The poet W. S. Merwin was—like many of us, perhaps—preoccupied with his own mortality. He wrote about it often, most famously in “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.” But plenty of his works that seem to deal with the end of life are really about aliveness. They don’t ponder the process of dying or what comes after it; they reflect on what will be lost when our time is up. In “Anniversary,” Merwin continues: “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.” Death matters, he makes clear, only because it ends the life we cherish. In his poetry, he holds that life up to the light, turning it around with gentleness and love and curiosity.
In “To Age,” Merwin compares the feeling of years passing to a child’s experience of looking out of the back car window, watching images rush into view and then recede into the distance. The metaphor is striking. It not only conveys the disorienting slipperiness of time—which seems to move freely while the one experiencing it remains still—but also implies a wide-eyed fondness for the world glimpsed through the window, which somehow grows less consequential and also more precious as it disappears. As frequently as he revisited the subject of human existence before he died in 2019, Merwin never lost sight of its essential mystery, or the pleasure and privilege in studying it all the same.
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