April 5: W.S. Merwin's The Folding Cliffs

One of the most beautiful works by our nation’s current poet laureate, W. S. Merwin, is The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative of 19th-century Hawaii, which evokes at every turn the uncontainable natural treasures of the poet’s island home. This dramatic and flowing book-length poem is based on the true story of a small band of natives on Kauai, who rebelled when the American government attempted to seize and segregate victims of leprosy, or what Hawaiins came to call “the separating sickness.” Merwin’s main characters are Pilani and Ko’olau, who, with their young son Kaleimanu, escaped to a secret illegal settlement where they hoped not to be taken. In this pair of poems from “Climbing,” the first section in the narrative, Pi’ilani, who has returned years later to find her husband’s grave and is remembering the key events from that time of struggle and flight, revisits the scene of their first experience descending a secret trail into the wild depths of Kauai. (Other characters are mentioned here, including Kua, an older friend who shows them the way.)


It was then that Kua had led Kaleimanu
         to the edge of the cliff where the light rose from the valley
and had showed him those two rocks that were the children
         of Naiwi and said to him—That is where the right trail
goes down—and he pointed to a thread like a goat track
         following the knife edge of one of the fins out in the clouds.
—That is the one that goes all the way—he said—The others
         end in nothing—And he hugged the child and told him
—But it is not good to look back—Then he went to help them
         load themselves with the few things they would be carrying
Pi’ilani stood looking down at the clear water
         gliding in front of her toward the fall its surface
not appearing to move she knelt in the wet moss
         to put her mouth to the cold pane and drink from it
with her eyes open at first and then she closed them
         and plunged her head and hands into the unseen current
for a long breath overhearing the voices in the water
         talking and then she sat up and ate a few pieces
of taro and drank again and lifted her head to stare
         at the face below her in the stream with the sky
under it and the eyes burning from their dark places
         she looked at it feeling that she knew nothing about it
and then stood up in the day and walked to where the right trail
         disappeared over the edge into Kalalau


At first there were small trees rooted in the crevices
         above the shallow groove descending the flank of the cliff
groping the folds and strung around the ribs of rock
         and there were the tops of bushes reaching up just below
the faint path that plainly was little used now and was blurred by
         rains and by the wind that struck at her the moment she stepped
down and it came at her again around every corner
         but there was nothing to hold onto bare rock on one side
and on the other beyond the tops of the bushes
         empty air and her eyes crept along the snaking path
that twisted downward ahead of her she set her feet to it
         like hands she did not look up to see nobody there
she pulled her mind back even from the first time when
         Ko’olau had been in front with Kaleimanu
slung over his shoulder and she kept hearing him
         saying Hold still Keep your eyes closed Keep your eyes closed
Lie still and every part of the path seemed longer
         than she remembered it then the bushes were behind and there was
only the drop of the cliff beside her and after
         Ko’olau there had been Kinoulu her mother’s
sister and the little girl Ida who had wanted
         to come to be with Kaleimanu and then Kepola
Pi ‘ilani’s mother who grasped at the corners
         to begin with but the wind took away the sound
most times and Pi’ilani pulled her mind back to the path
         in front of her and the wind rose as she followed it
out onto the top of the long fin like a crooked
         log with the drop disappearing on both sides into
shadows and out in the margins of her vision
         white flecks came and went small as dust in a sunbeam
tropic birds the size of gulls soaring in circles that far
         below her then almost at the end of the fin the path
tightened around a corner to double back downward
         so that the curtain of rock hung again beside her

Learn more about The Folding Cliffs by W.S. Merwin