Bill Carty on W.S. Merwin’s The Lice

“Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he.” So says Caesar in the second act of Shakespeare’s play, knowing what’s true of himself is true for mankind more broadly. Substituting “humans” for “Caesar” in the above formulation, one approaches something of the prevailing mindset in W.S. Merwin’s collection The Lice. These are poems that often mirror creation mythology in their tone (“Animals I never saw / I with no voice / Remembering names to invent for them”), while adumbrating modes of uncreation. As humans, we have made of the earth “A small place / Where dying a sun rises.”

Earlier this summer, as Shakespeare’s Caesar—via New York’s Public Theater’s production—re-entered political discourse, I returned to the speaker of W.S. Merwin’s poem “Caesar,” who we find “Wheeling the president past banks of flowers / Past the feet of empty stairs / Hoping he’s dead.” As Adrienne Raphel observes, the leader here is both “tyrant and puppet,” and Merwin’s poem reminds us that the President (and all political power) is the product of both collective imagination and visceral violent devices. The poems in The Lice, first published in 1967, explore these realms of violence and imagination, person and politics, nature and human.

While the poems in The Lice occasionally touch on specific past events (the Vietnam War, JFK’s assassination), their cumulative impact feels prophetic. We see noble mythologies of war and peace unravel as the planet unravels: “One must always pretend something / Among the dying.” Grace, if allowed, is inhuman: “Tonight once more / I find a single prayer and it is not for men.” Among animals, one most beastly.

On one hand, it’s as the servant says to Caesar, passing news of the augury: “Plucking the entrails of an offering forth, / They could not find a heart within the beast.” But on the other, we have the force of language—not a consolation so much as an elucidation—within Merwin’s book: “If there is a place where this is the language may / It be my country.”

***

BillOriginally from coastal Maine, Bill Carty lives in Seattle, WA. He has received poetry fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Artist Trust, the Richard Hugo House, the Sorting Room, and Jack Straw. He is the author of Huge Cloudy (forthcoming from Octopus Books) and the chapbook Refugium (Alice Blue Books). His poems have recently appeared (or will soon) in the Boston ReviewPloughshares, the Iowa ReviewWillow SpringsConduitPoetry NorthwestPleiades, the VoltaOversoundPinwheelSixth Finch, and other journals. He is an editor at Poetry Northwest.