[lit-ideas] W. S. Merwin, Departure's Girlfriend

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 2 Oct 2013 10:26:30 -0400 (EDT)

In "Happy Birthday", M. J. Geary reads:
>I've read and re-read this poem hundreds of times, but still I cannot  
>why Merwin calls it "Departure's Girlfriend"  -- why  girlfriend??  Any
More below, in ps.


OK. Let's analyse the thing in closer detail. Recall Matisse,  "Untitled", 
a beautiful painting, now in Paris, bearing a rather ambiguous  title.
Merwin writes:

> Departure's Girlfriend
This is meant as the _title_ of the poem. He is implicating, "Is the title  
of a poem _part_ of a poem?". Mutatis mutandis: Is the title of a song part 
of a  song. It isn't. When I sing, "The last chord" I always start with 
"seated one  day at the organ". It's different with "Tiptoe thru the tulips" -- 
Merwin goes on. Note that it's "Departure's Girlfriend", with departure in  
the genitive. The girl of departure. This should be distinguished from the  
"Goodbye Girl", which is not necessary a _friend_. 
>  Loneliness leapt in the mirrors, but all  week
> I kept them covered like cages. 
The poet's voice: "I" -- "I kept". 
> Then I thought
> Of a better thing.
> And though it was  late night in the city
--- which remains unnamed. Cities keep coming in in verse and songs, and  
some of their references are ambiguous. My favourite has to be "Barbara 
Allen":  "In Scarlet City, were I was born, there was a wicked girl dwelling". 
Poet  students interpret this, alla Grice, as a homophonic pun on "Reading"  
(pronounce, "redding", i.e. scarleted).

> There I was on my way
> To my boat, 
--- the city is by the sea, or a lake.
> feeling good to be going, hugging
> This big wreath with the  words like real
> Silver: Bon Voyage.
The implicature here is that the reticent English speaker is guarded to  
say, "Good voyage" in the vernacular and turns to a foreign language, French 
in  this case. Cfr. "Aloha". 

> The night
> Was mine but everyone's, like a birthday.
Cfr. "The night was mine AND everyone". Cfr. Grice on implicatures of 'but' 
 ("She was poor but she was honest/and her parents were the same, till she 
met a  city fella and she lost her honest name").

> Its fur touched my face in passing. I was going
> Down to my  boat, my boat,
> To see if off, and glad at the thought.
> Some  leaves of the wreath were holding my hands
> And the rest waved good-bye  as I walked, as though
> They were still alive.
---- waved goodbye to be distinguished from bid farewell. Is a farewell a  
goodbye? Etymologically, there are value-oriented elements in both 
expressions:  "fare WELL", where 'well' implicates goodwill on the part of the 
utterer. The  'goodbye' is trickier, in that while we can agree what 'good' 
we're never  sure about the 'bye'. In fact, A. E. Manson suggests, and 
rightly, that  'goodbye' has nothing to do with 'good' but is a euphemism for 
'God be with  you'. Cfr. "Oh my!" implicating, "Oh my God".
The leaves waving goodbye can be interpreted literally, since leaves do  
wave. But the expression is semi-metaphorical in that while a leave can wave 
it  can only figuratively (where 'figure' does not mean 'literal figure') 
that the  leave has a goodwill to desire that the addressee perceiving the 
waving 'be such  that God will be with the addresee'. Or something. 
Merwin continues:

> And all went well till I came to the wharf, and no one.
I suspect sea rather than lake. But there ARE lake wharfs.

> I say no one, but I mean
> There was this young man,  maybe
> Out of the merchant marine,
> In some uniform, and I knew  who he was; 
Note that "And no one" implicates "was there". 
Merwin makes a Griceian distinction between meaning and saying: "I say  
'potAYto', but I mean 'potato'. In this case, "I say, "no one" but I mean 
'maybe  a merchant marine'.

The 'knew who he was' possibly implicates: "HIS NAME". In general, when  
people do use 'know' as applied to people (unless you are Adam who 'knew' Eve) 
 you mean his name or profession. Since in this case, he was 'maybe one of 
the  merchant marines," the implicature is "I knew who he was: to wit: a 
merchant  marine, in a merchant marine uniform" -- rather than, say, Robert 
> just the same
> When he said to me where do you think you're  going,
Note the absence of quotation marks. A pedant teacher would have that as,  
"when he asked to me, "Where do you think you are going?"

> I was happy to tell him.
> But he said to me, it isn't your  boat,
> You don't have one. 
The implicatures here involve 'negation' (or "~" in symbol). In logical  
terms: "Since you don't have a boat, this can't be your boat". Note that the  
second clause, "You don't have a boat" cancels the implicature, "This isn't 
your  boat, THAT is". 
Merwin goes on:
> I said, it's mine, I can prove it:
Here the 'it' stands for 'a Popperian argument of sorts' -- NOT the boat.  
For one cannot prove a boat.
Merwin goes on:

> Look at this wreath I'm carrying to it,
> Bon Voyage. He  said, this is the stone wharf, lady,
> You don't own anything here.
---- At this point, 'lady' becomes the 'departure's girlfriend', and the  
poet's "I" becomes female. It's not Merwin's voice, but the 'lady''s voice. 
Note  that as merchant marines use 'lady' they possibly don't mean it. Cfr. 
"Lady  Thatcher". "I'm not a lady, I'm a woman". A few (and males too) take 
offence at  being referred to as 'ladies' (by merchant marines or other).
Merwin, now speaking as the 'departure's girlfriend', goes on:

> And as I
> Was turning away, the injustice of it
> Lit  up the buildings, and there I was
> In the other and hated city
>  Where I was born, 
---- This relates to Barbara Allen, "In Scarlet city were I was BORN". Note 
 that birth place specification can be vague. I have met people who say, "I 
was  born in..." when, upon specifying the hospital or house where the act 
of being  born (if that's an act) took place, it turns out that they were 
not really  _born_ in the mentioned city, but in, perhaps, the outskirts. 
It is said that the departure's girlfriend hates the city where she was  
> where nothing is moored, where
> The lights crawl over the stone  like flies, spelling now,
> Now, and the same fat chances roll
>  Their many eyes; and I step once more
> Through a hoop of tears and walk  on, holding this
> Buoy of flowers in front of my beauty,
> Wishing  myself the good voyage.
Note that as 'Departure's Girlfriend' wishes _herself_ the thing she  
reverts to the vernacular: 'good' rather than 'bon' voyage, which is what the  
leaves on the wreath read in silver-like letters.
Or something.
It may relate to 'The French Lieutenant's Daughter'. And since I follow the 
 intentionalist fallacy, and avoid internal-only criticism, I may want to 
know  more about the circumstances in which Merwin wrote this. 
Note that the 'wreath' has become a 'buoy' and that the Departure's  
Girlfriend's beauty is in the eyes of the Departure's girlfriend.
A boat can be a ship. And ships are often referred to, by sailors, alla:  
"She's a beauty". But interestingly, 'ship' was neuter in Old English. "Boat" 
on  the other hand is Anglo-Norman. Or something.
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