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J A N U A R Y   2 0 0 1

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by W. S. Merwin

Also by W. S. Merwin:
Term (1999)
Unknown Bird (1999)
Any Time (1999)
Before the Flood (1998)
Shore Birds (1998)
Three Poems (1997)
Green Fields (1995)
Three French Poems (1994)

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Those summer nights when the planes came over
it seemed it was every night that summer
after the still days of perfect weather
I kept telling myself what it was not
that I was feeling as the afternoon
light deepened into the lingering
radiance that colored its leaving us
that was the light through which I would come home
again and again with the day over
picking my way from Whitehall through the new
rubble in the known streets the broken glass
signaling from among the crevices
fallen façades hoses among the mounds
figures in rubber coming and going
at the ruins or bowed around lowered
voices they all spoke in lowered voices
as I recall now so that all I heard
was the murmured current I can still hear
how many in that building I might hear
something like that how many in that one
then a quiet street the shop doors open
figures waiting in lines without a word
with the night ahead no it was not fear
I said to myself that was not the word
for whatever I heard as the door closed
as we talked of the day as we listened
as the fork touched the plate like a greeting
as the curtains were drawn as the cat stretched
as the news came on with word of losses
warning of the night as we picked up the ground sheet
and the folded blankets as I bent down
to remember the fur of Tim the cat
as the door closed and the stairs in the dark
let out that we were going as the night
swung wide before us once more in the park

Often after the all clear it would be
very cold suddenly a reminder
hardly more than that as I understood
of the great cold of the dark everywhere
around us deeper than I could believe
usually she was asleep by then
warm and breathing softly I could picture
how she must look the long curve of her lips
the high white forehead I wondered about
her eyelids and what calm they had come to
while the ice reached me much of the night was
in pieces by then behind me piled up
like rubble all fallen into the same
disorder the guns shouting from the hill
the drones and the broad roar of planes the screams
of sirens the pumping of bombs coming
closer the beams groping over the smoke
they all seemed to have ended somewhere without
saying this is the last one you seldom
hear the dog stop barking there were people
on all sides of us in the park asleep
awake the sky was clear I lay looking
up into it through the cold to the lights
the white moments that had traveled so long
each one of them to become visible
to us then only for that time and then
where did they go in the dark afterward
the invisible dark the cold never
felt or ever to be felt where was it
then as I lay looking up into all
that had been coming to pass and was still
coming to pass some of the stars by then
were nothing but the light that had left them
before there was life on earth and nothing
would be seen after them and the light from
one of them would have set out exactly
when the first stir of life recognized death
and began its delays that light had been
on its way from there all through what happened
afterward through the beginning of pain
the return of pain into the senses
into feelings without words and then words
traveling toward us even in our sleep
words for the feelings of those who are not
there now and words we say are for ourselves
then sounds of feet went by in the damp grass
dark figures slipping away toward morning

W. S. Merwin is the author of more than fifteen books of poetry and nearly twenty translations, including Dante's Purgatorio (2000). A new book of his poems, The Pupil, will be published in October.

All material copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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