(In August 1956, the American poet and playwright W. S. Merwin flew home after seven years in Europe. The notes that follow are taken from a journal he kept at the time.)
August 27, 1956, A barber shop in St. John’s Wood
They say that after seven years every cell in your body has changed. You are a different person.
I wish I could remember what day it was, in July 1949, that I landed in Genoa. Or the day (one or two days before?) when we first came in sight of the Spanish coast.
Strange, now I am going back, to think that I have been in Europe without a break, ever since I was a minor. Ever since I was twenty-one.
On the chart one does not see the long line of wanting to go back. Beginning in my case before I set out, and rising through delight and hostility and wonder and everything that has been the experience of Europe. The line rising clear off the chart at last and stabbing into the air above it, without footing, but without coming down, for how many years now?
Part of the confusion, once the desire to go back got off the chart, arose from the suspicion that this was simply, at least in part, the first shock of maturity: a realization that home, where you grew up and belonged—belonged with and without your own volition—no longer exists. The desire to return to it, the moment you know it no longer exists. I had been away long enough, and surrounded by Europeans thoroughly enough, to get these mixed up. European friends wondering, as they say, what I will make of it. Probably nothing at all. Wishing, they say, that they could be here, like a fly on the wall, to watch, when I get back. How can I explain that I do not want to go back in order to form opinions. That, unless I am very wrong, opinions will have nearly nothing to with the main thing of being back. Home is a place that does not exist, about which your opinions are irrelevant.
Aug. 27, 1956, 11 : 30 p.m., PAA Clipper Carib
It is nearly impossible, afterwards, to remember at what point I began to believe that I was really going. Believing comes elusively, not when you expect, most often, but both earlier and later, only gradually filling in the place where will be. Unpredictable, like a season changing.
It would come over me all at once that I was, say, sitting in that barber’s chair for the last time before I went. It would take the imagination by shock. The next minute I didn’t believe it at all. I was sure I’d go on and have the next haircut in that same chair, (with the barber who’d learned what I enjoyed was not having him talk to me, but having him carry on animated conversation with other customers, to which I could listen) and the one after that, and the one after that. When I got around to having haircuts at all. Somewhere else in the mind the imagination suddenly looks down the long vistas of time where one will not walk. The possible lives that one will not lead.
And twenty-four hours before I was due to go, when everything was reminding me that it was happening for the last time—a rhythm that had gathered speed until it was unbroken—I would find myself going through the motions of the place’s most familiar habits, and not be able to believe.
I was sure I was going in a thin way like a hum in your ears, yesterday, as the desk gradually grew bare and everything in the study was either packed or put away. Not feeling anything about it but a certain emptiness independent of the emptying room; but sure. Feelings? I suppose they were there, after all, but like beasts patient as immigrants, to move in on the emptiness when their time came.
And sure yesterday as my key-case kept getting lighter, and the keys one by one were used for the last time and then packed in intelligent places where I will never be able to find them again, or left with D.
Then with all but a few things done, except things that could wait till the last minute, or things that would take too long anyway and must be abandoned, suddenly finding that everything was ready. And time all at once was heavy. Between the intense activity of getting ready, and the farewells and rush of getting off, time was heavy. More so not because I was anxious to go. I’d forgotten that, days before. A week ago. But because of all reasons I did not want to go; above all because I did not want to leave D. Wanted not to be going, but since I was going wanted to be gone. How different from most times when I’ve been going somewhere, thinking almost entirely of where I was going, savoring the whole trip, from the moment I was ready to go. Different entirely from when I left America, for I didn’t know how long, seven years ago. Even though a great part of me wanted to stay in America then, and even had an array of reasons. (Why go to Europe when I knew so little of America?) I imagine part of the difference is this: that, apart from D., I know just how much, and in what ways I’m fond of Europe, but I didn’t know what I felt about America. I regretted leaving, before I had even gone, but I didn’t know what I’d really miss until I’d been away for some time. Foreign places, however familiar, defining your feeling about home. But stay away too long and you’re bound to confuse that with homesickness. (Which I never in my life felt, except in the mildest ways, until these last few years. Unprepared for it.)
The lassitude that descended, in that pause of an hour or so between the end of getting ready, and the time to go. Not calling the taxi, after all, until almost too late. That dazed lassitude that does not believe in time; or, at the moments when it has to countenance the minutes’ passing, panics, and protests, protests, flailing in molasses, shouting under water: “Not today, no, not today.” But dazed, languorous, just the same. The lassitude hand in hand with the emotions themselves of good-bye. And they, together, swelling the occasion with their heavy, bewildered, helpless dumbness.
I left D. at the upstairs door and told her not to come to the window. The daze still there (like the feeling when you have been in a pub for several hours at lunch-time, and suddenly find yourself out in the sunshine, alone) in the taxi, all the way to the air-terminal. Feeling bulky and clumsy, as though your ears had just stopped ringing. The traffic so heavy that the taxi barely made it in time; the excitement of almost missing the bus to the airport, rising through the numbness of departure, and I was grateful for it.
Odd that passing sense of panic that wants to put it off till tomorrow, that hangs around and wants to go all right, but not today; trying to jump back into yesterday. A feeling that can, in the end, find nothing to focus on, and no grounds for itself. Maybe just an intensification of the familiar conviction (when going out to the theater, or leaving a hotel room) that you are leaving something vital behind. As of course, you always are.
In the rush at the air-terminal, again almost missing the bus. Never having felt any departure so intensely, nor so contradictorily, I was never before so aware of the way the efficient bustle, the professional voices on loudspeakers, the assembly line rounding up and processing of passengers, resembles the ward-walking manner of nurses. Admirably impersonal. Cheery. For the benefit of everybody especially, designed to brisk, shame, and cozy you along. I’ve always found this amusing, a tiny bit irritating (making me want to ask them stupid questions and delay everything, and see just how long everything could be made to wait, just how elastic it could all be) and rather pleasant. And this time I wished it wouldn’t all rush through so fast, so that I could have a chance to watch the effects of the helpful manner on the other passengers, especially those who were parting at the air-terminal itself. (My incurable vulgar curiosity.) Partly to get away from too clinging a concern with my own departure and what I was (am) leaving.
But in England, up to the very last, there’s always the weather to concern you. The morning had been overcast and rainy, but as the taxi drove away the sun came out. And the airport bus was stuffy and hot, turtling through the Kensington and Hammersmith traffic in the sunny muggy London late afternoon. The sort of weather that would have women swanning up and down Knights bridge, and the London shop-keepers and charwomen groaning. A nice summer day, or a bit of one. One of the Bright Periods whose Second Coming the London papers will mendaciously prophecy for months to come. The few English people in the bus quietly sweltering in their dark inconspicuous tweeds (one splendid man with a white mustache and a dirty gabardine raincoat on over his) and the many Americans peeling off their conspicuous pressed, newly bought-in-England woolens. Two collegiate characters, each just twelve pounds overweight, in white shirts, talking seriously about expansion of some kind, somewhere in Connecticut. A glum, brown-dressed, green-faced thin, young New Yorker next to me, filling his embarcation card with that particular expression of unimpressionable, slightly sour-natured boredom which is peculiarly New York. Two ugly girls from Baltimore talking to a handsome woman from further south, up ahead of me. Several South Americans; Brazilians. A collection of Turks, and one family with Turkish diplomatic passports. A group of American Greeks going back to Greece, with the accent of the mother country, the intonation of my country, driving through England.
England, where nearly all intonations of the language except the few variants of what they call “standard English”, tend to be considered comic, or ugly and undesirable if you have to take them seriously. A system which, I can see, is good for acting, but strikes me as deadly in most other ways. About as healthy for writing I should think, as the French deliberate limitation of their literary vocabulary was for French poetry. Socially handy, it seems. This fascinating preoccupation with class distinction, which no longer exists. A preoccupation which, after five years off and on in England, I still find as foreign as sampans, and rather distasteful (while admiring some aspects of this non-existent class system). Continuous effort and argument with myself, not to find this amount, of preoccupation with class distinctions more than a little vulgar. In a way which, to me, looks sterile. Probably this is a case, among so many, where the illusion that we speak the same language registers against my ability to understand.
When we got to the airport the day had gone dark with clouds; there was a raw wind, and the rain had started again. There must have been several inches of water in some places on the tarmac. Rain sweeping over the wings of the waiting planes. The big planes taxiing around on the wet runway, and the rain and real wind skating across it in gooseflesh streaks like flaws rushing across mica. The slipstreams of the planes tore up long plumes of spray, the water streaking out flat and whipping away like grass does out on the airfield. The engines, idling or warming up, actually bared and dried the tarmac, for a second, just in back of the wings. And when a plane would take off, as one did right in front of us, the water on the tarmac would he gashed and open for a moment, bared over a bone, and then flow back hesitantly to fill the place and smooth it over, after the plane was airborne, just as it would have over a ship that had sunk. The genius of controlled violence reminding you that the control is artificial, that they’re all one family and never forget each other and that two thirds of the world is violence.
With everything so organized and sterilized and herded and heated and air-conditioned, it seemed strange that one should be walking in real rain, even for a minute. The taxiing around the airport, that always robs me of the last shred of my sense of direction, wherever I am, as though you had to be robbed of that before you could be hurled straight toward your destination as the crow flies. The houses and allotments around the airport turning and turning. You have to be dizzied, after being robbed of volition; be the Blind Man. The voices in the plane coming from far away, as through the sleep of a child, over the noise of the engines; the pressure of everything seeming to build up in the plane. Wanting to sing, as always, when the engines, one by one, were gunned and roared, at the end of the runway before the take-off, and the plane shook itself free of the ground. As excited as a child, as always, by the take-off. And at the same time, this time, suddenly caught in an immense depression, as though all the dead weight of the lassitude of an hour, two hours, before, had fallen on me at once, and was carrying me down. Wondering how it had happened that D. was not there. Realizing that she had not been out of my mind since I had left, though the feeling of leaving her had no clear image of her to focus on. And could not conjure one. Could wonder what she was doing, but could not envisage her moving. Only, with an effort, call up the image of her as I left her, and the minutes before. It seemed for a moment as though I was being dragged away from her, fingers weakening, slipping apart. So that as the plane rushed down the runway and the wedge between us and the ground widened, and the line of houses streaked by, I had a distinct impression of a cloth being violently torn. I would have rushed out of the plane that minute, had it been still; or have been tempted to. And back onto it, the moment my feet touched the ground.
England looked soaked, sodden, from the air. Whole fields lying under water. The standing water in sheets of glassy grey, no color, white, no color; showing the contours of all the hollows and low patches. As though a sheet of some sort of metal had been slid through the land. The ponds looking higher than their banks, and the Thames looking as though it lay on top of the countryside. Landscape and sky all lights and shades of grey, in every direction. Even the sunlight grey and laden with rain: pregnant. The sky dark with tons and tons of water as we flew toward Wales; and the towns beneath looking as if they had never been dry.
A nun looking like an albino buffalo with dyspepsia had got on at London, with another of her cloth, and I with my superstitions had to keep my fingers crossed all the way to Catholic Shannon because where could I find two dogs on an airplane to cancel the nuns? Though we were flying over towns full of Englishmen all loving dogs as Americans are supposed to love their mothers.
We were in and out of long feathers of black cloud, over Wales; after dusk with the lights on in the towns, but the dark not final yet, and the coast of Wales clear and sharp as we flew over.
Next to me a young thin Jewish doctor, my age, from Philadelphia, who has been all over travelling Negro basketball team.
He has been to see his grandfather’s four ancient sisters in Liverpool but I have been able to extract few details from him other than their ages (69, 72,78, 82), the fact that two of them are almost blind, and that they are too old to cry. This last seems to be quite a drawback, since although they had never seen him before they apparently all wanted to cry as soon as they knew he was there, their brother’s son whom they thought they’d never live to see; and it seems they were all of them pretty choked up as long as he was there. But enjoyed it, if he is any indication. Probably quite genuinely glad to see each other...
Cloud over Ireland until we got to the west. And then the low-running hills looking green as in the story-books, in the almost dark dusk. Long pennons of water winding in from the coast, with lights came in over water.
And Shannon was better than I could have hoped. The low, dark green buildings, temporary and whorish. The feeling that they’d sell you their genuine Machree grandmother if you expressed an interest in such baggages and had the green money. People lined up ten deep at the liquor counter, buying the limit. Watches, perfumes, Irish linens and tweeds, pipes, souvenirs of olde Erin impossibly clean and already looking like the belongings of tourists. A long waiting-room with asbestos walls, where fifty travelers sprawled and smoked and drank and sat guard over packages and looked as dejected as though they had just learned they were going to live there. None of them seemed to be speaking to each other. Loud-speakers in the walls asking for Father O’Brien every two minutes, or if not Father O’Brien, Father Malloy. We were led into a dull supper of thumb soup with pretensions to mushrooms and flannel beef.
Taking off from Shannon, we had a search-light beam on US, and the light in the propellers made big, slow-widening spirals of light, with spirals of shadow inside them that spread outward from the propeller shafts. Like those tops I had as a child, where the colors melted outward as the top spun.
12:35 a.m. London time
I wonder whether it is raining in London. Probably. I wonder whether D. will wring out the rags that I left in the attic joists before she goes to bed, so that the leaking water won’t get too heavy in the bedroom ceiling and bring it down with a sodden crash all over the bedroom floor. I wonder whether she will sleep tonight, alone in the bedroom, with, on top of everything else her dislike of sleeping alone in the house.
The dipper is as bright as ever in Spain, just outside the window. A regatta of little triangular clouds, far below, as we fly west. And one great mountainous cloud which we have just flown through had a long promontory which ran out into nothing, and made me feel vertigo for the cloud. I remember seeing a promontory in Majorca, on a day so still that its reflection in the sea was as sharp and clear as its own shape; they made a single shape running out into the colorless sea that looked like a sky, and it seemed they must certainly fall. And that first summer in France, the day when I swam out into the Mediterranean trying out a pair of underwater goggles, which I’d never worn before. Warm with pleasure at the first long view of the jagged sea-floor shifting with light and blue shadows. Fish, fronds, sea-anemones, swimmers, and sliders and weeds washing. The pocked snags and sloping ridges maybe thirty or forty feet below me as I rocked and swayed and swam out. They deepened a little and then rose toward the surface again, a hundred feet out. And then suddenly ended. The sharp edge dropped off into dark blue nothing, in which occasionally a tiny fin would flash light for a second. I was out over nothing at all, and it felt cold, and nowhere but in my dreams had I ever known such vertigo.
I wonder whether N. went over to see D. after I’d gone, as she said she was going to. Whether D. went to supper at N.’s as I hope. D. telling me not to think of her as sad, all the time I am away; not to associate her with the idea. I hope it works both ways.
Every time you leave it is the last time.
Even if passionately addicted to talking about myself, how difficult it would have been to explain to friends in England (and to some Americans) this thing of not expecting anything from going back. I know things have changed. I know too that, as I’ve felt it all receding from me, I’ve made it up, invented it. I knew at the time that I was doing it.
I don’t expect to be disappointed at finding that my invention was false, that the place isn’t like that at all, that even the things I never liked, and remember disliking, have changed. I expect to be immensely relieved to be able to abandon the fiction entirely, and let the real thing take over. Because the real fiction was a fence to keep people away from what of America I felt I had managed to hang on to. And I was aware that it would end by keeping me away from it too. I look forward to being able to admit to an honest dislike of something right there and my own. A thing that I’ve hardly allowed myself to do for months, not because I was concerned with anyone’s opinions, but because of a fear that such admission might push the smallest detail of home, even an unpleasant one (especially an unpleasant one) further away from me. But remembering, in private as deliberately as anything else, sordor, squalor, waste, ugliness, injustice. One thing I do expect, is to respond to the place simply, with delight, or admiration, or repulsion, as I do in Europe. Not one feeling at a time. But several of them or all of them, all me, at once.
I have loathed that fiction, and myself for fostering it. Like finding oneself insisting that the person one loved was pretty. Finding myself betraying everything, out of my desire not to betray it. Only let me waste no time now even for penance. It redresses nothing, least of all balance. Let me find instead a hard eye, proud of having no mercy, needing none, for the thing it loves.
I don’t think that Europeans get the same sort of passion for home. Generations and generations having worked out a way of regarding the place, taught them where to fix the feeling, what to see and how to communicate with it. And just the confidence which must come from the awareness that it all has been there so long already. And allow themselves even nostalgia without so much danger of sentimentality running riot. They can do it all more gently, more gracefully. Two qualities that we, quite often, must manage without.
I suppose it would be simpler to say that they have loved their place for generations, centuries; and know it, without having to make a fuss about it. Whereas, by comparison, we begin as a loveless people. Generation after generation having cared little for the place. Our fathers began by caring little enough about Europe so that they could leave it. We’ve used the place, wasted it. It has made us prodigal, restless. And we are attached to it in still-raw ways that we aren’t aware of, most often. We ought to know that we couldn’t hate it as fiercely as we do sometimes without there being something honest in our attachment to it. But there is always the sense of surprise, of inarticulate awkwardness, at discovering that the name for what you feel is love.
The black sea down there doesn’t even need sleep, all the way to Labrador; and the night is splendid, and above it all.