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…”
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.