In Merwin's best poetry--but especially in his prose pieces (The Miner's Pale Children, Houses and Travellers)--there is often a patch of vacancy, a whitened space or interval that seems to core mysteriously, with a suggestion of odd, undefined depths. Thus, through the strong first half of this new volume (which consists of six storylike family ""recollections""), Merwin-the-child becomes the very wellspring of that beguiling kind of un-knowledge. ""Once I imagined, with no way of saying it, that my parents, and everyone of their age, kept somewhere among them the whole of the past. They possessed it and could converse with it at first hand. There were people who existed in another room, which I could not be shown because I was too young."" And, in the finest moments here, this sense of mystery (""another room"") is pierced by subsequent investigation and supposition, yielding up some stark, uncomfortable, affecting family portraits: Mary, the pathetic cousin who lived with the Merwins and cultivated an interior life as airless and layered as rock; two widowed aunts, living next door to one another, both of them mentally ill through disappointment and disuse; and, above all, Merwin's father, a sere, small-time Presbyterian mirdster--lockedin, alienated, making futile attempts to draw close to his young son. (""My father's own separateness is there deepening around him, and his fear of being wherever he imagined he was; the cockiness faltering, the rhetoric hardening over--they were all in that room at that moment."") A dour clan, then, the in-turned, limited Merwins of Pennsylvania. But the poetic mots justes in these pieces consistently bring light to a downcast chronicle. There's the always hatted uncle, for instance, who appears once without it: ""you could see that being out from under the hat was a momentary condition, an interlude of suspended credulity."" Or ""the bluish stare of cracked bones in a butcher shop""--a phrase used to describe a certain kind of broken stone. And though the last two pieces are long and pulseless (too much from the conventional adult-looking-back vantage point), much of this book is beautifully cadenced and memorable--as Merwin-the-child, with a fuddled, silent ""stare,"" faces the hard mystery of those forbidding family atmospheres.