Sunday Poetry: In Time, by W.S. Merwin

In Time

The night the world was going to end
when we heard those explosions not far away
and the loudspeakers telling us
about the vast fires on the backwater
consuming undisclosed remnants
and warning us over and over
to stay indoors and make no signals
you stood at the open window
the light of one candle back in the room
we put on high boots to be ready
for wherever we might have to go
and we got out the oysters and sat
at the small table feeding them
to each other first with the fork
then from our mouths to each other
until there were none and we stood up
and started to dance without music
slowly we danced around and around
in circles and after a while we hummed
when the world was about to end
all those years all those nights ago

— by W.S. Merwin
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Merwin is a new-found pleasure to me, and this poem is a gorgeous, multi-layered example of tricky, almost punny ambiguity that manages to hold onto beauty while it plays with language itself.

Start with the title.  ”In Time”.  As in “Just in time”?  Or as in musical notation?  Is there a reference there to one of my favorite novels, “In Our Time”, and are we supposed to notice that the time is not “ours” in this version?  Are we supposed to notice the phonic nearness of “In” to “End” in the context of “time”?  Heck, it’s about news – are we supposed to think it’s in Time instead of Newsweek?  Of course, I’m pushing the limits of possible meanings, but, so what?  Merwin gives us permission to run amok when he starts with such an evocative title.  I’m pretty sure he won’t mind.

Is the circumstance described in the first couple lines real, as in autobiographically something that Merwin remembers?  I don’t know, but, again, he’s giving us freedom to roll the thought around in our own minds, and personalize the poem to when the worth was going to come to and end.  Bomb tests?  Nearby rioting?  War (not all poetry is supposed to be set in 2012 Kansas City, after all)?  The Mayan Apocalypse?  Fit your own fear into this poem, one of those times when you feared cataclysm.  For me, it’s a combination of several instances.

Do you need to know the specific instance he’s talking about?  Just shut your mind up and accept it.  The willing suspension of disbelief.  Focus instead on the human reaction – sharing aphrodisiac oysters and dancing to hummed music.  They may be wearing high boots, but they’re keeping their own time.

Here’s a special treat – you can hear the poet read his poem if you click the audio bar.

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