Rosy used to say that New York is a fairground.
“You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.”
—Hannah Sullivan’s “You, Very Young in New York”
Back to the ever-curt and oft respectful transactions of New York City delis, markets, and bodegas—the equivalent of the steering wheel finger-lift on rural Rocky Mountain roads as a means of nonintrusive acknowledgement. Back to the city’s sense of nature—individually planted trees on sidewalks and large parks with loops and trails and meadows and modest ravines—and to the nature of the city: the sirens and the hum of traffic stopping and starting and the occasional far-off blast of a boat horn in the canal. Back to door buzzers and stairwells and foyers and deadbolts. Back to deliveries and overflowing trash bins and the sidewalk’s surf of trash and wrappers and soaked clutter matted to asphalt. Back to stepping as far out into the crosswalk as possible without getting run over by oncoming traffic while waiting for the light to change.
Back to mistaking for the moon the light in a window higher up than the one from which you’re viewing it; to the silhouettes of skeletal fire escape staircases against the city’s predawn dark blue; to the click and hiss and knock of the radiator and the rattle of pipes.
Back to the Soda Bar, which is now permanently closed, along with so many other businesses and buildings I remember being in its general vicinity a decade and a half ago. Now the Barclays Center looms like an alien craft that has landed among and on top of little buildings and is communicating in some new futuristic, neon-based language with the Freedom Tower across the river. If you’re from the 20th Century, you can’t understand it. I know what the giant letters are: B, A, R. But I don’t know what they mean at this size and in this shade of electric blue that belongs less in Brooklyn than in Blade Runner.
I’m not and never have been a New Yorker. My parents are both upstate New Yorkers. Their parents were all upstate New Yorkers. But I was born outside of Philadelphia and now know the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest much better than I know the eastern seaboard. I did, however, spend the second half of my twenties leaving Boston for New York as often as I could, including for an entire summer once, when I worked at Soda and couch surfed between Brooklyn and Manhattan and subsisted on bagels, coffee, and the sports section of the Daily News, using a pre-smart cell phone to call cars the wait times for which were exactly how long it takes to smoke a cigarette above dark, streetlamp-lit puddles in which the lights of the city squiggled and swam like quantum eels.
At the beginning of “An Urban Convalescence,” we find Merrill “out for a walk, after a week in bed.” He’s in New York City, and he emerges from illness to find workers “tearing up part of my block.” The poem’s first two lines set this stage for us, establishing a dynamic between states of recovery and states of disrepair. There’s the strange sense that the city has used the opportunity afforded it by the poet’s week-long absence to undergo a transformation behind his back, without his approval, so that when he emerges from his front door it is into a new world, requiring recalibrations and reconsiderations. It’s not quite Dorothy looking out upon Oz from the site of her crash landing, just Merrill in Manhattan.
Merrill chose poetry over finance. In 1962, midway on his life’s journey and still struggling to emerge from a verse style that threatened to consume itself in its own ornamentation, he published Water Street. “An Urban Convalescence” opens the volume and marks a turning point in Merrill’s career, one characterized by the emergence of a new voice within his work, a voice as carefree and casual as it is sophisticated and urbane. Over the next three decades, Merrill would exercise this voice to brilliant effect in a string of long, autobiographical lyrics of love and loss written less in the confessional mode than in the manner of Proustian recollection. Proust being the quintessential frail urbanite, it’s fitting that Merrill launches his own search for lost time—his own attempt at recovery—in a poem that begins with his emergence into the city after a week in bed.
The day into which he emerges is a cold one. Coming upon the scene of demolition, “chilled through, dazed and lonely,” the poet “join[s] the dozen / In meek attitudes, watching a huge crane / Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.” The crane evokes some monstrous version of the bird for which it is named, making the scene mythic: twelve meek apostolic spectators joined by the poet to watch in reverence a mighty creature cut through layers of time. (I am reminded of the awe with which people regard the wolves in Yellowstone National Park.) In a phrase that captures in its sound precisely what it is describing in its sense, Merrill says of the crane, “Her jaws dribble rubble,” evoking the dredge from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Bight” with its “dripping jawful of marl.” An “old man” operates the female machine; he “laughs and curses in her brain,” making the scene as maniacal as it is mechanical. It is a warped inversion of the Proustian enterprise, In Search of Lost Time replaced by Fumbling Luxuriously in the Filth of Years.
“As usual in New York,” says Merrill, “everything is torn down / Before you have had time to care for it.” If one stays in bed for a week—let alone being gone for a decade and a half—one is in danger of returning to a city transformed, redefined, demanding an updated set of navigational tools to accommodate new landmarks. Merrill understood the need for contemplative reverence for things that have collapsed before we were able to properly care for them. He would later live through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, losing several close friends to the virus before he himself succumbed to it in 1995. And in 1962, the year of Water Street’s publication, he suffered an episode of Bell’s palsy while in Istanbul; half of his face was rendered immobile as he made his way through a city the historical transformations and paralyses of which make New York’s seem almost slight by comparison. Buildings and bodies are both subject to forces of ruination, as his poem detailing the episode, “The Thousand and Second Night,” makes clear. And even a brief week in bed with a nondisclosed illness—as recalled in “An Urban Convalescence”—instills in him a solemn respect for frames both human and otherwise that have been ravaged irreparably by time:
Head bowed, at the shrine of noise, let me try to recall
What building stood here. Was there a building at all?
I have lived on this same street for a decade.
The poet’s intensity of concentration in the moment is matched, if not exceeded, only by the fact that his default setting seems to be one of inattentiveness, obliviousness to his surroundings. The second stanza of “An Urban Convalescence” ends here, the succeeding blank between it and the next stanza coterminous with the poet’s own inability to recall something he has walked past countless times over the course of a decade and that was still there as recently as ten days ago. Minus the magic of tea and madeleines, he’s left struggling to recall of his own volition what was there—was anything there? “Wait. Yes,” begins the third stanza, “Vaguely a presence rises / Some five floors high, of shabby stone.” But the poet can’t even be sure if he’s accurately remembering or just inventing here, the fuzzy distinction between the two activities being a subject that will preoccupy him in his work to come. Immediately after recalling this structure, he distressingly wonders, “Or am I confusing it with another one / In another part of town, or of the world?” The moment of hesitation casts all into doubt up to but not beyond the point of continuing in the endeavor anyway.
And it is at this point that something happens that often, if not always, happens in Merrill’s best longer lyrics. After seventeen lines of straightforward narration, the poem suddenly becomes difficult. The next two sentences extend across fourteen lines. First there is a five-line sentence, and then a sentence that not only goes on for nine lines, but that spills from the poem’s third stanza into its fourth, as well. Quite quickly, we find ourselves being asked to do a lot of work as readers, the architecture of Merrill’s poem suddenly having become mesmerizing, leaving casual retelling behind in favor of a dip into the convolutions of idiosyncratic memory. Just read through these lines quickly and see if, as a result, you don’t need to read through them again, more slowly, immediately afterward; remember, the poet is recalling the structure he thinks once occupied the void with which he is presently confronted:
And over its lintel into focus vaguely
Misted with blood (my eyes are shut)
A single garland sways, stone fruit, stone leaves,
Which years of grit had etched until it thrust
Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing.
When did the garland become part of me?
I ask myself, amused almost,
Then shiver once from head to toe,
Transfixed by a particular cheap engraving of garlands
Bought for a few francs long ago,
All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,
Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch
Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,
And thought of neither then nor since.
There are four sentences in just the next two lines, Merrill knowing when to reel us back in and give us a respite, but that consideration alone won’t help us to make sense of what we’ve just read. We’re all but being forced to look closely and examine with care this particular portion of the poem—precisely the thing Merrill was guilty of not doing with respect to the buildings on his block for all those years, though what these lines actually tell us is that even as he was thus busy not paying attention to his surroundings, his surroundings were nevertheless busy insinuating themselves into his consciousness regardless. This is the poem’s Proustian moment, and the subtlety with which it transpires rivals those famous moments of involuntary memory that occur throughout the Recherche.
Why and how involuntary memory occurs is the great mystery of Proust, but the manner in which it happens is fairly straightforward: one tastes something or smells something or sees something or feels something or hears something, and this taste or smell or sight or touch or sound then unlocks, seemingly of its own accord, some deep, long-lost memory, the effect of which is to produce a profound shudder that runs through the whole of the human frame. We become aware of elusive, broader tracts of consciousness the devoted exploration of which, we feel, would almost certainly supply us with at least a portion of the meaning we otherwise feel is so often missing from our lives, where art is the means of this exploration—an exploration that might profitably be thought of more as an excavation in the present context.
In “An Urban Convalescence,” though, Merrill doesn’t see something there that reminds him of something that isn’t there. Instead, the opposite occurs: he sees something that isn’t there that reminds him of what once was. And it isn’t the whole structure that then comes back to him, but only a freak fragment of it, a single stone garland over the lintel of a doorway. The poet sees this single, phantasmagoric stone garland swaying and hovering unsteadily before his mind’s eye, as though it were affected by a real breeze, and then wonders how on earth, despite his general inattentiveness, this particular detail etched itself in his mind so indelibly as to float back almost immediately in a moment of meditative concentration. And even as he asks himself this question, an even stranger thing happens as he shivers from head to toe at the recollection, now, of another garland, bought for its beauty in Paris a decade ago but then immediately pressed into a service for which it was not intended, the wrapping up of a dripping bouquet of white flowers. Read those fourteen lines again now. Do they resolve themselves into fine, articulate detail before our eyes as a result of the careful attention we have just paid them? Should we not regard all frail, temporal structures with such sedulous and devoted attention?
As to the actual person who was holding that bouquet, whose hand, were it not for the young poet’s valiant gesture, would have gotten wet, well, what of her? He can recall only the single hand, “small” and “red-nailed,” but its owner is “no one I can place.” A forgotten love, perhaps, from a moment in his youth when he still thought, from time to time, that he must love as others loved. Maybe here, too, a presence will arise with a little concentration. But instead of “Wait. Yes,” this time the poet says, “Wait. No.” Neither she nor the words she must have said to him will swim back from the depths of oblivion. He was a different person then, and that was another life.
They’re tearing apart Kat’s apartment. Three days ago the refrigerator stopped working; it was time to replace it with a new one. The kitchen, however, had in part been built around its appliances, meaning that in order to remove the old refrigerator and install a new one, the entryway into the kitchen had to be widened by three inches. So right now the kitchen itself, which is quite narrow, looks like the scene of a crime: all of the cabinets and counters are covered in semi-clear, plastic tarp. From the apartment’s front door, which had to be taken off its hinges, to the kitchen there is a new carpet of construction paper; all of the furniture has been pushed to the walls as if in preparation for a party; and torn out drywall and beams and boards are scattered everywhere. The cats are prowling about inquisitively. I just got back from a walk in Prospect Park. At the skating rink I stood for a while in the cold light of a bright, winter sun and watched an unmasked, clad-in-black, dark-haired skater go through a routine of elegant turns and combination spins in the middle of the rink as a retinue of clumsy beginners, all masked, ambled counterclockwise around him: it looked like a form of worship. And two nights ago, in Washington Square Park, I watched something similar, but inverted, take place: as multiple young skateboarders executed their kicks and flips near the park’s heart, amidst a crowd of the fashionably young and carefree, an old man dressed in drab and dirty browns sat on a bench at the park’s center’s periphery and stared vacantly before him into the thrum, the look of lostness in his eyes matched only by their own indifference to this fact about them. He was a divinité oubliée.
“An Urban Convalescence” can be divided into three sections of five, three, and seven stanzas. There is a kind of volta that occurs between the fifth and sixth stanzas, and after the eighth stanza the poem shifts from free verse to quatrains that regularly, but not always, rhyme ABBA. Before the first shift occurs, the poem’s ten-line fifth stanza renders what happens in memory analogous to what’s happening before the poet’s eyes: things collapse upon themselves, or are made to collapse. Having shifted from the sight in front of him to what had previously been there, and from there to a distant memory evoked by his ruminations; having watched in hushed contemplation this delicate structure of rooms and entryways being built up in his own memory palace and finding himself “already on the stair, / As it were, of where I lived”; being in the strange but perfectly common position of occupying many spaces at the same time, and many times within the same space, so that he is simultaneously in both New York and Paris, and inhabiting at least three different temporal realities; undergoing this process of elaborate displacement—moving about in a Paris of the past all the while simply standing in a small crowd in Manhattan watching a crane operate, the poet records the moment when “the whole structure shudders at my tread / And soundlessly collapses, filling / The air with motes of stone.” We can imagine him blinking twice to record this moment of internal demolition as he continues to regard the scene of violent rearrangement he’s witnessing. He tells us, “Onto the still erect building next door / Are pressed levels and hues— / Pocked rose, streaked greens, brown whites.” Interiors have been rendered exterior: the poet’s task. He notes how “wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver.”
Then comes the volta, the shift in both tone and argument whereby the poem transitions itself from the recollection of the occasion that gave rise to it to a more abstract consideration of the implications of both the occasion itself and what the poet has learned from it: “Well, that is what life does,” he says flatly. Things are torn down, things are built up; decaying interiors get exposed; wires and pipes, nerves and fibers, twist and quiver and fray in the light of the sun. The poet takes his last look and moves on as “the massive volume of the world / Closes again.” It is here, in the first poem of the first book of his poetic maturity, that Merrill takes his oath of poetic faith and announces to his readership as though before a jury:
Upon that book I swear
To abide by what it teaches:
Gospels of ugliness and waste,
Of towering voids, of soiled gusts,
Of a shrieking to be faced
Full into, eyes astream with cold—
Merrill wrote “An Urban Convalescence” more than a decade before the Twin Towers were even built, and he died six years before they fell, but if the poem itself has taught us anything so far, it’s that “the pages of Time are apt / To open” in any number of beguiling ways onto passages that in their smudged ink confound straightforward chronology. In the wake of the towers’ implosion, in the aftermath of so many exposed wires and pipes, quivering nerves and fibers, what was left where the towers had been was indeed two towering voids of soiled gusts, smoke and ash blowing southwest, over the continent, for days. I was in a Jewish sandwich shop in Amsterdam, eating lunch in the early afternoon, when I watched on a small television screen the second tower fall. The whole structure seemed to momentarily shudder and then soundlessly collapse, like a body suffering from a respiratory illness that had inflamed its lungs and finally, fatally, made it impossible to breathe.
The shift from free verse to rhyming quatrains that takes place a little past the midpoint of “An Urban Convalescence” is significant, especially so given the poet’s resolution, in the final lines of the poem, to heed “the dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.” The poem might say that the world is full of “gospels of ugliness and waste,” and it might show us structures being torn up and torn down and otherwise falling into states of disrepair, but its own structure shows us something else: not an elegant grid—be it that of a building or of a city or of a poem—being reduced to rubble, but instead one arising from it. If the poem’s content conveys to us an image of the work of destruction taking place, its form shows us something different, as an elegant set of stanzas—or rooms, to translate the Italian word—arises from the rubble of free verse, each quatrain following upon its predecessor like the stories of a building or the blocks of a city, emerging from the clutter and clatter of the poem’s beginning.
It’s a process that itself involves a lot of tearing down and building back up, as any writer (or homeowner) knows. Twice in the poem Merrill chooses to incorporate the process of revision into the poem itself, as opposed to simply deleting and replacing the unsatisfactory word or phrase. He wants us to see him at work in his rooms, seeking solutions to the problems posed by the tight spaces of both page and line. At the end of the poem’s second section, after swearing to look the world directly in the face, “eyes astream with cold—” he corrects himself in a two-line stanza—the poem’s shortest—saying, “With cold? / Alright then. With self-knowledge.” The poet is less an independent observer of the harsh realities of the world than a part of that world himself, one who has his own gospels of ugliness and waste that stand in need of being faced and acknowledged and made visible.
Then, in the midst of the quatrains that constitute the poem’s final section, Merrill uses, lets stand, and then questions the suitability of a phrase, “the sickness of our time.” He is imagining, first, how he would feel if his own interiors were exposed against his will. Since his own building isn’t about to be torn down, he imagines others spying upon him from within. An issue of Time magazine lies spread open upon his table, revealing a picture of New York City’s mayor at the time, Robert F. Wagner Jr., now suddenly looking into the residence of a gay poet a decade before the Stonewall Riots. (In the early 1960s Wagner initiated a campaign to rid the city of its gay bars in advance of the 1964 World’s Fair, no doubt in the process contributing to the tension that eventually produced the riots on Christopher Street.) The specter of the mayor “Given a glimpse of how and where I work,” afforded the opportunity “To note yet one more house that can be scrapped,” makes Merrill understandably uneasy. He then imagines his own “walls weathering in the general view,” dismayed at the thought of his eclectic abode being replaced by something no doubt more generic and boring, strait-laced. And it’s here he realizes even of such newer structures that “the sickness of our time requires / That these as well be blasted in their prime.”
But a quatrain later Merrill is dissatisfied with that initial phrase, likening it to something “Bright / But facile,” something the “glamour” of which “deadens overnight.” It borders too closely on cliché, a phrase variants of which have too often been used throughout history, in speeches and journalism and bad poetry. Merrill notes how the phrase first “Enhances, then debases, what I feel.” Upon its initial placement within the poem, it not only satisfies but will in fact do just fine, enhancing the stanza in which it has been placed in the manner of a painting being hung in and at first enhancing a room. But soon afterward it is clear that the phrase needs to be removed; it won’t do. Rather than simply remove it, though, Merrill allows it to stand and simply records within the poem his displeasure with it, like someone who tells everyone who comes to their house that they don’t like this painting on the wall here.
Meanwhile the poet himself is still convalescing, recovering from his own bout of sickness. He was well enough for a walk, but now, a short but indeterminate amount of time later, exhausted and maybe a little depressed, himself somewhat debased, he sits at his desk, dissatisfied with this phrase in the poem he’s just begun writing, and “swallow[s] in a glass of water / No longer cordial, scarcely wet, a pill / They had told me not to take until much later.” Ignoring doctors’ orders, he prematurely numbs himself and feels as though he were being lifted above his existence as the pill takes effect. He is borne aloft like a passenger in a plane, the city below receding before him, quickly reduced to a phantom vision of “mere smoke and sparkle.” Closing his eyes, he yearns rather desperately to be carried no longer again and again into the mesh of his past and the sexual confusion of his youth, but instead delivered into a healthy future from the vantage point of which he will be able to frame his life, to make of it a secure and stable dwelling, capable of welcoming others.
In Walt Whitman’s mid-19th Century Manhattan, the only thing above 35th Street was cow pastures. Since then the city has grown and changed in the bizarre fashion of a time-lapse video somehow unfolding in real time, tearing itself down and building itself back up with the regularity of a heartbeat, turning collapse and recovery into its twin principles. The makeovers are indeed never wholly voluntary but only ever partially so, at best. And at worst they aren’t voluntary at all: The Twin Towers were only 28 years old when they were blasted in their prime, leaving behind a slow-to-dissipate shimmer of mere smoke and sparkle. And as of today, December 11th, 2020, approximately 25,000 residents of the city have died from a disease that has robbed the world of its color and converted it into a drab black and white evocative of depression-era Kansas.
“If you live in New York long enough,” writes Carl Swanson in a recent New York Magazine celebration of 500 places in the city that have closed since the start of the pandemic, “it gradually becomes unrecognizable.” He is right to specify that “it doesn’t have to be very long” before this occurs. The longest period of uninterrupted time I spent in the city was a single summer, in 2006, during which time I was working at Soda, which is now one on that list of 500. The sickness of our time is one that wrecks not only bodies and buildings, but also businesses. Since 2009, when I moved back to Montana, I’ve visited the city only twice, once in 2012 for four days, and last year for a whirlwind of only three, which was nevertheless enough time in which to go dancing at Julius’, take in a Yankees-Red Sox game, see King Lear on Broadway, visit the Whitney on a whim, have drinks with Carly in Williamsburg, and more or less wear out the soles of a new pair of walking shoes walking up and down the endless avenues of Manhattan. The city I’m in right now, though, is one in which some of these things still aren’t even possible, and the others not recommended. Instead, I’m looking out the window from a small bedroom and watching a host of brittle, light brown leaves cling to their branches and shiver in the wind in advance of the winter’s first significant snowstorm. The city is windy and cold and drab, the canal a dark and sluggish Acheron.
Back, then, to humid wind and wintry mixes and obstacle courses of ridged slush. Back to the scrape of large blades against the streets and the rapid drift of miniscule snow crystals ahead of and behind a storm. Back to neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night. And back to the 8th Street Mini Market for provisions before the storm hits. I need to get one more bag of ice in particular, and I know there’s one more left in the cooler there, two long blocks away, unless someone else has purchased it since yesterday. I’ve cleaned them out of their small supply of ice bags over the past few days so as to be able to keep our milk and cat food cold in a small, red-and-white Igloo cooler. In just a short while, as a result of buying cokes, milk, and bags of ice there, I’ve achieved something like “regular” status; it doesn’t take long. This only means that the greeting from behind the counter when I walk in is just barely, but noticeably, more kind, though everything still remains curt: Hey. ‘S up. And now I can simply hold up the one item I have without placing it on the counter, instead putting only the exact change in dollars bills on the glass top even as the price is reiterated for form’s sake. Then it’s over: Thanks. Later. But the fair isn’t over. Wait. Yes.