The Chinese Mountain Fox

W. S. Merwin

Now we can tell that there
must once have been a time
when it was always there
and might at any time 

appear out of nowhere
as they were wont to say
and probably to their
age it did look that way 

though how are we to say
from the less than certain
evidence of our day
and they referred often

through the centuries when
it may have been a sight
they considered common
so that they mentioned it

as a presence they were
sure everyone had seen
and would think familiar
they alluded even

then until it became
their unquestioned habit
like a part of the name
to that element it

had of complete surprise
of being suddenly
he blaze in widened eyes
that had been turned only 

at that moment upon
some place quite near that they
all through their lives had known
and passed by every day 

perhaps at the same place
where they themselves had just
been standing that live face
looking as though it must

have been following
them would have appeared with no
warning they could fathom
or ever come to know 

though they made studied use
of whatever system
logic calculus ruse
they trusted in their time

to tell them where they might
count on it next and when
if once they figured right
as though it traveled in

a pattern they could track
like the route of some far
light in the zodiac
comet or migrant star

but it was never where
they had thought it would be
and showed the best of their
beliefs successively

to be without substance
shadows they used to cast
old tales and illusions
out of some wishful past

each in turn was consigned
to the role of legend
while yet another kind
of legend had wakened

to play the animal
even while it was there
the unpredictable
still untaken creature 

part lightning and part rust
the fiction was passed down
with undiminished trust
while the sightings began 

to be unusual
second- hand dubious
turning to ghost stories

all the more easily
since when it had been seen
most times that was only
by someone all alone

and unlike its cousins
of the lowlands captive
all these generations
and kept that way alive

never had it been caught
poisoned or hunted down
by packs of dogs or shot
hung up mounted or worn 

never even been scen
twice by the same person
in the place it had been
when they looked there again

and whatever they told
of it as long as they
still spoke of it revealed
always more of the way

they looked upon the light
while it was theirs to see
and what they thought it might
let them glimpse at any

moment than of the life
that they had rarely been
able to catch sight of
in an instant between 

now and where it had been
at large before they came
when the mountains were green
before it had a name

W. S. Merwin was an American poet. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice, a National Book Award for Poetry, and the Tanning Prize, among others, and was the 17th U.S. Poet Laureate.
Originally published:
January 1, 1997


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