The Wave by W.S. Merwin

From his book The Lice, published in 1967, I first read W.S. Merwin’s The Wave in 1969 when a couple of hip English Lit types conned a group of their adoring high school fans, of whom I was one, to pay them money one summer for a poetry workshop on the campus of Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.  We somehow even thought we would get some college credit, but the fact is, we met on the front steps of some building and our only registration was giving the hip English Lit types cash each week, $5.00 as I recall, and then they talked for maybe an hour or so.

But knowing this poem, 40 plus years later, proved the best part of the experience.

The Wave 

by W.S. Merwin

I inhabited the wake of a long wave

As we sank it continued to rush past me
I knew where it had been
The light was full of salt and the air
Was heavy with crying for where the wave had come from
And why
It had brought them
From faces that soon were nothing but rain
Over the photographs they carried with them
The white forests
Grew impenetrable
but as for themselves
They felt the sand slide from
Their roots of water
The harbors with outstretched arms retreated along
Glass corridors then
Were gone then their shadows were gone then the
Corridors were gone

Envelopes came each enfolding a little chalk
I inhabited the place where they opened them

I inhabited the sound of hope walking on water
Losing its way in the
Crowd so many footfalls of snow

I inhabit the sound of their pens on boxes
Writing to the dead in

I inhabit their wrappings sending back darkness
And the sinking of their voices entering
Nowhere as the wave passes

And asking where next as it breaks

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