I am just back from southwest France—another place dear to W.S. Merwin, the other place to which he belonged. The occasion was the international conference “Merwin Across Borders,” presented in conjunction with the recent publication, by Éditions Fanlac, of Un Temps au jardin, the French translation of Garden Time, by Cécile Roudeau and Thomas Dutoit. Cécile and Thomas orchestrated a rich and roving conversation—the first part in Paris, the second in the Lot—among scholars, students, publishers, translators, friends of William’s, and neighbors who knew him well, some since his earliest days in France. Together we moved through discussions of time, memory, and agency—in language and in life. And of course, landscape. We read the poems that emerged from William’s rose and palm gardens; there in the Lot, he wrote The Lice, “at a time when…I thought the future was so bleak that there was no point in writing anything at all…”* Decades later and far away in Hawaiʻi, he wrote of planting a tree, on the last day of the world, as he made a daily practice of putting palms into the earth. We talked in an auditorium and a town hall, on walks and over meals about William’s reverence for the land high above the Dordogne river, and the Occitan language long rooted there. We evoked his love for the Hawaiian language, too, and for the river valley in Hawaiʻi where he made another home. We spoke of his commitments to the pressing concerns of both places, both languages. Personal stories further animated these conversations: a neighbor recounted a snowball fight he had with William as a little boy. A longtime friend told the story of a bell he had offered to William as a gift. (We now know the origin of the bell that hangs by the front door of the Peʻahi house.)
As we traced connections between places and objects, among and across ideas, my thoughts kept returning to the practice of translation—the migration of ideas and words from one language to another, through an act of intimacy, empathy, sensuality, fidelity and creativity. The gathering that Cécile and Thomas so thoughtfully crafted, in partnership with the local organization Sur les pas de William S Merwin (whose warm and generous welcome I will not soon forget), was a collaborative act of translation—one that will no doubt inspire further acts of empathy and creativity, and connections across borders of place and thought.
* From “ ‘Fact Has Two Faces’’: An Interview with W.S. Merwin.” Folsom, E. & Nelson, C (1982, The Iowa Review). Referenced in conference paper by Thomas Dutoit and Cécile Roudeau: “ ‘Even though the whole world is burningʻ (W. S. Merwin): Poetry Still? Poetry Now?”