The Station


Two boards with a token roof, backed
Against the shelving hill, and a curtain
Of frayed sacking which the wind absently
Toyed with on the side toward the sea:
From that point already so remote that we
Continually caught ourselves talking in whispers
No path went on but only the still country
Unfolding as far as we could see
In the luminous dusk its land that had not been lived on
Ever, or not within living memory.

This less than shelter, then, was the last
Human contrivance for our encouragement:
Improvised so hastily, it might have been
Thrown together only the moment
Before we arrived, yet so weathered,
Warped and parched, it must have stood there
Longer than we knew. And the ground before it
Was not scarred with the rawness of construction
Nor even beaten down by feet, but simply barren
As one felt it always had been: something between
Sand and red shale with only the spiky dune-grass
Growing, and a few trees stunted by wind.

Some as they arrived appeared to be carrying
Whole households strapped onto their shoulders,
Often with their tired children asleep
Among the upper baskets, and even
A sore dog limping behind them. Some
Were travelling light for the journey:
A knife and matches, and would sleep
In the clothes they stood up in. And there were
The barefoot ones, some from conviction
With staves, some from poverty with nothing.

Burdens and garments bore no relation
To the ages of the travellers; nor, as they sat
In spite of fatigue talking late
Into the night, to the scope and firmness
Of their intentions. It was, for example,
A patriarch herding six grandchildren
In his family, and who had carried
More than his own weight of gear all day
Who insisted that three days' journey inland
Would bring them to a sheltered valley
Along a slow river, where even the clumsiest farmer
Would grow fat on the land's three crops a year.

And a youth with expensive hiking shoes
And one blanket to carry, who declaimed
Most loudly on the effort of the trip,
The stingy prospects, the risks involved
In venturing beyond that point. Several
Who had intended to go furthest mused
That the land thereabouts was better
Than what they had left and that tramping
Behind his own plough should be far enough afield
For any grown man, while another, to all
Dissuasions repeated that it had been
The same ten years ago at–naming a place
Where we had slept two nights before.
Until one who looked most energetic
Changed the subject with this theory
That a certain block of stone there
Before the doorway had been shaped
By hand, and at one time had stood
As the pedestal of a wayside shrine.

Yet in spite of the circling arguments
Which grew desperate several times before morning
Everyone knew that it was all decided:
That some, even who spoke with the most eloquence
Of the glories of exodus and the country
Waiting to be taken, would be found
Scrabbling the next day for the patch of ground
Nearest the shelter, or sneaking back
The way they had come, or hiring themselves out
As guides to this point, and no one would be able
To explain what had stopped them there; any more
Than one would be able afterwards to say
Why some who perhaps sat there saying least,
And not, to appearances, the bravest
Or best suited for such a journey,
At first light would get up and go on.


W.S. Merwin, Selected Poems, Atheneum, 1988.