was sited to watch over a wide expanse of grazing land. Each of their arched doorways framed a place that was like nowhere else. Sockets. Michel would never have admitted to sitting in one. Never. Not as a child, when they were regarded with awe. Children did not play in them. The huts were the abodes of figures of the past, and were spoken of as though they were haunted, though it was never said, and there were no stories. In the present age there was a certain shame attached to the notion of actually entering one and sitting there, taking shelter in so rude and small a place, the kind of protection that humans had been making for themselves in that region, out of the stones lying there, for thousands of years. Nobody wanted to be thought of as backward. Almost no one in the region had sat in the huts for a long time. Roots came through the roofs. Trees grew up through them. Every year the reclamation project devoured a few more, along with the walls into which they had been built. But Michel sat in them, unseen, and looked out on pastures that were his own and on others that were not. He emerged from them cautiously, and looked up at the open air overhead, while his sheep flowed around him.

Monsieur Vert, the other neighbor, keeps a prosperous and progressive farm with a large extended family and constant building projects. In a final moving sequence, forty of M. Vert’s sheep break through a fence and are killed or maimed by an express train. When they have to be burned in an enormous pyre, the narrator and even Michel turn out to help. A cautious neighborliness has flowed back into the abandoned village. When the narrator leaves for a trip, Michel murmurs to him what has not been lost on anyone: “You weren’t born here. But you’re from here.” In this low-key story that moves like the seasons, the words veer close to sentimentality. But the ending maintains an undemonstrative dignity.

In the third story Merwin removes himself and centers the action on “Blackbird,” a successful widowed wine merchant and owner of a hotel-restaurant run by his daughter and son-in-law. Like the count, Blackbird travels around the countryside—in his case to make deliveries, take orders, and visit his customers. Driving his small truck, this poised reflective traveler holds the entire region in his mind—its inhabitants, its customs, its topography, its buildings. He works out of the redolent fastness of his ancient stone cellars.

But Blackbird has no son. In this late summer of his life his concerns turn increasingly to how he will leave that life. He decides to have a mason wall up a dozen bottles of his finest wines, all hand-labeled “To the Demolishers of this Building.” Since neither his daughter nor his son-in-law drinks wine, his principal worry is the succession of the wine business. We are a party to his investigations into who would have the requisite taste, tact, and devotion to tradition to replace him. Impetuously he offers his business to two devoted foreign customers, one after the other, without success. Everything (except the name Blackbird) folds back into place when he confers the business on his nephew Pierre. They shake hands solemnly in a café and look forward to traveling out together on cold autumn mornings to sample the summer’s wine.

Especially if you have some familiarity with this kind of countryside and the struggle of the inhabitants to reconcile tradition and progress, you will be drawn to these quiet narratives. Merwin’s prose, which varies between the succulent and the lean, responds readily to the sensuous (“Blackbird’s Summer” opens in the dark), to fragile moods, and to language itself. In “Shepherds,” Michel and his brother Robert have just shorn the flock with hand clippers and are watching the animals, which looked “as though they had been made by a wood carver who had left them covered with the marks of the adze.” The brothers begin to speak of the virtues of the wool from their rocky plauteaus (causses).

It’s the only thing,” Robert the roofer said. “Causse wool.”

Nothing like it,” Michel said. “For the health. But it has to be raw wool.”

Winter,” Robert said, “It’s the only thing. It keeps the feet warm.”

Best thing to sleep on,” Robert said. “Wool mattress.”

We don’t sleep on anything else,” Michel said.

Sweaters,” Robert said.

You put it against your back,” Michel said, pushing his hand up inside his red sleeveless jersey, “like that. Pure wool. For rheumatism. For the kidneys. It draws it out. My mother puts it there. My father put it there.”

It warms you,” Robert said.

It absorbs,” Michel said.

It absorbs everything,” Robert confirmed, with a gesture of his hand like a magician’s about to draw a handkerchief out of the air. “Primordial.”

Even wet,” Michel said. “It’s good in the rain. Impermeable. The old shepherds’ cloaks.”

They both nodded.

To the ground,” Michel said. “My grandfather wore one. That was all they needed. You could live in it.”

The passage is not a Hemingway pastiche but a stylized attempt to move close to a conversation. One of Merwin’s devices or conventions is to handle the French language through virtual transliteration. He goes astray in carrying the word “snobbism” into English. “To modernize the old building at pleasure” sounds quaint rather than vernacular. But the passage just quoted records simultaneously a rhythm of speech, an extended moment of time, and a way of life. Merwin successfully enlarges the English usage of “one” to include the generalized French meanings of we, everyone, they, people. Most readers will be puzzled by the passage in which Blackbird “rolled the unspoken sound of his name with a slow curiosity.” Merwin could easily have told us that the French word for blackbird is merle, a sound one can roll and ponder, particularly if one’s own name shares the first syllable.

Except in “Shepherds,” Merwin uses a spacious third-person narrative that sometimes attaches itself so closely to the principal character that we are carried into Flaubert’s style indirect libre without quotation marks. Other times the narrative becomes so autonomous that it seems to volunter its own observations. The prose itself informs us of a curious family trait, a tendency to look up expectantly, and adds: “none of them seemed to have noticed it.” Many passages approach the timeless, detached feeling of Balzac’s openings (e.g., Eugénie Grandet, Le Père Goriot) before he introduces the pull of the plot. Merwin wants to convey something simple: this is how life is lived here. Clean edges and mots justes document the way people and place adjust to one another by acts of wearing and building and yielding.

On the jacket Peter Davison suggests that Merwin’s sensibility can be compared to that of Jean Giono or Maurice Pagnol. I am also reminded of Eleanor Clark’s The Oysters of Locmariaquer, which chronicles daily life in a Breton community, and of Pierre-Jakez Hélios’ The Horse of Pride, also about Brittany. Some will think of Lawrence Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse, a reliable and sympathetic study that surpasses its sociological categories. But Merwin creates his own particular ethos of moods and tones. The scenes in which Blackbird leads the priest at night to the local sulphur spring to relieve his eczema form a secret, comic, and fully credible idyll in both their lives. The darkness seems to concentrate their existence there in the woods next to the spring.

During World War II a short book of intimate journals appeared in England, The Unquiet Grave, richly praised on the jacket by Elizabeth Bowen and V.S. Pritchett and signed simply “Palinurus.” In the opening pages, after a rant against Group Man, meaning socialism, we come upon a one-page entry entitled “A Charm against Group Man the magic circle.” Underneath appears a circular map whose circumference passes near Toulouse, Rodez, and Bergerac and encompasses the Dordogne, Lot, Aveyron, and Tarn rivers. The motto Quod petis hic est (Here is what I seek) is lettered in around the circle. In the caption we read that the author’s “peace aims” include “a yellow manor farm inside this magic circle” and “a helicopter to take me to an office in London or Paris.” Merwin has spent a long time surveying the topography and tasting the wines of the countryside that suggested magic to Cyril Connolly. Merwin wants no helicopter.

As in the cause pastures, we don’t have to dig far in Merwin’s stories to find bedrock. It is the same buried ledge that I find in his poetry. At long intervals what stops the movements of ordinary living is the mental act of noticing that you are noticing something. The moment occurs with fleeting intensity—nothing spiritual, closer to a physically registered loss of psychological equilibrium, followed by recovery.

Blackbird realized that he had not seen M. and Mme. Bright for months, not since the early autumn. People always looked different after a winter, as though they had been covered with dust and then wiped off. But how strange they looked to him, standing there like a picture of people singing. How far away it all looked. The next moment he swung forward to greet them, just as Françoise appeared at the open French door of the kitchen and shrieked to welcome them.

Blackbird was not listening. He felt, as he put it to himself, much older than he really was, standing there in the middle of the room. He had not always been so polite, he thought. Once he had been known for other things, and that was not so long ago either. As Mme. Riordan set down the plate of crème caramel in front of him he stared quite openly into the how-cut of her dress and the deep fold displayed before him, and was seized with an impulse to reach out and thrust his fingers, indeed his whole hand, down between her breasts. Then he looked up and caught her eye, and the presence of the Bad Blackbird whom many remembered withered in a rush of heat like that of the day outside, as the door opened and M. Riordan came in, and he heard the sound of yet another bottle being opened, and became aware that his face was caught in an uncomfortable smile. He heard that nobody was saying anything.

These stories patiently explore a sensuous solitude. Everyone’s.

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