Absences Gone Through Me – R.I.P. W.S. Merwin and Patrick Lane – The Bigness of Small Poems – # 27 in a Series – Updated and Revised

American Poet W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)


Years from now
someone will come upon a layer of birds
and not know what he is listening for

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light

W.S. Merwin from Migration: New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2005

What a great poem to celebrate W.S. Merwin who died today in Hawaii, age 91. Another one of the greats gone, this time south of the border while I am still reeling from the death of one of our greats on this side of the border, Patrick Lane.

Putting it simply, Merwin was one of the American poetic giants of the past fifty years. He was the recipient of countless awards and honours including two Pulitzer Prizes and the position of U.S. Poet Laureate in 2010. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was, with his wife Paula, his reclamation of nineteen over-farmed and cleared acres in Maui, Hawaii, transforming it into a unique preserve of more than eight hundred species of palm.

Early One Summer. What an image rich and yet, mysterious little poem. Are these birds dead or alive? I may be way off but I love the idea of an archeologist coming across a layer of bird bones with no idea what songs, from bones, sang a summer morning into even more beauty, years before! Or, the idea of someone coming across a mass of birds with no idea what the songs could call from their heart!

I wonder as well if I hear an echo of these lines from e.e. cummings’s poem # 53:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know

And what to make of the last tercet with its striking image of beetles hiding pieces of light. Now, after, for us here on the West coast a long dark winter, I especially cherish the image of the beetles hiding summer light. Would I, could I, find that light now to light my way in my late day walks in the nearby woods. And figuratively, to light my way in dark times of war and random acts of terrorism like the horrible mosque attack in New Zealand yesterday.

Merwin, what a human treasure. The author of more than fifty books of essays, prose, poems and translation.Even at eight-nine, effectively blind, he was still composing poems. His last book of poems, The Essential W.S. Merwin came out in 2017. And in 2016 he released two books: Garden Time, a poetry collection, and an illustrated volume, What Is a Garden, including poems and essays centered around  the remarkable palm sanctuary he and his wife created over forty years.

Here is another small-poem gem of his. One of my favorite small poems. A perfect choice on this day of his passing, his absence and Patrick’s:


Your absence has gone through me
Like a thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

W.S. Merwin from Migration: New and selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2005

The coherence of the metaphor in this poem astounds me! And another thing: it has punctuation, something Merwin discarded in the late 1960’s.

But to go back to Early One Summer, Merwin’s deft image of the beetles brought to mind a poem many of my American friends may not have encountered. One from my my much-loved mentor and friend, Canadian poet Patrick Lane who died last week. Gardens were also a passion of Lane’s. Here is Lane’s poem:

Patrick Lane (1939-March 7th, 2019)


In deep sand a beetle shoulders her way toward paradise.
A sunflower, wild with yellow, covers her with one shadow.
Among the grains of quartz, one bruised garnet, a cone of pine.
The beetle clambers. There is nothing like her in the world.
Almost blind, I get down on my knees.
My bare feet have the same soles they had when I was born.
My mother is dead.
Among many things I am alive. Still.
A single drop of water falls.
The beetle stops for a moment but she does not drink from the salt.
There is somewhere she has to go and she goes on.

Patrick Lane, from The Collected Poems, Harbour Publishing, 2011

Ah, the slowness of this poem. Its end-stopped lines. How this poem moves like the beetle. Carefully. Slowly. Mightily!

What a pleasure to say good-bye to these poets by featuring two great beetle poems by two true masters of the craft! And now, also the sadness, knowing that both these great lives are end-stopped. No next lines.


  1. Posted March 15, 2019 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Dear Richard, Thank you for these wonderful poems of Patrick’s (really, all the poems you post are amazing!), but I am in Phoenix right now and when news of Patrick’s death came, I wanted to curl up with a cup of tea and just read his poems. But, all my books are in Calgary so having the ones on your website and a few from Facebook has helped me remember him. Thanks, Joan

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted March 16, 2019 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    So glad these poems are helping. Curling up. Great image. Me too!

  3. Posted March 16, 2019 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Excellent poem choices, as usual. Thank you.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted March 16, 2019 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Dion: Good morning. Glad to see this.I would be so bereft these days without poetry to sustain me! And I am so grateful for your Hoagland piece you sent me. So balanced. A conversation. Will profile it! I promise.

  5. Posted March 16, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    How amazing that last line break in Patrick’s poem. Mightily indeed. As he goes on through his magnificent poems.

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted May 5, 2019 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Love that mightily!

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