W.S. Merwin

When the author is dead: posthumous collections of poetry from Hawai`i

(with love & rage in equal measure)

Painting by Reuban Tam (1916-1991)

Just over a week ago, I put this request up on the Tinfish Press facebook page: “I’m looking for good models of books published posthumously, especially by poets who are not well known already. In what ways are these books same/different from books by living authors? How, in the end, does one work up interest in such poetry after the very literal death of the author?” Some 35 substantive comments later, I realized that there was probably a book to be researched and written in response to those questions.  Instead of writing one, I’ll be looking at two recent posthumous volumes from Hawai`i in this commentary, namely, Westlake: Poems by Wayne Kaumualii Westlake (1947-1984) (University of Hawai`i Press, 2009), edited by Mei-Li M. Siy and Richard Hamasaki, and Language Matters: Tony Quagliano, Selected Poetry (New York Quarterly Books, 2012), put together by Quagliano’s widow, Laura Ruby, although no one is credited as editor on the title page. There’s a lot to remark upon: the way the poetry is presented, contextualized, edited, but also the odd, unremarked upon affinities between the two poets.  They both revered Kerouac, knew their Pound and his Imagism, adopted William Carlos Williams’s obsession with the local language, place. Their tone was often acidic, provocative. Both were idealistic and profoundly angry poets.

"A willow tree among the streams":

Gary Snyder in Honolulu, March 2000 / March 2012

Gary Snyder's feet, March 19, 2012

“I did it, first of all.” That was Gary Snyder's response to our distinguished visiting writer, Shawna Yang Ryan, when she asked him where he got the idea for the poem he’d just read. The poem was “Changing Diapers." As she said, diaper poems are not what one expects from Snyder. Or perhaps this one is, given the sharp contrast between the father changing his son's diapers and the violent, nay imperial, context of the background, a poster of Geronimo holding a Sharp's repeating rifle. The poem goes like this:

     Changing Diapers

     How intelligent he looks!
          on his back
          both feet caught in my one hand
          his glance set sideways,
          on a giant poster of Geronimo
          with a Sharp's repeating rifle by his knee.

     I open, wipe, he doesn't even notice
          nor do I.
     Baby legs and knees
          toes like little peas
          little wrinkles, good-to-eat,
          eyes bright, shiny ears
          chest swelling drawing air,

     No trouble, friend,
          you and me and Geronimo
          are men.

"What if all I can see is a mountain?"

Poetic meditations on place in Hawai`i

No`u Revilla, Aiko Yamashiro, Jaimie Gusman, Lyz Soto

     Home,

     an architecture of choice.

     Home

     clutched to bone.

     — Aiko Yamashiro

 

This past Thursday, March 1, 2012, I attended two poetry events in Honolulu. The first was an English department colloquium presented by four University of Hawai`i at Mānoa graduate students, Lyz Soto, No`u Revilla, Aiko Yamashiro, and Jaimie Gusman, entitled “Place, Space, and Performance in Poetry.” The second was “A Conversation with W.S. Merwin” at Kennedy Theater on the UHM campus. As luck would have it, Merwin also wanted to talk about place. After receiving an honorary doctorate and the gift of a poi pounder, he noted that the honor was especially meaningful to him because it came from the place he'd “adopted as [his] homeland.” Throughout both presentations, the conflict between home as a chosen place and home as a place “clutched to bone” resonated; it resonated very close to that bone.

 

Jaimie Gusman opened the afternoon colloquium by reading part of an essay on “white space” in poetry. She began a meditation with the word “open,” which is one meaning of white space.  But another meaning of “white space” came quickly after in Aiko Yamashiro's singing of the hapa haole song “Haole Hula,” which you can listen to here.

Syndicate content