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William Stanley Merwin is an American poet. During the 1960s anti-war movement, Merwin's unique craft was thematically characterized by indirect, unpunctuated narration. In the 80s and 90s, Merwin's writing influence derived from his interest in Buddhist philosophy and deep ecology. Residing in Hawaii, he writes prolifically and is dedicated to ... Read more
William Stanley Merwin is an American poet. During the 1960s anti-war movement, Merwin's unique craft was thematically characterized by indirect, unpunctuated narration. In the 80s and 90s, Merwin's writing influence derived from his interest in Buddhist philosophy and deep ecology. Residing in Hawaii, he writes prolifically and is dedicated to ... Read more

At the beginning the oldest man sat on the corner
      of the garden wall by the road under a vast
walnut tree known to have been there always
      he came back in the afternoon to the cave of shade
in his broad black hat black jacket the striped gray
      wool trousers once worn only to church in winter
with a cane on either side resting against the stones
      he said when your legs have gone all you can do
is to sit this way and be useless I believe God
he said that is what I am doing I am thinking
      and things come to me now when nobody else knows them
he was visited by the dazzling of accidents the boy
      who caught his hand in the trip hammer and it came out
like cigarette paper the man with both crushed legs
      dangling and the woman murdered and his father the blacksmith
forging the iron fence to put around the place
      out on the bare slope where she had fallen I could never
be the smith my father was as he always told me
      I was good enough you know but I never had
the taste needed for scythe blades sickles kitchen knives
      we preferred to use carriage springs to make them from
in the forge outside the barn there and his were sought after
      oh when he had sold all he took to the fair the others
could begin I still have the die for stamping the name
      of the village in the blade at the end so you could be sure

Each is alone in the world
and on some the flowers
are of one sex only
they stand as though they had no secrets
and one by one the flowers emerge from the sheaths
into the air
where the other flowers are
it happens in silence except for the wind
often it happens in the dark
with the earth carrying the sound of water
most of the flowers themselves are small and green by day
and only a few are fragrant
but in time the fruits are beautiful
and later still their children
whether they are seen or not
many of the fruits are no larger than peas
but some are like brains of black marble
and some have more than one seed inside them
some are full of milk of one taste or another
and on a number of them there is a writing
from long before speech
and the children resemble each other
with the same family preference
for shade when young
in which colors deepen
and the same family liking for water
and warmth
and each family deals with the wind in its own way
and with the sun and the water
some of the leaves are crystals others are stars
some are bows some are bridges and some
are hands
in a world without hands
they know of each other first from themselves
some are fond of limestone and a few cling to high cliffs
they learn from the splashing water
and the falling water and the wind
much later the elephant
will learn from them
the muscles will learn from their shadows
ears will begin to hear in them
the sound of water
and heads will float like black nutshells
on an unmeasured ocean neither rising nor falling
to be held up at last and named for the sea

I am looking at trees
they may be one of the things I will miss
most from the earth
though many of the ones I have seen
already I cannot remember
and though I seldom embrace the ones I see
and have never been able to speak
with one
I listen to them tenderly
their names have never touched them
they have stood round my sleep
and when it was forbidden to climb them
they have carried me in their branches

I wake in the dark and remember
it is the morning when I must start
by myself on the journey
I lie listening to the black hour
before dawn and you are
still asleep beside me while
around us the trees full of night lean
hushed in their dream that bears
us up asleep and awake then I hear
drops falling one by one into
the sightless leaves and I
do not know when they began but
all at once there is no sound but rain
and the stream below us roaring
away into the rushing darkness

First forget what time it is
for an hour
do it regularly every day

then forget what day of the week it is
do this regularly for a week
then forget what country you are in
and practice doing it in company
for a week
then do them together
for a week
with as few breaks as possible

follow these by forgetting how to add
or to subtract
it makes no difference
you can change them around
after a week
both will help you later
to forget how to count

forget how to count
starting with your own age
starting with how to count backward
starting with even numbers
starting with Roman numerals
starting with fractions of Roman numerals
starting with the old calendar
going on to the old alphabet
going on to the alphabet
until everything is continuous again

go on to forgetting elements
starting with water
proceeding to earth
rising in fire

forget fire

When the forests have been destroyed their darkness remains
The ash the great walker follows the possessors
Forever
Nothing they will come to is real
Nor for long
Over the watercourses
Like ducks in the time of the ducks
The ghosts of the villages trail in the sky
Making a new twilight

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

The nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed
The dead go away like bruises
The blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlands
Pain the horizon
Remains
Overhead the seasons rock
They are paper bells
Calling to nothing living

The possessors move everywhere under Death their star
Like columns of smoke they advance into the shadows
Like thin flames with no light
They with no past
And fire their only future

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don't lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you're older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Moored to the same ring:
The hour, the darkness and I,
Our compasses hooded like falcons.

Now the memory of you comes aching in
With a wash of broken bits which never left port
In which once we planned voyages,
They come knocking like hearts asking:
What departures on this tide?

Breath of land, warm breath,
You tighten the cold around the navel,
Though all shores but the first have been foreign,
And the first was not home until left behind.

Our choice is ours but we have not made it,
Containing as it does, our destination
Circled with loss as with coral, and
A destination only until attained.

I have left you my hope to remember me by,
Though now there is little resemblance.
At this moment I could believe in no change,
The mast perpetually
Vacillating between the same constellations,
The night never withdrawing its dark virtue
>From the harbor shaped as a heart,
The sea pulsing as a heart,
The sky vaulted as a heart,
Where I know the light will shatter like a cry
Above a discovery:
"Emptiness.
Emptiness!  Look!"
Look.  This is the morning.

The star in my
Hand is falling

All the uniforms know what's no use

May I bow to Necessity not
To her hirelings

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

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

For seasons the walled meadow
south of the house built of its stone
grows up in shepherd's purse and thistles
the weeds share April as a secret
finches disguised as summer earth
click the drying seeds
mice run over rags of parchment in August
the hare keeps looking up remembering
a hidden joy fills the songs of the cicadas

two days' rain wakes the green in the pastures
crows agree and hawks shriek with naked voices
on all sides the dark oak woods leap up and shine
the long stony meadow is plowed at last and lies
all day bare
I consider life after life as treasures
oh it is the autumn light

that brings everything back in one hand
the light again of beginnings
the amber appearing as amber

Back when it took all day to come up
from the curving broad ponds on the plains
where the green-winged jacanas 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
syllable

I could feel it move
I could feel it ring in my foot in my skin
everywhere
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

In the evening
all the hours that weren't used
are emptied out
and the beggars are waiting to gather them up
to open them
to find the sun in each one
and teach it its beggar's name
and sing to it It is well
through the night

but each of us
has his own kingdom of pains
and has not yet found them all
and is sailing in search of them day and night
infallible undisputed unresting
filled with a dumb use
and its time
like a finger in a world without hands

The cold slope is standing in darkness
But the south of the trees is dry to the touch

The heavy limbs climb into the moonlight bearing feathers
I came to watch these
White plants older at night
The oldest
Come first to the ruins

And I hear magpies kept awake by the moon
The water flows through its
Own fingers without end

Tonight once more
I find a single prayer and it is not for men

Whenever I go there everything is changed

The stamps on the bandages the titles
Of the professors of water

The portrait of Glare the reasons for
The white mourning

In new rocks new insects are sitting
With the lights off
And once more I remember that the beginning

Is broken

No wonder the addresses are torn

To which I make my way eating the silence of animals
Offering snow to the darkness

Today belongs to few and tomorrow to no one

At the last minute a word is waiting
not heard that way before and not to be
repeated or ever be remembered
one that always had been a household word
used in speaking of the ordinary
everyday recurrences of living
not newly chosen or long considered
or a matter for comment afterward
who would ever have thought it was the one
saying itself from the beginning through
all its uses and circumstances to
utter at last that meaning of its own
for which it had long been the only word
though it seems now that any word would do

Oh pile of white shirts who is coming
to breathe in your shapes to carry your numbers
to appear
what hearts
are moving toward their garments here
their days
what troubles beating between arms

you look upward through
each other saying nothing has happened
and it has gone away and is sleeping
having told the same story
and we exist from within
eyes of the gods

you lie on your backs
and the wounds are not made
the blood has not heard
the boat has not turned to stone
and the dark wires to the bulb
are full of the voice of the unborn

From the kindness of my parents
I suppose it was that I held
that belief about suffering

imagining that if only
it could come to the attention
of any person with normal
feelings certainly anyone
literate who might have gone

to college they would comprehend
pain when it went on before them
and would do something about it
whenever they saw it happen
in the time of pain the present
they would try to stop the bleeding
for example with their own hands

but it escapes their attention
or there may be reasons for it
the victims under the blankets
the meat counters the maimed children
the animals the animals
staring from the end of the world

Here late into September
I can sit with the windows
of the stone room swung open
to the plum branches still green
above the two fields bare now
fresh-plowed under the walnuts
and watch the screen of ash trees
and the river below them

and listen to the hawk's cry
over the misted valley
beyond the shoulder of woods
and to lambs in a pasture
on the slope and a chaffinch
somewhere down in the sloe hedge
and silence from the village
behind me and from the years

and can hear the light rain come
the note of each drop playing
into the stone by the sill
I come slowly to hearing
then all at once too quickly
for surprise I hear something
and think I remember it
and will know it afterward

in a few days I will be
a year older one more year
a year farther and nearer
and with no sound from there on
mute as the native country
that was never there again
now I hear walnuts falling
in the country I came to

 
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