the wings of daylight :: w. s. merwin

Brightness appears showing us everything
it reveals the splendors it calls everything
but shows it to each of us alone
and only once and only to look at
not to touch or hold in our shadows
what we see is never what we touch
what we take turns out to be something else
what we see that one time departs untouched
while other shadows gather around us
the world’s shadows mingle with our own
we had forgotten them but they know us
they remember us as we always were
they were at home here before the first came
everything will leave us except the shadows
but the shadows carry the whole story
at first daybreak they open their long wings

the laughing child :: w. s. merwin

When she looked down from the kitchen window
into the back yard and the brown wicker
baby carriage in which she had tucked me
three months old to lie out in the fresh air
of my first January the carriage
was shaking she said and went on shaking
and she saw I was lying there laughing
she told me about it later it was
something that reassured her in a life
in which she had lost everyone she loved
before I was born and she had just begun
to believe that she might be able to
keep me as I lay there in the winter
laughing it was what she was thinking of
later when she told me that I had been
a happy child and she must have kept that
through the gray cloud of all her days and now
out of the horn of dreams of my own life
I wake again into the laughing child

accompaniment :: w. s. merwin

Day alone first of December with rain
falling lightly again in the garden
and the dogs sleeping on the dark floorboards
day between journeys unpacking from one

then packing for another and reading
poems as I go words from a time past
light migrants coming from so long ago
through the sound of this quiet rain falling

the river of bees :: w. s. merwin

In a dream I returned to the river of bees
Five orange trees by the bridge and
Beside two mills my house
Into whose courtyard a blindman followed
The goats and stood singing
Of what was older

Soon it will be fifteen years

He was old he will have fallen into his eyes

I took my eyes
A long way to the calendars
Room after room asking how shall I live

One of the ends is made of streets
One man processions carry through it
Empty bottles their
Image of hope
It was offered to me by name

Once once and once
In the same city I was born
Asking what shall I say

He will have fallen into his mouth
Men think they are better than grass

I return to his voice rising like a forkful of hay

He was old he is not real nothing is real
Nor the noise of death drawing water

We are the echo of the future

On the door it says what to do to survive
But we were not born to survive
Only to live

native trees :: w. s. merwin

Neither my father nor my mother knew
the names of the trees
where I was born
what is that
I asked and my
father and mother did not
hear they did not look where I pointed
surfaces of furniture held
the attention of their fingers
and across the room they could watch
walls they had forgotten
where there were no questions
no voices and no shade

Were there trees
where they were children
where I had not been
I asked
were there trees in those places
where my father and my mother were born
and in that time did
my father and my mother see them
and when they said yes it meant
they did not remember
What were they I asked what were they
but both my father and my mother
said they never knew

a summer night :: w. s. merwin

Years later the cloud brightens in the east
the moon rises out of the long evening
just past midsummer of a cold year
the smell of roses waves through the stone room
open to the north and its sleeping valley
gnarled limbs of walnut trees and brows of extinct
barns blacken against the rising silver of night
so long I have known this that it seems to me
to be mine it has gone for so long
that I think I have carried it with me
without knowing it was there in the daytime
through talk and in the light of eyes and travelling
in windows it has been there the whole way
on the other side like a face known from
another time from before and afterwards
constantly rising and about to appear

any time :: w.s. merwin

How long ago the day is
when at last I look at it
with the time it has taken
to be there still in it
now in the transparent light
with the flight in the voices
the beginning in the leaves
everything I remember
and before it before me
present at the speed of light
in the distance that I am
who keep reaching out to it
seeing all the time faster
where it has never stirred from
before there is anything
the darkness thinking the light

after the alphabets :: w. s. merwin

I am trying to decipher the language of insects
they are the tongues of the future
their vocabularies describe buildings as food
they can instruct of dark water and the veins of trees
they can convey what they do not know
and what is known at a distance
and what nobody knows
they have terms for making music with the legs
they can recount changing in a sleep like death
they can sing with wings
the speakers are their own meaning in a grammar without horizons
they are wholly articulate
they are never important they are everything

to the ancient order of legs :: w. s. merwin

Barefoot all the way
from the embryo
and the drifting sands
where the prints washed away
untold lives ago
you were born to be
one of a number
upholding a larger
company on one
side or the other
always in the infantry
and singular though
at first you were many
balancing alternately
unable to see
where you were going
climbing along yourself
by the numbers in
a pace of your own
and stepping into
new talents positions
memberships bringing
the count down to
eight and four and two
coming in turn to be
less dispensable
half solitary painful
surviving ancestor
heir to the distances
sustain the limbs of friends
you that have borne the world
this far in us all walk on
light on your feet as
the days walk through the days

yesterday :: w.s. merwin

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
have to
just because I’m here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don’t want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do


for a coming extinction :: w. s. merwin

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day

The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
And ours

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Our sacrifices

Join your word to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important

how it happens :: w.s. merwin

The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing
I was looking up and I said
I thought you
were supposed to be doing that
the sky said Many
are clinging to that
I am giving you a chance
I was looking up and I said
I am the only chance I have
then the sky did not answer
and here we are
with our names for the days
the vast days that do not listen to us

the stranger :: w. s. merwin

After a Guarani legend recorded by Ernesto Morales

One day in the forest there was somebody
who had never been there before
it was somebody like the monkeys but taller
and without a tail and without so much hair
standing up and walking on only two feet
and as he went he heard a voice calling Save me

as the stranger looked he could see a snake
a very big snake with a circle of fire
that was dancing all around it
and the snake was trying to get out
but every way it turned the fire was there

so the stranger bent the trunk of a young tree
and climbed out over the fire until he
could hold a branch down to the snake
and the snake wrapped himself around the branch
and the stranger pulled the snake up out of the fire

and as soon as the snake saw that he was free
he twined himself around the stranger
and started to crush the life out of him
but the stranger shouted No No
I am the one who has just saved your life
and you pay me back by trying to kill me

but the snake said I am keeping the law
it is the law that whoever does good
receives evil in return
and he drew his coils tight around the stranger
but the stranger kept on saying No No
I do not believe that is the law

so the snake said I will show you
I will show you three times and you will see
and he kept his coils tight around the stranger’s neck
and all around his arms and body
but he let go of the stranger’s legs
Now walk he said to the stranger Keep going

so they started out that way and they came
to a river and the river said to them
I do good to everyone and look what they
do to me I save them from dying of thirst
and all they do is stir up the mud
and fill my water with dead things

the snake said One

the stranger said Let us go on and they did
and they came to a carandá-i palm
there were wounds running with sap on its trunk
and the palm tree was moaning I do good
to everyone and look what they do to me
I give them my fruit and my shade and they cut me
and drink from my body until I die

the snake said Two

the stranger said Let us go on and they did
and came to a place where they heard whimpering
and saw a dog with his paw in a basket
and the dog said I did a good thing
and this is what came of it
I found a jaguar who had been hurt
and I took care of him and he got better

and as soon as he had his strength again
he sprang at me wanting to eat me up
I managed to get away but he tore my paw
I hid in a cave until he was gone
and here in this basket I have
a calabash full of milk for my wound
but now I have pushed it too far down to reach

will you help me he said to the snake
and the snake liked milk better than anything
so he slid off the stranger and into the basket
and when he was inside the dog snapped it shut
and swung it against a tree with all his might
again and again until the snake was dead

and after the snake was dead in there
the dog said to the stranger Friend
I have saved your life
and the stranger took the dog home with him
and treated him the way the stranger would treat a dog

to luck :: w. s. merwin

In the cards and at the bend in the road
we never saw you
in the womb and in the crossfire
in the numbers
whatever you had your hand in
which was everything
we were told never to put
our faith in you
to bow to you humbly after all
because in the end there was nothing
else we could do
but not to believe in you

still we might coax you with pebbles
kept warm in the hand
or coins or the relics
of vanished animals
observances rituals
not binding upon you
who make no promises
we might do such things only
not to neglect you
and risk your disfavor
oh you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
as often as we can
without understanding

bread :: w.s. merwin

for Wendell Berry

Each face in the street is a slice of bread
wandering on

somewhere in the light the true hunger
appears to be passing them by
they clutch

have they forgotten the pale caves
they dreamed of hiding in
their own caves
full of the waiting of their footprints
hung with the hollow marks of their groping
full of their sleep and their hiding

have they forgotten the ragged tunnels
they dreamed of following in out of the light
to hear step after step

the heart of bread
to be sustained by its dark breath
and emerge

to find themselves alone
before a wheat field
raising its radiance to the moon

forgotten fountain :: w. s. merwin

Water dripping year after year
from the green mossed crevice in the east cliff
through my absences and through winter
through the shadows after midday
as they deepened to nightfall
the clear drops arriving through the stone
with no color of their own as they
appear one by one on the threshold
of the world in its full color
and each one pauses for a moment
before starting on its way down
to itself as it has been doing
ever since the cliff rose
from the seafloor and then the bees found it
the badgers the foxes the birds
until the day came with voices
from the village to clear the slope
singing as the tools rose and fell
turning the stiff yellow soil to plant
vineyards and peaches and I stood
by the clear source once listening
to their last singing together
with the mattocks keeping time and I
thought of Édouard and the village
as it had been when he was young
and his name was called with the others
to the colors as they put it
in the language of elsewhere and of
what it felt like in those last days
to be leaving for Verdun with no words
in a moment with no color of its own

thanks :: w. s. merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

near field :: w. s. merwin

This is not something new or kept secret
the tilled ground unsown in late spring
the dead are not separate from the living
each has one foot in the unknown
and cannot speak for the other
the field tells none of its turned story
it lies under its low cloud like a waiting river
the dead made this out of their hunger
out of what they had been told
out of the pains and shadows
and bowels of animals
out of turning and
coming back singing
about another time

a night fragrance :: w. s. merwin

Now I am old enough to remember
people speaking of immortality
as though it were something known to exist
a tangible substance that might be acquired
to be used perhaps in the kitchen
every day in whatever was made there
forever after and they applied the word
to literature and the names of things
names of persons and the naming of other
things for them and no doubt they repeated
that word with some element of belief
when they named a genus of somewhat more than
a hundred species of tropical trees and shrubs
some with flowers most fragrant at night
for James Theodore Tabernaemontanus
of Heidelberg physician and botanist
highly regarded in his day over
four centuries ago immortality
might be like that with the scattered species
continuing their various evolutions
with the flowers opening by day or night
with no knowledge of bearing a name
of anyone and their fragrance if it
reminds at all not reminding of him

the interrupted concert :: federico garcía lorca

translated by w. s. merwin

The frozen sleepy pause
of the half moon
has broken the harmony
of the deep night.

The ditches, shrouded in sedge,
protest in silence,
and the frogs, muezzins of shadow,
have fallen silent.

In the old village inn
the sad music has ceased,
and the most ancient of stars
has muted its ray.

The wind has come to rest
in dark mountain caves,
and a solitary poplar—Pythagoras
of the pure plain—
lifts its aged hand
to strike at the moon.

rain light :: w. s. merwin

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

song of the barren orange tree :: federico garcía lorca

translate by w. s. merwin

Cut my shadow from me.
Free me from the torment
of seeing myself without fruit.

Why was I born among mirrors?
The day walks in circles around me,
and the night copies me
in all its stars.

I want to live without seeing myself.
And I will dream that ants
and thistleburrs are my
leaves and my birds.

Cut my shadow from me.
Free me from the torment
of seeing myself without fruit.

to the new year :: w. s. merwin

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come wih our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

hearing :: w. s. merwin

Back when it took all day to come up
from the curving broad ponds on the plains
where the green-winged jaçanas ran on the lily pads

easing past tracks at the mouths of gorges
crossing villages silted in hollows
in the foothills
each with its lime-washed church by the baked square
of red earth and its
talkers eating fruit under trees

turning a corner and catching
sight at last of inky forests far above
steep as faces
with the clouds stroking them and the glimmering
airy valleys opening out of them

waterfalls still roared from the folds
of the mountain
white and thundering and spray drifted
around us swirling into the broad leaves
and the waiting boughs

once I took a tin cup and climbed
the sluiced rocks and mossy branches beside
one of the high falls
looking up step by step into
the green sky from which rain was falling
when I looked back from a ledge there were only
dripping leaves below me
and flowers

beside me the hissing
cataract plunged into the trees
holding on I moved closer
left foot on a rock in the water
right foot on a rock in deeper water
at the edge of the fall
then from under the weight of my right foot
came a voice like a small bell singing
over and over one clear treble

I could feel it move
I could feel it ring in my foot in my skin
in my ears in my hair
I could feel it in my tongue and in the hand
holding the cup
as long as I stood there it went on
without changing

when I moved the cup
still it went on
when I filled the cup
in the falling column
still it went on
when I drank it rang in my eyes
through the thunder curtain

when I filled the cup again
when I raised my foot
still it went on
and all the way down
from wet rock to wet rock
green branch to green branch
it came with me

until I stood
looking up and we drank
the light water
and when we went on we could
still hear the sound
as far as the next turn on the way over

rain at night :: w. s. merwin

This is what I have heard

at last the wind in December
lashing the old trees with rain
unseen rain racing along the tiles
under the moon
wind rising and falling
wind with many clouds
trees in the night wind

after an age of leaves and feathers
someone dead
thought of this mountain as money
and cut the trees
that were here in the wind
in the rain at night
it is hard to say it
but they cut the sacred ‘ohias then
the sacred koas then
the sandalwood and the halas
holding aloft their green fires
and somebody dead turned cattle loose
among the stumps until killing time

but the trees have risen one more time
and the night wind makes them sound
like the sea that is yet unknown
the black clouds race over the moon
the rain is falling on the last place

more on merwin

language :: w. s. merwin

Certain words now in our knowledge we will not use again, and we will never forget them. We need them. Like the back of the picture. Like our marrow, and the color in our veins. We shine the lantern of our sleep on them, to make sure, and there they are, trembling already for the day of witness. They will be buried with us, and rise with the rest.

a letter to su t’ung po :: w. s. merwin

Almost a thousand years later
I am asking the same questions
you did the ones you kept finding
yourself returning to as though
nothing had changed except the tone
of their echo growing deeper
and what you knew of the coming
of age before you had grown old
I do not know any more now
than you did then about what you
were asking as I sit at night
above the hushed valley thinking
of you on your river that one
bright sheet of moonlight in the dream
of the water birds and I hear
the silence after your questions
how old are the questions tonight

Courtesy of S.K.

to luck :: w. s. merwin

[poem for april 21, 2009]

In the cards and at the bend in the road
we never saw you
in the womb and in the crossfire
in the numbers
whatever you had your hand in
which was everything
we were told never to put
our faith in you
to bow to you humbly after all
because in the end there was nothing
else we could do
but not to believe in you

still we might coax you with pebbles
kept warm in the hand
or coins or the relics
of vanished animals
observances rituals
not binding upon you
who make no promises
we might do such things only
not to neglect you
and risk your disfavor
oh you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
as often as we can
without understanding

W.S. Merwin won his second Pulitzer Prize for poetry on April 20 for The Shadow Of Sirius. I selected this poem to celebrate the prize before I realized the irony of the selection.