"I MUST CREATE a System," wrote William Blake, "or be enslaved by another Man's." W. B. Yeats felt a similar need which his eccentric book A Vision helped to fill. Though he is a tamer writer than Blake or Yeats, W. S. Merwin, one of America's most distinguished poets and translators, seems also to be evolving his own mythology. This new book of prose, Houses and Travellers , along with its 1971 predecessor The Miner's Pale Children , consists of a series of imaginative inventions which can be read as the "system" underscoring Merwin's poems. In one of the pieces in this collection, a priest tells stories which "begin to take on the momentous intangibility of legends; episodes echoed from an unknown sacred text; parables." Merwin's stories are like those of the priest.
"Echoes" is a good word to described the feel of Merwin's stories. In The Poetics of Space , Gaston Bachelard writes of the poetic image: "It is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with echoes, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away." In Merwin's work, "the distant past" is not the past of history, but the past of the soul. What is "half-remembered, half-invented" in these fictions is not book learning, but what Bachelard calls the "Forces . . . in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge."
There is no one tone to the work in this book. Some of the stories are poetic, some Gothic, or whimsical, or fantastic. Some are even straightforward and conventional. One of the longer stories, called "Poverty," is a striking, frightening tale that could have been written by Kafka. But certain characteristics do emerge out of the accumulation of stories. The landscape of most of this work is some "other" world that exists side by side with the "real" world and resembles it in many ways. It is not so much that this other world is strange because the intelligence perceiving it sees it as strange; it is, rather, we who are strangers here, in this world of spiritual dimensions and new realities.
Resonating through these tales is a sense that the narrator is after a special kind of unnamable wisdom, an ability "to recognize the sound of the element in which you were living, passing through you" ("The Element") or to become one of the "hearers of the note at which everything explodes into light" ("The Chart"). Speaking of Zen Buddhism, Thomas Merton wrote: "the 'Unconscious' (prajna) is a principle of being and light secretly at work in our conscious mind making it aware of transcendent reality. But this true awareness is not a matter of the empirical ego standing back and 'having ideas,' 'possessing knowledge,' or even 'attaining to insight' (satori) ." This same principle of light seems to illuminate Merwin's stories - a principle which is neither disconnected from human particulars nor darkened by the blindness of the ego.
The stories in this book are not always convincing. Merwin's attraction to personifications - there are, for example, pigeons, hinges, and locks that talk - can be difficult to accept. And his characteristic disembodied narrator, so comfortable in a world of "resemblances, associations, traces, clues, the components of recognitions" ("Path"), can become monotonous. When the rhythm is broken by a piece like "Vanity," a tale that is closer to the conventional short story than anything else in the book, it seems a welcome change. Merwin's response to these complaints would probably be, "You either believe or you don't" ("Crusade").
The last quarter of this book is, for the most part, a series of biographical remembrances of the past, of childhood - as though to suggest that knowledge of the fantastic, of the opening up of consciousness, is rooted in the ordinary. If you can remember your personal history, you are on the path to remembering the secret, marvelous past of the human soul.