"When I speak, Father, it is the world / That I must mention," wrote W.S. Merwin in his 1954 collection, The Dancing Bears. For the past half-century, Merwin has been doing exactly that, and Migration, his massive volume of new and selected poems, tracks his flight from the doldrums of tradition into his own voice.
It's surprising what a distance he has come. Merwin's earliest poems read now as blustery homage to Matthew Arnold, all the "gray-green crashing" and "bone-wreck" giving his poetry the windswept falsity of an unnecessary scarf. But sometime in the late '50s, Merwin began to find a certain dark register that was earned, not mimicked.
First came the brilliant poem "Burning the Cat," which contains the superb line "The earth is slow, but deep, and good for hiding" and, in 1960, "Grandmother Dying," which still impresses today with its homely profundity. No one uses our own rotting words like Merwin does to describe how time mulches us all.
With each collection, Merwin's grasp of the language grew richer and more alliterative until recently, in the past five years, he started paring his lines down to the thinness of a lone pine. Reading these poems, it's easy to miss the primordial wisdom in Merwin's early work. "Smothered and silent, for some miles the fire / Still riddles the fissured hill," he wrote in "Burning Mountain," a poem about how a miner's mistake leads to a wildfire. He continues: "deviously / Wasting and inextinguishable. It consumes itself, but so slowly it will outlast / Our time and our grandchildren's." With lines like these, it seems likely Merwin's poetry will burn for quite a bit longer, too.
Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction
Eric Foner Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, $27.50
In the popular mind, slavery ended in one fell swoop when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. As Eric Foner shows in Forever Free, this belief is simplistic at best. Wading through reams of documents, he convincingly portrays black Americans as engaged participants in their own battle for freedom.
Once the Civil War broke out, many slaves defected to the North and fought bravely for their own cause. At the end of the war, many of them believed they were owed land, and organized around their churches to push for education, suffrage and employment, too. It was in violent response to this surge that the Ku Klux Klan arose.
The Civil Rights Era, in this gripping story, is not a burst of activism powered by enlightened whites, but the conclusion of a century-long fight for freedom led by the people who had been denied it from their first step on American soil.
Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated
Edited by Dave Eggers and Lola Vollen Voice of Witness/McSweeney's Books, paper, $16
The 13 men and women featured in this oral history were sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. Some languished for years on death row. Others were sentenced to life in prison. And yet they consider themselves fortunate. Thanks to their own calls for help and sheer dumb luck, the judicial system grudgingly admitted mistakes and set them free.
Judging from their stories, we can only assume there are many who are not so fortunate. Christopher Ochoa confessed to a murder he did not commit to avoid the death penalty detectives held over his head, while Juan Melendez, who served 17 years, much of it on death row, went to jail because prosecutors buried mounting evidence of his innocence.
One by one, these interviews pinpoint lingering problems in our criminal justice system, from the inaccuracy of eyewitness accounts or polygraph tests to the need for better public defenders. But it is the voices themselves that bring home the awful cost of wrongful convictions.
"I always was a problem in prison because of my crime," says one man, who was wrongly imprisoned for 27 years for kidnapping and rape. "I got stabbed in the side. I acted like it never happened. I went back to my cell, and I duct-taped it up. I just taped it up because you don't want to tell on the person stabbing you."
Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists
Jean H. Baker Hill and Wang, hardcover, $25
There's always been a need for someone to write a smart and sophisticated book about important American women—a Metaphysical Club that chronicles the birth of the feminist movement. Sisters, Jean H. Baker's spirited portrait of early American suffragists, appears to be that book and then some. Weaving among the lives of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Frances Willard and Alice Paul, it retells the story of the fight for suffrage with an urgency that would make you think the vote is still on the line today.
It's a hallmark of sexism's persistence that we think back on these women as being prim and dowdy. As Baker reveals, they were a boisterous and gimlet-eyed lot. In an era more churchy than ours, Stanton forsook God altogether, while Stone had the temerity to attend college against her father's wishes. It took her nine years to accumulate the money for her freshman year. In light of her success, Papa Stone ponied up for the years to follow.
One of the greatest contributions of this book is the way it respects the differences of these women, rather than rolling them up into a bunch of tea-swilling eggheads. Stanton nearly fell out with her friend Anthony over an ongoing friendship with the beautiful Victoria Woodhull, who believed in the "inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please." Meanwhile, Willard campaigned vigorously for temperance and sexual "purity," believing that women who danced and smoked could have no self-respect. Imagine what she would think of Missy Elliot.