The Nails

I gave you sorrow to hang on your wall
Like a calendar in one color.
I wear a torn place on my sleeve.
It isn’t as simple as that.

Between no place of mine and no place of yours
You’d have thought I’d know the way by now
Just from thinking it over.
Oh I know
I’ve no excuse to be stuck here turning
Like a mirror on a string,
Except it’s hardly credible how
It all keeps changing.
Loss has a wider choice of directions
Than the other thing.

As if I had a system
I shuffle among the lies
Turning them over, if only
I could be sure what I’d lost.
I uncover my footprints, I
Poke them till the eyes open.
They don’t recall what it looked like.
When was I using it last?
Was it like a ring or a light
Or the autumn pond
Which chokes and glitters but
Grows colder?
It could be all in the mind.  Anyway
Nothing seems to bring it back to me.

And I’ve been to see
Your hands as trees borne away on a flood,
The same film over and over,
And an old one at that, shattering its account
To the last of the digits, and nothing
And the blank end.

The lightning has shown me the scars of the future.

I’ve had a long look at someone
Alone like a key in a lock
Without what it takes to turn.

It isn’t as simple as that.

Winter will think back to your lit harvest
For which there is no help, and the seed
Of eloquence will open its wings
When you are gone.
But at this moment
When the nails are kissing the fingers good-bye
And my only
Chance is bleeding from me,
When my one chance is bleeding,
For speaking either truth or comfort
I have no more tongue than a wound.

W. S. Merwin, "The Nails" Copyright © 1993 by W.S. Merwin, reprinted with permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.
Source: The Second Four Books of Poems: The Moving Target The Lice The Carriers of Ladders Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (Copper Canyon Press, 1993)

Writing Ideas

  1. “The Nails” plays on common, idiomatic expressions—“wearing your heart on your sleeve” becomes “I wear a torn place on my sleeve,” for example. Make a list of common expressions. Like Merwin, swap out words and images. Try building a poem from your converted clichés.
  2. Merwin’s speaker discards his own attempts to name and describe grief through the almost-refrain, “It isn’t as simple as that.” Think of a situation that seems to defy your own attempt to understand it—it could be personal, like this poem’s break-up, or much more public. Using Merwin’s phrase only twice, write a poem that likewise tries to articulate complexity and acknowledge the difficulty of explaining “it.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Jeffrey McDaniel notes in his poem guide to “The Nails” that, “what make the poem special is the intensity of feeling coupled with the startling imagery.” Make a list of all the images this poem contains; then, try to assign a mood to each image. How does Merwin mood through images and vice versa?
  2. Try to sonically graph the poem: as you read it aloud, connect or otherwise indicate matching or nearly matching sounds. Do you detect any patterns similar to the Oh-I-Oh-I-Oh structure McDaniel describes?
  3. In what ways does this poem seem to chart the emotional aftermath of a relationship? In what way does its subject—“the other thing”—also remain mysterious? Can you examine moments where the logic, emotion, or images “leap” in the poem?
  4. While “The Nails” refers to the startling final image, how else does the poem imagine or create an uncomfortable sense of connection? What other senses of “nailing” or bonding are at work?

Teaching Tips

  1. Have students assemble a mini-anthology of Poems About Heartbreak. Feel free to assign guidelines, such as having poems from a variety of historical periods, countries, and “schools” or moments in poetry. Students can explore library holdings or one of the Love categories on the Poetry Foundation. If “The Nails” is the starting poem for each mini-anthology, ask students to arrange their own selections (10-15 additional poems) in an order that makes sense to them. Then have students each write an introduction explaining their selections and ordering choices.
  2. McDaniel notes the influence that Spanish language poets such as Federico García Lorca, Roberto Juarroz, Pablo Neruda, and Jean Follain have had on Merwin. Have your students research the poems of these other poets. What lines of influence can they draw between the techniques and styles of these poets and Merwin? If your students speak or read Spanish (or even if they don’t!), have them translate a poem or two from these poets. Lead a discussion on the challenges students faced in doing their own translation, perhaps drawing on “Various Tongues,” a conversation between Ilya Kaminsky and Adam Kirsch on translation.
More Poems by W. S. Merwin