HAIKU, Maui — To read William S. Merwin’s poetry and prose is to be versed in his passions – his wife, Zen Buddhism, Native Hawaiian culture, his French farmhouse, dogs, and especially the scrub pineapple field he transformed by hand into one of the most important palm gardens in the world.
For the last 40 of his 89 years, Merwin has planted a tree nearly every day he is at home in the Peahi watershed, near Haiku, where he designed and built his wooden house and depends on rain to fill his cisterns and sun to power his lights.
Until his eyesight failed two years ago, mornings were for writing in longhand many of his 29 books of poetry, eight of prose, and translating into English 25 other works. Afternoons were for propagating, restoring and preserving 19 acres supporting about 3,000 palms, especially endangered ones and particularly endemic pritchardias — fan palms native to Hawaii.
In 2010, the same year President Obama named him the 17th U. S. poet laureate, Merwin and his wife, Paula, along with the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust and Copper Canyon Press, created the Merwin Conservancy to protect his garden and literary legacy.
John Dransfield, a retired senior scientist for palms at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, made two visits to the garden to catalogue and map its 400 species, more than 125 genera, and 900 horticultural varieties.
“Given his passion for the plants in the nursery, and having set most of them out himself, William seemed to know each one, even without any labels and without seeing them well,” Dransfield recalled. “He learned as he went along, feeling his way through the palm family, getting seed from the International Palm Society.
“The shared beauty of the poems written there, with this exceptional rainforest of palms, is an astonishing legacy.”
Even without sight, the constant gardener continued to walk in his palm forest with his wife, Paula, until her death on March 8, two days before her 81st birthday.
His 2016 book, “Garden Time,” is the latest with titles testifying to his devotion to the natural world, such as “The River Sound,” “The Folding Cliffs,” “The Compass Flower,” “Migration” and “The Rain in the Trees.”
On May 16, the new American Writers Museum in Chicago will elevate what has been described as Hawaii’s Walden Pond to national prominence when it debuts “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” a tribute of live plants and audio and video readings celebrating Merwin’s garden, body of work and “the capacity of writers to connect readers to nature.”
“We immediately thought of W. S. Merwin,” said Edward Morris, who was chosen by the museum to create the temporary installation with Susannah Sayler, his partner in the Canary Project design firm. Morris and Sayler, associate producers of the 2014 documentary about Merwin, “Even Though the Whole World is Burning,” settled on the two-time Pulitzer prize-winning poet and his garden because of the museum’s criteria.
“The exhibit involves multiple poetic voices even though it is focused on William, and it is not a ‘bummer’ project,” Morris said. “It is hopeful in the same way that Merwin’s poetry is hopeful — full of amazement, wakefulness, the aliveness of the world.”
The three-part physical installation, sponsored by the conservancy and the Poetry Foundation, is in a narrow, windowless second-floor corridor that allows the designers to use precision artificial lights, video of the real garden, and voice recordings of poets inspired by Merwin reading their own poems to create an aura of tranquility.
Visitors enter a mock-up of Merwin’s modest cultivation shed and get to see his own gardening tools, boots, shirts and hats, as well as drafts of his poems written on spare scraps of paper.
Proceeding into the middle space, video and sounds recorded by Morris and Sayler on Maui are paired with Merwin – heard but not seen — reading selected poems.
Passing into the final exhibit, potted palms transported from Florida will be lit with spotlights and appear to grow from lava rock as visitors inhale earthy fragrances and moist air provided by weekly waterings of plants in dirt. The sub-tropical sensory experience is amplified by Merwin and contemporary American poets Naomi Shihab Nye, Carrie Fountain and Ross Gay reading more poetry.
Fans all over the world write to Merwin, so for decades he has incorporated their letters into his organic compost, making his correspondence part of the plants and trees.
At the end of the exhibit, visitors will be invited to combine their own words and feelings by writing messages about their experience. They will be aided by a prompt Merwin offers in one of his signature poems, “Place”:
“On the last day of the world/ I would want to plant a tree/ What for…,”
When the temporary installation closes in September Morris and Sayler will take the messages to Maui and “plant” them in the palm garden.
Conservancy board member Mary Lock, who lives part-time in Hilo and was instrumental in the AWM project, said Larry Cameron’s photographs and Merwin’s writing in their book, “What Is A Garden?” helped her and designers “understand that his love of words and the natural world are one and the same.” They drew inspiration from page 56:
“… I have admired and have loved gardens of many kinds, but what I aspire to, and want to have around our lives now, is a sense of the forest. It must be an illusion of the forest, clearly, for this is a garden and so a kind of fiction.”