Yesterday -- 15 Poems of W. S. Merwin


By 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



By W. S. Merwin

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



By W. S. Merwin

My shoes are almost dead
And as I wait at the doors of ice
I hear the cry go up for him Caesar Caesar

But when I look out the window I see only the flatlands
And the slow vanishing of the windmills
The centuries draining the deep fields

Yet this is still my country
The thug on duty says What would you change
He looks at his watch he lifts
Emptiness out of the vases
And holds it up to examine
So it is evening
With the rain starting to fall forever

One by one he calls night out of the teeth
And at last I take up
My duty

Wheeling the president past banks of flowers
Past the feet of empty stairs
Hoping he's dead


After The Alphabets

By 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


Search Party

By W. S. Merwin

By now I know most of the faces
that will appear beside me as
long as there are still images
I know at last what I would choose
the next time if there ever was
a time again I know the days
that open in the dark like this
I do not know where Maoli is

I know the summer surfaces
of bodies and the tips of voices
like stars out of their distances
and where the music turns to noise
I know the bargains in the news
rules whole languages formulas
wisdom that I will never use
I do not know where Maoli is

I know whatever one may lose
somebody will be there who says
what it will be all right to miss
and what is verging on excess
I know the shadows of the house
routes that lead out to no traces
many of his empty places
I do not know where Maoli is

You that see now with your own eyes
all that there is as you suppose
though I could stare through broken glass
and show you where the morning goes
though I could follow to their close
the sparks of an exploding species
and see where the world ends in ice
I would not know where Maoli is


To Luck

By 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


Low Fields and Light

By W. S. Merwin

I think it is in Virginia, that place
That lies across the eye of my mind now
Like a gray blade set to the moon's roundness,
Like a plain of glass touching all there is.

The flat fields run out to the sea there.
There is no sand, no line. It is autumn.
The bare fields, dark between fences, run
Out to the idle gleam of the flat water.

And the fences go on out, sinking slowly,
With a cow-bird half-way, on a stunted post, watching
How the light slides through them easy as weeds
Or wind, slides over them away out near the sky.

Because even a bird can remember
The fields that were there before the slow
Spread and wash of the edging line crawled
There and covered them, a little more each year.

My father never ploughed there, nor my mother
Waited, and never knowingly I stood there
Hearing the seepage slow as growth, nor knew
When the taste of salt took over the ground.

But you would think the fields were something
To me, so long I stare out, looking
For their shapes or shadows through the matted gleam, seeing
Neither what is nor what was, but the flat light rising.


When You Go Away

By W. S. Merwin

When you go away the wind clicks around to the north
The painters work all day but at sundown the paint falls
Showing the black walls
The clock goes back to striking the same hour
That has no place in the years

And at night wrapped in the bed of ashes
In one breath I wake
It is the time when the beards of the dead get their growth
I remember that I am falling
That I am the reason
And that my words are the garment of what I shall never be
Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy


The Broken

By W. S. Merwin

The spiders started out to go with the wind on its pilgrimage. At that time
They were honored among the invisibles -- more sensitive than glass, lighter
than water, purer than ice. Even the lighting spoke well of them, and it
seemed as though they could go anywhere. But as they were traveling
between cold and heat, cracks appeared in them, appeared in their limbs,
and they stopped, it seemed they had to stop, had to leave the company of
the wind for a while and stay in one place until they got better, moving
carefully, hiding, trusting to nothing. It was not long before they gave up
trying to become whole again, and instead undertook to mend the air.
Neither life nor death, they said, would slip through it any more.
After that they were numbered among the dust -- makers of ghosts.
The wind never missed them. There were still the clouds.


The River of Bees

By 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 blind man 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


My Friends

By W. S. Merwin

My friends without shields walk on the target

It is late the windows are breaking

My friends without shoes leave
What they love
Grief moves among them as a fire among
Its bells
My friends without clocks turn
On the dial they turn
They part

My friends with names like gloves set out
Bare handed as they have lived
And nobody knows them
It is they that lay the wreaths at the milestones it is their
Cups that are found at the wells
And are then chained up

My friends without feet sit by the wall
Nodding to the lame orchestra
Brotherhood it says on the decorations
My friend without eyes sits in the rain smiling
With a nest of salt in his hand

My friends without fathers or houses hear
Doors opening in the darkness
Whose halls announce

Behold the smoke has come home

My friends and I have in common
The present a wax bell in a wax belfry
This message telling of
Metals this
Hunger for the sake of hunger this owl in the heart
And these hands one
For asking one for applause

My friends with nothing leave it behind
In a box
My friends without keys go out from the jails it is night
They take the same road they miss
Each other they invent the same banner in the dark
They ask their way only of sentries too proud to breathe

At dawn the stars on their flag will vanish

The water will turn up their footprints and the day will rise
Like a monument to my
Friends the forgotten



By W. S. Merwin

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



By W. S. Merwin

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



By W. S. Merwin

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



By 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

A Brief Biography of the Poet

W. S. Merwin

In a career spanning five decades, W.S. Merwin, poet, translator, and environmental activist, has become one of the most widely read — and imitated — poets in America. The son of a Presbyterian minister, for whom he began writing hymns at the age of five, Merwin went to Europe as a young man and developed a love of languages that led to work as a literary translator. Over the years, his poetic voice has moved from the more formal and medieval—influenced somewhat by Robert Graves and the medieval poetry he was then translating — to a more distinctly American voice, following his two years in Boston where he got to know Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Adrienne Rich, and Donald Hall, all of whom were breaking out of the rhetoric of the 1950s. W.S. Merwin’s recent poetry is perhaps his most personal, arising from his deeply held beliefs. He is not only profoundly anti-imperialist, pacifist, and environmentalist, but also possessed by an intimate feeling for landscape and language and the ways in which land and language interflow. His latest poems are densely imagistic, dream-like, and full of praise for the natural world.

His first book, A Mask for Janus, was published in 1952 in the Yale Younger Poets series — chosen by W.H. Auden. His book of poems The Carrier of Ladders was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. His other books include The Drunk in the Furnace, The Moving Target, The Lice, Flower & Hand, The Compass Flower, Feathers from the Hill, Opening the Hand, The Rain in the Trees, Travels, The Vixen, The Lost Upland, Unframed Originals, and The Folding Cliffs. His recent works include the collections of poems The River Sound and The Pupil, as well as a new translation of Dante’s Purgatorio and his critically-lauded translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He has also published a book of prose entitled The Mays of Ventador, as part of the National Geographic Directions series. Recent reissues of his books include The First Four Books of Poems, and his translations of Jean Follain’s poems Transparence of the World, and Antonio Porchia’s Voices. In 2004, Shoemaker & Hoard released The Ends of the Earth, a gathering of essays expressing the breadth of W.S. Merwin’s fascination with the natural world and the explorers who have journeyed through it; this work is Merwin’s first new prose collection in more than a decade. William Merwin’s selected poems collection will be published in spring 2005 by Copper Canyon Press and is entitled Migration: Selected Poems 1951-2001. In the fall of 2005 his next book of new poems, Present Company, will also be published by Copper Canyon Press.

In 1999, W.S. Merwin was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress for a jointly-held position along with poets Rita Dove and Louise Glück. Included in his numerous awards are the Pulitzer Prize, the Tanning Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.


“The intentions of Merwin’s poetry are as broad as the biosphere yet as intimate as a whisper. He conveys in the sweet simplicity of grounded language a sense of the self where it belongs, floating between heaven, earth, and the underground.” — The Atlantic Monthly

Biogrpahy Source:


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