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"Merwin and Metamorphosis"

"I go on the assumption, which I cannot avoid, that there is some link between a society's threat to destroy itself with its own inventions, and that same society's possibly ungovernable commitment to industrial expansion and population increase, which in our own country remove a million acres from the wild every year, and which threaten more and more of the wild life of the globe."

--W.S. Merwin

Here, Merwin formulates humankind's relationship to the environment in all too familiar terms. The human, unique to almost every other species, seeks its own destruction and, in the process, the destruction of all other species. Merwin's take on ecology seems particularly fated, where it is a question of when, not if, the environment finally collapses under the control of human beings. In Merwin's "The Horse," similar notions of receding nature permeate the atmosphere of the poem. By invoking a tradition of mythic transformation, Merwin is able to both demonstrate the encroachment of humanity into nature and, by adapting the mythology he invokes, pessimistically foreclose any hope of escape from death.

The poem's basic story, a horse that one day transforms into a dying tree, is in dialogue with a whole tradition of mythology that uses trees as new bodies for those who choose or are obligated to escape the world around them. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, two "tree myths" are worth mentioning (although people changing into trees happens all over the place in ancient myth), both for their relative popularity throughout the western imaginary and their thematic coherence.

By far the most well known of the three, the story of Daphne and Apollo details the sun god's passionate chase of Daphne, daughter of the waters of Peneus. Apollo, driven by lust, attempts to seize and rape Daphne after a long pursuit, but in the final moments of the story, Daphne prays to her father for deliverance and is transformed into a laurel tree. The end of this transformation, according to Daphne, is to "change me and destroy / My baleful beauty that has pleased too well" (48-49). Faced with no other options, metamorphosis into a tree becomes a simultaneous act of escape/transcendence, existing in continuously through contemporary taxonomy.

The second myth is the story of Myrrha, a royal daughter who tricks her father into several episodes of incestuous sex. One night, after her drunken father discovers what has happened by illuminating the dark bedchamber with a light (you would have thought he would have done this before), he flies into rage and immediately draws his sword (snicker, again) in a fierce attempt to kill her. Myrrha flees, pregnant with her father's child and exiled to solitude. In her wanderings, Myrrha tires of fighting the authorities and hunger and offers a prayer to the gods, "I'll not refuse-the pain of punishment, / But lest I outrage, if I'm left alive, / The living, or, if I shall die, the dead, / Expel me from both realms; some nature give / That's different; let me neither die nor live!"(90-95). At this utterance, Myrrha is transformed into the tree of her namesake, preserving her in an eternally liminal state of living.

For both myths, metamorphosis into the arboreal realm serves as not just physical deliverance from peril, but also, on a more abstract level, and re-balancing of the dominant logic of the myths. The fleeing Daphne, unwilling even in the face of a god, must be eliminated from the tale's structuring calculus of male desire. Simultaneously ennobled and eliminated, the tree provides the vehicle by which the myth's ideology is not terribly upset. Likewise, because Myrrha is not alone in her horrific crime of incest (we get the sense in the myth that daddy was a big pervert), death would seem too harsh a punishment, especially since her father sees no punitive repercussions for his deeds. Myrra's existence as neither living nor dead provides a sound exit strategy, an uplifting alternative to death (too harsh) or overthrow of the patriarchy (impossible). In both, the tree serves as a way to escape and transcend without disrupting the dominant physical and ideological forces present in the myth.

Now, to Merwin again. Given his assessment of humanity, it seems safe to assume that the horse (and the natural world it stands for) is threatened a priori. As if persecuted by the untiring destruction brought on by humanity, the horse suddenly assumes a form that allows escape from the life it once had, joining the ranks of others in western fantasy who have taken the form of trees. To emphasize the effect, Merwin portrays the metamorphosis as mystically elusive. Caught in the midst of regular behavior, its new form catches it in an instant, yet pinning down the exact moment of change seems impossible: "it reared and tossed its head / and suddenly stool still / beginning to remember / as its leaves fell" (10-13). Following "suddenly stool still", the line "beginning to remember" confuses our sense of time, enveloping the horse in the stream of a kind of timeless consciousness. The details of the change remain purposefully obscured, begging readers to fill in details from their own imaginations and inviting other myths to be articulated to the poem's interpretation.

Unlike traditional metamorphoses, however, the horse's only recourse is not simply a tree, but a dead one. Merwin mocks the myths before him by transferring his character into a corpse. Now, it must meditate on death as it watches "its leaves fall." Warped by some unseen force, Merwin's horse assumes a form that at once teases us with the potential for its transcendence and perpetual existence (arboreal metamorphosis) and distorts and reinterprets the same expectation that could have infused the poem with any kind of hope. In the natural sphere of this short poem, it seems even miracles are aimed toward death.

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone