Poem of the Week, “Empty Water”

Empty Water

I miss the toad
who came all summer
to the limestone
water basin
under the Christmasberry tree
imported in 1912
from Brazil for decoration
then a weed on a mule track
on a losing
pineapple plantation
now an old tree in a line
of old trees
the toad came at night
first and sat in the water
all night and all day
then sometimes at night
left for an outing
but was back in the morning
under the branches among
the ferns the green sword leaf
of the lily
sitting in the water
all the dry months
gazing at the sky
through those eyes
fashioned of the most
precious of metals
come back
believer in shade
believer in silence and elegance
believer in ferns
believer in patience
believer in the rain

—W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees, 1988


I want to tell what the forests
were like

I will have to speak
in a forgotten language

—W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees, 1988


While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests
while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes echoing through
the forests
while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they thought of
their gardens dying far away on the mountain
while the sound of the words clawed at him they thought of their wives
while the tip of his pen travelled the iron they had coveted was hateful to them
while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers
while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees
while he felt his heart they were hungry and their faith was sick
while the song broke over him they were in a secret place and they were cutting
it forever
while he coughed they carried the trunks to the hole in the forest the size of a
forest ship
while he groaned on the voyage to Italy they fell on the trails and were broken
when he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons
when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down
and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language

—W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees, 1988


Stories come to us like new senses

a wave and an ash tree were sisters
they had been separated since they were children
but they went on believing in each other
though each was sure that the other must be lost
they cherished traits of themselves they held in common
the sheen of the wave fluttered in remembrance
of the undersides of the leaves of the ash tree
in summer air and the limbs of the ash tree
recalled the wave as the breeze lifted it
and they wrote to each other every day
without knowing where to send the letters
some of which have come to light only now
revealing in their old but familiar language
a view of the world we could not have guessed at

but that we always wanted to believe

—W.S. Merwin, from The Shadow of Sirius, 2009

Rain at Night

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

—W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees, 1988


Sitting over words
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing
not far
like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark
the echo of everything that has ever
been spoken
still spinning its one syllable
between the earth and silence

—W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees, 1988

Dream of Koa Returning

Sitting on the steps of that cabin
that I had always known
with its porch and gray-painted floorboards
I looked out to the river
flowing beyond the big trees
and all at once you
were just behind me
lying watching me
as you did years ago
and not stirring at all
when I reached back slowly
hoping to touch
your long amber fur
and there we stayed without moving
listening to the river
and I wondered whether
it might be a dream
whether you might be a dream
whether we both were a dream
in which neither of us moved

—W.S. Merwin, from The Shadow of Sirius, 2009

Waking to the Rain

The night of my birthday
I woke from a dream
of harmony
suddenly hearing
an old man not my father
I said but it was
my father gasping
my name as he fell
on the stone steps outside
just under the window
in the rain
I do not know
how many times
he may have called
before I woke
I was lying
in my parents’ room
in the empty house
both of them dead
that year
and the rain was falling
all around me
the only sound

—W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees, 1988

Anniversary on the Island

The long waves glide in through the afternoon
while we watch from the island
from the cool shadow under the trees where the long ridge
a fold in the skirt of the mountain
runs down to the end of the headland

day after day we wake to the island
the light rises through the drops on leaves
and we remember like birds where we are
night after night we  touch the dark island
that once we set out for

and lie still at last with the island in our arms
hearing the leaves and the breathing shore
there are no years any more
only the one mountain
and on all sides the sea that brought us

—W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees, 1988


The wet bamboo clacking in the night rain
crying in the darkness whimpering softly
as the hollow columns touch and slide
along each other swaying with the empty
air these are sounds from before there were voices
gestures older than grief from before there was
pain as we know it the impossibly tall
stems are reaching out groping and waving
before longing as we think of it or loss
as we are acquainted with it or feelings
able to recognize the syllables
that might be their own calling out to them
like names in the dark telling them nothing
about loss or about longing nothing
ever about all that has yet to answer

—W.S. Merwin, from The River Sound, 1999


Unable to endure my world and calling the failure God, I will destroy yours.

—W.S. Merwin, from The Moving Target, 1963

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

-W.S. Merwin, from The Lice

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