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The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative by W. S.…

The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative

by W. S. Merwin

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THE FOLDING CLIFFS is an epic story of Hawaii composed in ten-to-fourteen syllable, mostly punctuation-free, enjamned lines. The central narrative seems as unlikely as it is compelling. It is the late 19th century on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Foreigners are conspiring to seize the island chain from its lawful native rulers in a bloodless coup d'état. One of the colonizer's tools for effecting this change is the law governing the quarantining of lepers. Even today many still think of leprosy as a highly contagious and incurable disease, which is not true. Neither is forced quarantine and segregation of its victims necessary. In late 19th century Hawaii the disease falls conveniently into the colonizer's lily-white hands. Widely viewed as God's vengeance on the overly sensual native manner of living, the foreigners are able to use it as a way of attacking native Hawaiian social integrity. Families, communities are easily split with a simple diagnosis of leprosy. One family, however, that of Ko'olau and Pi'ilani and their son Kaliemanu, decide they will not allow themselves to be hauled off to quarantine. Instead, they go to Kalalau, a valley in northwest Kauai where others who have been diagnosed have decided to gather. Otherwise, it's off to the island of Molok'ai and the leprosarium there run by Father Damien where contact with their families is almost impossible. After Ko'olau and his family join the others, they are pursued by an ambitious fellow by the name of Stoltz, who is determined to clear the valley of them. Ko'olau--justifiably--shoots him dead. The white man, now in charge of the so-called Provisional Government in Honolulu, calls out the army. The book's set piece is the family's retreat to Kalalau, its life there, and the subsequent military incursion. Cover to cover the book is gripping. It reads like a novel, quickly, without a lot of poetic claptrap in the way to gum up the action. The leper side of the story, in a brief overview like this, might seem off-putting. Please, don't allow yourself to be. Merwin's handling of the story is deft and compassionate. This is one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read. Emotionally, it is almost intolerably moving, to use Anthony Burgess' well-worn phrase. But not in the sense that the reader squirms. It's not like a thriller in that respect, though there is suspense. It is rather the deep emotional connection of many of the characters. There are sections that remind me of Faulkner. But not in a derivative way. Rather, Merwin is touching on the same core rhythms of the language and making it sing, as Faulkner did. The book is a marvel. How did Merwin do it? We can get a sense of many of the creative decisions he made along the way, but the final product is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a wonder of true art. Read it. It will keep you up at night, turning the pages. ( )
  Brasidas | Feb 9, 2010 |
a long form historical epic. ( )
  taralindsey | Nov 12, 2008 |
I am willing to accept that this is verse, tentatively. If ever I cross paths with Mr. Merwin, I will ask him why we can claim it to be verse. That said, though I couldn't identify a meter, there is a chant like quality and an intensity that begs special recognition.

That chant like quality and intensity serve the story, which is a story of family despair, and possibly of national despair. It is also a story of personal triumph. Reading the last chapter, I experienced chills, and a few minutes after I finished the book I cried a little, for the first time in about two decades.

The volume captures the feel of Hawaii, and Mr. Merwin claims not to have falsified anything -- I believe he is true.

I encourage anyone literate to engage this tale. It is at least close to necessary. ( )
3 vote Mr.Durick | Jan 31, 2008 |
Showing 3 of 3
It is this situation that makes a book like W.S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs such a remarkable and apparently impossible achievement. There is nothing stylized or heraldic about it. It does not claim to be a novel in verse; it does not involuntarily invoke the tradition of the epic, the verse chronicle in many parts, or the mock-heroic. It describes itself as neither more nor less than “a narrative of 19th-century Hawaii,” and that is what it is. Its breadth of implication and its spirit of power transform the modesty of this subtitle. It never tells the reader it is a poem, but the majesty as well as the natural drama of the poetic inhabit its pages like invisible presences, even as the reader becomes as absorbed in the story, its setting and its detail, as if he were reading a thriller.
added by EvelynWaugh | editNew York Review of Books, John Bayley (pay site) (Feb 18, 1999)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375701516, Paperback)

From a major American poet -- a thrilling story, in verse, of nineteenth-century Hawaii. The story of an attempt by the government to seize and constrain possible victims of leprosy and the determination of one small family not to be taken. A tale of the perils and glories of their flight into the wilds of the island of Kauai, pursued by a gunboat full of soldiers.

A brilliant capturing -- inspired by the poet's respect for the people of these islands -- of their life, their history, the gods and goddesses of their mythic past. A somber revelation of the wrecking of their culture through the exploitative incursions of Europeans and Americans. An epic narrative that enthralls with the grandeur of its language and of its vision.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:02 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Pursued by colonial troops, a family in 19th century Hawaii flees into the interior to avoid internment as lepers. Written in verse, the novel looks at the destruction of an indigenous culture.

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