For centuries now poetry and prose have been growing further and further apart. As prose has become dominant poetry has lost its old authority and freedom and become more sensitive and self-conscious, more provincial even. Like a minority language, it is spoken only among its own people, the poets who cherish it but also give it the air of a survival. Hard indeed for a poet today to ignore this tendency, let alone reverse it. Among long narrative poems the brilliant exceptions—Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin, Macpherson’s Ossian, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Longfellow’s Hiawatha—succeed by emphasizing the role of poetry in competition with prose, rather than seeming to pay it no attention.

It is this situation that makes a book like W.S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs such a remarkable and apparently impossible achievement. There is nothing stylized or heraldic about it. It does not claim to be a novel in verse; it does not involuntarily invoke the tradition of the epic, the verse chronicle in many parts, or the mock-heroic. It describes itself as neither more nor less than “a narrative of 19th-century Hawaii,” and that is what it is. Its breadth of implication and its spirit of power transform the modesty of this subtitle. It never tells the reader it is a poem, but the majesty as well as the natural drama of the poetic inhabit its pages like invisible presences, even as the reader becomes as absorbed in the story, its setting and its detail, as if he were reading a thriller.

As in many of Merwin’s poems, most recently in the unfolding of his eerie pastoral The Vixen, the technical instrumentation is misleadingly simple. It rests the eye and fills the mind without effort. These qualities are well shown in the opening of the section called “The Valley,” which describes the mountainous island refuge in which many fugitives from the authorities have taken shelter:

The valley is the mountain split open to windward
to the northwest to the sea to the horizon
where the ancient peaks sailed away sinking before there was
anyone before the archaic words were first uttered
and from the crags at the head of the valley to the winding
stream beds and the drapery of forest tumbling into
the braided ravines it is so far down that only
sections of that carved land can be seen glimpses caught
between drifts of clouds as they travel in to the cliffs
along the pinnacles and the waved fins of buttresses
and through gaps in the stone facades cloud shadows pass
across blue slopes all the way below and in the partings
of the clouds waterfalls spring white from distant scars
high in the rock walls beyond the chasm and the silent plumes
descend slowly through the air of another time until they
melt into the mist but the veins gather somewhere below them
and down toward the rocks along the shoreline stone terraces
had been stepped some of them raised in the remote past
fanning out from banks of the main stream like bones of a fish
toward the cliffs and a scattering of thatched houses

We are in the Seventies and Eighties of the last century, at a time when the island chain of Hawaii was in a state of turmoil and flux, beset equally by colonists and adventurers, missionaries, the American military, and the intrigues and ambitions of its own native chiefs. To this was added the outbreak of Western diseases and of one more ancient malady in particular—leprosy. The infective nature of the complaint meant that societies everywhere and for many centuries had constructed leper colonies in an attempt to isolate it. When the new authorities attempted this on Hawaii there were protests and resistance, and fugitives attempted to escape into remoter regions of the islands and form their own free settlements. The “separating sickness,” as Hawaiians came to call it, meant that families and clans were forcibly divided from each other by new authoritarian methods quite alien to local tradition and feeling.

Those who escaped were pursued by organized bands of soldiers and white settlers. Killings took place and escapers were pursued into the remote hills and valleys of the islands. Merwin’s lines can change without effort from a lyric simplicity of description to the tension and economy that a narrative action requires; and in the midst of action wider perspectives of history, of different peoples, their personal lives and their past, continually open up like the hidden valleys themselves:

The largest group in the hunt fifteen of them under
sergeant major Pratt began by burning the beach houses
and then started up the stream burning and late in the morning
where two streams flowed together they found fresh tracks
in the mud showing that a number of people had passed there
shortly before but they grew uncertain as they traced
the marks along the stream because they seemed to continue
in several directions finally they decided
to follow tracks leading up toward the cliff and they crawled
through a dense tangle Pratt said it seemed like a pig trail
they picked up a broken gourd with some taro in it
and came up from the thicket onto a level patch
that they saw was a campsite with sleeping places
for at least eight and it appeared to have been used
until some time that morning they found fresh pieces
of orange peel and a bundle of food including fish
wrapped in ti leaves bags of taro and of salt and a coat
with two cartridges in it and Miller said either they
had left in a hurry or they planned to come back
it was Pratt’s belief that they had just abandoned
the site when they heard the soldiers and the tracks led on up
crossing the stream between rocks and went on climbing
several hundred feet to the base of the straight rock face
where they could see what might be a way up and Pratt ordered
one or two to volunteer to see whether that was
the trail and Anderson and Evanston said they would go
and they started up with McAulton and Johnson
and McCabe and Herschberg and Reynolds and the others
behind them they had been climbing then for hours
Anderson was from Norway a village in the mountains
and Herschberg was from Sweden from a stony farm
McCabe was almost fifty and said he had been
at Gettysburg thirty years before and in the long campaign
that ended at Appomattox and that he had seen action
in the west and he would mention things from those times
in the army before he shipped to the islands
and married a Hawaiian woman and settled down
—And if you settled down—they would ask him—What are you doing
back in the army again after everything
and no advancement for all that—they said that was hard
to understand and he would tell them it was a living

The suggestion of an endless unfolding among the folding cliffs of the green and secretive islands is marvelously conveyed, as if the narrative were able to fly through time over the Hawaiian landscape, following its fissures and sinuosities like a helicopter, rediscovering through veils of waterfall mist the “old unhappy far-off things” that are shrouded from the present:


At first they heard nothing except the echoes and echoes
of the rifle and then the sounds of falling and slides
and shouts from below them and then only the cries
of white birds sailing circling the cliffs and then voices again
smaller and farther down in waves like rain blowing
then bullets began banging into the rock over their heads
bounding away screaming and pieces of stone spattered around them
as the rattle of the shooting climbed over the ledge
and Ko’olau drew Kaleimanu and Pi’ilani
back under the steep overhang and said—Stay in here—
and he crawled along the ledge to where he could watch
the shore until they stopped shooting at the cliff
and he saw them carry and drag one man from the scree
along into the trees but it was not the one he had shot
who would not have fallen over there and he waited
until they had gone and then crawled back to Pi’ilani
and said—I have to see—and he slipped over the edge and down
below the cliff to where Anderson would have fallen
found the man rolled far down and checked for signs of life
took off cartridge belt shirt necktie to look at the wounds
still bleeding and he plugged them with ferns from the woods

Such quick flashes among a prevailing mist and obscurity of time is an effect that no prose could bring off in quite the way Merwin achieves it in these sober and rhythmic pages. Although there is no trace of revival, or of borrowing from poetry long past, it is impossible not to be aware of ancient atmosphere and traditions, never inhibiting this modern poet but invisibly confirming the nature of what he is doing, and has done. In this narrative of nineteenth-century Hawaii there is none of the sunlit clarity of Greek epic, with all its horror and splendor in the open air; there is instead the sleepwalking certainty of poetry that moves among events and dramas never to be fully explored or explained.

This is another aspect of long poems, found in the mysterious events of the Kalevala or the half-glimpsed nocturnal moment in that strange fragment of Old English epic narration, the Fight at Finnsburgh, with its shadowy sense of things vanished, as the unknown poet says, “as if they had never been.” The same atmosphere pervades the flight of the Hawaiian fugitives to an inaccessible place:


The wind had lashed at them here as it lashed at her this time
the sky had filled with dark cloud and the rain had found them
they had leaned against the cliff wall in the racing fog
the water spilling over them as they crept forward
scarcely able to move but afraid of being caught there
when the light went so they inched ahead until the rain
let up and at last it stopped and the clouds tore apart
over the drop and they could see the gaunt buttresses
towering around them out of the depths of the valley

It pervades, too, the old mythology of Hawaii and the arrival of those who came over the sea from other islands:

they had become their journey which was the tale they repeated
they told where they thought they had been and thought they
rememberedthey told of the faces of death they thought they had left
one after another so that their own shadows
were its shadow now and they claimed that they were the heirs
of the root of the earth the source of the earth they had it
with them wherever they went it was the fire they were carrying
before which there had been nothing and their own footprints were
nameswhich they had given to the stars they had followed
out of the night of Asia into the islands new names
for the sky as they went from Newe and Kauana lipo
under Haku po kano to Hoku pa’a and their wake
was what they had almost forgotten broken shells on a house floor
a bed pile in a dark corner and bones of a half-eaten child

The great explorer Captain Cook had been killed trying to recover goods from the ship that the islanders had coveted; and he himself had been bound on a voyage of discovery that he already felt was hopeless, the search for the fabled Northwest Passage, here to be attempted from the northeast:

In his heart Cook had known there was no such passage
but it was the kind of knowledge that is not a thing for words

In the islands themselves the old order was breaking up, even before the irruption of settlers from America and Europe had begun:

the merciless web of caste and ceremony
of ritual and dread and sacrifice and coherence
the kapus that maintained the power of the war god
and of the chiefs themselves a fabric that had been
decaying for longer than anyone could remember
but much faster since the foreigners had first breathed on it
and the widows may have imagined that the rending
of this fretwork of fear and distinction would allow
women access to further power but the power
even as they held it turned into a ghost and escaped them
appearing out of reach while the god of the powerful
foreigners appeared to many in the strangers’ wealth
and their impunity long before the year when the chief died
and the grip of the kapus was broken and many were
curious about this stranger god by the time the first
boatload of missionaries embarked from New England
summoned late in time to save unknown souls from their lives

The ironic notion of being “saved” from one’s life shows the kind of unpointed meaningfulness that can lurk within the grave ceremony of Merwin’s lines. And one can notice at this point, too, the skill with which punctuation has been made redundant without leading to syntactic ambiguity or confusion.

In faraway Canton the merchants were already speaking of “the Sandalwood Islands,” and the Hawaiian chiefs marshaled their underlings to build fragrant stacks of the commodity that foreigners so much coveted:

The chiefs bought on credit to be paid in sandalwood
and the chiefs’ collectors dug the commoners out of their
family gardens and sent them farther all the time
into the steep forests with axes to fill the quotas

Boom and bust is the new law:

no more than a single lifetime after the masts
of Cook’s vessels had appeared off the coast at Waimea

But the old bloodshed and warfare between the islands goes on. The overview of the poem—“narrative” would be a better word—is indeed majestic, and the strangeness and beauty of the islands seem at one with their suffering and desolation:

Born in a dark wave the fragrance of red seaweed
born on the land the shore grass hissing while the night slips
through a narrow place a man is born for the narrows
a woman is born for where the waters open
the passage is for a god it is not for a human

The late Ted Hughes, England’s poet laureate and one of the finest poets of his own generation, paid a fitting tribute to The Folding Cliffs when he called it a truly original masterpiece, on a very big scale. “I could not put it down, and read it with a mixture of amazement and admiration that went on growing to the last page.”

Merwin’s new collection, The River Sound, is now being published and contains some of the best poems he has so far written. His interest in old legends and forgotten far-off things continues. “The Stranger” makes a poem of a Guarani legend recorded by Ernesto Morales. A man rescues a snake, who thereupon coils round him to kill and eat him, observing that

I am keeping the law
it is the law that whoever does good
receives evil in return

The river and the palm tree complain that they only do good and that they are abused in return, polluted, killed by those who strip off the bark to drink the sap. The pair meet a dog who tricks the snake into releasing the man. They manage to kill the snake and

the dog said to the stranger Friend
I have saved your life
and the stranger took the dog home with him
and treated him the way the stranger would treat a dog

Clearly the Guarani knew a thing or two long before the days of ecology. But any glibness in the poem as present-day parable is dissolved in its wry humor.

River imagery flowing with verbal magic recurs throughout these poems, mingling with notes of music, as in “Remembering”:

There are threads of old sound heard over and over
phrases of Shakespeare or Mozart the slender
wands of the auroras playing out from them
into dark time the passing of a few
migrants high in the night far from the ancient flocks
far from the rest of the words far from the instruments

This beautiful poem slides as easily into consciousness as does the music and the words it suggests and summons up. The long poem “Testimony,” intoning Merwin’s characteristic blend of gravity and humor, lists many friends to whom things, such as they are, should be left—friendship and the story of one’s life being themselves legacies, like islands, rivers, streams, flowing away obscurely but memorably, and forever:

to Alastair Reid born nomad
child of one island moving on
island by island satisfied
with what he could pack neatly in
a suitcase Ileave on this stone
as it changes in the water
all the islands that he has known
turning up out of each other

That conveys very well the feeling of all Merwin’s poetry, turning up things that are old and new, transmuting them into a true strangeness and a true wonder.

This Issue

February 18, 1999