© 1983 The Estate of James Ingram Merrill and the University of North Dakota
Introducer: A few years ago, I went to the bookstore to buy a book that I had seen reviewed in the New York Review of Books and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the book was in stock. That night, I sat down to read, impatiently turning the pages to the last poem: a long poem entitled, rather quaintly, I thought, "The Book of Ephraim." Twenty lines into that poem, entranced by the exquisiteness of the rendering of detail, intrigued by the scope of the projected poem, and enthralled by the sureness of the poet’s voice, I became convinced I was reading a poem by a master poet, who had found the appropriate vehicle to express a personal vision in more comprehensive terms than a poet has found for many a year. That book was The Divine Comedies by James Merrill. It was swiftly followed by Mirabell: A Book of Numbers and Plumes of the Serpent. To these three sections a coda was added, and the entire group was published under the title The Changing Light at Sandover. That evening, I tried several times to read the poem aloud, searching for the exact intonations of Merrill’s voice. I am sure that I failed; but tonight, we will discover them. I am pleased and proud to present to you James Merrill.
James Merrill: I’d like to--oops--start with a few short poems, some uncollected poems, before I read anything from the Sandover volume. This first one is called "The School Play," and the school in question was a strange little school in New York where the entering six year olds would be taught Latin and French right away, and as they grew to the advanced ages of nine or ten or eleven, would be allowed to take part in the annual Shakespearean play. In this case, the play was Richard II.
"The School Play"
"Harry of Hereford, Lancaster, and Derby,
Stands here for God, his country, and . . ." And what? [Audience laughter]
"Stands here for God, his Sovereign, and himself,"
Growled Captain Fry who had the play by heart.
I was the First Herald, "a small part"
--I was small too--"but an important one."
What was not important to the self
At nine or ten? Already I had crushes
On Mowbray, Bushy, and the Duke of York.
Handsome Donald Niemann (now himself,
According to the Bulletin, headmaster
Of his own school somewhere out West) awoke
Too many self-indulgent mouthings in
The dummy mirror before smashing it,
For me to set my scuffed school cap at him.
Another year I'd play that role myself,
Or Puck, or Goneril, or Prosepero.
Later, in adolescence, it was thought
Clever to speak of having found oneself,
With a smile and a rueful headshake for those who hadn't. [Audience laughter]
People still do. Only the other day
A woman my age told us that her son
"Hadn't found himself"--at thirty-one! [Audience laughter]
I heard in the mind's ear an amused hum
Of mothers and fathers from beyond the curtain,
And that flushed, far-reaching hour came back
Months of rehearsal in the gymnasium
Had led to: when the skinny nobodies
Who'd memorized the verse and learned to speak it
Emerged in beards and hose (or gowns and rouge)
Vivid with character, having put themselves
All unsuspecting into the masters’ hands.
This is a somewhat longer poem, actually it’s a set of seven sonnets--a little thumbnail autobiography. I don’t think there’s much that needs to be explained. If anything, Poor Tom is of course the character from Lear and the Stone Guest is the figure that comes to take Don Giovanni down to hell at the end of the opera. The poem is called "The Broken Home."
Crossing the street,
I saw the parents and the child
At their window, gleaming like fruit
With evening's mild gold leaf.
In a room on the floor below,
Sunless, cooler--a brimming
Saucer of wax, marbly and dim--
I have lit what's left of my life.
I have thrown out yesterday's milk
And opened a book of maxims.
The flame quickens. The word stirs.
Tell me, tongue of fire,
That you and I are as real
At least as the people upstairs.
My father, who had flown in World War I,
Might have continued to invest his life
In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife.
But the race was run below, and the point was to win.
Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze
(Through the smoked glass of being thirty-six)
The soul eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex
And business; time was money in those days.
Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit--rings, cars, permanent waves.
We'd felt him warming up for a green bride.
He could afford it. He was "in his prime"
At three score ten. But money was not time.
When my parents were younger this was a popular act:
A veiled woman would leap from an electric, wine-dark car
To the steps of no matter what--the Senate or the Ritz Bar--
And bodily, at newsreel speed, attack
No matter whom--Al Smith or José María Sert
Or Clemenceau--veins standing out on her throat
As she yelled War mongerer! Pig! Give us the vote!,
And would have to be hauled away in her hobble skirt.
What had the man done? Oh, made history.
Her business (he had implied) was giving birth,
Tending the house, mending the socks.
Always that same old story--
Father Time and Mother Earth,
A marriage on the rocks.
One afternoon, red, satyr-thighed
Michael, the Irish setter, led
The child I was to a shut door. Inside,
Blinds beat sun from the bed.
The green-gold room throbbed like a bruise.
Under a sheet, clad in taboos
Lay whom we sought, her hair undone, outspread,
And of a blackness found, if ever now, in old
Engravings where the acid bit.
I must have needed to touch it
Or the whiteness--was she dead?
Her eyes flew open, startled strange and cold.
The dog slumped to the floor. She reached for me. I fled.
Tonight they have stepped out onto the gravel.
The party is over. It's the fall
Of 1931. They love each other still.
She: Charlie, I can't stand the pace.
He: Come on, honey--why, you'll bury us all!
A lead soldier guards my windowsill:
Khaki rifle, uniform, and face.
Something in me grows heavy, silvery, pliable.
How intensely people used to feel!
Like metal poured at the close of a proletarian novel,
Refined and glowing from the crucible,
I see those two hearts, I'm afraid,
Still. Cool here in the graveyard of good and evil,
They are even so to be honored and obeyed.
. . . Obeyed, at least, inversely. Thus
I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote.
To do so, I have learned, is to invite
The tread of a stone guest within my house.
Shutting this rusted bolt, though, against him,
I trust I am time's child no less than some
Who on the heath impersonate Poor Tom
Or on the barricades risk life and limb.
Nor do I try to keep a garden, only
An avocado in a glass of water--
Roots pallid, gemmed with air. And later,
When the small gilt leaves have grown
Fleshy and green, I let them die, yes, yes,
And start another. I am earth's no less.
A child, a red dog roam the corridors,
Still, of the broken home. No sound. The brilliant
Rag runners halt before wide-open doors.
My old room! Its wallpaper--cream, medallioned
With pink and brown--brings back the first nightmares,
Long summer colds, and Emma, sepia-faced,
Perspiring over broth carried upstairs
Aswim with golden fats I could not taste.
The real house became a boarding school.
Under the ballroom ceiling's allegory
Someone at last may actually be allowed
To learn something; or, from my window, cool
With the unstiflement of the entire story,
Watch a red setter stretch and sink in cloud.
Here are three poems that take place largely underwater. The first is set in Florida, and goes back to--we were talking about passion this morning--my passion when I was 8, 9, 10 was fishing off a certain pier. And this is called "The Pier: Under Pisces."
The shallows, brighter,
Wetter than water,
Tepidly glitter with the fingerprint-
Obliterating feel of kerosene.
Each piling like a totem
And beyond, where bubbles burst,
Rises from rock bottom
Straight through the ceiling
Aswirl with suns, clear ones or pale bluegreen,
Sphere of their worst dreams,
If dream is what they do,
These floozy fish--
Ceramic-lipped in filmy
Stockings, hot stripes,
Swayed by the hypnotic ebb and flow
Of supermarket Muzak,
Bolero beat the undertow’s
Pebble-filled gourds repeat;
Jailbait consumers of subliminal
Hints dropped from on high
In gobbets none
Eschews as minced kin;
Who, hooked themselves--bamboo diviner
Bent their way
Are one by one hauled kisswise, oh
Into some blinding hell
Policed by leathery ex-
Minding his catch, if catch is what he can,
If mind is what he means--
The torn mouth
Stifled by newsprint, working still. If...if...
The little scales
Grow stiff. Dusk plugs her dryer in,
Buffs her nails, riffles through magazines,
While far and wide and deep
Rove the great sharkskin-suited criminals
And safe in this lit shrine
A boy sits. He’ll be eight.
We’ve drunk our milk, we’ve eaten our stringbeans,
But left untasted on the plate
The fish. An eye, a broiled pearl, meeting mine,
I lift his fork...
The bite. The tug of fate.
I was meant to read this next one from, from our local magazine, but I forgot to bring a copy, but you will want to buy it. This is called "Think Tank," and it’s set in an aquarium. Anyone who’s kept tropical fish must know of the sad affliction called "ich" that overcomes the--and that’s short for a word with a Greek root that I’ve forgotten.
Audience member: [inaudible]
James Merrill: What?
Audience member: [Ichthyoph]
James Merrill: Well, let that pass, perhaps. Perhaps. [Laughs, audience laughter] This is very short. It’s a sonnet.
James Merrill: Because our young were drab
And slow to grow, for carnival we ate them,
Pennants of motley distancing the deed
In the dechlorinated crystal slab.
The harlequin all grace and greed
Made lilting mincemeat of the mirror kissed.
The scholar, blotched with "ich"
Sank into lonely shudderings.
But at our best we were of one mind,
Did our own sick or vital things
Within a medium secured by trick
Reflections over which, day, night, the braille
Eraser glided of the Snail
Our servant, huge and blind.
Now this one’s about a creature I’ve never seen, though I long to. And I, I got most of the material for this poem out of a piece in the New Yorker by Faith McNulty about the manatees in Florida. And it’s called "Developers at Crystal River."
Of tinsel, mirror-sycamores in wind...
No, we are underwater.
These are the Springs:
From deep below the bottom of white sand
Mercurial baubles effervesce
The glassed-in bower of bliss
They keep at 74 degrees.
The mother manatees,
Brought here as babies, bring their babies here
To see the year-round decorations
And revel in each "tree’s"
Muses of sheer
Indolence they are, and foes
To nothing in creation
--Least of all, those
Luscious undulating lawns downstream
Plowing through which, a sudden
The power launch veers--on guard!
Paths widen, blue, then redden...
The huge, myopic cows go unheard. Poor
Over and over scarred
By the propellers, gaffs, and garden tools
The boatmen use on them for fun,
Each year are fewer.
Sweet heaven, here comes one!--
No heavier than a sigh
Or small dirigible
Gone limp, or adipose
Naiad walking through murk, on knives. Unmarriagable
(Unless to the Prince of Whales) [Audience laughter]
In her backwater court
She’ll have escaped our human hells--?
Look how the blades have cut
Even into her.
Intuiting the visitor,
She drifts closer;
Flippers held out, depreciative but lonely,
Makes to salute her long-lost cousin with his
Flippers, his camera and visor.
Time stops as, face-to-face,
She offers what he’ll only
Back on Earth find words for--a rueful, chaste,
Well I’m going to plunge into this volume. I don’t know quite how to begin or how to introduce it. Let me assume that you have all heard, or even by direct experience, learned how a Ouija board works. I’m going to read from a little passage from Mirabell, where our instructors have presented themselves as fallen angels, or subatomic particles, and apparently take the guise of huge, red-eyed, radioactive bats. Their material, fascinating as it is, has contained elements that I’ve tried with all my powers to resist. It seems too often to be drawn from the garage of culture: the UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, the Science Fiction cataclysms. Finally, though, since resistance leads nowhere in this context, our favorite of these bats, now transformed into the peacock Mirabell, has seen us through all his lessons, and indeed a graduation picnic has been promised. I’ve begun to write the first pages of the poem, and I’ve taken four of those pages down the street in, in my Connecticut village to be Xeroxed that very afternoon. And at this point, Mr. Auden, who is one of the members of the seminar, undertakes to answer my old objections perhaps because he’s been seeing a lot of Plato after school. Maria, who is the other member in the seminar along with David Jackson and myself, Maria Mitsotáki, is the first to speak.
MES ENFANTS SUCH A HEAVENLY DAY The sunlight
Fleet on the calm Sound-- & OUR PULSES QUICKENED
MY DEAR BY THE ELECTRICAL 4 FLASHES
OF YR POEM You’ve peeked! It’s still so rough. I made
Those photocopies for less critical
Eyes than yours. MILD SUMMER LIGHTNING PLAYED:
WD WE HAVE RAIN ON OUR PICNIC? THEN THE TEXT
LAY ON OUR BEDSIDE TABLES WHAT COMES NEXT?
ON WITH THE WORK! THRILLING FOR U JM
And maddening--it’s all by someone else!
In your voice, Wystan, or in Mirabell’s.
I want it mine, but cannot spare those twenty
Years in a cool dark place that Ephraim took
In order to be palatable wine.
This book by contrast, immature, supine,
Still kicks against its archetypal cradle
LESS I SHD THINK BY CONTRAST THAN DESIGN?
A MUSE IN HER RECURRENT INFANCY
PRESIDES AS U MY DEAR WERE FIRST TO SEE:
URANIA BABBLING ON THE THRESHOLD OF
OUR NEW ATOMIC AGE THE LITTLE LOVE
AT PLAY WITH WORDS WHOSE SENSE SHE CANNOT YET
FACE LEARNING Very pretty, but I’d set
My whole heart, after Ephraim, on returning
To private life, to my own words. Instead,
Here I go again, a vehicle
In this cosmic carpool. Mirabell once said
He taps my word banks. I’d be happier
if I were tapping them. I thought I were.
YR SCRUPLES DEAR BOY ARE INCONSEQUENT
IF I MAY SAY SO CAN U STILL BE BENT,
AFTER OUR COURSE IN HOW TO SEE PAST LONE
AUTONOMY TO POWERS BEHIND THE THRONE,
ON DOING YR OWN THING: EACH TEENY BIT
(PARDON MME) MADE PERSONAL AS SHIT?
GRANTED THAT IN 1ST CHILDHOOD WE WERE NOT
PRAISED ENOUGH FOR GETTING OFF THE POT
IT’S TIME TO DO SO NOW THINK WHAT A MINOR
PART THE SELF PLAYS IN A WORK OF ART
COMPARED TO THOSE GREAT GIVENS THE ROSEBRICK MANOR
ALL TOPIARY FORMS & METRICAL
MOAT ARIPPLE! FROM ANTHOLOGIZED
PERENNIALS TO HERB GARDEN OF CLICHES
FROM LATIN-LABELED HYBRIDS TO THE FAWN
4 LETTER FUNGI THAT ENRICH THE LAWN,
IS NOT ARCADIA TO DWELL AMONG
GREENWOOD PERSPECTIVES OF THE MOTHER TONGUE
ROOTSYSTEMS UNDERFOOT WHILE OVERHEAD
THE SUN GOD SANG & SHADES OF MEANING SPREAD
& FAR SNOWCAPPED ABSTRACTIONS GLITTERED NEAR
OR FAIRLY MELTED INTO ATMOSPHERE?
AS FOR THE FAMILY ITSELF MY DEAR
JUST GAPE UP AT THAT CORONETED FRIEZE:
SWEET WILLIAMS & FATE-FLAVORED EMILIES
THE DOUBTING THOMAS & THE DULCET ONE
(HARDY MY BOY WHO ELSE? & CAMPION)
MILTON & DRYDEN OUR LONG JOHNS IN SHORT
IN BED AT PRAYERS AT MUSIC FLUSHED WITH PORT
THE DULL THE PRODIGAL THE MEAN THE MAD
IT WAS THE GREATEST PRIVILEGE TO HAVE HAD
A BARE LOWCEILINGED MAID’S ROOM AT THE TOP
Stop! you’ve convinced me. Better yet, don’t stop.
I SHALL ONCE I HAVE TAKEN UP YR CHIEF
& EARLIEST ANXIETY: BELIEF.
FACTS JM WERE ALL U KNEW TO WANT.
WRETCHED RICKETY RECALCITRANT
URCHINS, THE FEW WHO LIVE GROW UP TO BE
IMPS OF THE ANTIMASQUE RUDE SCENERY
& GUTTERAL STOMPINGS, WHEN THE SOVERIGN NODS,
SOUNDLESSLY DIVIDE & HERE A TABLE
IS SET & LAMPS LIT FOR THE FEASTING GODS
OBERON’S COURT (OR MY FRIEND’S CAVE) APPEARS.
THE ELDER FACTS IN LIVERY OF FABLE
HAVE JOINED THE DANCE FOR FACT IS IS IS FABLE:
THIS IS OUR GIFT FROM MIRABELL MY DEARS
I now have quite a long section to read, so if you’re unhappy, you might want to slip out.
This is from the epilogue to this poem, and in the third volume, which I’m sorry to say is not called Plumes for the Serpent, though I wish I’d thought of that, but Scripts for the Pageant. Our instructors have been the four elemental angels--Michael, the angel of light and air, Gabriel of earth, Emmanuel of water and, no, I’m sorry, Rafael of Earth, Emmanuel of water, and Gabriel the, who is quite as sinister as the Gabriel in Richard’s poem this afternoon. He’s the lord who announces not a new birth, so much as fire, death, antimatter--things like that are under his control.
The main character in, in this passage is a friend named Robert Morse, who was a neighbor in Connecticut and was a kind of perfect dilettante. He could paint very well; he could versify beautifully; he was a good amateur pianist, but we learn, by the end of the volume, that he’s going to be reborn as a great composer, and we’ve been given a sense of the recipe--a pinch of Mozart, a dollop of Verdi, a half-cup of Stravinsky powder--things like that are going into his making.
We also learned that the elements were, these angels were in some sense the senses of God. And God, throughout this poem, is called "God B"--God for Biology, the word of life--and we meet, we have met him not really face-to-face, but we’ve heard some of his words, and we have encountered his twin sister, who is the triple goddess we all know about from mythology. She’s--her different names are Psyche, or Nature, or Chaos--she makes a brief appearance in the course of these pages. And a charming creature, a leftover from Atlantis named Unice, who’s a unicorn, who is more or less the gatekeeper and is the pendant creature to these bats. If you think of volatile, subatomic particles, you also think of the four-footed nucleus--the force that the, the strong force, perhaps, that holds, that holds matter together. And Uni seems, in a way, to, to embody that. Uni is devoted, has been throughout, to Robert; there’s a great bond between them.
I’ll work up to these ceremonies, Robert Morse’s ceremonies of rebirth, which you might take, for those of you who are skeptical, as a, as a, as a rather playful way of, of uh, of accounting for the emotions, conscious or not, of a child on the threshold of birth. But we go back to the, to set the scene a little bit before the ceremonies come. This is "July 1978."
Noon. Athens. Ten months later. JM’s led
In shock from jet-lag to the "music room"
Just off the hall--space named for its upright
Tonedeaf piano, not much used. DJ
Presses a switch. Outleaping from the gloom,
Four cream plaster columns catch the light;
A path through olives; there, beyond the grove,
A little beached skiff, an Arcadian cove.
Fresco--but who painted it? He did?
Three weeks, sandpaper, gesso, turpentine
And look! beneath the mildest of blue skies
This ideal world lacks only one or two
Dimensions for a future morning’s blue
Instreaming alpha wave to realize.
I didn’t explain that the imaginary setting for a lot of this poem is the Manor-house that Orton described in the passage I read to you just now. That that’s been given the name of "Sandover" and upstairs in this great building, there has been a nursery that turned into a schoolroom as the children grew older, and it’s in that imaginary schoolroom that the blackboards were covered with the formulas that we heard from the angels. And the earthly setting is an entrance hall in Athens, where we set up our table with the Ouija board.
Yet from that house (a stone’s throw distant) years
Flew by in the tall shadow of, no peep.
The manor--is it empty? All asleep?
Robert surely walks the rank parterres,
Works at the piano, leaps the hedge
On horseback. Still, we hesitate to call.
Could we face it if we found the hall
Alive with voices? or my final page
(Every day brought nearer) anything
But final? Ah, these are by now the risks
One takes, remembering whose house it is,
Their high connections and past kindnesses.
Before we know it our half-hearted ring
Is answered SIRS? as up dear Uni frisks,
Followed by Robert. He’s alone. We’ve come
None too soon. He leaves next week for life.
Details last summer unavailable
Are rapidly sketched in. The Minnesota
Dairy farm. The sister five years old
Obediently practising her scales--
BABY WILL NEED DIVINO MOZARTINO
FWOM VEWY START [Audience laughter] Then a rich widower
For grandfather, our friend the sole male heir,
CUSHY, NO? Perfection--pure Jane Austen.
SHREWD GUESS DJ, PLOTTING JUST SUCH ARRANGEMENTS
ON EARTH FOR LAB SOULS IS HER MAIN WORK HERE.
ONE SHADED VILLA IN A BOMBAY STREET
HAS LATELY BROUGHT OUR PACKED HOUSE TO ITS FEET
Remember meeting Robert? The question never
Fails to prompt a smile--who could forget?
That was our year at Stonington High School
Mistook itself for a summer theatre.
Old troupers, doddering up with crutch and creak
Out of the quicklime into the limelight,
Filled the undiscerning hall. One night
A mummy assoluta of technique
Precariously conjured, points in air,
Abbyses yawning for the vivandière
Till rataplan! four gaily intertwined
Cadets provoked this murmur from behind:
"It’s everything one loathes about the Dance..."
We looked round laughing; and there Robert sat
With Isabel, KNOWING ALREADY THAT
HERE WAS ONE FRIENDSHIP NEVER LAUNCHED BY CHANCE
We hear a little bit about the kind of music he’s being prepared to write. It begins with Uni responding to a joke.
HA HA MR ROBERT
OFF YOU GO, HORSE! OUF
Tired? A HARD DAY WITH THE 12 TONE GERMANS
THEN CALLED TO MME CALLAS FOR A CHAT:
‘YOU KNOW, WHAT’S YR NAME? MY BAD EYESIGHT ALONE
MADE FOR EFFECTIVE TOUCHES IN PERFORMANCE.
THAT SUDDEN REELING-BACKWARD HALF A SWOON
IN TOSCA (ACT II) CAUSING HEARTS TO STOP
CAME FROM WHEN I STUMBLED ON A PROP
IN DRESS REHERSAL. LITTLE THINGS LIKE THAT.
NOW TELL ME, TOM? DICK? YOU’RE RETURNING SOON
AS A COMPOSER? INTERESTING YOU WILL WRITE
FOR THE STAGE? YOU DON’T SAY? WONDERFUL!
WITH A GOOD PART FOR ME?...AH I FORGET,
ONCE & FOR ALL IT’S H E R E THAT ONE RETIRES’
MAKING NIGHT GLIMMER WITH SHORTSIGHTED TEARS
This relieves us. Since the fête at Nine
There’s been no mention of your music, Robert.
MUCH OF IT OVER YR HEADS I FEAR & MINE!
EVEN AS WE TALK I’M SEPARATING
THE TONES IN A DOUBLE GLISSANDO. A FULL YEAR
CD BE DEVOTED TO EACH ONE’S LEAST VIBRATIONS.
THEN, EXAMS: COMPOSE 500 VARIATIONS
ON THREE NOTES. G A D (SAY) RING IN MY MIND
& MUST BE LINKED FIRST TO THEIR FREQUENCIES
IN WESTERN MUSIC (SCHUMANN, BACH, JOSQUIN)
THEN TO VIBES OF COLOR & EMOTION
(G MINOR A BLUEGREEN SUBLIMITY)
Why only three notes? THREE FOR THOSE OF US
WHO SHARE THE WESTERN OH WELL, GENIUS,
IS AS WE KNOW A NEARLY UNBREAKABLE MOULD:
A/B/A OR MAJOR/MINOR/MAJOR
DJ: But Schoenberg-- YES HE GRAPSED THE MOULD-
BREAKING IDEA YET LEFT US WITH THE OLD.
INNOVATION ONLY STRENGTHENED IT
WHILE MANY A LISTENER CLAWED HIS CHAIR & PRAYED
‘LET O LET THE LID FALL ON THAT HAND,
STEINWAY COLLAPSE & BREAK THOSE WRETCHED KNEES,
PUT O PUT AN END TO THIS CAREER’
The prayer’s been answered? ‘NOW SIR, IF YOU PLEASE,
I ‘ L L USE THE INSTRUMENT. FIRST LESSON, DEAR
MR X, THERE ARE THESE THINGS CALLED K E Y S . ’
He talks for awhile about the kind of music they want him to compose, and then we remark that the cup is moving in a rather melancholy way--we use a teacup overturned as the pointer--and I suggest that
It is an awesome task to undertake.
A LONELY ONE I DON’T RUSH OFF WITH GLAD
CRIES LIKE OUR FRIENDS. I SHAN’T LIKE THEM BELONG
TO QM’S CRYSTAL SET THEN TOO, YOU SEE
(A deep breath) I’M TO BE CRIPPLED Dear God. Why?
WHY NOT? CONFINED & SLIGHTLY SET APART,
SLOW TO LOVE, FORCED TO GET ON WITH IT,
MAKE SENSE OF IT, MAKE MY REPORT TO GOD
Robert...From birth? YES JOINING THE CLUB (FOOT)
But hasn’t had modern surgery by now--
PLEASE I’VE TO REJECT TOO MANY BONE
IMPLANTS B4 THE DOCTORS LET ME BE
At least a fine Byronic head? ‘THIS TIME
DEAR MR ROBERT, NO DISTRACTIONS. WHO
WANTS LOVE MUST EARN IT.’ SO MY SLIGHTLY MELANCHOLOY
BUT I’LL GET OUT OF GYM! [Audience laughter] MISS JANE: ‘AND TWO
DOTING PARENTS, MR R, AND OH
THAT SHY FOND SISTER, NO MARRIAGE FOR HER, NO, NO,
THERE SHE’LL BE TAPPING AT YOUR STUDIO
(SUCH AN ATTRACTIVE SETUP, OUT IN A BARN):
BROTHER DEAR, YOUR LUNCH?’ FORGIVE ME, LADS
BUT TIME IS PRESSING, IF NOT HERE, BELOW
IN THE RED MATRIX Go, we understand.
YOU’LL SEE ME NEXT THRU A FAINT HAZE.
FIVE CEREMONIES IN AS MANY DAYS
BEGIN TOMORROW AFTER WHICH ALAS
DOWN TO EARTH I SPIRAL LIKE A LEAF
WHO’D GLADLY STAY...BUT NO: FOND AS I AM
OF UNI, ONE CANNOT SAY NEIGH TO LIFE!
SIRS HE WAS LAUGHING WHEN HE LEFT
‘TROT IN THERE UNI & TRY FOLLOWING
THAT ACT!’ SIRS, MR R IS MY SHEPHERD,
WHEN HE SPEAKS MY WORLD GOES GREEN,
HE SHOWS ME SKILLS SHALL I SAY A POEM?
One of yours? Dear creature, by all means!
I STAND EACH DAY BY THE SCHOOLROOM DOOR
FROM WHICH CAME MURMURINGS, BEFORE.
I STAND AND WAIT TO GREET OUR FRIENDS
AND SUMMER ENDS, AND SUMMER ENDS.
The first ceremony.
High above Uni’s green surrounding fields
A space once nursery, then schoolroom, yields
To second childhood. Little chair and desk
Are gone; gone too, the blackboards with Dantesque
Or Yeatsian systems. Random colored blocks
Spell RAT or MAN. Above a shut toybox
Robert’s own full-length self-portrait’s hung:
Paintbrush hovering, smocked in white, a young
Sad clown. The room is airless. Unlit gauze
Draperies (a tasseled pink cord draws)
Erect a limp ghost pyramid. Within,
Our friend lies as if sleeping, knees to chin.
Then the angelic Intern of his dream
Glides into semblance on one downward beam.
Mich. AH BABE, I MICHAEL WHOSE DOMAIN IS LIGHT
BRING YOU THE FIRST OF FIVE GIFTS: SIGHT
In either hand he bears a sparkling orb
Of Empire, the wee numbskull must absorb.
NOW POET, HAND, DECOR! A MIRROR, RUN,
FACE IT TO YOUR PAINTED WALL. TURN ON THE SUN.
We do. The fresco springs to life. AHA!
CHILD, LANDSCAPE, SEA AND SKY,
ARE YOU READY? ANSWER!
Mich. YES! YOU SEE, TELL US!
RM. LORD, THESE BLEAR EYES LOOK PAST TWO RED KNOBS
Mich. YOUR SMALL UNBORN KNEES.
RM. Taking it in. AH LORD, LORD, NOT THAT, PLEASE
Mich. CHILD, LOOK LONG ON IT, YOUR SMALL VITAL IMPEDIMENT
RM. POOR FOOT, POOR FOOT.
Mich. CHILD, THAT IS YOUR UPWARD STEP.
BEFORE, YOU LIMPED. NOW HOBBLED YOU WILL LEAP!
RM. LORD, RED LIQUID WALLS, A TRAILING CORD.
Mich. CHILD, YOUR FIRST CHORD. [Audience laughter]
RM. AND ALL THIS, LORD, AGAINST THE PAINTED SCENE
OF WHERE I AM NO LONGER, AND HAVE NOT YET BEEN?
Mich. YES CHILD. THE SECOND GIFT WILL BE BROUGHT IN
UPON THE MORROW BY MY TWIN.
NOW BLESSED ONES, YOU THREE
MAY SPEAK OF MORTAL THINGS. OUR CHILD CAN SEE.
The nursery is once more a room
(Only we can’t make out the portrait’s eyes)
And Robert again "himself". Was this, we wonder,
His first experience of the new womb?
OR MY FIRST SENSE OF IT. THIS WHOLE LONG TIME,
MY OLD SOUL TRAINING HERE, UP TO NEW TRICKS,
A LITTLE UNKNOWN BOD WAS 266
DAYS IN RESIDENCE, MICHAEL IS SUBLIME:
ALL THIS BOTH REAL & IMAGINARY BUT
ON HIS FIRST WORD ‘BABE’ A B A B E I W A S
FLOATING WARM & LANGUID THEN ON ‘SIGHT’
2 STABBING RED GLOWS SHOT INTO MY HEAD
AND THERE BEFORE ME SHONE YOUR SCENE, AND I
WAS IN THAT MOMENT BOTH UNBORN AND BORN
Go on! WHAT MORE? I DO GO ON. THE FOUR
NEXT CEREMONIES WILL ME SLEEPY (YAWN)
Poor little tyke, yes, yes, Shut those new eyes.
SIRS? IS MR ROBERT SAFE?
Isn’t he in Their hands? HE SAID ‘UNI TAKE ME
OUT RIDING LATER, FOR I LIMP NOW’
Sad, sad, sad; and strange, how such loss turns
To profit. WE LOST OUR PROUD IVORY HORN
Ah, so you had horns then? THE OLD ONES DID
TWISTED & LONG & USELESS Oh? Yet legend
Says any spring you dipped your horn into
Was cleansed of venom. WELL, WE WERE OF THE WHITE
The nursery, with Robert as before,
But open-eyed as Fire comes through the door
On tiptoe with a tray of fresh herbs, wild
Apples, a garlic clove, a nutmeg.
Gabr. DO YOU SEE ME?
RM. YES, LORD.
Gabr. SO MY TWIN’S GIFT TOOK. TODAY WE MUST MAKE HASTE
TO HELP OUR CHILD DEVELOP TASTE.
NOW CHILD, LICK THE SALTS THAT SEASON
WHAT WETLY WALLS YOU IN AND, WITH THAT, REASON.
RM. LORD, I TAKE IT IN. I MAKE SENSE OF IT.
Gabr. DEAR UNBORN, YOU HAVE BEEN THOROUGHLY SCHOOLED, &
THE OTHER MEANING OF THIS NEW SENSE IS YOURS TO APPLY.
1: NO DYNAMICS SIMPLY FOR THE THRILL OF THEM
2: KEEP ENTRENCHED THE CLEAN CALM HARMONICS OF HEAVEN,
3: BRING TO YOUR ART THE CLARIFYING SALT YOU NOW TASTE
AND YOU WILL PLEASE OUR GOD.
RM. LORD, I OBEY.
Gabr. AND CHILD, DEVELOP A TASTE FOR THE ICE,
THAT COLD ABSOLUTE WHICH TINKLING IN YOUR WINE
HELPS MAKE ITS INTOXICANT TWICE
AS POTENT IN THE HEAT OF TOO MUCH LIFE.
RM. LORD, ICE IT IS.
Gabr. SO. ON THE MORROW WITH A PAT
MY EMMANUEL BRINGS YOU THAT
MOST GRATIFYING OF THE SENSES. THERE!
GREET YOUR FRIENDS & TASTE THEIR AIR!
In Robert’s portrait now a sheen
Of Lethe spreading wipes the flat lips clean.
THE ICE (cup musing dreamily) SO ODD
Has it to do with salt? Salt melting ice?
THEIR SOLE CONCERN IS WITH WHAT I’M TO MAKE.
ICE ICE THEY WANT AH YES! THE ICE IS COMING
An Ice Age? Salt would be a taste for thinning...
THAT’S IT OFF TO THE LAB Did Uni take
You riding? I WANTED TO SEE A STAR And did you?
IT WAS TOO FIERY FOR THE LIKES OF US
& YET WE PEERED YES, YES LADS, IT’S TO BE:
I’M 2/5 UNDER WAY YOU TWO GROW DISTANT
Take our love, Robert, while you can. TOMORROW
I MAY TOUCH YOUR FACES, FOR I NOW STARE
STRAIGHT DOWN ON YOU Not from the mirror? NO
AND SAVOR YR POLLUTED ATMOSPHERE
& ON THAT TASTELESS NOTE DEAR ONES ADIEU!
SIRS HE CALLED FOR A SUGAR LUMP
AS ANTIDOTE TO THE SALT LICK
THEN ‘SIGHTLESS CLAP, SOUNDLESS HANDS,
FETCH ME THE PEACOCK!’ & OFF THEY FLEW
Uni, is he limping? has he changed?
HE COMES TO MY MIND EACH DAY DIMINISHED,
A LITTLE MAN MADE YOUNGER YET.
How lonely you’ll--how lonely we’ll all be.
YOU’LL HAVE THE PEACOCK STILL AND UNICE!
But the next day:
SIRS? HE WILL LEAVE US? Yes, you didn’t know?
DJ: It’s dawning on him only now?
--Uni is stunned. The cup looks for a place,
Some corner of the Board to hide its face,
Then with THE LIGHT O! stumbles from the room.
The third ceremony.
Emm. CHILD, IT IS YOUR WATER FRIEND. I CARRY A GIFT SUCH
AS WILL BE NEEDED IN YOUR NEW ART: TOUCH.
RM. THANK YOU, LORD, I WILL HANDLE IT WITH CARE.
Forth from a pool of dancing blues and greens,
With nothing in his hands, Emmanuel leans
To stroke the dazzled infant’s brow and lips,
Heart, limbs, and sex with glistening fingertips.
Emm. O FLOATING PUNY THING, GAILY BEGIN EXPLORING
LET FINGERS FLOW ABOUT, BETWEEN, BELOW!
HEAD, NECK AND ARMS, & THESE NEW KNOBBLY KNEES,
FIND EACH, CHILD, KNOW.
RM. I WILL. I DO, LORD.
RM. MAKE SENSE OF THEM.
Emm. SEE? THE TASTE OF REVENGE?
FEEL YOUR POOR MOTHER GIVE A START! SHE CRIES
(ON THE MORROW YOU WILL HEAR THAT CRY)
‘TOM, IT’S MOVED! TOM! I AM NEAR MY TIME!’
RM. LORD, HOW GRATEFULLY
I FLOAT IN THIS YOUR WORLD AND NOT YET HEAR
THESE TOO NEAR CRIES. FORGIVE,
ACCEPT THE FIRST TEARS OF THESE SWIMMING EYES.
O TOUCHING, TOUCHING! WERE NOT FEELINGS BANNED
I’D CALL THIS GIFT MOST FEELING OF ITS KIND.
Emm. CHILD, YOU HAVE PASSED THE HALFWAY MARK.
SOON DAYLIGHT, NOISE, THE SLAP
WILL WRENCH YOU FROM YOUR LIQUID DARK.
THINK ON US, CHILD, IN YOUR SLEEP,
CLUTCH THE PLUMP BREAST, PURSE THE LITTLE LIP
TASTING THE MILK OF LIFE. THEN SOON
PUT HANDS TO KEYS AND MAGIC US WITH TUNE.
NOW BLESSINGS ON YOU THREE.
GO WELL, DEAR BABE, WE DWELL IN THEE.
The thin unearthly glaze
Has spread across the portrait. Here a nose,
There an ear can be made out. The room
Dissolves about us. Robert--? But he stays.
SIRS HE CALLED THROUGH THE DOOR ‘UNI,
TELL THEM TO COME EARLY AND SPEAK’
Tomorrow. YES ‘FOR ON THE FINAL DAY
WE SAY GOODBYE’ O SIRS O SIRS
Uni, there’ll be toys, a little horse,
Horsie his first word. Hush, he won’t forget--
But Uni has gone elsewhere with his grief.
Next day, his feelings mastered: SIRS HE ASKED ME
‘UNI, WHAT DO YOU SEE?’ I SAW
A VERY SMALL MAN, STILL WITH MR
R’S KIND EYES BUT A CRUTCH & A FLUTE.
I TOLD HIM. ‘UNI, JUST AS I THOUGHT,
JUST SO.’ HE IS HERE! O MR ROBERT
WHO WILL BOOST YOU UP ON MY BACK?
UNI, NO MORE RIDES FOR US. DEAR CREATURE,
HOW YOU’VE LIFTED MY HEART BUT NOW FAREWELL.
TOMORROW THE LADS WILL FIND OUR NURSERY DOOR
SWINGING ON ITS HINGES & YOUR FRIEND
ROBERT A RED OFFENSIVE WRINKLED THING
AWAITING THE BREATH OF LIFE. NO TEARS
IN THOSE GREAT FAITHFUL EYES! AND ON YR RUMP
WITH MY IMAGINED FLUTE AN AFFECTIONATE THUMP:
Oh Robert-- And no tears
In our small faithless ones! WELL, FAITHLESS? No,
No. We believe. We do. AND SO MUST I.
Will it be taken from you now, that ingrained
Callus of the self? ALL ALL SKINNED OFF.
BEFORE ANOTHER TINY MARSYAS
CAN STAND UP TO APOLLO, FLUTE IN HAND,
MUST COME THE TERRIFYING INTERVAL
IN WHICH PURE FACELESSNESS ATTEMPTS TO SMILE
This is still you, though. BUT INSIDE THE SOFT
WALNUT SHELL THE MEAT FORMED THESE LONG MONTHS
IS GRINDING OUT A NEW TUNE FROM ITS GROOVES
A tune that, heard, makes you inaudible?
SOMEWHERE NO DOUBT AN ANCIENT 78
PRESERVES THE SCRATCHY TONE OF THAT LATE GREAT
AMATEUR TENOR: ME And while Earth’s waiting
For its new music we’ll replay the old
To our hearts’ content.
DJ: Will we be told
You name? JM: Have you been told it? AH
U’VE STRUCK A NOTE! THERE’S RUSTLING IN THE WINGS
WE’VE TIME LEFT ONLY FOR LAST WORDS WHAT WILL IT
BE? SHALL WE DEFY THEM? TURN THE CLOCK BACK?
‘IT’S EVERYTHING ONE LOATHES’--about the Dance!
(Sentence completed here in operatic
Unison.) We looked round: there you sat.
AND U TWO? DID YOU HEAR JM, DJ:
‘A KINDRED SOUL’ YOU WARMED MY HEART, DEAR ONES
FROM START TO THIS THE NOT SO BITTER END.
QUICK! A CARESS ON EITHER ELDER’S BROW,
I’M TIPTOE ON THE CHILDREN’S SLIDE...NOW! N O W
The little man lies drowsing, curled up under
White hangings, when a voice of gentlest thunder
Charges the expectant atmosphere.
It is the twinkling Lord of Earth.
Raph. HEAR, HEAR!
YES BABE, TODAY YOUR NAME YOU’LL HEAR
FROM OLD GRANDFATHER CLAY. YES, YES, LONG DEAR,
LONG DOUBTING THOMAS, LEND AN EAR
AND WITH A KISS I WHISPER IN IT: T O M !
DJ. That’s his new name?
JM. So it would seem. The cast
Of the next Rake assembling? They work fast.
Raph. NOW WITH YOUR STRONG LITTLE FOOT, A KICK! SOUND NUMBER TWO:
DOWN THROUGH LIVE CAVES & TUNNELS HER CRY COMES TO YOU.
The tiny figure winces at the cry
And squeezes its face shut despairingly.
NOW 4/5 BABE, YOUR LAST BUT ONE
GIFT RECEIVE FROM ME, THIS GUN
Eyes open. Fingers curl about the flute--
A "blow-gun" (witty Raphael)--TO SHOOT
MUSIC INTO THE WORLD’S EARS FROM YOUR HEART.
REMEMBER YOUR NAME, TOM, AND START!
Again the kick. The mother’s cry. One glance
From Raphael and the portrait...is no more.
A pinch of dry, used color dusts the floor.
Faint sanguine plots a newly primed expanse.
Raph. DUST DUST TO DUST GO, G O
And gravely he
Goes also. Blackout in the nursery.
[End of video part 1; begin part 2]
James Merrill: WHOOSH! HE’S OUT CAUGHT IN THAT FIRST CHORD! HIGH!
HOLD HIM HIGH! AND NOW, TOMIKINS T O M
THE FIRST SNIFF AH! BABE! POET, YOU & I
GODPARENTS LOOK ON ALL ABEAM.
NOW HAND, A WHACK? O MIRACLE, O LOUD!
GO TOM, AND M A K E U S P R O U D
The ceremony’s done. It’s sunrise where
Tom glistening wet takes in her blessed air.
SIRS I HEARD HIM, SUCH A COLT!
WE COWERED IN LIGHT, THE PEACOCK & I
THEY CAME & WENT IN A GREAT RUSH
NEVER SUCH HASTE SIRS DID YOU GIVE HIM
LUCK FROM ME? A FOUR LEAF CLOVER?
Uni, we had no time. OH SIRS IT’S OVER
I’ll read one last thing from this volume, a short, self-contained lyric instead of these fragments. This comes after a series of lessons, and DJ and I take a holiday on the island of Samos. We leave Athens for a week or so. This--the poem is written in a form that Auden resurrected from Dante and called a canzone. It’s a curious form, but numerologically, it has a lot to do with, with the poem because it’s based on, on the numbers twelve and five. There are twelve stanzas--twelve lines to a stanza, and throughout only five end words, so it’s a kind of algebraic sestina.
And still, at sea or night, we had a sense
Of sunrise, golden oil poured upon water,
Soothing its heave, letting the sleeper sense
What inborn, amniotic homing sense
Was ferrying him--now through the dream-fire
In which (it has been felt) each human sense
Burns, now through ship’s radar’s cool sixth sense,
Or mere unerring starlight--to an island.
Here we were. The twins of Sea and Land,
Up and about for hours--hues, cries, scents--
Had placed at eye level a single light
Croissant: the harbor glazed with warm pink light.
Fire-wisps were weaving a string bag of light
A little spin today? Dirt roads inland
For sea stones. Their astounding color sense!
Porphyry, alabaster, chrysolite
Translucences that go dead in daylight
Asked only the quick dip in holy water
For the saint of cell on cell to come alight--
Illuminated crystals thinking light,
Refracting it, the gray prismatic fire
Or yellow-gray of sea’s dilute sapphire...
Wavelengths daily deeply score the leit-
Motifs of Loom and Wheel upon this land.
To those who listen, it’s the Promised Land.
Jounce and revolve in a nerve-jangling light,
Doing the ancient dances of the land
Where, gnarled as olive trees that shag the land
With silver, old men--their two-bladed sense
Of spendthrift poverty, the very land
Being, if not loaf, tomb--superbly land
Upright on the downbeat. We who water
The local wine, which "drinks itself" like water,
Clap for more, cry out to be this island
Licked all over by a white, salt fire,
Be noon’s pulsing ember raked by fire,
Know nothing now, but Earth, Air, Water, Fire!
For once out of the frying pan to land
Within their timeless, everlasting fire!
Blood’s least red monocle, O magnifier
Of the great Eye that sees by its own light
More pictures in "the world’s enchanted fire"
Than come and go in any shrewd crossfire
Upon the page, of syllable and sense,
We want unwilled excursions and ascents,
Crave the upward-rippling rungs of fire,
The outward-rippling rings (enough!) of water...
(Now some details--how else will this hold water?)
Our room’s three flights above the whitewashed water-
front where Pythagoras was born. A fire
Escape of sky-blue iron leads down to water.
Yachts creak on mirror berths, and over water
Voices from Sweden or Somalialand
Tell how this or that one crossed the water
To Ephesus, came back with toilet water
And a two kilo box of Turkish delight
--Trifles. Yet they shine with such pure light
In memory, even they, that the eyes water.
As with the setting sun, or innocence,
Do things that fade especially make sense?
Samos. We keep trying to make sense
Of what we can. Not souls of the first water--
Although we’ve put on airs, and taken fire--
We shall be dust of quite another land
Before the seeds here planted come to light.
[Transcribed by Alex Cavanaugh; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts, 28 October 2012]