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The Shadow of Sirius

W.S. Merwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection challenges our concept of reality.

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W.S. Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius deserved to win the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and not just because the book is one of his strongest in years. The collection, which explores loss, memory, and the continuum of time, lingers with readers the way light from Sirius reaches the earth – long after leaving its source.

In both cases, great distances are covered and what appears solid may not be. Yet for Merwin, the motion is both backward and forward, allowing for powerful insights and fresh perceptions about what we see, feel, and remember.

The first section focuses on childhood memories and the way they both shape one’s early impressions and are shaped by the lens of later years. In “Still Morning,” the third poem, past and present intersect, allowing Merwin to share a truth he might have vaguely sensed for years:

It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow

Merwin beautifully renders moments so that readers can imagine – and feel – what he has experienced. Then he shifts from the physical realm to insights that leave an indelible mark – almost like a mist of light.

This movement happens over and over, whether Merwin writes about a broken glass, his father’s dictionary, or the taste of blueberries. Everything has a hidden depth or touches larger, unseen forces. Even a trolley bell conveys more than a sound or mood: “I could hear it coming/ from far summers that I/ had never known.”

The book’s second section recalls Merwin’s beloved dogs, a fitting choice in a collection named after the Dog Star. The walks he shared with canine companions, literally and metaphorically, point to the interconnectedness between humans and animals and the undying bonds we share. In “Dream of Koa Returning,” Merwin recalls looking at the river and trees

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