Monthly Archives: September 2016

“The Sound of That Secret Spring”

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From Our Shadows

by W.S. Merwin

There were so many words for sadness
and for joy so few
maybe none
that can tell
the sound of that secret spring
welling up from before words
though when its voice rises
within us
we want to be able to tell
someone about it
if they will stay to hear
talk about
what is beyond words
sadness can rise in us
in the midst of happiness
and joy can take us by surprise
in the midst of great sadness
both of them know us
from before we were here
but if we speak to them
only sadness lingers
to hear us out
joy disappears
to wait for us it may be
where we least expect it

from Garden Time
Copper Canyon Press, 2016

In this poem from his marvelous new book, W.S. Merwin gets at the heart of a mystifying truth: It’s often easier to write or speak of grief and loss than it is to describe some sudden burst of joy. “Only sadness lingers,” he says, and yet the happiness we most often want to stay (if only we could make it stay) soon “disappears,” without our knowing it. One moment, I can feel absolutely grateful for my life and the world as it is, in tune with crows cawing from the tops of brushed-red maples and tractor trailers whizzing by on the highway—and the next moment, I’m resenting the noise of that traffic, consumed with tasks from my to-do list and the ever-present list of things that seem wrong with my life. But perhaps, as Merwin gently suggests, part of what makes joy so mysterious and inviting is precisely the fact that it lives “beyond words”; we have no idea when its “secret spring” will rise up to refresh our hearts and minds. We must instead make peace with waiting for that pure, unalloyed joy to find us, and we must name it, even as the thrill of it begins to fade.

—James Crews