two faces intertwined with a silhouette of a bird in between
Miki Lowe

Unknown Bird

A poem by W. S. Merwin, published in The Atlantic in 1999

By W. S. Merwin
Photo illustrations by Miki Lowe

W. S. Merwin was a man of many callings. He was an incredibly prolific poet—he won the Pulitzer Prize twice, along with nearly every other major literary award. He also dedicated his life to environmentalism: After moving to a barren pineapple plantation in Hawaii in 1977, he painstakingly restored it to its natural state, growing back hundreds of species of palm. He delved deep into Buddhism and meditation, refusing to answer the phone and instead devoting his time to his spirituality and his tree-planting.

In his poetry, Merwin’s passions mingle and become greater than the sum of their parts; his elegies for the natural world unfurl into philosophical reflections on man’s place in the universe. In “Unknown Bird,” he describes a bird’s song—one fluted phrase / floating over its / wandering secret. In the poem’s final lines, he comments not on birdkind but on humankind, speaking a different language but sharing the same space: tell / no one it is here / foreign as we are / who are filling the days / with a sound of our own.