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

Originally published in Garden Time.
Copper Canyon Press, 2016.
Reprinted with permission.

Read this and other poems by W.S. Merwin in Garden Time, available for purchase online.

In this poem from his marvelous book, Garden Time, W.S. Merwin gets at the heart of a mystifying truth: It’s often easier to write or speak of grief 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. And sometimes, it’s only when the burst of joy has passed that we have enough perspective and insight to name 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 the world. I can show up at work, convinced that because I haven’t slept well, it’ll be an awful day, and then beneath the storyline of those thoughts, once I surrender to the work