The Hours of Darkness – W.S. Merwin

I had to look up a few things—I didn’t know who Vermeij was, for example, or Rumphius—and this is one of those poems where I really do wish I had one of those annotated high school discussion guides to expand on all of the references, because some I know and some I don’t. (Trying to google the part about the “black queen” and “alien lights” just got me links to stuff on the Alien wiki. Thanks, internet.)

I think I have some ideas about it, though—the opening stanzas discuss:

how often you return
to the subject of not seeing
to the state of blindness
whether you name it or not
do you intend to speak of that
as often as you do
do you mean anything by it

Vermeij and Rumphius were both blind—Vermeij from the age of 3, Rumphius from glaucoma—and the rest of the names he lists also experienced blindness at some point in their lives, it seems, from a casual combing through Wikipedia. Borges wrote in “Seven Nights”: “No one should read self-pity or reproach / Into this statement of the majesty / Of God; who with such splendid irony, / Granted me books and night at one touch” and went on to write more poetry on that topic in the collection In Praise of Darkness.

When we speak of “the subject of not seeing”, what do we mean by it? The men he references may not have been able to see, but wrote and discovered with a clarity that goes beyond the way we metaphorically use the word “blindness.” The second-to-last stanza I spent some time puzzling over and feels to me to say that there’s so much more to understanding the world around us than simply being able to physically see it, bright points in a vaster darkness that is yet not empty. “How small the day is / the time of colors / the rush of brightness.

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