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The Pupil
The Pupil


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At the end of the year the stars go out
the air stops breathing and the Sibyl sings
first she sings of the darkness she can see
she sings on until she comes to the age
without time and the dark she cannot see

no one hears then as she goes on singing
of all the white days that were brought to us one by one
that turned to colors around us

a light coming from far out in the eye
where it begins before she can see it

burns through the words that no one has believed

Excerpted from The Pupil by W. S. Merwin Copyright© 2001 by W. S. Merwin. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Waves in August

There is a war in the distance
with the distance growing smaller
the field glasses lying at hand
are for keeping it far away

I thought I was getting better
about that returning childish
wish to be living somewhere else
that I knew was impossible
and now I find myself wishing
to be here to be alive here
it is impossible enough
to still be the wish of a child

in youth I hid a boat under
the bushes beside the water
knowing I would want it later
and come back and would find it there
someone else took it and left me
instead the sound of the water
with its whisper of vertigo

terror reassurance an old
old sadness it would seem we knew
enough always about parting
but we have to go on learning
as long as there is anything

The Causeway

This is the bridge where at dusk they hear voices
far out in the meres and marshes or they say they hear voices

the bridge shakes and no one else is crossing at this hour
somewhere along here is where they hear voices

this is the only bridge though it keeps changing
from which some always say they hear voices

the sounds pronounce an older utterance out of the shadows
sometimes stifled sometimes carried from clear voices

what can be recognized in the archaic syllables
frightens many and tells others not to fear voices

travellers crossing the bridge have forgotten where they were going
in a passage between the remote and the near voices

there is a tale by now of a bridge a long time before this one
already old before the speech of our day and the mere voices

when the Goths were leaving their last kingdom in Scythia
they could feel the bridge shaking under their voices

the bank and the first spans are soon lost to sight
there seemed no end to the horses carts people and all their voices

in the mists at dusk the whole bridge sank under them
into the meres and marshes leaving nothing but their voices

they are still speaking the language of their last kingdom
that no one remembers who now hears their voices

whatever translates from those rags of sound
persuades some who hear them that they are familiar voices

grandparents never seen ancestors in their childhoods
now along the present bridge they sound like dear voices

some may have spoken in my own name in an earlier language
when last they drew breath in the kingdom of their voices

Excerpted from The River Sound by W. S. Merwin Copyright© 1999 by W. S. Merwin. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

"Canto V"


I had already left those shades and was
following the footsteps of my leader
when from behind me, pointing the finger,

someone called out, "Look how the ray seems not
to shine on the left of that one down there,
and he seems to act as though he were alive!"

At the sound of those words I turned my eyes
and saw them staring in amazement
at me, at me, and the light that was broken.

"How is it that your spirit is so ensnared,"
the master said, "that you slacken your pace?
What is it to you what they whisper there?

Follow behind me and let the people talk.
Stand like a firm tower that never trembles
at the top though the wind blows upon it:

for always that man in whom thought wells up
over thought puts his goal farther from him
as the one weakens the force of the other."

What could I answer except "I come"?
I said it, flushed a little with that color
that makes a man worthy, sometimes, of pardon.

And as I did, there were people coming
along the hillside, a little way before us,
singing the Miserere line by line.

When it had struck them that I gave no place
for the rays of light to pass through my body,
their song changed into a long, hoarse "Oh."

And two of them in the role of messengers
ran to meet us and put their question:
"Let us know something of your condition."

And my master: "You can return again
and make it plain to those who have sent you
that it is made of flesh, the body of this one.

If what they stopped at was the sight of his shadow,
as I suppose, there they all have their answer;
let them honor him and it may be dear to them."

I never saw lit vapors so quickly
just at nightfall split the calm of the sky
nor clouds in August as the sun was setting;

these took less time to return above
and when they arrived they wheeled back toward us
with the others like unreined cavalry.

"There are many people crowding upon us
and they come to ask something of you," the poet said,
"but keep straight on and listen as you go."

"Oh soul who go your way to become happy
in those same limbs that you were born into,"
they called as they came, "Slow your steps a little.

See whether you ever set eyes on any of us,
so that you can take news of him back there.
Oh why are you going? Oh why will you not stay?

All of us met our deaths by violence
and we were sinners until the last hour
when light from heaven brought understanding to us,

so that we came out of life repenting
and forgiving and at peace with God
who makes our hearts suffer longing to see Him."

And I, "However I study your faces
I cannot recognize one, but if something
I can do would please you, spirits born fortunate,

tell me and I will do it, by that peace
which in the footsteps of such a guide
draws me from world to world in search of it."

And one began, "Each of us has faith
in your good will without your swearing to it,
though you may not be able to do all you would.

So I who speak alone before the others
beseech you, if ever you see that land again
which lies between Romagna and Charles's kingdom,

as a courtesy to me beg them in
Fano to say such orisons for me
that I may be purged of my heavy sins.

I came from there, but those deep wounds that blood
poured from, which a moment before had been me
were dealt me in the lap of the Antenori

where I had thought to be safer than anywhere.
He of Este had it done, who was more angry
with me than he had any reason to be.

But if only I had turned toward La Mira fleeing
from Oriaco when I was overtaken
I would still be there where they are breathing.

I ran to the marsh and the reeds and slime
caught me so that I fell and there I saw
a lake grow on the ground out of my veins."

Then another said, "Oh, so may that desire be
satisfied that brings you to the high mountain,
out of compassion lend your help to mine.

I was of Montefeltro; I am Buonconte.
Giovanna cares nothing about me, nor does anyone,
which is why I go among these with my face down."

And I to him, "What force or fortune
took you so far away from Campaldino
that no one ever knew where you were buried?"

"Oh," he answered, "at the foot of the Casentino
a stream that is called the Archiano crosses
from above the Hermitage, in the Apennines.

There where its name grows empty of it
I came with the cut across my throat
fleeing on foot and bloodying the plain.

There I lost the sight of my eyes, and my speech,
ending with the name of Mary, and there
I fell and only my flesh was left of me.

I will tell the truth, and you repeat it to the living:
the angel of God took me and the one from Hell
shouted, 'Oh you from heaven, why do you rob me?

You carry off with you the eternal part
of this one for one little tear that rips him from me,
but I will handle the other another way.'

You know well enough how in the air
that damp vapor gathers that turns to water
the moment it comes where the cold seizes it.

He joined that evil will that wants ill only
with intellect, and stirred the mists and the wind
using the power that his nature gave him.

Then from the valley of Pratomagno to
the great peaks, as the day was ending, he covered
with cloud and made the sky brood overhead

so that the pregnant air changed into water;
the rain fell and came to the gullies
after the ground could not take any more

and it flowed together in great streams,
tearing its way with such speed toward the royal
river that nothing could stand against it.

Close to its mouth the raging Archiano
found my frozen body and into the Arno
heaved it and undid on my breast the cross

I had made of my arms when the pain overcame me;
against its banks and down its bed it rolled me
and then it covered and bound me in its spoils."

"Oh when you are back in the world again
and are rested after the long journey,"
the third spirit followed upon the second,

"pray you, remember me who am La Pia.
Siena made me, Maremma unmade me;
he knows it who, with his ring taking me,

first had me for his wife with his gem."

Excerpted from Purgatorio translated by W. S. Merwin. Copyrightę 2000 by W. S. Merwin. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.