Garden Time

reviewed by Jennifer Michael Hecht

We all know that childhood is a garden path of firsts; a less ubiquitous truth is that the aged note the garden path of lasts. To be in the company of a masterful poet as he tells us about it is a wistful kind of Eden. The writing is limpid, poetically tuned to autumn tones, some repetitions of t and u, but nothing pyrotechnic. Often Merwin says things we know but in just the way to make you look at them afresh, as in his poem “The Wings of Daylight.” Most of the poems are short and feel like small gifts. In the book at large, there is grief and a sense of having made mistakes, but optimism still somehow reigns. Merwin gently coaxes contradictions together and juxtaposes them before us, especially the notion that whatever is forgotten by everyone is lost to time, but the world is also its own memory. He has a preternatural ability to see life, love, and nature as both gone and never gone. There is a lot of remembering in the poems, persisting, believing in a good world going on beyond him and after him. “The Laughing Child” has him in his mother’s memory, as an infant, laughing—at nothing—so hard it jostles his carriage, a feat that deeply changes his mother, who had been through a lot of personal turmoil by then, “a life / in which she had lost everyone she loved.” For a mind as knowing as his, to sum up this book with such a smiling gift is yet another example of Merwin’s national-treasure-level talent for hope: “yet they both reached at once // for the present / and when their hands met // they laughed.”

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This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall–Winter 2016.