nowhere & nothing...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

W. S. Merwin


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


I wouldn’t want my life ever to be without this poem. It speaks directly into my blood and tissue. The last lines are pure terror ... leaving love in an empty room. The boundary where one light, no matter how faint, must always shine.

Hearing W. S. Merwin read this work reinforces its impact ... brings it life. But honestly, I think the poem speaks itself. The lines are so dynamic, yet absolutely understated. That is the poetry’s magic. No excess. Pure reality. A believable voice. Merwin’s syntax is relaxed and engaging. The conversational tone lends such presence to the work. There’s nothing excessive or out of place. It’s all essence. A poem about accountability, about love, values, character.

Although this piece has no resolution, I ache for the neglected father and for the child who feels “again the cold / of [the] father’s hand the last time”. I feel that is what the poem is demanding of me. At the end, the silence is vast ... a breath of nothing – and the urge for me to speak with my own father is inescapable. I pick up a phone … I dial. Hello, he says. I love you Dad, I say.


Helen Losse said...

Hi Sam, What a great poem. And you explanation that follows is so right on. My own father died in 1990, and thank heaven we had made the long trip (4 days of driving for a 3 day visit) to see him just a couple of months earlier. Thank heaven the I-love-you's were all said. How does one live, if they are not? How does one live?

Suzanne said...

Sam, I read this yesterday and it's still resonating, definitely a must read and a must read again and again. Thank you.

Collin said...

Haunting poem. I've been writing about my own father a lot since he's been ill, so this poem really touched me today.

I love that you have the "Paris, Texas" image on your blog. I never get tired of that film.

LKD said...

I dunno.

I'm not nearly as crazy about the poem as your succinct summary of its last lines:

"...leaving love in an empty room."

I guess my reaction to the poem is flat partially because as I read it, I could hear the ghost of Harry Chapin singing that damned song in my head, and partially because I was not a good daughter, and partially because my father was not a good father (and yet, he was....he WAS a good father), and partially because...

I know how impossible and scary it seems to even attempt to meet someone halfway when you doubt they'll be there waiting for you, trying too.

And, mostly because I know the regret that one must live with when that attempt is never made.

It may be the single thing in my life that I never forgive myself for.

Why oh why oh why didn't I or couldn't I just say I love you, dad?

Ah, gee.

Stu said...

I'm very glad I came across this poem. I'm left feeling devastated, crippled, as if I just heard some terrible news. And it's because of this feeling that change can (must) happen.

Stu said...

I forgot to mention the coincidence: I'm currently reading a Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin. If you haven't already read it, I highly recommend it.

Thanks also for your kind comment on my blog.