By YVONNE FRENCH
Poetry readings at the Library in October featured W.S. Merwin on Oct. 15 and Suzanne Qualls and Peter Sacks on Oct. 23. The readers were introduced by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.
Mr. Merwin, a Pulitzer Prize winner, brought many people in the audience, including the Poet Laureate, to tears when he read from an unpublished narrative poem about a Hawaiian family whose hunted members took to a high, protected canyon when they were ostracized due to leprosy.
The story is historically accurate, said Mr. Merwin, who divides his time between New York City and Hawaii. The father, a cowboy, was renowned at the turn of the century as the best shot on the island of Kauai. When he contracted leprosy as a result of colonization, he vowed not to be separated from his wife and child by going into a leper colony. Together, they climbed the 4,000-foot walls of the now-impassable canyon, followed by the sheriff, whom he shot, and the army, whose members he picked off, one by one.
After that, the family was left alone. The child, who also had the disease, was the first to die, and was buried. The next was the cowboy. The wife scraped a grave out of the rocky soil with a spoon and her bare hands.
The poem, which has seven parts, each with 40 short sections, will be published next year in The Folding Cliffs.
Mr. Merwin read from both old and newly published work. The theme that ran through the old work was poetry and writing. He noted that "one pole of poetry has to do with music, the spoken, the written." From "Air," he spoke of "walking at night between two deserts, singing. ... There is no separation of poetry and life. If you pick up part of it, the rest of it begins to vibrate."
Mr. Merwin also read from new work, The Vixen (Knopf, 1996), prefacing the poems by explaining they all take place in southwestern France, where he lived for a good part of his life. He said that the vixen runs "literally through the whole book. All the poems have her in some form."
Office of Scholarly Programs Director Prosser Gifford and Mr. Pinsky introduced Mr. Merwin. Mr. Pinsky said that he requires his graduate poetry students at Boston University to compile anthologies of what they mean by the word "poem," and that "one of the most frequent of living American poets whose work recurs in those anthologies is W.S. Merwin. ... He is a pure poet in the sense that some basketball players are pure shooters."
Mr. Merwin's volumes of poetry include A Mask for Janus (1952); The Drunk in the Furnace (1960); The Lice (1967); The Carrier of Ladders (1970), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize; The Compass Flower (1977); Opening the Hand (1983); and The Rain in the Trees (1988).
Suzanne Qualls and Peter Sacks read to a no less enthralled audience. Ms. Qualls's work often belies a wry and sophisticated humor. Her poems make incisive observations about people. One, "Letter to David," was written for her brother, whom she said is a disabled veteran. "Once, when you were on the golf course,/The sloping mound of dichondra became/A pile of bloody bodies under your feet -- / Human bodies tangled in unspeakable intimacies./ ... Don't call this sickness;/ Don't suffer: there is no virtue in it."
Mr. Pinsky said he found in Ms. Qualls's writing a "marvelous combination of tough-mindedness and tremendous urbanity." Ms. Qualls is author of Beauty, and Instinct, to be published this year by Graywolf Press. She is also featured in an anthology of new poets called Take Three: 2 (Graywolf, 1997). Ms. Qualls has performed an autobiographical monologue, "House of Wreckers," in New York and San Francisco.
Mr. Sacks (left), originally from South Africa, concluded his reading with selections from a long poem, "Leopard," about walking in the hills near Cape Town, where he grew up, as his father lay dying over a period of several weeks some six years ago. The hike takes the reader through the emotional passage of the death of a loved one without ever broaching the subject directly. Despite "bird calls linking through the sweetness," the feeling of loss sinks in as the hiker goes up and down the mountain.
He read another poem, "Kein Ander" from a new collection, Natal Command (Chicago Press, 1997), "... as once/the bird/leaned all//night long/against/the thorn ... the bridge/falls upward/splinters//in the mind/ -- it is the/force//beneath/the words/that drives//through death/the stiffened/silence."
Mr. Pinsky said Mr. Sacks has a deep sense of the physical world and the pained mental condition. Mr. Sacks is a professor of English at Harvard University. He is the author of two collections of poetry, In These Mountains (1986) and Promised Lands (1990); and two books of criticism; an art historical study, Woody Gwynn: An Approach to the Landscape (1993) and a book, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (1985), which won the Christian Gauss Award.