W.S. Merwin: “The Nails”
“The Nails” is one of the best breakup poems ever. It was featured in The Moving Target, W.S. Merwin’s fifth book of poetry, published in 1963 when he, like a number of U.S. poets, jumped out of the mainstream’s narrow ship and began to explore freer straits of poetic expression. What makes the poem special is the intensity of feeling coupled with the startling imagery. It tells the story of a breakup without traditional narrative, presenting an emotional arc through flashes of imagery. How could a poem be associative and dramatic simultaneously, I wondered when I stumbled upon it in the early ’90s. My father, in his first act of begrudging acceptance of my life as a poet, bought me 10 audiocassettes of poets reading their work, and Merwin’s was the last I listened to. Something about the initials in his name served as a kind of pretentious force field keeping my ears and mind at bay, but I finally popped in his tape one night, slipped into my covers, and shoved off toward sleep. Immediately I was entranced—he seemed to be next to me, sitting on a chair in the dark, but also far away, shrouded in mist. I was stunned by how his images were instantly visible yet elusive, how his diction was plain and elevated simultaneously. I’m still amazed at Merwin’s ability to do so many seemingly contradictory things at once in his poems.
The poem begins, “I gave you sorrow to hang on your wall / Like a calendar in one color.” The first three words get us leaning toward the ordinary, the everyday, then we are yanked into the figurative as sorrow (an abstraction) is made physical and compared to a calendar. A calendar, of course, measures time, divides it into increments, and a calendar in one color would mean a solid month (or year) with no division, implying that the gifted sorrow will be constant. It’s a thought worth lingering on, but in line 3 the poem leaps from the calendar image into another, “I wear a torn place on my sleeve,” which plays off and reinvigorates the idiom to wear your heart on your sleeve. Here the speaker wears an emotional absence, a void. His heart has been ripped out. Notice the spondee, the two stressed syllables next to each other, torn place, giving the phrase a bit of sonic forcefulness, amplifying the spiked sense of sadness. In poems like these, Merwin helped teach me that clichés present opportunities for writers to exploit, not just dead ends. Once readers recognize the underpinnings of an expression, they anticipate the words that follow, and once you have a reader anticipating, you can manipulate those expectations.
In the next line, the speaker bitterly undermines what he’s just said: “It isn’t as simple as that.” We all know how this feels, the schizophrenia induced by a broken heart, and like many brokenhearted lovers, the speaker is at odds with himself—his poetic, emotional side versus his logical, rational side. It’s as if he doesn’t trust his own dexterity with language, suggesting that his poetic talents can produce only a failed approximation of the way he feels. Here, with plain diction, he snaps himself (and his readers) out of the imaginative realm and into the everyday.
But even in the everyday, things are still quite strange for Merwin’s speaker. On the surface, the next lines—“Oh, I know / I’ve no excuse to be stuck here turning”—appear quite plain, but a closer look at the first five syllables is revealing: Oh, I, Know, I’ve, No. What wonderfully embedded assonance: five vowel sounds all piled on top of one another. If we isolate and amplify these sounds, Oh-I-Oh-I-Oh, it might resemble a prehistoric lament: long vowel sound, medium vowel sound, long vowel sound, medium vowel sound, long vowel sound. This buried wail is a hint at the raw feelings beneath the poem’s surface. And then, in line 10, the speaker jumps from the conversational and into the figurative again: “like a mirror on a string.” The speaker is twirling in circles, capable only of reflection. Here the reader may begin to notice that the figurative images in the poem are in cahoots with one another, forming a constellation of powerlessness and loss that imitates the speaker’s emotional stasis: “stuck here turning like a mirror on a string,” “a calendar in one color,” “I wear a torn place on my sleeve,” and later “a key in a lock / Without what it takes to turn.” This layering of collaborative images is how the poem achieves an emotional arc without a traditional narrative.
Lines 13 and 14, then, switch back to the conversational: “Loss has a wider choice of directions / Than the other thing.” Usually in workshops we stress specificity in language, but in this instance the speaker says “the other thing.” Here Merwin deploys a deliberately vague term to slyly reveal more of the speaker’s wounded character; he’s so hurt that he can’t even say the word love.
The poem jumps forward: “I uncover my footprints, I / poke them till the eyes open.” In the first line, the speaker retraces his physical steps. It’s another conversational metaphor, and it reinforces how the speaker is stuck in the past yet ironically also divorced from it. In the second line, the poem takes a magical, irrational leap. Until this point, the metaphors and similes, however wild, could be understood on a logical level, but here the speaker is literally poking his footprints, as if they are sleeping creatures, as if he could wake up the pieces of his past and interrogate them. The surreal image makes intuitive sense, though, hinting at the speaker’s emotional unraveling. It’s worth mentioning that the leaps we find in some of Merwin’s work in the ’60s probably had something to do with his work translating poets such as Federico García Lorca, Roberto Juarroz, Pablo Neruda, and Jean Follain.
As the poem continues, the speaker struggles to define the it he has lost: “Was it like a ring, or a light, / Or the autumn pond, / Which chokes and glitters but / Grows colder?” This is a lively list, mainly because the three possibilities are so different, stretching the reader in three disparate directions. We have an object, an illumination, and a place. Imagine how flat the lines would read if they were a trio of similar objects—for example, “Was it like a ring, or a necklace, or an ankle bracelet”? Not good. But here, Merwin’s objects effectively stretch from the concrete world to the abstract. A ring is a physical object but also a symbol of love. A light glows and illuminates, stimulating the sense of sight. A light also, interestingly, blurs the boundary between abstraction and concrete detail, because even though we can’t touch sunlight, we can experience the sensation of it touching us. The autumn pond is both a specific physical place and a symbolic one. The phrase hints at the onslaught of winter, the season when plants die and the pond (a metaphor for the relationship) will freeze up. Even in its autumnal state, though, the pond is startling. It chokes. Ponds don’t typically choke. When you say the word choke, you feel it in your throat: the harsh k sound after the long oh vowel makes your throat snap closed, almost as though the long oh is a puppy running across a field and the k is the leash yanking the puppy to a halt.
The next stanza begins: “And I’ve been to see / Your hands as trees borne away on a flood, / The same film over and over, / And an old one at that, shattering its account.” The verb borne has positive connotations, a fact that creates a faint tension with the destructive image of trees being brutalized from the ground, roots flailing like cut tendons. This is another example of Merwin subtly complicating the reader’s expectations. Why the choice of hands, one might ask, and not some other body part, like arms, which are more treelike in shape? Perhaps because hands are the body part we most use to touch one another. Also, the choice of hands discreetly lays the groundwork for the penultimate image of the poem. On the surface, the lines “The same film over and over, / And an old one at that, shattering its account” seem matter of fact, but when we remember that the speaker is talking about an imagined fear projected into the future, we realize how ironic the choice of the word “old” is. The speaker has watched this imagined future so many times in the movie theater of his mind that the film has deteriorated. And listen to the percussive consonance of the condensed trio of stacked rhymes: “and an old one at that, shattering its account.” The thunderous cacophony suggests the speaker’s emotional turbulence.
The one-line stanza, “The lightning has shown me the scars of the future,” bolts and crackles across the page, momentarily illuminating the speaker’s painful future (when the wounds of the present will have healed into scars). A few lines later, we see a second one-line stanza: “It isn’t as simple as that.” It’s the only line repeated in the whole poem, yet it’s also one of the most colloquial—the biting, rational voice in the speaker’s head coming in, undermining the poet who has packaged these complex feelings of anguish into language. It’s as if the speaker has a built-in heckler.
“But at this moment, / When the nails are kissing the fingers good-bye”—what a rich, painful image, made all the more gripping with the verb choice of kissing. The nails are being ripped off the fingers, and we feel the pain of the line even more intensely because Merwin has run in the opposite direction from our expectations and employed a verb with pleasant connotations (kissing) to describe this painful act. He’s also playing off the idiom to kiss someone good-bye, which injects a hint of levity into an otherwise excruciating image. The stanza continues to the climactic moment of pain: “And my only / Chance is bleeding from me, / When my one chance is bleeding, / For speaking either truth or comfort, / I have no more tongue than a wound.” We see the word bleeding and immediately think of the nails that have been pried off the fingers, but, with the dazzling final lines, the blood comes into focus. It’s not from his nails. It’s from his mouth, which is one giant gash. The great poet-speaker, so adroit with words, is rendered tongueless, impotent. The whole poem, which seemed to meander at times, has actually been building to this dramatic climax, a crucifixion: the poet exposed on a cross of silence, blood seeping from his precious mouth, his voice deserting him when he needs it most. The paradox is that the poem is in fact quite eloquent, despite the speaker’s protests to the contrary.
I spent a day with Merwin in my final year of grad school in 1993, when he was on campus for a reading. After having listened to his audiocassette for months in the dark as I bobbed in and out of sleep, it was like meeting a ghost. I asked him to read “The Nails.” He declined, hinting that the feelings behind it were still too raw. The poem does not appear in either of his collections of selected poems, which doesn’t make sense. Maybe he is embarrassed by the poem’s visceral quality, which is atypical of his work, or maybe there is something in his life that still hasn’t healed. Perhaps some future biographer will solve this riddle. Until then we are free to revel in this moving and mysterious poem.
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...