Fox Sleep by W.S. Merwin.

It has come to our attention that you are simply NOT reading enough poetry.
So now you have homework….

Find a quiet time. Make yourself a cup of tea or coffee. Perhaps some cake. Relax.
Slowly read through this poem by WS Merwin.
It is long…..but stay with it. You have not read stuff like this for a while.….it will take you like a story. Rediscover the power of great poetry.

PS. Those of you with some experience with Zen practice might recognise reference to a Koan about a particular Fox. What is a Koan?

On a road through the mountains with a friend many years ago 

I came to a curve on a slope where a clear stream 

flowed down flashing across dark rocks through its own 

echoes that could neither be caught nor forgotten 

it was the turning of autumn and already 

the mornings were cold with ragged clouds in the hollows 

long after sunrise but the pasture sagging like a roof 

the glassy water and flickering yellow leaves 

in the few poplars and knotted plum trees were held up 

in a handful of sunlight that made the slates on the silent 

mill by the stream glisten white above their ruin 

and a few relics of the life before had been arranged 

in front of the open mill house to wait 

pale in the daylight out on the open mountain 

after whatever they had been made for was over 

the dew was drying on them and there were few who took that road 

who might buy one of them and take it away somewhere 

to be unusual to be the only one 

to become unknown a wooden bed stood there on rocks 

a cradle the color of dust a cracked oil jar iron pots 

wooden wheels iron wheels stone wheels the tall box of a clock 

and among them a ring of white stone the size of an 

embrace set into another of the same size 

an iron spike rising from the ring where the wooden 

handle had fitted that turned it in its days as a hand mill 

you could see if you looked closely that the top ring 

that turned in the other had been carved long before in the form 

of a fox lying nose in tail seeming to be 

asleep the features worn almost away where it 

had gone around and around grinding grain and salt 

to go into the dark and to go on and remember 

* * * 

What I thought I had left I kept finding again 

but when I went looking for what I thought I remembered 

as anyone could have foretold it was not there 

when I went away looking for what I had to do 

I found that I was living where I was a stranger 

but when I retraced my steps the familiar vision 

turned opaque and all surface and in the wrong places 

and the places where I had been a stranger appeared to me 

to be where I had been at home called by name and answering 

getting ready to go away and going away 

* * * 

Every time they assembled and he spoke to them 

about waking there was an old man who stood listening 

and left before the others until one day the old man stayed 

and Who are you he asked the old man 

and the old man answered I am not a man 

many lives ago I stood where you are standing 

and they assembled in front of me and I spoke to them 

about waking until one day one of them asked me 

When someone has wakened to what is really there 

is that person free of the chain of consequences 

and I answered yes and with that I turned into a fox 

and I have been a fox for five hundred lives 

and now I have come to ask you to say what will 

free me from the body of a fox please tell me 

when someone has wakened to what is really there 

is that person free of the chain of consequences 

and this time the answer was That person sees it as it is 

then the old man said Thank you for waking me 

you have set me free of the body of the fox 

which you will find on the other side of the mountain 

I ask you to bury it please as one of your own 

that evening he announced a funeral service 

for one of them but they said nobody has died 

then he led them to the other side of the mountain 

and a cave where they found a fox’s body 

and he told them the story and they buried the fox 

as one of them but later one of them asked 

what if he had given the right answer every time 

* * * 

Once again I was there and once again I was leaving 

and again it seemed as though nothing had changed 

even while it was all changing but this time 

was a time of ending this time the long marriage was over 

the orbits were flying apart it was autumn again 

sunlight tawny in the fields where the shadows 

each day grew longer and the still afternoons 

ripened the distance until the sun went down 

across the valley and the full moon rose out of the trees 

it was the time of year when I was born and that evening 

I went to see friends for the last time and I came back 

after midnight along the road white with the moon 

I was crossing the bars of shadow and seeing ahead of me 

the wide silent valley full of silver light 

and there just at the corner of the land that I had 

come back to so many times and now was leaving 

at the foot of the wall built of pale stone I saw the body 

stretched in the grass and it was a fox a vixen 

just dead with no sign of how it had come to happen 

no blood the long fur warm in the dewy grass 

nothing broken or lost or torn or unfinished 

I carried her home to bury her in the garden 

in the morning of the clear autumn that she had left 

and to stand afterward in the turning daylight 

* * * 

There are the yellow beads of the stonecrops and the twisted flags 

of dried irises knuckled into the hollows 

of moss and rubbly limestone on the waves of the low wall 

the ivy has climbed along them where the weasel ran 

the light has kindled to gold the late leaves of the cherry tree 

over the lane by the house chimney there is the roof 

and the window looking out over the garden 

summer and winter there is the field below the house 

there is the broad valley far below them all with the curves 

of the river a strand of sky threaded through it 

and the notes of bells rising out of it faint as smoke 

and there beyond the valley above the rim of the wall 

the line of mountains I recognize like a line of writing 

that has come back when I had thought it was forgotten

Photo by Scott Walsh

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