Summer Reading: New Jersey’s Books and Authors — The Moon Before Morning

W.S. Merwin's latest book is an evocative study of age, memory, and the natural world

While we’re on summer hiatus, recharging our batteries and coming up with new story ideas, we want to make sure that you have plenty to read. That’s why we’ll be posting excerpts every day from New Jersey books and authors. We’ll be back, rested and ready, after Labor Day. Meanwhile . . .

“I think of old age as being a time like the others,” the 86-year-old W.S. Merwin recently told the Associated Press. “It has revelations of its own that you can’t come to any other way.” The Pulitzer-prize winning poet’s most recent collection, “The Moon Before Morning,” is brimming with such revelations. A study of age, memory, and the natural world, the collection reflects upon a life lived in many places, from New York City where he was born to New Jersey and Scranton where he was raised, to Hawaii, where he lives today.


The first school I went to

was torn down a year later

but I still know

the way to it

down the avenue and across

and I carry with me the stories

weightless as shadows

of its cold walls

like crumpled tunnels

roughcast to look real

their silent faces

looking past me

I was smaller than anyone else

too young for the games they were playing

I stood watching until the bell rang

at the end of recess

and the echoes thundered

on the iron stairs

of the building named for

a president whose face

was on a black postage stamp

the color of the stones outside

because he had died in office

the next year we were led

to a new redbrick school

named for the inventor of lightbulbs


They have not gone anywhere for some time now

out of the port where the snow is falling

and it goes on falling slowly as though

it were sliding down glass in silence

and keeps falling steadily through the years

so that I cannot read all the letters

now of the names in black on the panels

up on the top decks in front of the paired

wheelhouses one forward one aft

with the wheels still visible inside them

Weehawken Bergen Yonkers a few

remain partly legible through the snow

the rest are anonymous whited out

and spellbound bundled against each other

filling the whole cove on Staten Island

cataracts cancelling the tiered windows

which of them brought me across the river

from the hospital where I had been born

if they brought me by boat and who watched it come in

saw the ramps go down and I heard for the first time

its chains ring as the capstans turned

and in later days we would walk aboard or ashore

and the living deck under us was an old friend

ready to take us where we meant to go

or to bring us home again and again

it would swing us out onto the water

under the gulls’ cries on the real river

and which of those hulls carried me home again

when the time came and the day had gone by

it rang its bells then and blew its whistle

and the black greased pilings of the jetties

fell aside to show the churning water

as we set out from their heavy embrace

I thought the ferries then were practicing

something they had always known how to do

I believed they knew where they were going