His words are more mystifying, haunting and radiant now, ever since we learned of the death of W.S. Merwin last Friday. The nation’s poet laureate in 2010, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes among countless other literary honors, the self-taught botanist and environmental crusader was 91 when he died in his sleep in the wooden home he had built, now under a magnificent canopy of palm trees he had planted through the decades with his late wife, Paula.
The palm forest is home to more than 2,740 trees, representing over 400 species. It rises from almost 19 acres of once-fallow land on a winding Haiku Road up from the pounding surf of Maui’s Peahi shore.
I had been thinking a lot about William Merwin in recent months for a freelance story appearing in the spring issue of Wailea Magazine. The story is about the Merwin Conservancy’s Green Room, an intermittent series of presentations by renowned poets, authors, artists and innovative thinkers at McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Maui, and now on Oahu as well.
But writing it entailed lots of connecting the dots, beginning with William’s lifework, his philosophy and his way of being; and the home and palm forest he created with Paula, now entrusted to the Conservancy to preserve in perpetuity.
Media, from The Maui News to National Public Radio and The New York Times, have marked the passing of one of America’s great poets, more fondly regarded as a friend and neighbor on this island where he made his home. Excerpts of his poems run through the tributes, deeply rooted in the earth, bottomless in their empathy, cosmic in their implications.
In announcing his passing, the Conservancy posted this poem:
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
Like the beam of a lightless star
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
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
— W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)
What can I add to his words, so pristine, vibrant and important that he refused to bruise or stifle them with punctuation? I was occasionally given the assignment/opportunity/honor of interviewing him over the years, coming away each time feeling I hadn’t quite gotten it right.
Around him I was reminded of the difference between being a journalist and being a poet, a distinction I sometimes conceitedly overlook. I always felt outside the knowledge he possessed, my face pressed up to his window, looking in.
Still, the memories remain.
The first time I talked to the Merwins, they were just back from a Washington, D.C., event in conjunction with his laureateship. They had met the president. It was early in Barrack Obama’s first term and we recognized in one another a shared sense of possibility and hope of those times, before history’s pendulum would so cruelly swing back in the other direction.
The Merwins weren’t present when my wife Karen and I had a tour of their forest, but you could sense their intention in every palm frond, feel their touch in every perfect flower in the garden. The one time I did a lengthy interview with him for a Maui News feature, I asked him about the place of the written word in the digital age.
He had little use for the new technology, he said. He was the product of a different time, when words still could be made mighty; and truths were elusive but sacrosanct, meant to be kept safely out of the reach of louts who place themselves above the rules of capitalization.
He was one of the metaphor chasers musing about silence in “The Quietest Place on Earth,” Tom Vendetti’s documentary about Haleakala Crater that Tom co-produced with Bob Stone and myself. Now he has joined Bob and fellow interview subject, musician Paul Horn, in what is truly the quietest place.
Maui echoes with the silence he named, in the space where he once stood.
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning columnist and former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.