How to Enter a Big City

By Thomas James Merton 1915–1968
I

Swing by starwhite bones and
Lights tick in the middle.
Blue and white steel
Black and white
People hurrying along the wall.   
”Here you are, bury my dead bones.“

Curve behind the sun again   
Towers full of ice. Rich   
Glass houses, “Here,
Have a little of my blood,”   
Rich people!”

Wheat in towers. Meat on ice.
Cattlecars. Miles of wide-open walls.   
Baseball between these sudden tracks.   
Yell past the red street—
Have you any water to drink, City?   
Rich glass buildings, give us milk!   
Give us coffee! Give us rum!

There are huge clouds all over the sky.
River smells of gasoline.
Cars after cars after cars, and then
A little yellow street goes by without a murmur.

There came a man
(”Those are radios, that were his eyes“)   
Who offered to sell us his bones.

Swing by starwhite buildings and   
Lights come to life with a sound   
Of bugs under the dead rib.

Miles of it. Still the same city.   


II

Do you know where you are going?   
Do you know whom you must meet?

Fortune, perhaps, or good news   
Or the doctor, or the ladies   
In the long bookstore,
The angry man in the milkbar   
The drunkard under the clock.   
Fortune, perhaps, or wonder   
Or, perhaps, death.

In any case, our tracks
Are aimed at a working horizon.
The buildings, turning twice about the sun,   
Settle in their respective positions.
Centered in its own incurable discontent, the City   
Consents to be recognized.


III

Then people come out into the light of afternoon,   
Covered all over with black powder,
And begin to attack one another with statements   
Or to ignore one another with horror.
Customs have not changed.
Young men full of coffee and
Old women with medicine under their skin
Are all approaching death at twenty miles an hour.

Everywhere there is optimism without love
And pessimism without understanding,
They who have new clothes, and smell of haircuts   
Cannot agree to be at peace
With their own images, shadowing them in windows   
From store to store.


IV

Until the lights come on with a swagger of frauds   
And savage ferns,
The brown-eyed daughters of ravens,
Sing in the lucky doors
While night comes down the street like the millennium   
Wrapping the houses in dark feathers
Soothing the town with a sign
Healing the strong wings of sunstroke.
Then the wind of an easy river wipes the flies
Off my Kentucky collarbone.

The claws of the treacherous stars   
Renegade drums of wood
Endure the heavenward protest.   
Their music heaves and hides.   
Rain and foam and oil
Make sabbaths for our wounds.   
(Come, come, let all come home!)
The summer sighs, and runs.
My broken bird is under the whole town,   
My cross is for the gypsies I am leaving   
And there are real fountains under the floor.


V

Branches baptize our faces with silver
Where the sweet silent avenue escapes into the hills.   
Winds at last possess our empty country
There, there under the moon   
In parabolas of milk and iron   
The ghosts of historical men   
(Figures of sorrow and dust)
Weep along the hills like turpentine.   
And seas of flowering tobacco
Surround the drowning sons of Daniel Boone.

Thomas Merton, “How to Enter a Big City” from The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1957 by The Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1977)

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Poet Thomas James Merton 1915–1968

Subjects Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries, Money & Economics

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Biography

A monk who lived in isolation for several years, and one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the twentieth century, Thomas Merton was a prolific poet, religious writer, and essayist whose diversity of work has rendered a precise definition of his life and an estimation of the significance of his career difficult. Merton was a Trappist, a member of a Roman Catholic brotherhood known for its austere lifestyle and vow of . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries, Money & Economics

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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