What I both admire and struggle with in Merwin’s work is his insistent lack of punctuation. In some poems, this lack requires of me great effort in figuring out how to read a single line in terms of its pacing and meaning, much less that of a stanza or the poem as a whole. In others, the lines flow lucidly one to the next, which is no small feat given that acoustics, line breaks, and caesuras created without punctuation must do all the work of pacing and bracing the poem.
In “Alba,” this craftiness is best observed in line 4, a fairly benign line in terms of content but a central one in terms of setting up both scene and mood for what ensues. The first five lines of this eighteen line, single-stanza poem are as follows:
Climbing in the mist I came to a terrace wall
and saw above it a small field of broad beans in flower
their white fragrance was flowing through the first light
of morning there a little way up the mountain
where I had made my way through the olive groves
What can be said about them? For starters, their music is intricate, providing a scaffold by which the poem’s rhythm and pace is constructed. Line one, for example, is essentially an example of pararhyme (not to be confused with Wikipedia’s pararhyme, which is really slant rhyme . . . ) in which came to a terrace is a clear echo of Climbing in the mist. K and M sounds are repeated, as is the short I in mist and terrace; as well, the long I in Climbing is repeated in the subjective pronoun I. Hardly a sound goes unreplicated except for wall, the line’s last word. However, the poem’s second line repeats or echoes the A in wall with saw, above, a small, and broad. What’s more, Merwin uses alliteration with broad beans and with field and flower—and there’s even more of that F in line three. And I could go on and on with his consonance, assonance, etc.
The effect is a very structured opening to “Alba,” consequently a very well-drawn map readers can use to discover how the poem intends itself to be read (or how Merwin intends it to be read?). What it lacks in conventional punctuation it makes up for with a very controlled use of sound. What’s more, the line breaks are easy, semi-enjambed breaks. Through line three, each contains a complete idea, which allows readers to concentrate on one thing at a time and to be controlled more by in-line pacing devices (Merwin’s latticework of sound) than end-line devices (line break). Line five works the same way. The anomaly is line four: “of morning there a little way of up the mountain.” That there throws its sense of self-contained coherence out the window. Arguably, without it, the line still lacks a sense of clear completion.
But what makes the line click is its double caesura, the pause on each end of there, as in fragrance was flowing through the first light of morning . . . THERE . . . a little way up the mountain. Previous to this unique moment, there aren’t any strong caesuras. In the first line, a quiet one follows the opening participial phrase “Climbing in the mist,” but it’s so quiet that the breath doesn’t even come to a complete stop before continuing on to “I came to a terrace wall.” In the second line, a similar caesura occurs after the word it, coincidentally the fourth word in the line and coincidentally ending with a T like its first-line counterpart. Line three lacks any clear caesura. So, when hit with the double pause in line four, readers encounter a dead stop they’ve been prepared for only by being led away from its possibility. The expectation isn’t ebb but flow, and it continues for several lines beyond line four until we encounter the word “suddenly,” and then it continues on again.
Two things in particular make line four’s stop effective. One, it’s a double stop, as aforementioned. Two, the stop was set up by a few spondees in lines two and three—particularly line three. Starting with “broad beans in flower / their white fragrance,” the brief pattern of accented feet is spondee followed by trochee (bear in mind this poem is not metrical, so applying these terms isn’t an entirely accurate use of metrical nomenclature). So: BROAD BEANS, FLOWer; WHITE FRAGrance, FLOWing; FIRST LIGHT, MORNing. Notice the repletion of F. Notice, too, the third stress in each pair is followed by exactly one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. When we get to there, this is not the case: we have three unstressed syllables in a row. What’s more, the spondees give the language an energy that sort of continues to regenerate itself, much like a repeater amplifies electrical current or cable reception. So, by the time we hit there, we have expectations in place and we have a definite energy and speed with which we’re coursing through the poem. We hit that there with a resounding BAM!
This matters, of course, because it isn’t the climb up the hill that is important to the speaker of “Alba,” it’s what he witnesses “a little way up the mountain.” Until then, this walk is more or less routine. Then the man and his mule stop the speaker immediately upon discovery. It’s as though the speaker has come on some intimate scene between this farmer and his beast of burden, as though his innocent morning stroll has become a clear and present invasion of privacy. The poem is weirdly voyeuristic that way. For the speaker, who remains undetected by the objects of his affection, it’s quite a moment. Time has stopped; the universe has stopped. Though he doesn’t understand the farmer’s words, he understands the beauty of the relationship among them—that is to say among the farmer, his mule, and the crop they cultivate, all of which gives the speaker pleasure.