Deep haze and dreamscapes penetrate my waking-states, almost daily. It’s been about a year since I “quit” drinking; I would have expected more clarity. Then again, I still have a cocktail once every month or so. Still, I never would have expected (relative) sobriety to be a gateway into a greater separation from myself. I’ve become an outsider to my own flesh, a mere spectator to the Escherian nightmare, my life, unfurling before me. Can it be that a drunken decade, ten whole years spent in daze, is somehow more real than this moment? I pick up Braving the Elements, searching its lyrics, and my mind, for answers.
Of course, Merrill is never really a poet of the answer or the moment (the exception being the intimations between the present and the past). Nevertheless I find a sense of affirmation, almost camaraderie, in “Days of 1935,” which is, perhaps, what I was actually seeking in the first place. The first stanza’s “I’d steel myself at night/To see, or sleep to see” introduces us, not only to a witty and humorous display of the poet’s latent desires to be kidnapped, but also to a struggle between fantasy and reality that permeates the piece throughout. The very notion of sleeping “to see” suggests that there is a certain aspect of the dream, or daydream, that is more real than waking life (3-4).
The language of the poem carries the surrealism ever onward. Merrill employs words like “spell,” “swoon,” “masked,” and “imagination,” wrapping us in a sheet as mystical as it is feverish (10, 13, 17). The dirt road the poet is spirited away upon is “tenuous,” suggesting both a dubious construction, and also an uncertainty of its existence at all (21). The “unwrinkling chart” of the captor’s brow invokes imagery of an unfolding horoscope – the scene is as transcendental as it is scripted – it’s “written in the stars,” as it were (24). And then, of course, their destination is liminal, both in space and time, “Dawn” being between night and day, their physical position in the “middle of nowhere,” suspended in unreality behind a veil of “dust and glare,” these final factors heightening the obscurity of the sequence (24-28).
The quatrains and strict alternating rhyme scheme of “Days of 1935” transforms the poem’s otherwise dark subject-matter – the kidnapping (and sometimes murdering, if we’re to make inferences from the “Lindbergh baby” of line 9) of children, Stockholm syndrome, sexual abuse, capital punishment, and so on – into a jaunty ballad that gives us, as passengers, an easy ride. The form is also evocative of a children’s poem, and given that the poet awakens from his hallucination with no dream-fulfillment, it’s possible to read this, too, as a ballad of lamentation – another one of Merrill’s chronicles of love and loss. The result is that we, along with the poet, are caught like “Dew spangles” in “the web’s heart,” somewhere between memory and desire, somewhere between what we have been and what we want to become, neither of which allows for an independent identity of the here and now (18).
I can’t help but feel that the chord Merrill strikes in “Days of 1935” rings truer than life itself. Where are those bursts of creative spontaneity that would, in the days of my youth, steal me away from the mundanity of nine-to-five existence? Maybe I never should have quit drinking. Like the child in the poem, I have become bored and burnt out, no longer full of wonder, the boy and I are now “half-grown” instead of half-young (208). The “lady out of Silver Screen” from much earlier in the poem calls to mind the projection of a film, reminding me of the sensation of being a spectator to my own life and, retrospectively, informs us that the entirety of “Days of 1935” is a strange act of destiny in which we have no agency, nor place except as a bystander – a dizzying emotional state that I have to assume is much akin to that of having your child stolen from you, and know is akin to losing your own childhood (29).
My mind reels, playing out Merrill’s images back and forth, the “Silver Screen” as my focal point. The poem begins to chill me to the core. The poet’s parents are “Eerie, speaking likenesses,” the poet himself composed of “blanknesses and dots” (89, 94). Every surrounding object in the poet’s waking life, back at home, is a cheap imitation – the “board/Painted like board,” executives with “Heads of Cellophane or Tin,/With their animated wives,” his mother doing her make-up – all merely “Mimics the real” (275-276, 294, 278). I feel the hairs on my neck raise and tingle with the thought: “perhaps I’m not disillusioned… perhaps this is all illusion, a simulation, some sick play in which I have been assigned a role against my knowledge and my will, so that the invisible architects of reality can enjoy my every private pleasure and pain – all has been constructed for my, for our, exploitation.” I quickly discard the thought, fearing that I’m falling into an LSD flashback, or following the family trend towards schizophrenia.
I readjust my focus back to “Days of 1935,” looping it through my mind again. Suddenly a line jumps out at me – or rather, an association between lines – that I hadn’t noticed before. “Pluck,/Some deep nerve went. I knew/That life was fiction in disguise”… at once the poem is unlocked by this keystone line (104-15). The silver screen is no longer just so, but also the process by which cinema in general came to be defined, as a whole, as such. So too is all of life metonymous – the film screen takes on the name of the silver with which it was once associated, meanwhile we take on the many forms of everything preceding us. Our captivity, like the poet’s, is not a result of some Gorgonic force petrifying us in terror. Rather, the links binding us serve as a sort of conduit through which the true forms of all things flow – Leopold Bloom becomes Odysseus, life becomes art, we become ourselves. The existential dread of life as a replica breaks, dissipating back into the sea of the only thing that still remains – the deep haze. The surface of my daily dreamscape is still again, unbroken, save for the small ripple of something that has plunged just below the surface – the cold comfort that everything we do is everything we’ve done.
Merrill, James. Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 2015.