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.

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