Small Woman on Swallow Street
-- W. S. Merwin
Hap Notes: In the past couple of decades, William Stanley Merwin (born 1927) has become more zen-like in his poetry but this isn't one of those. This poem always scares me a bit and I believe it's supposed to. The big dark gaping grins of her boots is a terrifying image as she seems to be swallowed up by her overly large footwear on her small frame.
This woman is being swallowed up by her own darkness. The world, and everything in it, is too big for her. Just don't look up at that wide expanse of sky, at things beyond your hat brim. Keep your head down, wear a big coat for protection, and hurry along. She is over 50, she's not a young woman, but she is determined to keep on moving. She's clever but nervous.
Here's what Robert Bly says about "Small Woman on Swallow Street": " The poem is cunning and strong. The evil in human nature is not related to Adam or Eve, or to theological doctrines, or to something the Greeks might or might not have done, but to kindly members of sewing circles in little towns in Pennsylvania, members of the poet's family, white protestants." It's an interesting interpretation.
Merwin's dad was a minister. He was born in New York and the family moved to Pennsylvania where Merwin grew to love the natural world. The property had a barn and a big yard and he used to talk to a tree out in the back yard when he was a kid. You gotta love a kid who talks to trees and wrote hymns for his father to see.
When my sister was around 9 or 10, my mom dressed her up as a little old lady for Halloween. She had on a long old flowery dress, a big coat, a dark blue hat with powdery pink flowers and she drew lines on her face to simulate wrinkles. The sparkle in her eyes was of a little girl but she actually looked old. She had a cane for walking. She was a little slip of a thing. Seriously, that silly costume on my sister scared the bejesus out of me. It was like looking at fast-forward mortality. I often think of my sister-as-an-old-lady when I read this poem. The story of my sister-as-an-old-lady is a tale of making sure you still have that child inside of you as you age-scary as that may seem to others. The poem is sort of what happens when you don't- when you give the child in you away. You will die anyway, but at least you'll be curious about it and not scared of it. You won't be swallowed up by your own darkness.
Merwin's career has been long and illustrious. He's won two Pulitzers and dozens of prestigious poetry prizes. He was friends with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, he studied under R.P. Blackmur at Princeton and he knew John Berryman. He was a good friend of James Wright. He has written more than 30 books of poetry and is the 2010-2011 current U.S. Poet Laureate.
Ever since he moved to Hawaii some 30 years ago, his poetry has taken on a certain open- hearted philosophical quality that is often very Zen like. I think his surroundings have something to do with this. He built his home there at the foot of a dormant volcano. He has a large garden there that has become a sanctuary for rare plants. He is a practicing environmentalist.
Here's one of my favorite Merwin quotes: "As soon as I could move a stub of pencil and put words on paper, I wanted to be a poet."
You can find more Merwin (whom we will see later on this year) here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/w-s-merwin