“For the Anniversary of my Death”, by W.S. Merwin.
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My favorite recent poem has been “For the Anniversary of My Death” by W.S. Merwin. This is an old poem, first published in 1963, yet its message is timeless: Merwin inspires us to reflect on what seldom crosses our mind. After all, such an anniversary awaits for every one of us.
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
The first 5 lines describe what happens “every year”: the title of the poem makes it clear what kind of day it is that the poet is passing over. What an interesting way to think of our mortality: he is referring to death as the day when the “last fires” (that is, the warmth of life along with the poet’s dreams) would see him off, would wave goodbye, as he leaves for the afterlife/eternity. The author, then, compares the silence of the afterlife, which is beyond “the last fires”, to the “beam of a lightless star”, which can travel at the speed of light without meeting any resistance, able to spread everywhere. At the same time, this silence must have a source in the same way as a beam does: we realize here how the silence’s source (that is, the afterlife) is beyond our understanding, in the same way as a lightless star (that is, the beam’s source in the poem) remains invisible to us, and thus beyond our understanding.
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what.
The second 8 lines refer to “Then”, when the “strange garment” of his life is taken off, that is, when he will be dead. Here does the author make a list of what will be lost once death brings his life to an end: namely, “the love of one woman”, “the shamelessness of men”, (which both together may better explain the “strange garment” of his life), “the singing of the wren”, and the falling of rain, which, all together, evoke the enormity of life. It is to the enormity of life, for which he has no words, that he bows to, ending his poem in a gesture of humility. Or, perhaps, pointing us back to the title of the poem, the author is bowing to his premonition of death.