Reading Merrill again these days is like coming back to your childhood house as an adult. To all appearances, things are not really changed—the walls and ceilings and windows remain as they were. Perhaps even (let’s imagine) there was no one else at home while you were away, so all the decor and so forth remains as well, just as you left it. You could freeze the whole thing like a museum if you wanted.
But the house will not be the same, though it hasn’t changed a bit. It’s you who’ve changed, you realize, slowly. You’re not the same child that gazed listlessly out those windows on rainy days; and now, standing before this imagined, rain-ribbed windowpane, you see the willow tree beyond in a totally new way—you’d never noticed how from here its sturdy trunks look like a hand grasping upward. Or that painting on the wall—a Chagall!—as a child you didn’t recognize Abraham and Isaac on the mountaintop. Strange now to see it, to realize that icon lurked over you all your life.
Don’t let me overextend the metaphor. What I mean is simply that, as the famous maxim goes, you can’t step in the same river twice; and the maxim cuts both ways. Take your foot out and the river changes—the sand flurries and erodes away a little more, the banks settle deeper into the river bottom. But so too, take your foot out and you change, in numerous imperceptible ways that happen from moment to moment and leave you, to all appearances, unaltered.
I want to talk about Merrill’s “unchanged houses.” Several aspects of them, in fact, but this kind of thing needs a proper warm-up, a proper ritual beginning—and anyway the task is so broad that it requires its own kind of structures, scaffolds and so forth to hold up the thing that will be built within. Scaffolding—what I mean to do is engage in a rambling kind of “talk”—a Chautauqua, in the words of Robert Pirsig—that will, hopefully, lead us into Sandover’s empty ballroom. Sandover itself is the most obvious “unchanged house” in Merrill’s work, but I don’t want to talk only about Sandover. In fact, I want to imagine all of Merrill’s poetry as an unchanged house. It is my intent, with this writing, to enter it. Look around a little bit. See the view from his windows. See how the view has changed, too, since February when last I wrote.
To that end, this Chautauqua will take three separate parts: the first, this one, will examine the way that Merrill constructs the world he wishes us to see. Let’s call that the “Windows.” The second will examine the inhabitants of the house, real or imagined, human or no—let’s call that section “Ghosts.” The third will examine how Merrill works within both spheres, and makes the boundaries between them porous. That one we’ll call “Hermes.” For now: on to the windows.
Last lights go out in the next door house,
Privet and white pine go under, bird-squelch and frog-shrill.
To be separate, to be apart, is to be whole again.
Full night now and dust sheet—
the happy life is the darkened life.
—Charles Wright, from “Meditation on Summer and Shapelessness”
Through the window comes late, rainy light, which scatters on my desk and wall in big, dilute washes. So much has changed since last I delved into Sandover. COVID-19 has ravaged the world. Quarantine, self-isolation, plague… these terms were strange 4 months ago. Protests have broken out across the nation decrying the violence and racism of our governing institutions. Some have turned violent themselves, with both sides committing acts of desperate force. Ecological collapse continues un-talked-about, unchecked, unnoticed, with the bullish and terrifying precision of a head-on train wreck. Wildfires are already starting up in some parts of the country. As Sturgill Simpson put it, in an album aptly titled SOUND & FURY, “Lookin’ out the window at a world on fire, it’s plain to see the end is near…”
But so too I can’t say that my life is really all that changed by any of this. No one I know has gotten COVID, and according to most sources I’m not much at risk myself. My friend group is largely white, mostly Montanan—the racial questions that plague more populous areas are relatively distant in the little enclave of Bozeman. I’ve been making meager attempts at reforming my life to be more eco-friendly and socially responsible, but beyond that things remain relatively stable. Sometimes it feels like all the concerns of the world exist outside a fishbowl, or a two-way mirror. Safe behind my glass, I can cluck my tongue sadly and sympathetically at stories of COVID victims dying alone, unable to receive visitors; at videos of police brutalizing innocents; at the news that yet another species is extinct, that yet another river is polluted, that yet another indigenous culture is being threatened by the combined stresses of all of these. But it hasn’t happened to me yet.
A window, most simply conceived, is an opening in a solid wall that allows a viewer to see through that wall into whatever lays beyond. In this regard it is not so different than a door, except that a door is designed to be moved through—it is a more utilitarian opening than a window. But a window can be passed through—as in defenestration—and a door functions as a window, too, once opened. The categories that distinguish them fall apart under close examination. It’s really our attitude towards the opening in question that decides its function.
But nonetheless, despite not really “existing” at all, windows definitely exist. We can touch them, use them, create or break them. And though they are two-way gates—light enters, and (if there are no screens) bugs too—they are heavily weighted towards the interior; that is, towards the viewer. They are designed to give such-and-such a view, to let in a particular slant of light, to be invisible gates to the Outside World. Thus we can see that the window is an imperfect two-way portal. It is an entity that exists and is given meaning by the viewer and his seclusion, and as a result it tells us as much about the viewer as it does about the scene revealed beyond the window’s frame. Sturgill Simpson’s despair at the State of Things, in other words, is predicated by the separation of self and world, the binary division symbolized physically by the pane of glass.
How does Merrill operate within his frame? For we, as readers, stand on one side of a pane. It requires us peering through for the poetry to mean anything. Poetry is arguably one of the more obscure types of window available. It takes oblique routes to things, using clever little tricks like meter and rhyme to frame itself, and meanwhile doing its best to avoid saying anything in “plain English.” Viewed like this, poetry is a kind of “dark window”—one intentionally obscured for effect.
Merrill’s “toughness” can largely be ascribed to an obsession with frame—especially those clever linguistic tricks like meter—and the resultant tangle of words. His early verse is perhaps the most guilty of obscurity. We can see it in “The Black Swan”:
Black on flat water past the jonquil lawns
Riding, the black swan draws
A private chaos warbling in its wake,
Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor…
If you were to stick this into a high school essay as a sentence you’d get your knuckles rapped. “Say what you mean!” the nuns would cry.
But the more you read that passage, the more sense it makes. The most radical decision in terms of form is that the swan is described and given a setting before we are actually told what it is. In fact, when you think about it, that’s the point—you can’t quite identify what it is at first. The image is obscured while the backdrop fills in with that sudden feeling of a significant happening. Why do we balk at that sentence then? Randall Jarrell has something to say on this subject:
Anyone who has spent much time finding out what people do when they read a poem, what poems actually mean for them, will have discovered that a surprising part of the difficulty they have comes from their almost systematic unreceptiveness, their queer willingness to pay attention even to the reference of pronouns…You need to read good poetry with an attitude that is a mixture of sharp intelligence and of willing emotional empathy, at once penetrating and generous…
I want to take this one step further. Jarrell is claiming (rightly) that the modern reader is already convinced of the obscurity of poetry, and is thus inclined to give up almost immediately when the view through the window is not as clear as “the predigested sentences of Reader’s Digest.” Viewed another way, though, the dark window of the poem’s obscurity becomes a method of actually seeing clearer into things.
An example from the “real world.” Polarized lenses work by applying a chemical laminate in vertical orientation, essentially a kind of transparent Venetian blind. The vertical orientation combats horizontally reflected light—glare—which is light itself being polarized when it hits a reflective surface and goes careening off in a concentrated transverse wave. (A transverse wave is one in which the oscillations of the beam are perpendicular to its direction of travel, like a sine or cosine wave.) Essentially, the light all gets going the same direction at the same frequency, and thus appears to the viewer as areas of more intense light. But when the horizontally polarized wave hits the vertically polarized lens, voilà! The glare is neutralized, and is replaced by (relatively) unencumbered sight. Fishermen use these kind of glasses to see beneath the water’s surface.
How does “The Black Swan” accomplish this? To polarize something is also to divide it into two opposing views or groups. (Hence the cancelled glare.) Let’s finish that fragment of “The Black Swan”:
…Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
Nearer to that green lake
Where every paradox means wonder.
The child’s idea of swans (namely, that they are white) is polarized, brought from singular truth into duality by the perceived existence of an anomaly: a black swan. The window is not only seen-through but shattered. A new frame must replace the one that has been destroyed, and that new frame must account for the paradox of black swans. Later Merrill says,
Illusion: the black swan knows how to break
Through expectation, beak
Aimed now at its own breast, now at its image,
And move across our lives, if the lake is life,
And by the gentlest turning of its neck
Transform, in time, time’s damage;
To less than a black plume, time’s grief.
The first polarization of the poem is the simple existence of the black swan. Another polarization occurs when the swans’ movements are split between “its own breast” and “its image.” This polarization is doubly reflected in the imagistic division between the swan’s reflection and itself. Its reflection on the lake, strangely, can be passed through in a physical sense. If we imagine this occurring—the swan bending to grab some waterweed—we see a clear image of what seems to be the swan passing through itself. First the reflection meets the object, where they touch on the water’s surface; then as the swan’s real head bends beneath the water, the reflection too seems to plunge upward and engulf the real swan, till they are sunk neck and neck together, each one bleeding into the other. (Of course, all of this happens only in the viewer’s perspective, but that too is part of the point.)
But perhaps the most important polarization of the entire poem is the division of time. The black swan, Merrill says, “transforms, in time, time’s damage.” This is straightforward enough if we view the black swan as some kind of easy healer, but Merrill makes it clear that this is not the case: in fact, by the close of the stanza above, the black swan has physically transformed into grief. The swan’s black plume is the measure of time’s grief, and thus cannot be disentangled from grief itself—and anyway, at the poem’s finish that child is left standing on the bank, “hands full of difficult marvels,” while the black swan sails on unaware. The Greeks had a term for this phenomenon. A pharmikon was a substance that could both heal and harm; a poison and a healer. Time, it seems, is Merrill’s pharmikon—or perhaps the black swan is. (Assuming that there’s a difference.)
These polarizations work a subtle but incredibly important effect on the reader/viewer. Let’s imagine that words are a kind of glare. Short, “big” words—stuff like death, love, innocence—are too all-encompassing and confusing to really understand. We hear them, but they net so many meanings that we can’t really know what they mean. We have different words for various types of love—lust, attraction, contentment, attachment—but none carry the same weight as love. (Nor, in fact, do any besides love actually describe the actual feeling of deep romantic attachment; only love does that.) On the other hand, too many prosaic words strung together are just as unintelligible. If someone says “I love you,” you could in perfect honesty respond, “Well, yes, a complex electrochemical cocktail is being brewed in me right now, too, and it’s more or less out of my control or beyond me in some mysterious kind of mystic way, and it seems to be largely due to your role in arousing me physically and psychologically and emotionally, as far as I can tell at least, but of course all of these things must be taken with the grains of proverbial salt that include my past entanglements with various partners and my own predilections in the area of romance, and anyway all of this is to say that yes, I have feelings for you, I think, whatever that means…” But while that answer might be honest, it won’t satisfy the lover.
So one big word won’t do it; neither will many words all piled up. But when all that glare hits the reflective surface of a “poetic window,” what happens? First off, as readers we are forced to slow down. “Flat on black water past the jonquil lawns riding…? What the hell did I just read?”
The decreased speed forces us to do those things Jarrell despairs of modern readers doing—pay attention to syntax and pronoun referents, for one. But the polarized, backwards-ass syntax does more than slow the sentence down. As I mentioned earlier, one thing it does is put us into alignment with the child—we too are forced to study this anomaly, this unknown black thing on the water. But that alignment is performed through a window, as it were. The child never speaks to us, only to the black swan; and the swan never once acknowledges either us or the child. “The swan outlaws all possible questioning: / A thing in itself, like love…”
There is another kind of polarization that occurs in poetry, one so pervasive it could easily go unnoticed: the polarization of the poet him- or her-self. The simple fact is that the “poetic self” is not the “true self” of the poet—that is to say, meeting Merrill face-to-face wouldn’t be the same as meeting him through his work.
This is so obvious it seems facile; but how often do we the reader consider this division? One example: poetry is undoubtedly a private art. (How comfortable do you feel sharing your turbid thoughts on a lover with an unknown audience of unknown strangers?) But by the same token, art in general is an undoubtedly public act—in fact, arguably it has little to no meaning unless it is perceived by a viewer. So there is a duplicitousness to most poetry, a notion that we are privately chatting with some thoughtful, well-versed person wandering around saying profound things. In reality we’re just one of an audience thousands strong, all suffering from the same illusion. Poets themselves encourage this notion. (At the very least most of them don’t discourage it.) But the reality, of course, is that every artist in history has as tangled, complex, and brutally emotional a life as the rest of us, if not a little more so. And the presentation of a certain self-image is rife in Merrill—through most of Sandover he’s called The Scribe, for Pete’s sake! Admittedly, in Merrill’s case the image is also darkly tongue-in-cheek. As we watch DJ and JM from our little window, we see the slow straining of their relationship, and the unique arrogance of Merrill’s little private world and his place in it—yet he never repents of his title, nor does this self-awareness change the situation. Almost as if it’s unavoidable.
All these things entered you
As if they were both the door and what came through it.
They marked the spot, marked time and held it open.
—Seamus Heaney, from “Markings”
So far I’ve talked about the windows in this unchanging house—and perhaps now is as good a moment as any to admit that what “windows” really means is the way the poet presents themself as seeing into the world; and thus in turn it also means the seeing itself. Waiting this long to say that was important, because to do so we first had to see the effects of the windows.
The object “window” both can and can’t be subdivided into a physical reality and a viewer’s temperament. We can divide them because they are indeed separate physical objects from the viewer; we can verify their “realness” by the fact that if we remove the viewer, we can reasonably assume that the opening in the wall will be the same.
But we also can’t divide the window and viewer, not without doing some epistemological violence to the whole arrangement. In fact, if you study the statement above, you’ll notice that even if we “remove the viewer,” it still requires a viewer to verify the window’s continued existence! In fact, we ourselves have become the viewer in this scenario. This was the point of discussing polarization for so long—the qualities of a window actually depend on the viewer. We can take away the viewer or isolate the window in a lab and say, “Yes, the glass has deteriorated such that its edges no longer form straight lines.” But it takes a viewer to say, “This glass is warped.” Warped only has meaning in the monistic world of viewer-and-window-combined. It is a sight-word, a word that communicates into a subtle area of seeing through the window, and is thus independent of both window and viewer. It’s also a more useful term than that pile of technical language.
We will return to this divide (or lack thereof), because I think it has a lot to teach about poetry—but for now I’d like to talk not about viewer or window but about the process we just stumbled upon, the transformation of the dispassionate viewer into an active participant in the poem.
There is, in poetry, a basic kind of dishonesty: the aforementioned polarization of self. The poet himself is a kind of glare—he’s so busy Saying Things that you never really get a chance to see the speaker. (“Admittedly I err by undertaking / This in its present form. The baldest prose / Reportage was called for…”) Moreover, this dishonesty probably extends to art in any form. Why do we worship Homer, or Michelangelo? Partially, at least, because we stand in front of their mighty works and get the feeling that we’re standing right there with them: “Yes, Leonardo, I do see the quality of that smile!” We are sympathetic friends, they are profound thinkers who graciously share their visions with us. That concentration of vision—that polarizing effect, everything pointing the same way—is what creates so much of the power of art. And it is, for the most part, a lie. The polarization is evidence of a structure with which we are forced into alignment. Art imposes on us. We aren’t standing next to Leonardo, we’re standing next to another window—the window of the artist’s vision. The artist sees the world and chooses to highlight one part of it, captures it and pins it down like a dead butterfly and then shows it to us like a museum exhibit, says “Look at this.” Looking at the Sistine Chapel this way, we’re not particularly close to understanding Michelangelo himself. It’s a secondhand vision.
But poetry, both historically and currently, is one of the more honest arts as well, because at least since Shakespeare it has admitted its own failings. Dishonesty seems to be the new honesty. “All the world’s a stage,” says ol’ Bill, and suddenly we have the disturbing feeling that it’s him on the dark side of the glass, that it’s us who are being watched! “Metatheatre” is what it’s called when this strange role reversal occurs on stage, and Shakespeare never hides this toying-with-the-glass. It’s there in verse in the utmost beginning of Henry V:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
… But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
“Hello there,” Shakespeare says. “Feel free to doodle on the glass.” In film the window we’re describing is called “the fourth wall” (as opposed to the three visible from where a camera sits). Crossing it occurs when a character stares into the camera. It’s an eerie experience as a viewer, because we’re used to watching film like voyeurs—other people doing interesting things while studiously avoiding looking at one wall of any given room.
But poetry is also sneakier than film. How could it break the fourth wall? One way is the simple use of the second person; Merrill does it in “The Kimono”: “How I got home again / Frozen half dead, perhaps you know.” All of a sudden we’re inside the scene. It’s like you’re watching a movie and all of a sudden you see yourself on screen, completely unexpectedly. And it gets worse. Merrill’s next line is, “You hide a smile and quote a text.” Now not only have we appeared in the movie, but we’re actually speaking. Who let this happen?
There is also a kind of polarization occurring here which I would like to point out: the polarization of the viewer. If the poet has split himself into little pockets of concentrated experience, now we too are split, polarized in the same way, almost against our wills. So what do we unwittingly say next in “The Kimono?”:
Persist from one life to the next.
Hearths we strip ourselves beside
Long, long ago were x’d
On blueprints of “consuming pride.”
Times out of mind, the bubble-gleam
To our charred level drew
April back. A sudden beam…
[Then Merrill reappears:]
—Keep talking while I change into
The pattern of a stream
Bordered with rushes white on blue.
What are “we” saying, actually? There seems some Buddhist idea of reincarnation mixed with some rather convoluted notion of fate. Our desires persist forward into the next life, but it seems they are fated to be ungratified, if we strip beside hearths predestined to hold us. (We needn’t get hung up on the term “Buddhist,” because we already know that Merrill’s view is neither Buddhist nor Western, but Sandoverian—which is to say a bit of both and also something unique.) The line about April seems to reference “The Waste Land,” which means that “times out of mind” must mean the past, if it “draws April back.” “April is the cruelest month, / Breeding lilacs out of dead ground…” So there’s a sense, all of a sudden, that this conversation we’re having with Merrill is really a cosmic experience, a whole lifetime of sin and mistakes that drew us inevitably back here, once again, lilacs coming up through the sullen brown earth and we’re falling in love. “A sudden beam…”—light through the July-bright windowpane in my world. Whatever that means. (Who makes these blueprints, anyway?)
Enough of us. What happens to Merrill, the other person in the glass? He “changes into the pattern of a stream.” That’s Greek. (Or Japanese…) What is important, though, is that he is the one undergoing the transformation. (We’re still talking.) Usually in Greek myth it is the desired but unattainable lover who transforms into the stream (or streamside plant—á la Pan and Syrinx, Biblas and Konis, Apollo and Daphne). So in some sense, like Apollo grasping at rough bark, we watch our love slip away from us. The river (stream) flows onward, out and away from us no matter where we stand.
I’d like to complicate this picture, though, with the fact that in Japanese mythology (a realm we can’t escape, thanks to the kimono) it is often the active lover, the seducer who metamorphoses. (This does occur in Greek mythology, too; e.g. Zeus’ lover/victims Leda and Danaë.) Kitsune, for instance, are divine foxes said to be able to take on human forms. In this form they are known for their sexual appetites—not inappropriate, considering what love did to Merrill at the outset of the poem:
When I returned from lovers’ lane
My hair was white as snow.
Joy, incomprehension, pain
I’d seen like seasons come and go.
How I got home again
Frozen half dead, perhaps you know.
How should we read that last sentence? It’s like we’re complicit. Are we hiding something from him? Does he not remember? Did we rescue him? Or does he mean that both of us already know this drill, that it’s happened many times? Is he the fleeing kitsune or the laurel tree? And which are we?
YES & NO, I’d say. Here’s one way poetry breaks the fourth wall and drags us into things—it can refuse to say one thing or the other. When he dons the kimono, Merrill both does and doesn’t change into a stream. He puts on a robe—or we can choose to see that—but he also does become the stream. Love must end, says one part of the subtext, just like a stream must always flow downhill. It’s just the rules.
The second-person perspective has another funny effect, though, another kind of polarization of the viewer. What happens when we read the poem aloud? All of a sudden, we’re no longer the talking lover, we’re the one transforming. “You hide a smile and quote a text”—it’s our lovers who are saying this! “Keep talking while I change,” we respond; and then we change. In a strange way, the poem (like the pattern of a stream) is self-replicating, because anyone who reads it now and in the future will undergo this same fracturing, and will in turn “pass on” the roles therein. Now the question of who is kitsune, who is laurel is doubly or trebly complicated. YES & NO.
Let’s back up a moment. Standing too close to the window makes things a little heady. The very fuzziness of the poetic world—the darkened view from the window—has worked magic now several times over. First we were teleported into the scene, when we had thought ourselves safe behind the glass. Then we were handed a script, placed opposite a white-haired lover whom we seemed to know—and we faithfully spoke. And then this lover both did and did not melt away, a witchy pool of water on the carpet, an old man in a robe. And then we realized that we were both people all along. We have been thoroughly polarized, split so many times we can no longer distinguish what we are, and what is Other. We are both; we are neither.
But he’s in doubt
as to which side’s in or out
of the mirror.
he says he
finds exhilirating. He loves
that sense of constant re-adjustment.
He wishes to be quoted as saying:
“Half is enough.”
—Elizabeth Bishop, from “The Gentleman of Shalott
How honest is this dishonesty! My parents and my lovers and my therapists have never gotten the “full picture” of me, probably because no such thing exists. There is a comfortable kind of illusion in our sympathetic views of art; in Jarrell’s words, we art-loving types’ “mixture of sharp intelligence and of willing emotional empathy, at once penetrating and generous.” We empathize with the artist, we say, and mean it. Hang around a gallery long enough and you’ll hear the telltale signs. “Look at the raw emotion in this one!” You could construct the most intelligent and penetrating and generous viewer in the world, but there is still dishonesty in them, for the simple and inescapable reason that by our own natures we cannot accept that the whole notion of “us” is part of the problem.
Buddhist philosophy sometimes calls the ego or soul “aggregates.” The idea is that there isn’t any unmoving center of the soul, only a collection of impulses and counter-impulses that is always changing. Recent studies have shown that people consistently underestimate the changes they will undergo. This occurs across all age groups and, interestingly enough, with by and large the same ratio. If you ask 20 people to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how much they’ll change in 10 years, then ask another group how much they’ve changed in the past 10 years, the average rate of actual change will be twice as much as the average expected change. This applies to everything: favorite colors, best friends, political affiliation, favorite food. We’re quite literally always changing.
Perhaps, as scientific types might argue, our genetic makeup and inborn predilections are the foundation of the soul. This seems a little silly, though, given that the same genetic makeup produces different results in different situations. If anything our genetic makeup seems a kind of canvas—it’ll determine the painting’s shape, but not its content or color palette. Moreover, the fact that DNA is not a fixed, unchanging entity would complicate this view. Genetic anomalies can present themselves slowly, or after some changing event. Is the schizophrenic’s soul the calm child or the young man hearing voices?
This idea is supported by the entire structure of Sandover—all the souls in constant, almost industrial rebirth and graduation “up” through existence. But it isn’t quite the whole picture. As in “The Kimono,” there are threads which follow from one life into others—“desires ungratified persist from one life to the next.” There is a vague smell of karma around the whole idea, but it’s not quite karma, either. Karma, after all, depends on a system of morality which in turn “weights” various actions and ideas—good and bad, or (really) well-intentioned or ill-intentioned. Another kind of polarization.
I’ve spent so much time talking about polarizing that it almost seems dishonest to go back to a monistic kind of view—but that’s exactly what I want to do here. I want to talk about the view through the windows, not the windows themselves. Many moons ago I wrote an essay about Merrill’s gnostic influences, and I think the Gnostics will themselves be a useful window now, as we step away from Merrill’s windows and begin to consider the house itself, its position in the landscape.
Gnosticism, like its bedfellow Christianity, is an uneasy kind of monism. Both acknowledge the duality of the world—human/divine, God/Satan, good/evil—but deny the inevitability of this state. It’s all God, the traditional codes insist, there’s just something about it we don’t understand… Predictably, such beliefs are problematic. Evil is particularly thorny. You can say “It’s all part of the plan,” but what kind of fucked-up God plans for children’s leukemia? You can say, “It’s we who are the problem,” but try telling that to that leukemia patient’s parents. Invariably, a believer in the One True God must come to terms with the obvious and undeniable state of the world; how strangely at odds that world is with the world promised by God’s various covenants. All religions must acknowledge evil. The Christians (these days at least) say it’s found in Satan. The Gnostics say it’s found in God himself.
The obvious place to go looking for Merrill’s theology is in Sandover itself—JM and DJ literally “meet” God. (Or, more properly, God Biology…) But I want to avoid that obvious domain for a moment, and remain within the no-less-apt Divine Comedies. “McKane’s Falls” begins with a description that could be either a salon or a forest:
The great cold shoulders bared,
The last great masts grown rich with moss, the slow-to-topple
Pilings, amassings of a shadily
Conservative nature—Balzac alone
Could have “done” this old salon,
Its airs, its tediums.
We can read this as the forest itself—cold shoulders being perhaps boulders, “great masts” being trees thick with moss—in which case we are given a picture of those beautiful old-growth forests that seem slightly malicious, like Tolkien’s Mirkwood. Or, we can read the whole thing figuratively—the cold shoulders are aloof people, the masts are old conservative hosts grown thick with their own stagnance and wealth. Either way, the oppressive air is broken:
The more astounding, then,
To be led by laughter out onto the sunny balcony
Where somebody quite dashing for a change
Ran on about banks broken and weights lifted,
Dorsals, laterals, pure and simple
Ripplings of a soul
—Lost, mon père? Well…savable, who knows?
Into the forest is a shaft of gold—a charming guest, beautiful if a trifle simple in scope. A lost soul, as Merrill suggests, in that sense that tarot cards’ fools are lost; wanderers, naïve and wondrous for that very reason. But “savable?” The question “Who knows?” admits at the very least an ag-gnostic sense of confusion about what precisely it means to be saved. And in Merrill’s hands that precious knowledge is given over to two clownish figures. The poem shifts:
They knew. The two dirt-caked prospectors
Rubbed their eyes and squatted within earshot
For what it was worth, God loved them—
His 12 oz. rainbow sizzled in their pan;
Next morning, the first nugget.
These are strange figures to receive the bounty of the divine: “A Yankee ornery enough to seek / Unfluctuating values, and a meek / Rebel, an embittered dreamer / Out of Balzac.” Balzac, reappearing for the second time in this poem, is most well-known for his huge and masterful Human Comedy. Moreover, these roynish clowns are literally eating God’s covenant. Genesis 9.1-13:
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything…God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
The 12-oz. rainbow is, on the one hand, a trout; on the other, it is the symbol of God’s gift to humankind. YES & NO.
The poem’s finish, however, is where it begins to get truly gnostic:
The creek, a crystal tendon strained,
Tossed on its couch, no longer freely associating
Hawk with trout, or cloud with pebble white as cloud.
Its mouth worked. The history began.
What follows is the creek speaking. The water literally seems to talk, tossing on the psychoanalytic couch of Merrill’s poetic eye. And what does it say?
Am I riding for another fall?
Will I end up at the power station
On charges, a degenerate?
Have my spirit broken in a cell?
Must I grow broad- and dirty-minded
Serving a community, a nation
By now past anybody’s power to shock?
Doctor of locks and dams, the delta’s blinded,
The mudfish grins, how do I reach the sea?
Help me. No! Don’t touch me! Let me be!
Bad vibes. Bad dreams we’re pulled into, relentless as a riptide. The tragicomic idyll of the poem’s first stanzas is transformed to a desperate plea by Nature herself.
The next section of the poem is calmer, and it sounds again like Merrill is speaking.
Time was, time was a handful of gold dust
Fought for like breath, though it was only time.
Here below, the campsite—second growth,
Charred beams, a skillet dew gnaws bottomless.
Listen. We must be near. And look, the currant
Berries—how their scarlets drip
Into clear conscience from a fingertip,
Or shrivel, tiny redskins, where next spring
Will rise big ghost-white scentless violets.
No hands are washed clean in the same stream twice.
The dichotomy of human vs nature here is strongly accentuated, but also at the same moment human violence is intermingled with the natural world. The colonial succession of plants after fire is linked to the colonial succession of Western Europe over the New World. Even the methods, though, are more complex than simply destructive fire—even the dew can gnaw iron, and humans can war over ethereal qualities like time. Water and fire each will consume; so will humans; so will plants. Nothing is safe. Nothing is sacred.
In the final section of the poem, the creek speaks again, except that now it is the waterfall. (Where does the one stop, the other begin? (YES & NO.)) Like a psychiatric patient breaking through into closed-off memories, we are treated to different voice: “Come live within me,” it says:
There is a chamber of black stone
High and dry behind my stunning life.
Stay here a year or two, a year or ten,
Until you’ve heard it all,
The inside story deafening but true.
Or false—I’m not a fool.
Moments of truth are moments only,
Eyes burning on the brink of empty beds.
The years wink past, the current changes course.
Now you’ve seen through me, sang the cataract,
A fraying force, but unafraid,
Plunge through my bath of plus and minus both,
Acid and base,
The mind that mirrors and the hands that act.
Enter this inmost space
Its lean illuminations decompose.
Get me by heart, my friend,
And then forget. Forgive
These bones their hollow end, this amulet
Its wearer who atones.
All things in time grow musical.
How can you live without me? While I live
Come live within me, said the waterfall.
I could spend years on just the polarizations in this passage, because it’s rife with duality. (Not to mention puns, which are themselves a dualistic humor.) Acid/base, mind/mirror, hands/action, mind/hands, mirror/action, fraying/unafraid, deafening/true, etc. But strangely, the polarization is not, as it was in “The Black Swan,” a symbol of separation. Or, more precisely, the polarization in this passage is remarkable because it paradoxically increases the poem’s unity.
In this passage, I think, lies one key to Merrill’s theology, and his focus on division and dualism. The Gnostics would say that God was flawed, and thus the world is flawed. Our task, according to the gnostic texts, was to escape the whole cage, rejoin the Universe Out There, where everything is as it should be, formless, one, unitary, the Monad. Merrill too aims at that unity, but his transcendence is doubtful, and more earth-bound than the Gnostics’. The voice of the water tells him that all is divided, but all becomes one. Polarized light all goes running off in the same direction. “All things in time grow musical.” There’s no notion of “Out There,” because it’s all right here, coexisting. The mudfish is the creek is the prospector devouring God’s bounty, His gold and fish. Buddha’s in the back garden, runs one Zen saying. Look for him in the hedge.
Dualism to Merrill does not imply separation. In fact, it is by highlighting separation that we arrive nearer to the oneness we imagine. If you spend long enough at the falls, the water will speak. Can’t step in the same river twice. You’ll see the stones shift, the waters round and weigh the stones, the tree sprout up and choke the stream and the logger clear it. “Moments of truth are moments only.” The creek pours over its lip of stone, burbling and foaming, and then we suddenly call it waterfall. When it pools and flows away it’s a creek again. And different creatures live upstream and down, and some upon the walls of the waterfall itself. Some, even, live inside it. The changing light—“Sun’s rose wash on the wall,” “lean illuminations”—is beautiful, and speaks of time flowing on and on. The light that breeds life foretells its fading. “Time was, time was a handful of gold dust…” It’s all the same damn thing.
And the black cave behind the waterfall—what should that signify? Some temple of the mind, perhaps, a house unchanging even as everything around it shifts in constant, roaring flux? The Romans called places like this memory palaces. Even today memory champions use similar techniques. Make a place in your mind, one you know better than your own reflection, and then put objects in it that trigger memories. In such a place words like “subject” and “object” have no meaning. Maybe that cave, that memory palace where life is fiction in disguise, is like poetry itself, a gorgeous, deceptive, deafening outlook on the world. The artist isn’t unique in having a cave like this. All of us carry the thought-structures that inform our world, our notions of good and bad, light and dark, our lenses that interpret things. Perhaps the artist is only unique in that he draws, every now and then, on the walls, what he sees out of the windows.