A palm forest grows in Chicago to celebrate Maui poet W.S. Merwin
“On the last day of the world,
I would want to plant a tree,
what for . . .”
Esteemed poet W.S. Merwin, a resident of Peahi, will be heard reading those words from “Place” in an exhibition to open next week at the new American Writers Museum in Chicago that highlights his works as a writer and creator of a palm forest.
The sensory exhibit, “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” is the vision of artists Susannah Sayler and her husband, Edward Morris. Sayler called “Place,” from Merwin’s book “The Rain in the Trees” published in 1988, “the keynote poem.”
“Even though the whole world is burning, plant a tree,” she said Tuesday in a phone interview. The poem speaks to “empathy with the natural world.”
The creators hope that young writers and others will see that writing poems is only one aspect of Merwin. In the last three decades, the man, who was a U.S. poet laureate and has won every major poetry award, has branched out from writing into gardening and meditation with his practice of Zen Buddhism.
Merwin and his late wife, Paula, planted a 19-acre palm forest in abandoned pineapple fields in Peahi tree by tree. Today, there are more than 2,740 individual palm trees, and the palm garden is one of the largest and most extensive palm collections on the planet, according to The Merwin Conservancy website.
“It strikes me as a very balanced kind of existence,” Sayler said.
Merwin reads five poems in the exhibit that runs from Tuesday to Oct. 6 in the museum in Chicago’s Loop.
There are three distinct spaces in the exhibit — a facsimile of Merwin’s shade house in Peahi; a viewing area for Sayler and Morris’ video taken in Merwin’s palm garden; and an area of palms, some taken from Merwin’s garden, with four speakers voicing Merwin and three contemporary American poets who were influenced by his work, Naomi Shihab Nye, Carrie Fountain and Ross Gay.
“We were able to focus on the life and work of W.S. Merwin but also the ripples . . . his writing has engendered as well,” Sayler said.
“Palm: All Awake in the Darkness” also reflects the recurring theme in Merwin’s work, “awakeness,” she said. Through art, there is the opportunity for a “deeper engagement with the world or awakeness.”
“Many of his poems end with the sense of an eye opening, and he reminds us again and again of the vitality of all that surrounds us,” the artists say in an introductory panel to the exhibit.
“We hope that the atmosphere (of the exhibit) will allow that understanding and interaction with (Merwin’s) poetry,” Sayler said. “Also this idea of empathy is important to think of our relationship to the natural environment.”
This is Sayler and Morris’ second large-scale installation with a major writer. In 2014-15, the duo worked with writer Elizabeth Kolbert on a large-scale video exhibit titled “Eclipse” that commemorated the extinction of the passenger pigeon at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. They also are co-founders of The Canary Project, a studio that produces and supports art and media about ecological issues.
Sayler and Morris created the Merwin exhibit in collaboration with Ian Boyden. It is funded by The Poetry Foundation with support from The Merwin Conservancy.
Merwin was the perfect bridge for writing and their work on the environment, Sayler said. “If we do work inspired by an American writer, Merwin made sense,” she said.
“We value what William (Merwin) teaches us about art and activism,” the couple said in a pamphlet about the exhibition. “If anything sets humans apart from other creatures, William has said, it is not our intelligence or our language, it is our imagination and empathy — our capacity to care for elephants, bears, trees and people we have never met. William’s activism happens through his poetry, through his cultivation of imagination.”
“Poetry is a way of seeing the world for the first time,” they said, quoting Merwin.
Sayler and Morris have met Merwin in person only once — in August to gather footage for the video in the exhibit — but they knew him well through his poetry.
Morris had his first interaction in Merwin in the 1990s. He was doing a translation of ancient Japanese poetry and wrote Merwin admiringly about his poetry and translations. The poet replied in a letter, recommending translators he admired.
“Translation never works but is necessary,” Merwin said.
The couple had an interaction with Merwin while helping friend Stefan Schaefer produce a documentary on the poem “Even Though the Whole World is Burning” in 2014. Listed as associate producers, it was through that film that they got to see the palm garden for the first time, Sayler said.
“The film gave us a much deeper understanding of the garden and his every day life practices,” she said.
Sayler and Morris saw the palm garden for the first time in person during their August visit. The grade of the land was not apparent in the video; it slopes down into a valley, Sayler said. The top of the property likely would be the location most people would pick to build their home with a view of the ocean and the tops of the trees and comfortable open breezes.
But Merwin chose to live farther down the slope in the denser greenery, she said. The dojo is even farther down in the palm growth.
“I was really struck as you move down in elevation how dense and enveloping the forest was,” Sayler said. “I felt where W.S. Merwin chose to inhabit the garden, you feel the interconnectedness.
“He really lived right in it, and it is really quite dense.”
The artists met the poet and Paula Merwin (who died in March) on their lanai and “had a wonderful discussion,” said Sayler. “It was kind of a tremendous honor,” she said. “We were so excited.”
They took a picture with the Merwins.
“We have just really big smiles on our faces,” Sayler said. “He is really an inspiration to us.”
The poet has lost his eyesight to macular degeneration, but “he meets one’s gaze with his searing blue eyes that in no way seem to lack sight,” Sayler said.
“Even if William (Merwin) cannot see, he looks at you,” she said. “I think his mind is pretty active. . . . He was engaged and engaging.”
Sayler and Morris have been working on the project for more than a year. It was mocked up and Merwin’s re-created shade house built in the fall. The last six months have been intense, said Sayler.
Now that the exhibit is completed, “there is such a sense of relief,” she said. There is always stress when putting together an exhibition but more so with this one. When creating an exhibition for Merwin, “you don’t want to mess that up,” she said.
Plus, they have to make sure his palms that they are borrowing for the exhibition survive. There are extensive grow lights and irrigation systems, she noted.
The exhibit had a private opening May 6.
“I’m indeed greatly honored that the American Writers Museum chose to have this exhibit, and to have it in the wonderful city of Chicago, a city I love,” said Merwin. “I’m sorry that I am not able to get there to see it.”
“The idea of an American Writers Museum seems to me long overdue,” he added. “The literate world has known and prized American writers since the generation of Emerson and Thoreau. Whitman and Emily Dickinson have influenced poets and readers in English and in translation into many languages. The great current continues, and a museum honoring and portraying American writing would be an honor to the suffering and vision from which our literature came.”
The Merwin Conservancy Executive Director Jason Denhart, who attended the private event, was impressed by the exhibit.
“The artists and designers who were commissioned to create this installation did an impeccable job of bringing the energy of Merwin’s great poetic works and his palms to an immersive museum setting — located in a Chicago high-rise,” he said. “The exhibit participant is instantly exposed to the organic vitality and mindful contemplation that embodies Mr. Merwin’s works and indeed, his approach to life. Even the sign on the door to the exhibit offers this advice to the museum goer: ‘Exhibit best experienced in a quiet, contemplative state.’ ”
Sayler said that she and Morris hope to bring the exhibition to Hawaii someday, adding that the American Writers Museum is interested in touring it. Hawaii would seem like a natural choice for a stop, she said.
They have visited Merwin in Peahi only once, but they will be back there. Over the years, Merwin has read, then composted the letters he has received in the garden. Those attending the exhibit can write a letter to Merwin, which will be going to compost in the poet’s garden, Sayler said.
The poem “Place” concludes:
“I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time with the sun already
and the water
touching its roots
in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing
one by one
over its leaves.”
* Lee Imada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.