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The Wild Geese

It was always for the animals that I grieved most
for the animals I had seen and for those
I had only heard of or dreamed about
or seen in cages or lying beside the road
for those forgotten and those long remembered
for the lost ones that were never found again
among people there were words we all knew
even if we did not say them and although
they were always inadequate when we said them
they were there if we wanted them when the time came
with the animals always there was only
presence as long as it was present and then
only absence suddenly and no word for it
in all the great written wisdom of China
where are the animals when were they lost
where are the ancestors who knew the way
without them all the wise words are bits of sand
twitching on the dunes where the forests
once whispered in their echoing ancient tongue
and the animals knew their way among the trees
only in the old poems does their presence survive
the gibbons call from the mountain gorges
the old words all deepen the great absence
the vastness of all that has been lost
it is still there when the poet in exile
looks up long ago hearing the voices
of wild geese far above him flying home

W. S. Merwin

The Essential W. S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press

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