The Moon Before Morning by W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press, 2014; 121 pp
Reviewed by Vladislav Frederick


When reading The Moon Before Morning, I was struck by the unpunctuated line structure, a kind of hybrid on free verse that Merwin uses to create lines with independent momentum--lines that don’t just build upon one another, but operate independently of the meanings they inherently share with lines above and below. These carefully sculpted lines are delivered with a voice that is at once absolutely confident and absolutely humble, possessing of an innate calmness that brings lucidity to Merwin’s explorations of nature and the human/social conscience. See the following excerpt from “The Eternal Return”:

Because it is not here it is eternal
the stars we consider have long been gone
I cannot recall what I was saying
while clouds melted over the morning sea
here the same child without a childhood
the whole sentence present in the last word

Each line here stands independently, and yet can read into the lines both above and below it with relative ease. Part of what allows Merwin to do this is his painstaking effort to leave a tangible juxtaposition in each line, a force of contrast that is immediate, and does not require the next line for context. In the lines where contrast is less present, a dive into the oneness of a beautiful act of nature is Merwin’s second choice--see the least overtly contrasting line from above, “while clouds melted over the morning sea.” There is perhaps a dislocation here, as clouds are being given an action that confuses them with ice, but still no direct contrast between clouds and sea--if anything, Merwin draws similarities between these two disparate elements.

And yet, be it through contrast or correlation, Merwin always delivers a stand-alone line; this tactic leads to clear and easy to follow language, and, when coupled with Merwin’s ability to tackle the abstract with an originality and grace, makes for a brilliant read, one strongly reminiscent of Mary Oliver. As a parting gift, consider this excerpt from “Looking Up in The Garden”

where will the meanings be
when the words are forgotten

will I see again
where you are

will you be sitting
in Fran’s living room

will the dream come back
will I know where I am

will there be birds