Variation on a Theme

W. S. Merwin - 1927-2019

Thank you my life long afternoon
late in this spring that has no age
my window above the river
for the woman you led me to
when it was time at last the words
coming to me out of mid-air
that carried me through the clear day
and come even now to find me
for old friends and echoes of them
those mistakes only I could make
homesickness that guides the plovers
from somewhere they had loved before
they knew they loved it to somewhere
they had loved before they saw it
thank you good body hand and eye
and the places and moments known
only to me revisiting
once more complete just as they are
and the morning stars I have seen
and the dogs who are guiding me

More by W. S. Merwin

Yesterday

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

My Friends

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

One of the Lives

If I had not met the red-haired boy whose father
               had broken a leg parachuting into Provence
to join the resistance in the final stage of the war
               and so had been killed there as the Germans were moving north
out of Italy and if the friend who was with him
               as he was dying had not had an elder brother
who also died young quite differently in peacetime
               leaving two children one of them with bad health
who had been kept out of school for a whole year by an illness
               and if I had written anything else at the top 
of the examination form where it said college
               of your choice or if the questions that day had been
put differently and if a young woman in Kittanning
               had not taught my father to drive at the age of twenty
so that he got the job with the pastor of the big church 
               in Pittsburgh where my mother was working and if 
my mother had not lost both parents when she was a child
               so that she had to go to her grandmother’s in Pittsburgh
I would not have found myself on an iron cot
               with my head by the fireplace of a stone farmhouse
that had stood empty since some time before I was born
               I would not have travelled so far to lie shivering
with fever though I was wrapped in everything in the house
               nor have watched the unctuous doctor hold up his needle
at the window in the rain light of October
               I would not have seen through the cracked pane the darkening
valley with its river sliding past the amber mountains
               nor have wakened hearing plums fall in the small hour
thinking I knew where I was as I heard them fall