A Morning Convalescence

Before sunrise on an unspecific day last week, I was asked by one of the three most important women in my life to give her a lift to work, seeing as her vehicle has been decommissioned for nearly three months now. The morning began at 4:15 a.m., when I opened my eyes and saw the half-face of James Merrill next to me, on the cover of his collected poems. This immediately brought to mind the poem, “The Thousand and Second Night,” in which Merrill writes, “I woke today / With an absurd complaint. The whole right half / Of my face refuses to move.” I also awoke with an “absurd” complaint (who wakes up at 4:15 a.m.??), and seeing his half-face on the heavy book next to me generated a chain reaction of thoughts related to the duality of man in my recent studies of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

At 4:55 a.m., I waited outside her apartment and read the first stanza of “An Urban Convalescence.” I shivered since the heat in my truck takes an average of sixteen minutes to kick in, which I checked with a timer function on my mobile. Only about ten minutes had passed since I first started it and cleaned snow off the hood. I read each line of the first stanza and ruminated on it, feeling a special “human” connection to the third line, which reads, “…chilled through, dazed and lonely…” I was indeed quite chilled, and definitely dazed in how tired I felt, an obvious side effect of watching British television shamefully late the night before. The loneliness aspect of the experience came from the singularly dull feeling of waiting in a cold truck in what seems to be the dead of night. It would be another two or three hours before the sun would even peek over the horizon. This carries an especially depressing weight; ask anyone who lives here.

The fifth line of the stanza evoked an image in my mind. Merrill describes the “huge crane,” which people are watching “Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.” Specifically, this idea of “the filth of years” brings to mind my past. It doesn’t seem at all a maddening speculation that everyone carries their pains and their regrets with them—forever. This garbage from the past, I feel, is often poorly navigated and rarely dealt with in an effective manner; rather, if we think of the “huge crane” as a type of catalyst for the destruction of an old, broken down way of thinking or living, or of memories that stay with us and bring about negativity and suffering, it makes sense that this catalyst would “Fumble luxuriously through the filth,” the negativity of our minds that comes from the past. Although, “fumble” suggests a type of imbalance, like an uncertainty of motion that, at least in football, represents an error. But now I want to think of how one might “fumble luxuriously,” an erroneous, clumsy act coupled with one that is comfortable and elegant. This is how Merrill describes the “huge crane” that is “tearing up part of [his] block,” and perhaps more interestingly, how I suspect he’s describing an act of mental deconstruction to disarm and move on from the past.

Just as I read the line that refers to Graves’s The White Goddess, I looked up and saw her hallway light flick on from the window. I put the book down and ran around the truck to open her door for her. She once commented on how much she appreciated it, so I labeled it a type of standard for our early-morning meetings. The roads were icy, prompting me to switch on my four-wheel drive while traveling, admittedly, much faster than the posted speed limit down 27th Street. After I dropped my companion off, I waved goodbye and proceeded to a coffee shop to continue my reading. I pulled out the dense Merrill book in the parking lot upon my arrival, looking once more at the first stanza. Merrill regards the “huge crane” as a feminine entity, labeling it “her” twice, perhaps linking it to Graves’ book about the feminine divine in mythology. I began toying with the idea that the crane represents something powerful enough to “deconstruct” the past, a feminine deity, of sorts, that rummages through “the filth of years,” and that’s why Merrill is reminded of The White Goddess. I was reminded of Merrill’s own “Lost in Translation” while reading the last line of the first stanza, due to the reminiscent quality of the sentiment, which is seen in the nostalgic recollections of his later poem. This line generates the sense that the poet is reveling, or musing on the past and material he’s encountered. Merrill utilizes associative memory strings, which build-off one another tangentially to create a form of organized daydream of his life. He also explores self-corrective interruption, which he learned from Elizabeth Bishop, according to an essay by Guy Rotella. A clearer example of this occurs in the third stanza, “–Or am I confusing it with another one / In another part of town, or of the world?–”

If I had to explain one major take-away from Water Street, published in 1966, I would have to bring up confessional poetry, reportedly started by Robert Lowell in 1959 with the publishing of his book, Life Studies. Timothy Materer, author of James Merrill’s Apocalypse, compares Lowell’s “For the Union of the Dead,” published in a poetry collection of the same name in 1964, with “An Urban Convalescence.” Confessional poetry seems to have had an influence on Merrill, as this poem, and poetry collection, seems to investigate the poet’s destructiveness as a necessity for creation. In the wake of destruction, creation of something new is given the chance to grow and develop. Can destruction, in and of itself, be a radical form of self-creation? “An Urban Convalescence” is the first poem in Water Street, and “A Tenancy” is the last. In “A Tenancy,” it appears that Merrill finally has found peace, inviting three muse-like figures into his home near the end, with consistent references to light “healing” and “changing” him, like the chair: “A changing light is deepening, is changing / To a gilt ballroom chair a chair / Bound to break under someone before long.” The next line continues, “I let the light change also me.” “A Tenancy” is about renewal, while “An Urban Convalescence” is about destroying the old to make way for the new, cleaning out the emotional pain from the past to build a brighter future. Of course, there are quite a few obvious implications embedded in this idea, since there is value in remembering the past, even its unpleasantries. Sites of destruction are recommissioned as opportunities to learn and grow. Merrill admits his own “moral waste,” his “filth of the years” in the last seven stanzas of “An Urban Convalescence,” where the form “tightens” as the poet enters indoors, a change from the structure presented before while “Out for a walk, after a week in bed…”

Works Cited

Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Cornell University Press, 2000, New York.

Merrill, James. Collected Poems. Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2001, New York.

Rotella, Guy. from “James Merrill’s poetry of convalescence”. Contemporary Literature 38.2, 1997, unspecified location.

Sorrow’s Lost Secret Center

A selfie of Merrill and Friar at Amherst, from Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art

A black and white photo snapped in 1945 at Amherst College depicts the face of a  man, dark hair receding, gaze appearing somewhat drowsy, the deep marks of time carried in crow’s feet parenthetically framing his mouth.  Next to him a boy, lighter of hair, wild-eyed, his face slightly blurred with motion, giving the vague impression of a second face. The man is Kimon Friar, an Amherst professor at the time.  The boy is his student, lover, and budding young poet, James Merrill. The picture has a strange, ghost-like quality about it, perhaps because the shot is of the reflection of the two in a mirror.

So much about this particular photograph seems too coincidental in its anticipation of Merrill’s future: his relationships with men, the many face-like masks he would don through his poetry, his art and life reflecting one another, and his interactions with the spirits of the “Other World.”  In the picture the right side of Merrill’s face appears to droop, predicting a Bell’s palsy attack many years later, which Merrill himself described as “the crack in the mirror of the soul” that would leave the same half of his face in temporary paralysis (Hammer 323). And, as phantasmal as Friar and Merrill appear, so too would the love they shared haunt Merrill like a specter for years to come.

But the forward-looking mirror also gazes back.  The obliquity of Merrill’s face echoes the broken home he came from, his parents having divorced when he was young.  Just as his face is motion-blurred, the “I” in his poetry is never static, never transparent, instead reflective like eye and mirror alike.  Curious (or in Merrill’s case, perhaps not so curious) how the word “reflection” can be taken to mean not only the duplication (and reversal) of an image, but also a careful consideration of things past.  Merrill’s work is so much about both, marrying past and present through memory. Consequently, it becomes impossible to determine which is the reflection: Merrill’s physical face, or his image in the mirror; his life, or his art?  The two collide, at once fracturing and infusing.

Likewise, his poetry is faceted, each poem a shard making up one singular, yet shattered, mirror.  It is important to remember that when mirror-glass cracks, the images it reflects are not perfectly broken.  In other words, a boy’s face will not become pieces that fit cleanly together. Instead, a multitude of similar but dissonant semblances of the boy’s face are assembled, many pieces overlaid or distorted in form.  One “I” becomes countless. One Merrill becomes myriad, overlapping in appearance and time. One shard crops out the wrinkles of his face, another shows the deep lines on his forehead, two reflections of his smile almost align, uniting for a single, flashing moment, youth and age; history looking forward, present looking back.

With this in mind, we hope you will join us in our efforts to puzzle together the pieces of some of this poet’s integral works, eventually leading into the prolific Sandover trilogy. This site will house not only our thoughts conjured forth in contemplation of Merrill’s work – in both blog and podcast formats – but also a slough of useful resources for our followers to embark on their own voyages into Merrill’s, and indeed all poetry’s, mercurial waters; “Sorrow’s lost secret center,” as he dubs it himself in “The Black Swan” (23).

This is no simple engagement. When I tell you that Merrill himself died still plumbing the depths of this hidden impetus, this cradle of artistic creation, you can begin to understand the gravity of our undertaking. Our journey will be one eldritch in nature – the occult investigation, required as a keystone to much of Merrill’s work, itself invites certain dangerous spirits into one’s life.

And yet, remembering that every shadow, by necessity, owes its existence to the presence of a light, however changing it may be, so too may this be a journey of metamorphoses – like the Black Swan itself “by the gentlest turning of its neck” transforms, “in time, time’s damage;/To less than a black plume, time’s grief” – a reversal in which decay and death are substituted with purity, with immortality, fabricating a strange paradise “Where every paradox means wonder” (19-21, 7).

Works Cited

Hammer, Langdon. James Merrill: Life and Art. New York, Knopf. 2015.

Merrill, James. Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 2015.