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"The Gardens of Zuñi," is about John Wesley Powell (1832-1902), an American geologist and ethnologist who lost his right arm at the battle of Shiloh. Powell later led a number of expeditions into the American West, worked on a scheme to classify Indian languages, and argued for careful agriculture in the dry high plains and irrigation programs in arid portions of the West. At the core of Powell's mixture of pessimism and ambition Merwin sees an exemplary American fatefulness:

Acting for all of us, Powell pursues a vision that compels us despite its temporal and spatial distance. Only his right hand, severed in the nation's fratricidal war, can still reach for the invisible virgin land we cannot forget. Our own body, lost to us and insensible, touches in an irretrievable past the virgin country that cannot be possessed.