W. S. Merwin – Twelve Poems

W. S. MERWIN, a formidable American poet who for more than 60 years labored under a formidable poetic yoke: the imperative of using language — an inescapably concrete presence on the printed page — to conjure absence, silence and nothingness- received the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for The Shadow of Sirius. His many works of poetry and translation included Present Company (2007), Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005), and a version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2004). He lived in Hawaii and died in March 2019 at the age of 91.

We offer you here 12 poems of W.S. Merwin as compiled by The Atlantic Magazine

Vehicles (1994)

This is a place on the way after the distances
          can no longer be kept straight here in this dark corner
of the barn a mound of wheels has convened along
          raveling courses to stop in a single moment
and lie down as still as the chariots of the Pharaohs
          some in pairs that rolled as one over the same roads
to the end and never touched each other until they
          arrived here some that broke by themselves and were left
until they could be repaired some that went only
          to occasions before my time and some that have spun
across other countries through uncounted summers
          now they go all the way back together the tall
cobweb-hung models of galaxies in their rings
          of rust leaning against the stone hail from Rene’s
manure cart the year he wanted to store them here
          because there was nobody left who could make them like that
in case he should need them and there are the carriage wheels
          that Merot said would be worth a lot some day
and the rim of the spare from bald Bleret’s green Samson
          that rose like Borobudur out of the high grass
behind the old house by the river where he stuffed
          mattresses in the morning sunlight and the hens
scavenged around his shoes in the days when the black
          top-hat sedan still towered outside Sandeau’s cow barn
with velvet upholstery and sconces for flowers and room
          for two calves instead of the back seat when their time came

The Speed of Light (1994)

So gradual in those summers was the going
          of the age it seemed that the long days setting out
when the stars faded over the mountains were not
          leaving us even as the birds woke in full song and the dew
glittered in the webs it appeared then that the clear morning
          opening into the sky was something of ours
to have and keep and that the brightness we could not touch
          and the air we could not hold had come to be there all the time
for us and would never be gone and that the axle
          we did not hear was not turning when the ancient car
coughed in the roofer’s barn and rolled out echoing
          first thing into the lane and the only tractor
in the village rumbled and went into its rusty
          mutterings before heading out of its lean-to
into the cow pats and the shadow of the lime tree
          we did not see that the swallows flashing and the sparks
of their cries were fast in the spokes of the hollow
          wheel that was turning and turning us taking us
all away as one with the tires of the baker’s van
          where the wheels of bread were stacked like days in calendars
coming and going all at once we did not hear
          the rim of the hour in whatever we were saying
or touching all day we thought it was there and would stay
          it was only as the afternoon lengthened on its
dial and the shadows reached out farther and farther
          from everything that we began to listen for what
might be escaping us and we heard high voices ringing
          the village at sundown calling their animals home
and then the bats after dark and the silence on its road

End of a Day (1994)

In the long evening of April through the cool light
          Bayle’s two sheep dogs sail down the lane like magpies
for the flock a moment before he appears near the oaks
          a stub of a man rolling as he approaches
smiling and smiling and his dogs are afraid of him
          we stand among the radiant stones looking out over
green lucent wheat and earth combed red under bare walnut limbs
          bees hanging late in cowslips and lingering bird cherry
stumps and brush that were the grove of hazel trees
          where the land turns above the draped slopes and the valley
filled with its one sunbeam and we exchange a few questions
          as though nothing were different but he has bulldozed the upland
pastures and the shepherds’ huts into piles of rubble
          and has his sheep fenced in everyone’s meadows now
the smell of box and damp leaves drifts from the woods where a blackbird
          is warning of nightfall Bayle has plans to demolish
the ancient walls of the lane and level it wide
          so that trucks can go all the way down to where the lambs
with perhaps two weeks to live are waiting for him at the wire
          he hurries toward them while the sun sinks and the hour
turns chill as iron and in the oaks the first nightingales
          of the year kindle their unapproachable voices

Green Fields (1995)

By this part of the century few are left who believe
          in the animals for they are not there in the carved parts
of them served on plates and the pleas from the slatted trucks
          are sounds of shadows that possess no future
there is still game for the pleasure of killing
          and there are pets for the children but the lives that followed
courses of their own other than ours and older
          have been migrating before us some are already
far on the way and yet Peter with his gaunt cheeks
          and point of white beard the face of an aged Lawrence
Peter who had lived on from another time and country
          and who had seen so many things set out and vanish
still believed in heaven and said he had never once
          doubted it since his childhood on the farm in the days
of the horses he had not doubted it in the worst
          times of the Great War and afterward and he had come
to what he took to be a kind of earthly
          model of it as he wandered south in his sixties
by that time speaking the language well enough
          for them to make him out he took the smallest roads
into a world he thought was a thing of the past
          with wildflowers he scarcely remembered and neighbors
working together scything the morning meadows
          turning the hay before the noon meal bringing it in
by milking time husbandry and abundance
          all the virtues he admired and their reward bounteous
in the eyes of a foreigner and there he remained
          for the rest of his days seeing what he wanted to see
until the winter when he could no longer fork
          the earth in his garden and then he gave away
his house land everything and committed himself
          to a home to die in an old chateau where he lingered
for some time surrounded by those who had lost
          the use of body or mind and as he lay there he told me
that the wall by his bed opened almost every day
          and he saw what was really there and it was eternal life
as he recognized at once when he saw the gardens
          he had made and the green fields where he had been
a child and his mother was standing there then the wall would close
          and around him again were the last days of the world

Another River (1997)

The friends have gone home far up the valley
of that river into whose estuary
the man from England sailed in his own age
in time to catch sight of the late forests
furring in black the remotest edges
of the majestic water always it
appeared to me that he arrived just as
an evening was beginning and toward the end
of summer when the converging surface
lay as a single vast mirror gazing
upward into the pearl light that was
already stained with the first saffron
of sunset on which the high wavering trails
of migrant birds flowed southward as though there were
no end to them the wind had dropped and the tide
and the current for a moment seemed to hang
still in balance and the creaking and knocking
of wood stopped all at once and the known voices
died away and the smells and rocking
and starvation of the voyage had become
a sleep behind them as they lay becalmed
on the reflection of their Half Moon
while the sky blazed and then the tide lifted them
up the dark passage they had no name for

Echoing Light (1997)

When I was beginning to read I imagined
that bridges had something to do with birds
and with what seemed to be cages but I knew
that they were not cages it must have been autumn
with the dusty light flashing from the streetcar wires
and those orange places on fire in the pictures
and now indeed it is autumn the clear
days not far from the sea with a small wind nosing
over dry grass that yesterday was green
the empty corn standing trembling and a down
of ghost flowers veiling the ignored fields
and everywhere the colors I cannot take
my eyes from all of them red even the wide streams
red it is the season of migrants
flying at night feeling the turning earth
beneath them and I woke in the city hearing
the call notes of the plover then again and
again before I slept and here far downriver
flocking together echoing close to the shore
the longest bridges have opened their slender wings

Remembering (1997)

There are threads of old sound heard over and over
phrases of Shakespeare or Mozart the slender
wands of the auroras playing out from them
into dark time the passing of a few
migrants high in the night far from the ancient flocks
far from the rest of the words far from the instruments

Shore Birds (1998)

While I think of them they are growing rare
after the distances they have followed
all the way to the end for the first time
tracing a memory they did not have
until they set out to remember it
at an hour when all at once it was late
and newly silent and the white had turned
white around them then they rose in their choir
on a single note each of them alone
between the pull of the moon and the hummed
undertone of the earth below them
the glass curtains kept falling around them
as they flew in search of their place before
they were anywhere and storms winnowed them
they flew among the places with towers
and passed the tower lights where some vanished
with their long legs for wading in shadow
others were caught and stayed in the countries
of the nets and in the lands of lime twigs
some fastened and after the countries of
guns at first light fewer of them than I
remember would be here to recognize
the light of late summer when they found it
playing with darkness along the wet sand

Before the Flood (1998)

Why did he promise me
that we would build ourselves
an ark all by ourselves
out in back of the house
on New York Avenue
in Union City New Jersey
to the singing of the streetcars
after the story
of Noah whom nobody
believed about the waters
that would rise over everything
when I told my father
I wanted us to build
an ark of our own there
in the back yard under
the kitchen could we do that
he told me that we could
I want to I said and will we
he promised me that we would
why did he promise that
I wanted us to start then
nobody will believe us
I said that we are building
an ark because the rains
are coming and that was true
nobody ever believed
we would build an ark there
nobody would believe
that the waters were coming

Unknown Bird (1999)

Out of the dry days
through the dusty leaves
far across the valley
those few notes never
heard here before

one fluted phrase
floating over its
wandering secret
all at once wells up
somewhere else

and is gone before it
goes on fallen into
its own echo leaving
a hollow through the air
that is dry as before

where is it from
hardly anyone
seems to have noticed it
so far but who now
would have been listening

it is not native here
that may be the one
thing we are sure of
it came from somewhere
else perhaps alone

so keeps on calling for
no one who is here
hoping to be heard
by another of its own
unlikely origin

trying once more the same few
notes that began the song
of an oriole last heard
years ago in another
existence there

it goes again tell
no one it is here
foreign as we are
who are filling the days
with a sound of our own

Any Time (1999)

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

Term (1999)

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

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