[Many thanks to Erika Birkeland for this guest post!]
On September 20, 2019, 16-year-old activist Greta Thurnburg declared in an Instagram post: “Change is coming, whether you like it or not” (“Greta”). While poet James Merrill could not have foreseen the rise of Instagram or the global climate strikes that prompted this post, in 1991 he did predict the rise of a younger generation capable of re-imagining stagnant geopolitical systems to repair the growing divide between humanity and the natural world. While capitalism and commodification have made this generation “slow to ripen,” we may now be closer than ever to producing “the eloquence to come,” something that “will be precisely what [the older generation] cannot say” (Merrill). “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker,” in addition to reflecting Merrill’s life, also provides a portrait of global society, of “our collective time and place.” Specifically, the poem reflects on the rise of globalization and the way this process contributes to the spread of worldwide industrialization, resulting in a mechanized society that has lost its connection with the natural world. Ultimately, the poem reveals the necessity of art as well as science in changing individual mindsets as well as global systems to produce “the eloquence to come.”
“Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker” is a self portrait of the poet. Written towards the end of Merrill’s life, the poem is a “self-portrait-at-the-end-of-days,” full of “sardonic wit and self-irony,” directed inwardly (Vendler). Merrill’s self portrait is self-deprecating, as he implicates himself in wrongdoing along with the rest of humanity. He does not “shy from acknowledging, even affirming, his involvement in some of the very things he decrie[s]” (Leubner 6). The poem is also a representation of Merrill’s personal experience with AIDS, as he writes “from the acute vantage point of the disease that at last allies the wealthy and fastidious poet with everyone mortal” (Vendler). This truth is clear as he refers to himself as “Everyman” and asserts how “we must behave” as if everyone is “countable as equals.” As the disease brings to Merrill’s mind his own mortality and its equalizing power, the poem becomes a self portrait not only of himself but of the values of his society, the “collective unconsciousness / Of our time and place.” Thus, in addition to reflecting Merrill’s life, the poem is a broad portrait of society as a whole.
Merrill’s windbreaker is adorned with a map of the world, which serves as a symbol for a globalized society and facilitates a conversation about geography and maps. Cartographers use map projections to portray the three-dimensional Earth on something flat. The commonly used Mercator projection displayed on Merrill’s windbreaker maintains parallels and meridians, but distorts the sizes of continents. As such, it “exaggerates the size of Northern European countries to make them appear more powerful when set against their conquests in the southern hemisphere” (“Why”). This is relevant because the map itself replicates the current nation-state system, created through military conquest and domination, often at the expense of so-called periphery countries in order to benefit an economically powerful core. Thus, the map on Merrill’s windbreaker reflects his assertion that “greed and savagery” are “the tongues / We’ve spoken since the beginning,” alluding to, among other things, the bloody history of the nation state system, especially in previously colonized territories. Merrill is well aware of this history; when he zips up the windbreaker, “the Atlantic ocean closes / Over [his] blood-red T-shirt from the gap.” Not only does the color of blood reveal the violence of colonization and military conquest, the zipper closing also shrinks the world, mirroring the effects of globalization.
Merrill’s windbreaker can be crumpled into the size of a tennis ball; it makes the world small enough that the Atlantic Ocean spans his chest and the girl in the bakery can touch “the little orange France above [his] heart.” Similarly, within the current nation-state system, globalization figuratively shrinks the world as people and places become increasingly interconnected. Specifically, a global economy results in such close-knit relationships between countries that the world feels as small and mobile as the one on Merrill’s windbreaker, a dynamic system with different countries touching one another as he moves his body. Merrill’s reference to the “corporate synthetic global pitch” of fashion brings out the multiple meanings of the word “pitch.” Pitch can refer to a sales pitch, which is common in a capitalist, consumer society, or to a lurch, where something is set off balance, evoking the way globalization sets the true size and shape of the planet off balance. But the most profound possibility in the word pitch is its reference to a playing field. Globalization has essentially turned the world into a global corporate pitch, a playing field on which major world economic powers compete. This point is furthered by Merrill’s rhyme in the first and last lines of his first stanza: map and Gap. Each of his stanzas features a rhyme of the first and last lines, and these two words often come into conversation with one another. The Gap, an American worldwide clothing retailer, is one of the many wealthy companies placed on the world map as it becomes a “global pitch” that contributes to a worldwide growth-based economy. The rise of a global economy and the spread of industrialization creates a free-market-motivated, constraining mindset that produces a materialistic consumer society. The constraints of this mindset are mirrored through this poetic form, which Merrill repeats throughout the poem.
Six more lines are interposed between the first and last rhyming lines of each stanza, providing a formulaic and inhibiting poetic form to mirror the systems of the world. While the inner lines are free to rhyme in different patterns, and slant rhyme is used throughout, the first and last lines stifle this liberation. The poem’s form mirrors the image Merrill references of waves that “crest, break and recede,” but are trapped by plexiglass “coffins.” These waves, as well as the poem’s form, represent the way the current nation-state system, enforced by a global economy, restricts our worldview, as it becomes “airless…as Tyvek.” Merrill’s effort to break out of a completely rigid form mirrors the necessity of breaking out of the lingering geopolitical system reflected in the map on his windbreaker. However, the poem nonetheless adheres to a specific form, reflecting how the poet can’t quite escape this system yet. A materialistic and unequal lifestyle is nearly impossible to depart from because, as the shape and size of the map on his windbreaker reflect, globalization and the hierarchy of world powers confine society in a pattern of capitalism and exploitation.
This growth-based economy comes hand in hand with the worldwide progression towards an urbanized and industrialized society, which in turn produces commodification and mechanization. Merrill employs a light and sarcastic tone to depict consumer culture, describing automated waves that move “as they presumably do in nature still,” and donning a windbreaker not to go brave the elements, but for his commute to the gym. The entire world, in fact, has been commodified in the form of the very jacket he wears. As a girl waves at him in the street, his overexaggerated intonation emphasizes the superficiality of being bound together by clothing: “oh but I mean she’s wearing “our” / Windbreaker.” Despite his scathingly sardonic tone, emphasized by italics and quotation marks, Merrill waves back to her “like an accomplice.” The two of them are accomplices in participating in a consumer society full of contradictions, where even environmentalism is a fashion trend. In this world, adults “shrug off accountability by dressing / Younger than their kids.” Enjambment between these lines produces two separate meanings: adults avoid addressing the environmental and geopolitical problems of a consumer society by pretending to be younger than their kids through clothing, but also, adults shrug off accountability simply by dressing in and purchasing clothing. The clothing industry is often criticized for treatment of workers and environmental damage—but people shrug off accountability, advocating for change selectively and only when it’s convenient. In a world where “the swells of fashion…collapse” when something new comes into style, all in a developed country who have the extra wealth to buy clothing are complicit in the destruction of the planet, but avoid accountability by purchasing additional commodities that actually make the problem worse, like “cassettes of whalesong” and “recycled notebooks.”
Shrugging off accountability for environmental destruction is easy when one lives in a wealthy country rather than a less developed country where one might feel the immediate impacts of climate change more sharply or even be forced to become a climate refugee. The shape of Merrill’s world map reflects the growing gap between “haves” and “have nots” on a global scale, which has widespread implications as wealthier countries shrug off accountability for their harming of poorer countries. For example, Japan maintains a cleaner living environment using the strategy of “pollution export” to send polluting industries overseas to poor countries without environmental regulations, which harms their living environments while keeping Japan clean (Hall). This provides an example of the way globalization can make a wealthy country “the whole world’s pal,” but ultimately, “the pity is how soon such feelings sour” in a growth-based market economy based solely on self-interest. The true distance between countries makes it easy to shrug off accountability by detaching oneself, and this attitude is furthered by consumerism.
In some instances, Merrill’s diction mirrors the disengagement of the commodified society he depicts. For example, in his description of environmental degradation, he utilizes blunt, cinematic language that mirrors the detached interest of a consumer culture: “Cut to dead forests, filthy beaches, / The can of hairspray, oil benighted creatures, / A star-scarred x-ray of the North Wind’s lungs.” In this example, asyndeton quickens the poem’s pace and produces a sort of flashing slideshow in the reader’s mind that enables them to see the problems and perhaps become intrigued, but that does not allow them to feel tangible emotion. Even the personification in the final line is not enough to provoke real feeling, because before its image can truly sink in, Merrill dives immediately into the next stanza, in which he shifts from tragedy back to a sarcastic tone, providing a rapid-fire and often depressingly hilarious list of “social highlights,” including “pay phone sex,” “the painless death of history,” and “the laugh track.” In this sense, the tension between Merrill’s tone and his poem’s content highlights the lack of emotion often associated with capitalism and consumerism, where switching from tragedy to humor is as simple as changing a TV channel or buying something new. Ultimately, Merrill reveals how a capitalistic society in which even emotion can be used for financial gain proves damaging to the human psyche.
When consumerism commodifies all emotions, happiness in particular becomes a stagnant rather than dynamic state. Merrill’s ironic descriptions of “the laugh track” and “a happy face T-shirt” emphasize the way happiness is commodified in a capitalist society, forced into a prominent role in the emotional landscapes of average people, even if they are not truly happy. A consumer society is built around the promise of happiness; whether linked to “herbal cosmetics” or a windbreaker, happiness “is promised through proximity to certain objects” (Ahmed). Merrill mocks these meaningless happiness associations through his sarcasm, but clearly implies that when happiness is commodified, other emotions lose meaning as well. Speaking for society, Merrill declares: “we ‘love’ our mother Earth.” Quotation marks around the word love reflect the fact that we don’t love the Earth at all, we only act as if we do, and perhaps we don’t even remember how to anymore, numbed by consumerism. In this sense, Merrill emphasizes the importance of reconnecting with the natural world and revitalizing our emotions.
While Merrill highlights the growing divide between humans and the environment, he also reveals the importance of reconnecting with nature, often through art. Maintaining tension between casual tone and heavy content, Merrill begins to tell a story: “Well, back before animal species began to become / extinct, a dictator named Mussolini banned / The street singers of Naples.” This direct connection between an environmental impact and the banning of creative expression reveals a perceived correlation between the two. The “Great Acceleration, which began after World War II, was a period during which human activities in a wide range of areas produced accelerating impacts on Earth (“Great”). Merrill suggests that society’s disconnection from nature during this period may go hand in hand with the decline of art. Music, in contrast to mechanized waves or plastic Walkmans, makes “Nature’s lamps burn brighter.” Merrill believes that music can help him remain immune to a consumer society, as it connects him to nature: “My face / A small part of nature, hopes this musical sunscreen / Will keep the wilderness within it green.” However, he alone cannot stop “the oncoming bulldozer” of the inevitable destruction of a society based upon endless growth, a fact highlighted by his world map that reflects the systems that produce such destruction. Upon realizing he “cannot stop it” alone, Merrill returns to critiquing society. As historian Jenny Price emphasizes, environmental crises are the only ones facing our global society that individuals are expected to “solve” on their own, for example by recycling, turning off the lights, or ironically, consuming superfluous items like “recycled notebooks” that claim to help the planet while contributing to an inequitable and unsustainable global economy (Price). Thus, Merrill’s poem reveals the way an individual reconnection with art and nature is a necessary first step in producing change. However, this must accompany a collective, societal reimagination of the stagnant systems that created these problems in the first place.
The poem’s tonal shift five stanzas from its end emphasizes the unpredictability and urgency that accompanies this change in worldview. This is evident in his transfer from a humorful to an urgent tone, quickening the poem’s pace and building towards a final, nearly incomprehensible stanza. In this section, the pressing necessity of a new collective ideology is clear. We are “folk of the first fuck,” bored of tangible connection, throwing out our clothes “by seasons end” to participate as the “haves” of a growth-based global economy. Ultimately, we will need to escape this “corporate synthetic global pitch” because we will be unable to avoid the “greenhouse effect”; but in order to do so, we need to reach “the eloquence to come.” In part, we can achieve eloquence by reconnecting with art and the natural world, subsequently returning to “childhood’s inexhaustible brain-forest” of “jewel-bright lives,” but ultimately, a shift in geopolitical and economic systems will also be necessary. This is a task which Merrill, at the end of his life, understands he will not be able to undertake, though the change in form between the penultimate and final stanzas reveals a final attempt to get there.
Merrill interrupts his musings on humanity’s future when he describes seeing another person in his “Windbreaker / In black.” This vision triggers a slight shift in form to perfect iambic pentameter until the end of the penultimate stanza, producing a neat form that reflects the individual he sees. This person seems capable of thinking outside of the current geopolitical system and subsequently solving the problems the world faces, reflected by prior, somewhat more chaotic form. However, in maintaining a traditional poetic form, Merrill also reveals the way this one person will not be able to change everything. Individuals within a system are ultimately forced to conform to a significant extent, the same way Merrill clings to iambic pentameter. The “eloquence to come” must ultimately become a universal language throughout global systems, not just among individuals. Further, this person’s reimagination of the world reflects “starry longitudes,” looking outward from Earth entirely and toward something else, rather than simply reconnecting with the planet we are on. Though it may be easy to decide the Earth is a lost cause and look towards other worlds entirely, humans must return to the chaos of fixing the messes we created. Thus, after Merrill confidently transitions into his “final air,” his form reflects the confusion of shifting the way the entire planet lives, and how such a shift must come from systemic change even more so than individual change.
In his final stanza, Merrill’s deliberately sloppy form reflects how the old ways of conceiving of the world have become arbitrary. At this point, his voice becomes more urgent. As such, in order to maintain pentameter, he must leave sections scratched out, and appears unsure of what he is saying. He even splits a word between lines with a hyphen, revealing how difficult it ultimately becomes to maintain the form that he has created for himself. This reflects how difficult it has become for humans to maintain the systems we have created for ourselves; yet we cling to them nonetheless. Many of the lines in this stanza have feminine endings and seem to trail off, reflecting the ways in which Merrill leaves things unfinished. He leaves his incomplete thoughts to be completed by the generation capable of breaking out of ridgid global systems altogether. Further, one of the most notable rhymes traps this stanza: “reason” and “prison”. Though Merrill appears to leave his poem incomplete, he provides many final messages, and this rhyme in particular reveals the ways humans have become trapped within the current system, based upon “reason,” and have subsequently lost a connection to nature and art because of it. As individuals, we can provide ourselves with metaphorical sunscreen in the form of art, and foster a more symbiotic relationship with the natural world—but ultimately, as a society we will remain trapped by the prison of reason that upholds our current global economy until we produce systemic change.
In an inequitable and unsustainable global system, one in which those who benefit least from a growth-based economy are also forced to bare the brunt of the consequences resulting from this economy, a change in the ways we live must occur. Merrill couldn’t quite conceive of the person capable of producing such change, because one person cannot—a collective group must join together to produce “the eloquence to come,” merging art and science to escape the prison of endless growth and its impacts on our current ways of living. Nearly thirty years after Merrill’s “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker,” it seems such change may be approaching. Young people in the United States are increasingly advocating not for individual changes but for systemic change through policies like the Green New Deal, and younger generations are both more open to such change, and increasingly holding older generations accountable. Greta Thurnburg is one example of this new generation, but there are plenty of other young people and groups pushing for change. And while there are many human-caused problems that science can solve, the arts and humanities are equally as important in the production of systemic change. Climate change is not only a scientific issue, but also one of human emotion. As Merrill reveals, art is an important medium through which to reconnect with ourselves and our emotions. Poetry, in particular, can produce both a striking call for social change, and a vibrant, poignantly funny snapshot of the world. This blend of reason and emotion accomplished by “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker” may be precisely what is needed to not only reconsider the current, unsustainable system, but to imagine and produce a divergent and long-lasting future.
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Merrill, James. “Self-Portrait in a Tyvek ™ Windbreaker.” Ronnow Poetry, ronnowpoetry.com/contents/merrill/SelfPortrait.html.
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