The poet W.S. Merwin, who wrote so beautifully of home, spoke with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross on National Public Radio not long before he died at the age of 92 near the grove of palm trees he had planted in Hawaii.
In this interview, he talks about his parents dying close together then coming back to clean their house—the one that he grew up in—in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was then in his 20s and touring Europe.
“One of their great gifts to me was that neither of them turned out to be afraid of dying at all. And in quite different ways, they died without any expression of anxiety or of dread or of clutching at anything else. And that’s a great gift to be given, that feeling of no fear.”
Merwin moved into the house right after the funeral, and spent about six weeks there and giving away their belongings, getting to know their friends and, shipping the furniture to his sister, stripping the place bare before returning to New York.
Years later he wrote about that time of being alone in that empty house, describing his ongoing conversation with his parents, that despite their passing, “we would never finish.
Reading from his poem “A Single Autumn,” Merwin says of the place they raised a family:
It had never been theirs
and was still theirs in that way, for a while
echoes in every room
without a sound
all the things that we had never been able to say
I could not remember.
Merwin carefully tallies their possessions:
Doll collection in a China cabinet
plates stacked on shelves
lace on drop leaf tables
a dried branch of bittersweet
before a hall mirror
were all planning to wait
the glass door of the house remained closed
the days had turned cold
and out in the tall hickories
the blaze of autumn had begun/on its own.
Freed from the house and from his father’s values and expectations, Merwin is surprised by his own thoughts. As the poem ends, Merwin describes his transformation in the house, now drained of demands and expectations: “I could do anything.”
He kept strange things
Merwin kept his father’s sermons, though he knew they were rambling, and burned his mother’s correspondence as instructed. “But I kept strange things. I kept things that my mother was growing in the garden. I potted them up and took them back to the apartment and grew them in New York. Oh, one or two last bits of clothing that were hanging in the closet…They weren’t people who had much money, and there was nothing of great value. The penknife from my grandfather…I gave my sister all the furniture…And I kept all of the papers.” These diaries and day books and account books Merwin used later in his poems. (See “Unframed Originals.”)
He also found great pleasure in this artifacts. Merwin’s grandfather had worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, “and he had passes for all of the railroads that existed in the very beginning of the 20th century and that had ceased to exist. It was wonderful taking out his book of passes and seeing all the — all of the nonexistent railroads that he could ride free on!…I still have them, yes.”
Here’s the thing: It’s not about leaving a pristine house for the heirs to paint and put on the market. It’s about inviting the younger generation in for one last look. Merwin takes this opportunity to pay homage to another generation, to appreciate a slower way of life. In the poet’s eyes, cleaning out the family house was not an inconvenience – even though it had called him back from the trip of a lifetime — it was an opportunity to enter the stream of history, to be the prodigal son returning one last time.
Reflecting on these memories, Merwin says, “The etymology of nostalgia is homecoming. And homecoming is what we all believe in. I mean, if we didn’t believe in homecoming, we wouldn’t be able to bear the day.”
Recommended: Listen to W.S. Merwin talk with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Order The Essential Merwin from Copper Canyon Press. And read his marvelous essays on sense of place, The Ends of the Earth — here Merwin treks through the tropical forests of Hawaii, to the monastery at Mount Athos, and to Mexico for the annual arrival of the Monarch butterflies.