The Artisan World It turns but does not try to remember it does not precede or follow obey or disobey it is not answering a question it arrives knowing without knowledge it makes the pieces one by one in the dark there is always enough dark before time comes with the locusts the insects of comparison the improvers with their many legs in the dazzling air makers of multiplication and series they never touch what is awake here and is not waiting nor asking nor fashioned but is one with the uneven currents of breathing with the silence untouched by the rush of noise
from The Moon before Morning (2015)
The idea behind reading the between is that the world of essential human consciousness — the world we know without the reductivism of various sciences and ideologies, the world “between” the extremes of void and apocalypse — has somehow become a lost art, at least for many of us. Social media reframes all communications in quotes. More particularly, the popular apocalyptic narrative — including the dystopian narrative — has become default. No choice between nihilism and apocalyptic? Communication outside the specializations has become shrill and not only noisy but noisome, even toxic.
But there are poets who seem to write from outside the ideologies and issue-driven points of view. I said “seem” because the issue here is not a “point of view” from Nowhere. Yet this poem by W. S. Merwin is seemingly about a “world” — “the artisan world.” Not that that phrase denotes anything determinate: “the artisan world” must be contrasted to some other world for us to get a feel for it.
The abruptness of the opening is easy to skim: it seems abstract, as if translated from an ancient text. We will return to that. As we read, we perceive a distinction between a beginning — the world of the artisans? — and an after: the world of the “multiplication and series” (the world of units, very much the monetized world but maybe even more than that). Or is THAT the “world of the artisans”? The poem seems to be about both, before and after — and the “space” between. Twilight.
The metaphor for one of these worlds is “insect” — beings that come in parts, “sect” referring to “cutting” in Latin, and perhaps the “sects” of orthodoxies; they are improvers but do not “touch what is awake here / and is not waiting nor asking nor fashioned.” That’s the other world as introduced in the opening.
If you have followed the imagery to this point (notice how Merwin’s syntax, and his lack of punctuation, makes following an intense act of attention), you can take in the final two lines that return to the opening, as day returns to night.This ending places the between world of the poem in a perspective that communicates values — breathing and silence — belonging to what may be called the contemplative life.
That ending — like the endings of many of Shakespeare’s sonnets — is both elegant, comprehensive, and slightly allusive, so, we start over, and as we do we may see something we didn’t notice the first time we read the opening: the little word “it.” It turns; it does not; it is not; it arrives; it makes . . . And everything it does is done before time comes–before the insects, the improvers.
So, indeed, Merwin’s little poem depends on a distinction between a Beginning and and After. A distinction as big as myth. But as historians of the idea of the metaxy such as Eric Voegelin have shown, the “It” and the Beginning, before time, are part of the “metaxological” narrative; the narrative of the between. For Merwin, this impersonal Subject is a “maker” that recalls aspects of the Tao and of Genesis as well.
What then is “the artisan world”? The world of the It and the beginning? or the world of the insects? I think Merwin wanted us to ask that question. As a distinction, it’s crucial. In any event, reading this poem is MORE than reading a “poem” . . . .