W.S. Merwin's "The Morning"

Thoughts on the conditional.

The Morning

Would I love it this way if it could last
would I love it this way if it
were the whole sky the one heaven
or if I could believe that it belonged to me
a possession that was mine alone
or if I imagined that it noticed me
recognized me and may have come to see me
out of all the mornings that I never knew
and all those that I have forgotten
would I love it this way if I were somewhere else
or if I were younger for the first time
or if these very birds were not singing
or I could not hear them or see their trees
would I love it this way if I were in pain
red torment of body or gray void of grief
would I love it this way if I knew
that I would remember anything that is 
here now anything anything

from Garden Time (Copper Canyon, 2016)


I’ve been reading a lot of Merwin this week because Merwin’s poems comfort me. I don’t often read poetry to be comforted, or for any specific reason other than because I love it and return to it again and again, for many different reasons at once. But I’ve needed comfort this week because a few days ago, I was anxious about an upcoming surgery, and, as I write this, I am recovering from that same surgery — a knee surgery, to transplant cartilage into the busted bottom of a femur that I have ruined because of doing my favorite thing in the world: running. Not just running, but running unimaginable distances — 30, 50, 100 miles at a time — for years. Because I love to be out there, in the language of my body. Because it’s how I love, and where I feel at home.

So I have been anxious, and am anxious, because of the uncertainty of all of this — surgery, and its recovery, and what recovery means in regards to doing what I love most to do. Relationships change: with one another, with ourselves and the things and people we love. And we change too. And here I am, reading Merwin, and thinking about love and change and all the conditionals that come with life.

Would I love it this way if it could last is a stunner of a first line. It is the kind of first line that dives headlong-deep into the heart of things. It is also the kind of first line that, by nature of being conditional, is unanswerable. In other words, this poem begins by saying: What I am about to say has no answer.

It’s hard not to think of this short poem, “Prayer,” by Galway Kinnell:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

“Whatever / what is is…” is such a human idea. Give me it, whatever it is. It must be something. It must have meaning. There’s a desperation at the heart of humanness that is in the searching. It’s in the un in unanswerable. I think part of being human is knowing that you won’t always find what you are looking for. It reminds me of a moment I just read early on in Marilynne Robinson’s newest novel, Jack, where Della says to Jack:

Once you ask if there is meaning, the only answer is yes.

Later on, she follows this by saying:

When the world ended, nothing would matter but what you wanted to matter.

Isn’t that the dream? To have some certainty about all of this? To have something to hold onto and know it’s worth holding onto? And yet, there’s that would again, that conditional. Being human is wrapped up in the conditional. Being human is in the asking. In the desperation. In Kinnell’s repetition of whatever. In Merwin’s constant repetition of would I love it…

I am thinking of the conditional because I am caught up in that space personally. I am trying not to think of the should, the way I could say: if only I did this. I am trying not to think of the could, the way I might say: if I do this, maybe I could. I am trying to be here, not in some new age way, some shortcut to mindfulness. I am just trying to be here, where it hurts, simply because it is.

Should, could, would, if — we are often caught up in the rooms these conditional words lead us into, these hypothetical rooms, these rooms based on decisions we wanted to make or wish we made or might make in the future, these rooms we find ourselves in when the present moment feels too hard. Feels like it could have been preventable, or might be escapable. Never what it is. Or always what it is, and never wanted.

What I love about Merwin’s poem today, though, is the way it provides so many avenues of reframing the conditional not away from the present tense, but back into it. Merwin’s poem today is a poem that is so much about present-ness. It is filled to the brim with it. It begins with the first line, which is an acknowledgment that the morning — and by morning, substitute any noun you love, whether that’s love itself or life or light or youth — will come to an end. But it’s also echoed later:

would I love it this way if I were somewhere else
or if I were younger for the first time
or if these very birds were not singing

That phrase — somewhere else — never exists, does it? It is, by virtue of its definition, always somewhere else. And Merwin’s use of it here seems a coy acknowledgement that one can never be somewhere else, that one must always be exactly where one is. In an interview with The Paris Review, Merwin said:

Our hope is not a thing in the future; it’s a way of seeing the present.

I think of that as a defense of present-ness. I think living in the present is often used today as a way to give permission to some of the worst effects of capitalism, namely a willingness to continue mass consumption, to maintain collective ignorance, and to use a celebration of the individual self as a way to resist the sometimes harder work of solidarity. As Merwin writes, the present is where everything lives. Hope lives in the present. As does fear. As do the consequences of actions, which are sometimes dangled as things that happen years into the future, even when those years are always somewhere else. Those years don’t exist. But the present tense when they arrive most certainly does.

This is also why I love Merwin’s reframing of the present tense as a place that resists ownership. Notice it here:

would I love it this way if it
were the whole sky the one heaven
or if I could believe that it belonged to me
a possession that was mine alone
or if I imagined that it noticed me
recognized me and may have come to see me

Merwin’s love here is grounded in a resistance of ownership, that one loves something more if it does not belong to them, if it is not “mine alone.” How lovely is that, particularly when so much of our popular conception of love is wrapped up in belonging? As I’ve grown older, I’ve thought more and more about the relationship between private property and that same resistance to solidarity (by which I essentially mean grace) that I mentioned above. If the idea of ownership contains the belief that something belongs to you, is the act of ownership even truly possible in a world where, as Merwin writes, we will not “remember anything that is / here now anything anything”? Why pursue it? Why celebrate private property at all if it only makes each morning feel like mine and mine alone? Or yours and yours alone?

Perhaps that sounds too much like some wayward lofty jargon, but I stand by it. It’s one of the reasons this poem is so striking. It is at once about love and at once in service of a larger truth about society: that maybe we own too much, maybe we consider ourselves too much at the center, maybe we are always longing to be somewhere else. In her poem, “Public Resource,” Caroline Bird writes:

There is a place called The Open

where brave people put things.

Things that belong to them.

Things they can no longer carry.

I think “The Open” in Bird’s poem is also “The Morning” in Merwin’s. It is a place where people acknowledge the few things they have — these things we think we own, we think belong to us — and offer them into a space that is collective, wide, full of others doing the same thing. It is also a place that is liminal, that is bigger than any self. It is a place of birds and trees and wide open sky that does not “come to see” any particular one of us.

And so, I am thinking of this poem as I write this. And thinking about what it is teaching me about the way I frame my own pain in this moment, and the way I think about what could have happened, what might happen, what would have happened if.

Would I love it this way if I were in pain, Merwin writes. Before that line, Merwin writes if he would love it if these very birds were not singing, or if I could not hear them. Before the pain, there is the joy. And even that act of joy — of listening to the birds singing — is dependent on being able to listen. But for Merwin, what binds such things together — the pain, the joy, the ability, the inability — is the morning, this place that is bigger than the self, this place that is so big it cannot be contained or owned.

I think part of being human is the acknowledgement of the so-much-ness of life. I have a hard time acknowledging this most days, because my definition of so-much-ness is often narrow. It is conditional, dependent on a path. It is the old thought that I could run forever into oblivion. Maybe I will again, but maybe not. And regardless of that, I am here, still, in my pain and in all that is not my pain. Which is a lot, and which is good. The so-much-ness of life is Merwin’s morning. It is large and full of possibility. In the face of it, I am small. You are too. That’s okay. You don’t have to be big to love. You don’t have to be anything. You can love, and what you love can change, and maybe how you love can change too, and you can love still. I am trying to do this. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. I don’t think Merwin’s morning is particularly easy. There is pain there, too, and loss, and the way it feels sometimes to be small. Unseen. Forgotten. That is hard. The so-much-ness of life can be hard. But I am trying to learn to love within the width of it, rather than in the slim confines of how I think life should be. The latter is a kind of private property. The former is, well, love. I think.