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The Book of Fablesby W S Merwin
Synopses & Reviews
“Metaphors, puns, surrealist visions, converted into sharp, disturbing little narratives . . . only a poet, and a good one, could have written it.”—The Atlantic Monthly
W.S. Merwin’s acclaimed short prose—many of which first appeared in The New Yorker—blur the distinction between fiction, poetry, essay, and memoir. Reminiscent of Kafka, Borges, and Beckett, they evoke mythical patterns and unlikely adventures and raise questions about art, reality, and meaning. As the Saturday Review remarked, they have “astonishing range and power.”
The Book of Fables is an affordable paperback of all the short prose from two out-of-print collections, The Miner’s Pale Children and Houses and Travellers. The pieces run from a single sentence to a dozen pages and create a poetic landscape both severe and sensuous.
From “A Garden”:
You are a garden into which a bomb once fell and did not explode, during a war that happened before you can remember. It came down at night. It screamed, but there were so many screams. It was heard, but it was forgotten. It buried itself. It was searched for but it was given up. So much else had been buried alive . . .
Poet and translator W.S. Merwin has long been committed to artistic, political, and environmental causes in both word and deed. He has received nearly every major literary accolade, including the 2005 National Book Award in Poetry for Migration. Merwin lives in Hawaii, where he cultivates endangered palms.
"'The Book of Fables' gathers together the two volumes of what the dust jacket suggestively, but perhaps desperately, calls W.S. Merwin's 'enigmatic short prose.' Most readers already familiar with 'The Miner's Pale Children' (1970) and 'Houses and Travellers' (1977) would certainly agree with that terse description. And one might make other, probably equally floundering, attempts to pin down these... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) strange one- and two-page narratives: 'Surrealist prose poems,' 'Kafkaesque parables,' even 'fractured fairy tales.' Just don't let that title word 'fables' call to mind didactic animal stories, a la Aesop. Merwin — one of our most distinguished living American poets — tantalizes rather than moralizes. Consider 'Within the Wardrobes': 'No one who was not born and brought up in them really knows of the life in the clothing drawers, and very few of those who did grow up there are willing to divulge any details of that ancient existence so close to our own.' Some readers might respond to such a sentence with a simple 'Huh?' and start looking around for the latest issue of Newsweek. But if you find appeal in that touch of humor, the tinge of mystery, the mock-scholarly tone and the sheer bizarrerie appealing, keep reading. Some of these fables might seem existential puzzles ('The Weight of Sleep'); others are, at least in part, satirical comment ('Make This Simple Test' lists the chemical contents of various foods); several are seriously troubling ('The Dachau Shoe'); and a few are even overtly political, such as 'The Billboard,' set in what seems an Argentine slum, or 'Shine on, Tottering Republic.' The latter begins: 'In the last days of the presidents a new star appeared. By then the organization of fear was vast and persuasive beyond anything that could have been conceived by the founding fathers. ... On the domestic front the police were their own masters, and no branch of technology was closed to them. Any window, any light bulb, any picture might be a television camera connected to the nearest precinct. No one dared to examine too closely. Those who did might be arrested a few minutes later, charged with obstruction or conspiracy. Bail no longer existed, trials came seldom, sentences were inevitable, heavy, and without appeal. On the whole, it was said, the public was relieved at the steady disappearance of disturbing elements.' At its most lyrical 'The Book of Fables' might be likened to Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities,' that catalog of the odd and marvel-filled dwelling places in the kingdom of Kubla Khan: 'Not many people take the road to Simburad, beautiful though the capital is reputed to be' ('Brothers'). A few stories even enter the wistful, enchanted realm of Steven Millhauser. 'The Permanent Collection' opens: 'In a rich provincial city there is a museum as imposing and quite as large as any in the capital. The facade is immense and the portico dwarfs the visitor, seeming to fill the space between his usual size and his shrunken self with an echo. ... The entrance to the museum is guarded by wardens in plain dark uniforms without metal buttons or insignia of any kind. Inside the main portal is a vast hall, with another marble pedestal in the center, catching the light. It is empty, like those outside. In the walls on either side are tall niches, also containing nothing. Guards in the same featureless uniforms stand in pairs at each doorway, and at intervals along the corridors and in the arcades. There is a prescribed order for visiting the rooms, and the guards point the way. And in each room there are more of the large pedestals, without statues or names. In some, besides, there are glass display cases, of different shapes and sizes, empty, and picture frames containing blank canvas on the walls. All along the arcades there are empty niches and pedestals, alternating, and in each of the courtyards there is an empty fountain. No one talks. It takes well over an hour to make the tour of the rooms.' Despite the imagination and astonishing variety revealed in these pieces, Merwin's style tends to remain singularly even and unchanging — a formal tone, somewhat abstract, with a penchant for striking declarative sentences, situations more perplexing than playful, and stark, emblematic characters. There is surprisingly little that one might call erotic, except for 'Marietta' and perhaps the love story at the heart of 'The Permanent Collection.' Occasionally, Merwin sounds corny or quite poetically pretentious: 'He who is wearing the helmet of Death is walking at the foot of the walls.' Yet even from the most rambling and dense of these meditations, a sentence or a paragraph may suddenly shine forth to make one pause and marvel: 'After each war the men from the memorial companies tour the little towns' ('Memorials'). 'Daily the indispensable is taught to elude us, while we are furnished according to our wishes with armories of what we do not need' ('The Good-bye Shirts'). 'He was far advanced in his task when the barbarians arrived with their axes' ('He Who Made the Houses'). 'When a shoelace breaks during use the ends do not always indulge at once in their new-found liberty. However long the break may have been preparing — the threads wearing through one by one, the rub settling in the same place stride after stride, the tension mounting in the other strands, making them watchful, on guard against any further illusions — the release itself, whether it is accompanied by one of the many variants of the dull sound which in this world signifies the end of something, or comes to pass in silence, always seems sudden to the point of being unexpected' ('Ends'). Years ago, I picked up 'The Miner's Pale Children' because of its brilliant title. I was first impressed because Merwin didn't actually call any of the pieces in his book 'The Miner's Pale Children.' And then I was, to use the phrase of that era, blown away when I happened upon 'Tergvinder's Stone': 'One time my friend Tergvinder brought a large round boulder into his living room. He rolled it up the steps with the help of some two-by-fours, and when he got it out into the middle of the room, where some people have coffee tables (though he had never had one there himself) he left it. He said that was where it belonged.' It was the two-by-fours that got me. So why not make this simple test? Go to a bookstore and find a copy of 'The Book of Fables.' Turn to page 14 and read the rest of 'Tergvinder's Stone.' By its last sentence you'll know whether this is a book for you. Even then, bear in mind that Merwin's 'enigmatic short prose' works best by being read slowly, over time, a special and rare treat. Michael Dirda will be on vacation during July and August. His weekly program, 'Dirda on Books,' will continue each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com." Reviewed by Jon MeachamDara HornRon CharlesFergus M. BordewichMichael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Restoring to print 400 pages of W.S. Merwin's enigmatic and gorgeous fables.
Poetry. W.S. Merwin's acclaimed short prose--many of which first appeared in The New Yorker--blur the distinction between fiction, poetry, essay, and memoir. Reminiscent of Kafka, Borges, and Beckett, they evoke mythical patterns and unlikely adventures and raise questions about art, reality, and meaning. As the Saturday Review remarked, they have "astonishing range and power."
About the Author
W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His many awards include the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, Wallace Stevens Award, Bollingen Award, Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, PEN Translation Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. He is the author of dozens of books of poetry and poetry in translation. He lives in Hawaii.
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