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This review is taken from PN Review 128, Volume 25 Number 6, July - August 1999.

TIME PASSING W.S.MERWIN, The River Sound (Knopf)
W.S.MERWIN, East Window: The Asian Translations (Copper Canyon Press)

River sound is the sound of flow. Whereas the sea's sound is of surge and withdrawal, surge and withdrawal, rivers flow irretrievably on.

Though there are rivers in some of the poems in The River Sound, what runs through the book is the sound of time passing. This flow is often mapped on descriptions of nature. In the poem 'Sheep Passing', for instance, by describing the overlaying of generations of passage Merwin evokes a sense of the marking of time in landscape - a scale far vaster than our familiar human frame.

    ...the walls of the lane
are older than anyone can understand
and the lane must have been a path a long time
before the first stones were raised beside it
and must have been a trail from the river
up through the trees for an age before that
one hoof one paw one foot before another
the way they went is all that is still there

There is an elegiac edge to this final line: an acknowledgement that the paths we travel will survive us; that what we are will disappear, what will remain is a few markers of our passing.

As in his two previous volumes, Travels (1993) and The Vixen (1996), many of the poems in The River Sound issue from private and public memory. When the memory is public it is often communal, in the sense of ...


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