When I first read through it, I couldn’t really understand this organized chaos that calls itself a poem. In fact, if its title wasn’t so explicit, I would have had a serious problem, because Merwin constantly uses “you” to refer to himself (and thoroughly annoy me). But I suppose it is understandable, since he is technically just writing a letter to himself.
Merwin’s first two lines are “Even when I forget you I go on looking for you.” Initially, these words made no sense to me: how can you look for something if you’ve forgotten about it? The only answer I had for myself was that it must have been remembered subconsciously, it must have been so important to Merwin that he could not completely forget it. Merwin believes that he would still be able to recognize himself in his memories, that he could remember himself the way he was a long time ago, and that he feels that it was “here a moment before and the air is still alive around where [he was].” This could mean that he could faintly remember his memory, but it was only the ghost of what it once was, fading and shrinking from his grasp.
The second half is when Merwin’s wording starts to get really confusing, though. “…I think then I can recognize you who are always the same who pretend to be time but you are not time and who speak in the words but you are not what they say you who are not lost when I do not find you.” This is the most fluid and graceful nonsense I have ever read. The lines sounded so perfect, but I coudn't wrap my brain around them. I had absolutely no idea how to work out such a convoluted statement all at once, so I took it one bit at a time.
“…I think I can recognize you who are always the same.”
Alright, so it’s something that doesn’t change. So does that mean his memory of himself doesn’t change, even when it fades?
“…who pretend to be time but you are not time.”
I took this as another reference to the lack of change in his memory with the passage of time.
“…who speak in the words but you are not what they say.”
The memory brings with it its words, but is different from what others remember it as.
“…you who are not lost when I do not find you.”
This seemed like another subconscious thing. Merwin cannot find himself in his memory exactly as he was in the past, but that does not mean that his old self is necessarily “lost.”
So then I tried, emphasis on tried, to put all this disorder and confusion together. I think it can be widely agreed upon that this poem is about memory. I personally believe that it was just a flitting thought that passed quickly through Merwin’s mind, but that he took the time to write down. He just seems to have been pondering his past and how he used to be. He remembers himself from before, his faint but still living memory. Something that will never change, no matter how many years go by or how much other peoples’ memories of him have changed. Something that will never be lost because it will always be a part of him.