Diverse collection of essays on topics ranging from 18th-century explorers to monasteries and butterflies, all of which Merwin makes fascinating.
His prose, glinting and gracious, pulses with the warmth that comes from being truly captivated by a subject. At times poet/novelist Merwin (The Lost Upland, 1992, etc.) writes like an eye roving the surroundings: “I approached Xenophontos from behind: it faces the sea. Ruined stables extending back into the trees. Masonry built of boulders: gray, russet, black. Lichens.” At other times he’s more leisurely and thorough, for example in his profile of Sydney Parkinson, who circumnavigated the globe on Cook’s Endeavour, and in his musings about the ill-fated expedition of French explorer La Pérouse, which tie together the French town of Albi and the Hawaiian island of Maui as neatly as a birthday present. The collection starts with an affectionate remembrance of George Kirstein, publisher of The Nation, with whom Merwin had a lifelong, at times tattered relationship; the essay ranges over sailing, aspects of emotional remoteness, and Kirstein's gradual distancing from the rebelliousness of youth. In one piece, Merwin grabs the reader's attention from the first sentence (“A few yards away, in the tall fir trees beyond a shallow fold that ran up the mountainside, there were thirty-five million butterflies”); in others, he sidles along in an oblique manner, slowly getting at the mystery of Neanderthals in the valley of the Dordogne or the way the ruins of a royal Hawaiian summer house speak of the devastating loss of species on those islands. He also recreates a time, to the envy of contemporary readers, when you could go exploring, knowing there would be an abandoned barn in which to sleep, when you could take to Mt. Athos on foot and with rucksack, visiting the monasteries as one should, via a slow crawl.
Erudite, stylish, and lively, steeped in first-hand experience and a pleasure to read.