The Highway by W. S. Merwin
MARGINALIA • SKIP TO THE POEM
“How many of you, when faced with something good, begins to think of what could go wrong?” she asks. I sit here with my hands on my lap, knowing I should raise them, raise them as far as my arms can reach, towards that space where dread and anxiety live, an imaginary dark cloud above my head.
I can’t remember how many times I did this—hold joy close to my chest and suffocate it with my doubt, each time a declaration of I don’t deserve this, each time a question of how long will this last?
A month ago I was in another country, another city, in the middle of a highway. I was trying to cross to the other side, a sea of motorcycles before me. I walked quickly, aware of my space in the world, when I turned to my left and saw wheels fast approaching. I tried to step back, and then froze, certain of an accident, of pain, of possibly my heart stopping so far away from home. It didn’t happen—instead, I came face to face with someone who stepped on the breaks just in time. His face hidden behind a helmet, my face baring my strangeness in that place. My hand on my throat. Alive. Safe. Here.
It seems too enormous, the universe’s plan for me. If there is a plan. Last night I found myself embracing the new year yet again. What now, T.? What now. If I’m still meant to be here, what now?
I am telling my body, this moment of vulnerability will always be here. I am telling my body, we got this. We’re here.
Another thing I am saying: to practice gratitude instead of dress-rehearsing for tragedy. I’ve picked it up somewhere, and now’s the time to maybe, finally, listen.
Go and do, the sign reads above my desk. And you know what, maybe I will.
It seems too enormous just for a man to be
Walking on. As if it and the empty day
Were all there is. And a little dog
Trotting in time with the heat waves, off
Near the horizon, seeming never to get
Any farther. The sun and everything
Are stuck in the same places, and the ditch
Is the same all the time, full of every kind
Of bone, while the empty air keeps humming
That sound it has memorized of things going
Past. And the signs with huge heads and starved
Bodies, doing dances in the heat,
And the others big as houses, all promise
But with nothing inside and only one wall,
Tell of other places where you can eat,
Drink, get a bath, lie on a bed
Listening to music, and be safe. If you
Look around you see it is just the same
The other way, going back; and farther
Now to where you came from, probably,
Than to places you can reach by going on.
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This poem appeared in The First Four Books of Poems by W.S. Merwin, published by Copper Canyon Press, 2000. Shared here with profound gratitude.
Read more works by W.S. Merwin • Find books by this poet • Or view my library
Explore poems in pursuit of: adulthood • being human • growing old • Or browse the index
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Thank you for being here all these years—and into the future—as I hold poets to the light.
Thank you for posting this. I’m standing outside an operating room reading this on my phone, I’m a student of medicine and my hands are shaking. Every time you post it strikes my soul.
“I am telling my body, this moment of vulnerability will always be here. I am telling my body, we got this. We’re here.” — Very good, this…
“I can’t remember how many times I did this—hold joy close to my chest and suffocate it with my doubt…” This really resonated with me.
You seem way too young for such reflections, for these are words more congruent with an old soul.
I’ve visited all of the places you’ve been, and each time you write my heart responds,
Your words paint the story so beautifully……