W. S. Merwin, 1927-2019

GARDEN TIME, W. S. Merwin. Copper Canyon Press, Post Office Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington, 98368, 2016, 78 pages, $16 paper,

When I was in the MFA program at the University of Washington, I helped to bring W. S. Merwin to read as part of our Watermark Series, and I was one of a handful of students to be granted a one-on-one tutorial with him. Born the same year as my father, he wore a logger’s hickory stripe shirt that day, and he had intense blue eyes, like my logger father. I could hardly speak, I was so in awe of him.

I stumbled across this book recently while browsing a small bookstore, and, surprised I hadn’t seen it when it was first published, I grabbed it up. Garden Time, which is time outside of our usual everyday time, is a perfect title. Merwin wrote it—dictating the poems to his wife, Paula—when he was losing his eyesight. Among the 62 short, contemplative poems I could pick out any number of “favorites.” It’s hard not to choose “Pianist in the Dark,” which opens with these lines: “The music is not in the keys / it has never been seen / the notes set out to find / each other / listening for their way.” And these notes:

Rain at Daybreak

One at a time the drops find their own leaves
then others follow as the story spreads
they arrive unseen among the waking doves
who answer from the sleep of the valley
there is no other voice or other time

—W. S. Merwin

An Irish Times reviewer described the poems as “graceful, often stunning,” and, “Focused brilliantly on what we see and how we are seen.” I couldn’t agree more.

Not Early or Late

Is it I who have come to this age
or is it the age that has come to me
which one has brought along all these
silent images on their shadowy river
appearing and going away as the river does
all without a word though they all know me
I can see that they always knew where to find me
bringing me what they know I will recognize
what they know only I will recognize
to show me what I could not have seen before
then leave me to make sense of my own questions
going away making no promises

—W. S. Merwin

Merwin was elected U. S. Poet Laureate in 2010, and was the recipient of two Pulitzers for Poetry as well as many other awards over his long life of writing. Here’s the book page at Copper Canyon, and you can learn much more about his spiritual practices, and gardening practices in this profile at Poetry Foundation.

John Freeman’s Wind, Trees

WIND, TREES, John Freeman. Copper Canyon Press, Post Office Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington 98368, 2022, 79 pages, $17 paper,

I find I am rather late to the party, in terms of appreciating John Freeman. His bio notes include… well, so much (follow the links to see), and Dave Eggers called him, in a Los Angeles Times review, “one of the preeminent book people of our time.” Freeman’s previous books of poetry are Maps (2017) and The Park (2020). I found traces of him all over the web, and you’ll find a couple more links at the bottom of this post.

But my goal here is to write about Freeman’s exquisite third book of poems, Wind, Trees, and perhaps tempt you to take a look for yourself.

This short poem I include simply because it blew my mind (and I have a thing for pianos). It is in the wind section of the poems, by the way, and it beautifully chimes with the book’s epigraph from Jack Gilbert: “We are a shape the wind makes in these leaves / as it passes through. We are not the wood / any more than the fire, but the heat which is a marriage / between the two.” This one short poem shows how Freeman has married the book’s two themes together, subtly and not so subtly, everything interconnected:


Who thought to thread
wire through the belly
of a tree, dress its grin with
ivory? Recline it on
its side like a body. Toes to
touch, see. Brilliant blanc,
gold as honey, black as
night lake, it’s always wet.
We’re all water poured into
form. The mystery
of our making, made in every
thing we make, even
if we have to learn how to play.

—John Freeman

Freeman is stingy with punctuation (not in “Piano,” but elsewhere); despite the paucity of periods and commas, the poems have a clarity to them that sings. Even more so, the images in the poems carry us over any difficulty, as in this opening to “Perigee”: “On nights when the moon / is like a hand on my cheek…” Another strong thread here is the science, or what we might call climate science (which Freeman writes about in his prose books). In “Wind”: “Now we know wind is a gap / in atmospheric pressure / gases flowing from high to low / so leaves turn up their tips / umbrellas bend back and roofs / rip off maybe a small cross breeze / blows sweat off our burning bodies….” I highly recommend his poem “The Trees of City Hall” where science and history entwine.

Maybe I should elaborate about the prose books, which include Tales of Two Americas, an anthology about income inequality in America, and Tales of Two Planets, an anthology of new writing about inequality and the climate crisis globally. They tip us off to Freeman’s obsessions.

Here is one more poem, this one diving into etymology of the oud, which (I have now learned) is a lute-like instrument played primarily in Arab countries. Again, music. As he does in many of his poems, Freeman braids his Oud with other themes, and the poem emerges as a love poem.


In Arabic it means wood, and in its cousin
Syriac, burning wood. Cognate to od, as in
the old Hebrew, stick used to stir wood
in a fire. Some days it burns, on others
it simply is, and on occasion it stirs what’s
there. Today from the bedroom the oud’s sound
wakes me and the body inside my body turns over,
the one that remembers not being yours, merely
a visitor, I’d never heard Wadih el-Safi sing
his mawals, a longing unashamed. I’d find you
in the kitchen cooking your father’s food,
air smoky and fragrant, sharpened by
lament. I’d never imagine how cinder-lined
were your days, how little of what was
remained, I’d grown up in a country of
thin wood, pale sky, dateless palms, but you
welcomed me anyway, and as Wadih el-Safi
belted out his psalms, you did me
the kindness of promising me this wasn’t
practice for what time would bring.

—John Freeman

One delight is how he has worked in “palms” and “psalms” only a few lines apart from one another.

I found a poem at Lit Hub (one of my favorite literary sites):, and here is John Freeman reading a poem “Among the Trees” at

Arthur Sze, Sight Lines

SIGHT LINES, Arthur Sze. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2019, 70 pages, $16 paper,

Today I started a couple different poetry books and for some reason—I don’t blame the poets—couldn’t get any traction. Then I stumbled across this one, sat down, and read it all the way through. Arthur Sze has long been one of my favorite poets, and Sight Lines is a book I already knew well. I’ve studied the poems and shared them with my writing group. But reading the whole book, all in one go, was a very different experience. (I recommend both approaches.)

Sight Lines is Sze’s 10th book of poetry and it won the National Book Award. The Copper Canyon editors call it “prismatic,” and “stunning.” They’re not wrong. I love the way Sze both eulogizes our crippled planet and celebrates its images. The nest of a spotted towhee, Norway maples, cedar trees, deer, lichen, wild irises. Nothing escapes notice: “a fern rises out // of the crotch of an ‘õhi’a tree and droplets have collected  / on a mule’s foot fern” (“In the Bronx”). Everywhere nature’s fragility is both itself and a reminder—singing to us—of our own fragility: “…only look yes look at me now because you are blink  / about to leave” (“Lichen Song”).

Here’s a poem from a dog-eared page:


When she hands you a whale vertabra,
you marvel at its heft, at a black

pebble lodged in a lateral nook;
the hollyhocks out the window

stretch into sunshine; a dictionary
in the room is open to xeriscape;

the sidewalk and gravel heat all day
and release warmth into the night;

the woman who sits and writes
sees pressed aspen board, framers

setting window headers and door-
jambs—here no polar bears rummage

at the city dump, no seal-oil lamps
flicker in the tide of darkness—

you know the influx of afternoon
clouds, thunder, ball lightning,

wavering lines of rain that evaporate
before they strike the ground,

as you carefully set the whale bone
on the glass table next to the television.

—Arthur Sze

To read more about Arthur Sze and Sight Lines, visit his page at Copper Canyon. At Poetry Foundation I learned that he has a new book,  The Glass Constellation: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2021) which I will need to get my hands on.

Ursula K. Le Guin, So Far So Good

SO FAR SO GOOD: FINAL POEMS: 2014-2018, Ursula K. Le Guin. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2018, 89 pages, $23 hardback,

I was standing in front of the poetry shelf in Edmonds Bookshop, planning to pick up a book by Jericho Brown or Ada Limón, when this little treasure caught my eye. Hardback, brand new. Not too long after Le Guin’s death in 2018.

How It Seems to Me

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

The poems here are elegiac, but also playful (“Judging beauty, which is keenest, / Eye or heart or mind or penis?”). They draw from Le Guin’s childhood, and lean into science and natural history. A sequence of 12 poems are built on the final voyage of Lt. William Bligh—or, not “the subject,” but “the metaphor” (“this little boat my body / its ragged sail my soul”).

As a wannabe novelist, this poem especially appealed to me:

The Old Novelist’s Lament

I miss the many that I was,
my lovers, my adventurers,
the women I went with to the Pole.
What was mine and what was theirs?
We were all rich. Now that I share
the cowardice of poverty,
I miss that courage of companionship.
I wish they might come back to me
and free me from this cell of self,
this stale sink of age and ills,
and take me on the ways they knew,
under the sky, across the hills.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Did Le Guin know this would be her last book? Maybe my knowing was enough. But Le Guin does seem to be letting go, or taking hold of something else, something larger: “I am such a long way from my ancestors now / in my extreme old age that I feel more one of them / than their descendent” (from “Ancestry”).

I bought the other books, too, by the way. But this one is such a lovely artifact. There’s no end of praise—and awards—that I could list here. You can read more at and

By the way—should you miss it on the home page, I am reading with four other Northwest poets on April 21, 6-7 p..m, on Zoom, hosted by Edmonds Bookshop and Rose Alley Press. Navigate to to find out more.