Stranger in the Village

Life keeps hitting the stands.  Having spent the weekend in Boston, I’m now in the small town of Stonington, CT, five miles east of Mystic and just west of the Rhode Island border, on a small peninsula that gestures towards the Block and Long Island Sounds, staying in an Airbnb just around the corner from the James Merrill House at 107 Water Street, which I’ll get a tour of tomorrow morning.  I’m surrounded by water on three sides: harbor, sound, harbor.  Something out there towards or beyond the breakwater keeps making a beeping noise; it sounds like a mechanical buoy that is regularly struck.  I don’t know what it is or what its purpose is.  It’s 12:45pm on Tuesday, May 28th, the day after Memorial Day.  The flag at the point, where I sat in the sun yesterday for some time just after getting into town, was at half-mast for the holiday.  Several people sat on the small beach and on benches and chairs and talked and looked at the sea as the holiday wound down.  I sat on a stone wall and rolled up the sleeves of my t-shirt and the hems of my shorts.  The flagpole rose above a memorial to a repelled British invasion of 1814, part of the War of 1812, a stretch of American history about which I know little.  It was sunny and hot yesterday, but today it is cloudy and rain is in the forecast.  There will be thunderstorms later tonight.  I’m rereading King Lear in advance of seeing a production of it on Broadway on Saturday.  It occurs to me that in all my years in and subsequent visits to Ashland, I have never seen this play staged before, and it’s been some time since I last read it.  With Merrill’s house in view from my window, and so with spirits in the air, I am keeping my senses attuned to my surroundings, keen to pick up on any signals that might come in via the bat radio.  Storm still.

Highlights from the train ride down from Boston yesterday:

  • Traveling south out of Boston, sitting on the left hand side of the train (facing the front) in a window seat, so as to be able to see the sea when it came into view, I was also treated, shortly after we left South Station, to the sight of a plane approaching Logan that seemed to hang in the air motionless, out above Boston Harbor, moving directly north as we moved directly south at a rate that seemed like it was many times faster than the rate at which the plane was moving, as it hardly even seemed to be moving at all, but instead seemed like a toy plane hung from a string in a diorama. 
  • Looking directly out the window at everything going by us quite quickly (trees, lots, wires, streets), I thought of the speed at which life seems to be going by or happening now, at 40, and only a week away from 41, where the approach of the latter age has found me much more thoughtful on the subject of age than the former did. 
  • The perfume of the woman sitting next to me led to it dawning on me that I rarely find myself in close proximity to women wearing perfume, or at least the kind of perfume one associates with upscale department stores and high end boutiques, where my strongest memory of this kind of perfume is from when, when I was about ten, my mom and dad went out one evening when my mom was supposed to attend a school function with me, so that I was upset at being home with my siblings and a babysitter, where when my parents came home I confronted my mom as soon as she came in the front door, though before I could even say anything she realized what had happened and embraced me, apologizing in her black evening wear, smelling strongly of the perfume she favored, Fendi. 
  • Then, overwhelmed by how quickly everything was going by before me, I looked up out the top of the window towards the sky and saw the small, scattered clouds moving across the window stage right to stage left at a much slower rate, so that they would remain in its frame for minutes instead of less than a second like the trees, though I never did actually track a cloud’s passage from edge to edge so as to gauge precisely the rate at which the heavens drift compared to the rate of terrestrial things.
  • Noticing, then, the clouds that were further off, out over the sea and so closer to the middle than to the top of the window, I observed how one could see them as it were through the leaves and branches of the quickly speeding by trees, as though these were themselves transparent, insubstantial as clouds, or rather more so, the rate at which they were passing being so quick as to create the impression of continuity in the breaks of sky between branches, leaves, entire trees, rendering those clouds which were behind the trees always visible, or at least always seeming so—noticing all this, I felt confounded.
  • So I listened to music, looking out the window, my iTunes library (I am old) on shuffle and making for strange and delightful transitions.  I noted the occasional sparkles from sunlight in the oversized train-track gravel that lines train tracks, a kind of quartz-looking rock that winks in the sun as do the waves in a body of water, as I’d note two hours later while sitting at the point in Stonington and trying to read the dancing sparks of sunlight on the harbor’s face. 
  • Passing by parking lot after parking lot, I was struck by the lights in them: long vertical poles that bifurcated at around fifteen feet or so to form distended “Ys,” one lamp at the end of each curious neck, each looking down at the vehicles beneath it. 
  • I read graffiti while listening to Amy Winehouse.
  • A billboard said “Injured? Call Rob” with a number. 
  • A street bridge with protective chain link grating, across which a solitary figure was walking in a hunched posture, seemed to jump over our crowded train that sped beneath it.

            The rain has just begun; it’s 3pm.  I’ve been writing intermittently, between stretching sessions, a bit of Lear, and a YouTube interview with Stephen Yenser conducted by Langdon Hammer on Merrill, the two of them sitting on the third floor of the Merrill House, the north windows of which I can see from my own window now.  The bell of a nearby church just tolled three times; it has the least resonant toll of any church bell I’ve ever heard.  It’s more of a brief clang with the faintest hint of a resonant toll; it seems impoverished and is very pleasing.  Last night I listened to it strike twelve times at midnight, counting each relatively quiet stone-like clamor.  Later today and this evening the old bell (for it sounds tired, though untiring) will contend with the patter of raindrops on my loft’s several slanted sun windows, and also with thunder.  The houses I can see from the window I’m looking out of are yellow, dark green, light green, and two shades of gray.


This past Saturday in Boston I woke up, had coffee, walked for a little while, sat and read, walked, browsed in a bookstore, walked some more, browsed another bookstore, got a small basket of fries and walked while eating them, and returned to the place where I’d sat and read earlier in order to sit and read again: the Boston Common.  It was about four o’clock and it was hot and sunny, though some clouds would come in later.  Earlier in the day I’d sat by the Frog Pond, but its water was foul and there was a sour smell to it, so now I sat on a bench along a path beneath the hill with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on it.  There were shady leaves above me and I had the bench to myself.  If I sat on its right side, I was in a dancing shade, if I sat on the left, I was in the sun, so I periodically shifted myself a foot to the left or back to the right again.  There were a lot of people about; it was the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend and the weather was, for now, perfect.  Part of the hill was covered in thousands of small, planted, upright American flags.  Their general import was clear but I did not know what their specific import was; I failed to read the placard.  People streamed by ceaselessly on the pathway in both directions.  My bench, like all of the benches that lined the pathway, was green; people sat on the other benches, too, in couples or in groups of three and even four.  I was reading The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax and occasionally checking in on the Yankees/Royals game on my phone.  I would read for a short while and then take in my surroundings; then I’d check the score of the game and then once again absorb all that was happening around me, or try to, and then read a little more.  This irregular cycle continued for over an hour.  I was in love with everything I saw and tried and tried to soak it all in.

            To my left and just barely in sight where the pathway I was sitting on intersected with another pathway, a man played an Erhu near a food stand that sold pretzels; I could smell the pretzels and hear the two-stringed tune of the instrument wind its way through every other sound that assailed me: conversations, footfalls; the roll of a skateboard; a stereo in the field behind me where several people were kicking about a soccer ball; and the hundred birds singing their songs in the branchways of the trees.  The Erhu never ceased.  I sat facing the hill, on which many people sat in shade and sun, some in groups, others in pairs.  Two young couples in particular caught my eye, one, midway up the hill at eleven o’clock from me, very much in love, the other a little ways down from them and to their right, closer to me but at ten o’clock, and clearly in the midst of a more tense moment.  They weren’t touching each other at all and sat on the hill with their feet pointed towards its base with a good six inches between them, whereas the two above them, regardless of how they changed positions over the hour, always made sure that their bodies were in some close physical proximity to one another, touching, in fact, as even when they sat similarly side by side with their legs extended down the hill, his right leg was aligned against her left (in both cases the man sat on the woman’s left). 

            Small, scattered clouds dotted the sky, but at this point the sun shone much more often than it hid.  Above the birds there would be an occasional plane.  In the stream of people going by there were individuals, couples, families, and groups of friends, and I heard many languages being spoken, all of them besides English being unintelligible to me.  The bits and pieces of conversation I heard in English covered a variety of subjects (—the clock has just struck six times here in Stonington; I’ve had another coffee, another shower, and written several postcards since I began writing—), from American history to the vagaries of love and from the frustrations of friendship to the logistics of getting through the day: where to go next and how to get there and what to do and who to see.  I couldn’t hear the couples on the hill.

            The smell of marijuana occasionally overpowered the smell of pretzels and gave me the very distinct sensation of being outside a concert venue before a show begins.  More rarely and more fleetingly I would smell cologne and/or perfume.  There were many children and many strollers, and no two strollers were alike, like credit card machines.  Encouragingly, much fewer people were on their phones today than on Wednesday evening just outside the Common on Boylston Street.  I saw a variety of handbags and purses when I occasionally looked up more briefly from my reading, only waist-high, not for a long break for the purpose of once more deliberately basking in my surroundings but just to as it were take a quick breath after one sentence or clause before continuing with the next.  I also saw, in this manner, the occasional flowing scarf- or shawl-like garment, trailing from a neck or torso like whatdoyoucallit gossamer.  There was a bicycle every now and then.  There were people dressed in attractive summer styles, some of them especially eye catching.  They were dressed and walked in such a way as to be looked upon and admired and then almost at the same time looked away from, intimidated.  I looked upon, I looked away from; I read, I looked again.

            The buildings on Boylston behind me looked over the scene.  From one of their rooftops one would have had a view of lawns crisscrossed by pathways, here and there obscured by the leaves of trees, the Common streaming with people moving in all four cardinal directions and all their variants, and others temporarily stationary, and then those permanently stationary in the gated cemetery in the southeast corner.  I thought of the task of the writer being to account for things as they are, to record and register them accurately and minutely.  Raising my eyes just off the page I saw sandals; painted toenails; matching running shoes (a couple); a little Japanese girl in a pink princess costume holding her mother’s hand; bare legs and covered legs.  I closed my eyes.  I opened them and looked up higher, before me, towards the hill.  Both couples were still there.

            It was definitely an argument at ten o’clock.  They hadn’t touched each other once, nor had either even tried to touch the other.  They were not siblings, or cousins, or friends, it was clear.  They spoke without looking at each other for the most part, she almost always continuing to look straight ahead, he looking either straight ahead or just a fraction of the distance towards her.  Dark sunglasses obscured her eyes so that it was hard to see what she was looking at, making it sometimes seem, disconcertingly, like she was looking at me.  She had long straight hair.  At present, her knees were raised and she had her left arm and hand around them while her right arm was bent at the elbow in such a way that her right hand was up by the right side of her head: it was a posture of indifference, bespeaking the unlikelihood of being persuaded.  She continued to look ahead and spoke less than he did; when she did speak her mouth hardly moved and it may have been difficult even for him to hear her.  His knees, too, were currently raised, and he had both arms wrapped around them and was talking with his head at that slight angle in her direction, but clearly unwilling or unable to look her in the eyes and entreat her to look at him.  Every now and then he would make a gesture with one arm, a gesture of incredulity and insistence and attempted reason. 

            A more comprehensive cloud mass was now beginning to encroach upon the Common, but the sun was still shining.  Higher up the hill the happier couple was arranged thus: the man lying on his back, the woman lying on her back perpendicular to him, her head resting against his rib cage.  She looked up at her phone, which she held in both hands while smiling.  I looked at them and smiled; I looked at the others and tried to discern what was happening.  The woman had now taken off her sunglasses and stretched her legs out along the hill; she placed the sunglasses in her lap and fidgeted with them as she stared downwards at what her hands were doing rather than to her left.  The sound of the Erhu continued to come from down the pathway. 

            These two people in a tense moment on a beautiful day now had my attention and were at the heart of all this movement.  I put my book away.  The Yankees had won.  Now he did look towards her but she still looked away, ahead, out towards where I was sitting.  I might have liked to have left by now, but I couldn’t; I had to see how they would leave: one before the other, or both together.  Another child in a stroller was pushed by.  Many people had shopping bags.  As the fraught young man on the hill continued talking he also continued to sometimes lift his left hand a few inches above his knee and gesture with it.  His main gesture I called The Philosopher’s Accompaniment, a gesture that means, “this follows from this.”  The possibility of a happy resolution seemed to be receding, not approaching.  I saw children with balloon hats; pairs of people occasionally stopping to take a selfie with the historic Common as a background; backpacks.  One of her legs was now crossed over the other at the ankle and its foot was moving back and forth in the manner of someone who is bored and waiting for something new to transpire.  She continued to look straight ahead with her sunglasses still in her lap, from time to time saying something in brief response to his more lengthy disquisitions.  He was now in a somewhat classic posture, both legs bent, but one along the ground, one above it, with one arm wrapped around the raised knee and the other propping him up in the manner of a kickstand.  Then he moved the arm wrapped around the knee (right arm, right knee) up and rested his right hand on his left shoulder.  He was silent now and continued to not look at her. 

            I saw a pair of Vans; a beret; a UConn t-shirt, a Nintendo t-shirt.  A guy with a Red Sox tattoo.  Many, many water bottles.  I looked down and listened to the Erhu sing; the sun was weakening.  Then, when I looked up again ten seconds later, they were gone.  Before me was the hill, with fewer people on it now as the cloud cover had begun to come in.  The happy couple had left several minutes ago; I had watched them walk up the hill.  Now my eyes, in a panic, quickly scanned the hill looking for the quarrelers.  There they were, off to my left, walking in the direction of the old man playing the instrument.  He had his hands in his pockets, her arms were folded across her chest.  Their backs were to me; there was a good foot between them as they walked towards Charles Street.  I had the impression that they were not speaking as they walked and that something inevitable between them had just been both firmly acknowledged and yet forestalled.  Perhaps, I thought, they’d see it through.


Now it’s Wednesday afternoon, I had my tour of the house this morning, and I’ve spent the afternoon walking around town, reading Lear, and editing and sending to friends photos I took in and of the house, where the décor is stunning, the colors wonderful, the hundreds upon hundreds of books and records mesmerizing, the rooms all small and cozy.

            I’ve been struck by many lines from the first three acts of Lear.  From Act I, Lear’s remonstrance to Goneril, “You are too much of late i’th’frown”; from Act II, Kent’s “Nothing almost sees miracles / But misery”; and from Act III, Lear’s “The tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else.”  I keep marking references to sight, to nothing, and to difference, which I now see form a kind of French braid that holds the entire play together. 

            Tonight I’ll go to the Mexican restaurant across the street and have chips and salsa, enchiladas, and a beer.  Tomorrow I’ll catch the 10:56 to Penn Station.  I hope to browse in a bookstore or two in Manhattan, and maybe buy a new pair of shoes before going dancing in the Village.  Birds are chirping outside, and someone is hammering something nearby.  Before I came back to my loft after the tour, I sat in the town square and drank a cup of coffee and read several of the short scenes of Act III, circling all of the instances of the question, “Who’s there?”  It’s both the question that famously opens Hamlet and the first thing asked by JM and DJ when they sit down for their first Ouija session in Ephraim: “Who was there?” . . . “‘Is someone there?’” . . . “Was anybody there?” 

            I felt no strange sensations in the house this morning, though, no hauntings or the presence of spirits lurking in any of the house’s nooks and crannies.  I was a tourist taking pictures.  Cynthia walked me through the several rooms, of which there are fewer than ten, all small (the largest being the rooftop studio that Merrill and David Jackson added on to the pre-existing structure of the building), and then she left me to stroll from room to room on my own at will for fifteen minutes, pointing my smart phone at walls and furniture and the spines of books and records, at pictures and mirrors and the many knickknacks placed throughout the apartment, items bought or found by Merrill and Jackson, or things given to them as gifts by friends.  According to the Fall 2018 newsletter for the house, Merrill was not so much concerned with any “decorative overall design” in terms of how all of these small objects were placed; instead, the “governing purpose” to which he adhered was attunement to “the force field of the invisible spirit world linking beings.  A tiny object given by a friend would be left just where it was placed when the gift was made and would not be subsequently rearranged for a prettified effect.”  There’s something plain about that that I like.  I would’ve liked to have spent the entire day in the house, to have been able to examine more thoroughly the books, records, furniture, pictures, artifacts, art, and the manner in which all was arranged.  I would’ve liked to have sat on the fainting couch in the sitting room and read for a little while.  I would’ve liked to have closed and then opened again the “secret” bookshelf door that leads from the small telephone room to Merrill’s study.  I would’ve liked to have talked to the air throughout the day, and to have seen if anything wayward, untoward, or strange might have transpired over the course of the hours rolling by.  When the sun briefly came out in the afternoon, I might have gone out onto the rooftop deck and sat in a chair and absorbed the sun’s rays.  It might have occurred to me to play a chord or two on the piano, but I would not have done so because I don’t actually know how to play the piano.  I might have enjoyed very much making a meal in the small, very ordinary kitchen, and I would have laughed quietly a little more at the monogrammed towels in the bathroom; “once a millionaire’s son, always a millionaire’s son,” I might have said.  No doubt I would have tipped several books off of the shelves and carefully flipped through them, attentive to any marginal notes Merrill might have made.  (I was delighted that in my actual, quite brief visit, I was at least able to spot, quickly and easily, in the floor-to-ceiling shelves of books that covered an entire wall in the study, Volume One of The Letters of Virginia Woolf.)  I might have even been inclined to leave a small trinket somewhere discreet, a gift, nothing even visible, hardly, perhaps just my prized, ornate paperclip that otherwise sits in my backpack with loose change and only very occasionally serves any practical purpose.  That would’ve been within the bounds of decorum, I think, as when I left on Wittgenstein’s gravestone in Cambridge, or on Proust’s in Paris, similar tokens of affection and thanks, a small silver rendering of Ganesha, the Hindu deity who removes obstacles, that Kevin gave me, and an earlier, similarly ornate paperclip, this one spiral (the one I have now being rectangular), respectively.  Instead I took my pictures and marveled in the touristic fashion of one who moves through a sacred space quickly.  Maybe tonight, or some other night, I’ll have a dream born of the experience that will leave me shaking my head in bewilderment in the morning, a dream, perhaps, in which the resuscitation of lost love is possible, or one in which things that confound us daily miraculously fall away.  I will wake up in the morning and try to remember Rob’s number.

The Tangled Skein

Every reader of James Merrill’s poetry is a detective by another name. Frequently, accessing the meanings of Merrill’s poems requires the exercise of the science of deduction, or good close reading, the two being not dissimilar from one another. There will be regular “Eureka!” and “Aha!” moments for the patient reader, as a connection is made, a clue discovered, and all of a sudden a stanza, or an entire poem, makes sense where just a minute before it had presented an inscrutable mask. His poems thus read like puzzles to be worked out, riddles to be solved, cases to be taken up and followed from beginning to end, that upon putting the poem down one can be satisfied rather than frustrated, and not only satisfied, but enriched, too, for having successfully navigated the labyrinth.

At the local level, the poems present their own mazes and enigmas and difficult passages to the reader, and then themselves are parts of larger puzzles into which they’re folded, first the individual volume, then the arch-puzzle of Merrill’s entire oeuvre. Merrill’s poetry is architectonic; by the end of his career it was like the mansion in which he was raised, immense and intimidating but also secure and full of possibility. It started out small, but over the course of five decades he steadily added new wing after new wing, always taking into consideration the manner in which each new part fit in with, enhanced, and possibly even changed the character of the whole. Like both Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop before him, he was fascinated by houses and homes, both in his life and in his poetry, intrigued by the kinds of shape they give to our experience, what they protect us (or would presume to protect us) from, the ways in which we enter and exit them and leave them behind and acquire new ones. Poems were houses, too, stanzas were rooms; opening the cover of a book meant opening a door.

Merrill’s most famous poem, “Lost in Translation,” along with the first part of his magisterial and bizarre Sandover trilogy, “The Book of Ephraim,” are both to be found in 1976’s Divine Comedies, published at roughly the midway point of Merrill’s career as a poet if we bracket off an earlier apprentice period. The book is divided into two sections. The first section contains nine poems, of which “Lost in Translation” is the second. The second section, more than twice as long as the first, consists of the 26 parts of “Ephraim,” one part for each letter of the alphabet. Section “M” is to “Ephraim” as a whole, then, what Divine Comedies is to Merrill’s entire oeuvre. Glittering symmetries abound.

Divine Comedies is a masterful volume of poems. When one thinks of the great volumes of poetry written in English in the 20th century, one will likely start with the modernists: Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, Moore’s Observations, Stevens’s Harmonium, Hughes’s The Weary Blues, and many others: the usual suspects. At mid-century the names continue to come rather easily: Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, Lowell’s Life Studies, Plath’s Ariel, and so on. What are the great volumes of the last quarter of the century though? Here, the names begin to come a little less easily to most, yet just in the 1970s alone several candidates announce themselves: Larkin’s High Windows, Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Bishop’s Geography III, Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom, and there in their midst, Divine Comedies, which won its author a 1977 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to “Lost in Translation,” it features several other multi-page poems of equal magnificence, among them “Chimes for Yahya” and “Yannina,” as well as the exquisite opening lyric, “The Kimono,” and the seemingly occasional but really anything-but dramatic monologue, “Manos Karastefanís.” All nine of the opening poems help pave the way for “Ephraim’s” occult world-building, its simultaneous glimpses and manufacturings of the non-material realm; the stage is being set along the way. There are “The Kimono’s” “Desires ungratified [that] / Persist from one life to the next”; “Lost in Translation’s” medium performing in a London library; the mystical water-hidden grotto of “McKane’s Falls”; “Chimes for Yahya” with its paperback that “Compares the soul to a skimmed stone / Touching the waters of the world at points / Along a curve”; Manos Karastenfanís being taught “Heaven and hell” at the age of twelve; “Yánnina’s” “magician’s tent” in which “a woman will be sawed in two”; the child-baptism at the heart of “Verse for Urania”; the supernatural machinations of “The Will”; and “Whitebeard on Videotape” with its concern for “the real stuff, hand-woven, deep-dyed Soul” and its final line that leaves us on Ephraim’s doorstep, pronouncing that “Along with being holy, life was hell.”

The volume’s title sets the stage for all of this supernaturalism with its evocation of Dante. Gone are the definite article and the singular noun, but the adjective that Dante himself never chose is retained along with the now plural “Comedies.” Merrill is very much something of a postmodern Dante, replacing the mono-myth, the single narrative of the early 14th century Dante with late-20th century skepticism and insouciance. We now have competing comedies, and not just those within Merrill’s volume, but, and perhaps more importantly, those outside of it, too. Merrill’s own is set off against Dante’s, in addition to others: those of Milton, Blake, Yeats, Rilke. Yet Divine Comedies is less any kind of correction of Dante or challenge to his poetic authority than a form of homage thereto and a continuation of its tradition. After all, Dante, writing his epic in Italian instead of Latin in the early 1300s, was himself something of a postmodernist well avant la lettre; his absolutism isn’t, it turns out, that absolute. His poem regularly undermines the very tradition it is purportedly upholding over the course of its pilgrim’s progress, and can profitably be called at least as secular humanist as it is Christian, if not more. Merrill is to Dante, then, what Dante was to Virgil: the student who honors his teacher precisely in the act of overthrowing him. In “Ephraim,” too, we have a living poet and a long-dead guide who ushers him through the beyond, describing in detail, once again, a nine-tiered afterworld, but one that resembles Dante’s in number alone. Or perhaps not only in number, but also in its concern for number, where Merrill, his afterlife’s nine stages mirroring the nine opening poems of Divine Comedies, themselves then further reflected in the nine sections of “Chimes for Yahya,” one for each chime on the “graduated brass / Pendant” that hangs in Merrill’s house in Athens and that was brought back from Isfahan, in the heart of the Muslim world—where Merrill was no less attentive to matters of numerology and numerical symmetry than Dante before him.

Allusions to Dante are, not surprisingly, thus rife throughout Divine Comedies, but there are prominent references to other predecessors, too, further driving home the volume’s title’s plural noun. In fact, most of the poems in the volume can be said to have their own corresponding classic with which they’re engaging. “Ephraim’s” is The Divine Comedy, no doubt, as its epigraph from the Paradiso makes clear, though there are also other candidates even here, just within this poem, among them Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where Merrill’s “lost novel” that “Ephraim” itself replaces even as it partially recreates it mirrors the structure of Nabokov’s text: Merrill’s poem houses a novel from which it takes its cues just as Nabokov’s novel houses a poem that drives its plot. With respect to the other poems that make up Divine Comedies, it is not surprising that Balzac’s own multi-volume epic, The Human Comedy, should feature in one of them, “McKane’s Falls,” while Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with its own concern with the otherworldly and the afterlife, lies at the heart of “Chimes for Yahya.” Manos Karastefanís reads War and Peace (brought to him by Merrill) in the hospital; “Verse for Urania” invokes the nine muses of Greco-Roman mythology; and “Yanniná” recounts, in part, the historical legend of Ali Pasha (1740-1822). Merrill even invokes his contemporaries: Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo” provided the form for “The Kimono,” whose white-haired lover mirrors “Whitebeard” in Part I’s terminal bookend, and two of the volume’s poems are dedicated to Richard Howard and Stephen Yenser, poets in their own right and, like Bishop, friends of Merrill. And one must of course also point out that wherever Merrill is, Proust and Stevens are never far behind; they are both invoked in prominent ways in “Ephraim” in particular.

As for “Lost in Translation,” it would seem that its most prominent intertextual reference is Valéry’s “Palme” and the Rilke translation of it the poet’s search for which leads to the occasion for the poem itself. But “Palme” is not the poem’s only intertextual reference; there are others. At one point Merrill shifts to the AABA quatrains of the Rubaiyat that he favored so much throughout his career, and Alan Nadel has made a compelling case for “Lost in Translation” as Merrill’s version of or response to Eliot’s The Waste Land, though 1966’s Nights and Days’ “The Thousand and Second Night” would seem, I think, to be a better candidate for this distinction. But while these particular intertextual reference points are fairly obvious within the poem and/or have been made much of in Merrill scholarship, little has been made of another text, or series thereof, that is both directly alluded to in “Lost in Translation” and that might serve as a model no less than Dante or Proust for how we might approach and make sense of Merrill’s work as a whole. I refer, of course, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries; “The plot thickens / As all at once two pieces interlock.”

That well-known phrase, of course, belongs to Holmes and is first uttered in A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes mystery. As the case in that novel gets more and more convoluted and difficult, Holmes “mutters” to Watson, almost with delight: “the plot thickens.” Since then it’s taken its place in the constellation of phrases we utter regularly without perhaps knowing where they come from, but Merrill, in this case, no doubt knew, and knew a great deal more, as well, including at least the outline of Conan Doyle’s own absorption, later in his life, in forms of spiritualism that can best be described as occult rather than mainstream, not unlike the Ouija Board of the Sandover trilogy or the episode of the medium that occurs early in “Lost in Translation,” a medium who is as much Conan Doyle-as-spiritualist as he is Holmes-as-rationalist, deducing via ESP what lies within the “plain tole / Casket” without having seen it beforehand. He announces matter-of-factly, “Piece of a puzzle,” to astonishment and applause, not unlike Holmes’s seemingly impossible feats of deduction based on the scantest of evidence and the regular dropping of the jaw they induce in Watson.

But not so fast. From the very outset “Lost in Translation” has as much to do with Conan Doyle and his most famous creation as the poems that follow it, “McKane’s Falls” and “Chimes for Yahya,” have to do with Balzac and Dickens, respectively. Maybe even a good deal more, in fact. The poem presents a series of puzzles, or cases, that have to be solved by various figures within it, even as the manner in which all of these puzzles relate to one another is as it were the supreme puzzle set for the poem’s reader, and it is “a superior one” indeed, as any first time reader of the poem will be likely to inform you as, sooner or later, they throw up their hands like an exasperated Watson, trying to make sense of it all.

In the scene from childhood alone there are several mysteries awaiting their solution: the ordered puzzle has not yet shown up; the boy’s parents are as absent as the puzzle; once the puzzle does arrive, there’s the task of putting it together, making stories of its variously shaped pieces along the way, even as one fits them together; and the boy, snooping about like any respectable detective, peeks at his governess’s letters while she bathes, already an amateur sleuth. He’s no Holmes, though: reading her descriptions in French of an innocent mother and a poor child, he thinks she’s telling the curé to whom she’s writing about the figures in the puzzle she’s putting together with her charge. It’s an elementary mistake, confusing life with representations thereof, a mistake that Merrill would go on to make over and over as he got older, only more artfully than incuriously as he matured.

As the child in memory tries himself to piece things together, so the adult poet tries to piece together his own memories, among other things. He’s no less beset by strange cases than his ten-year-old counterpart. The mystery that provides the poem with its occasion and unlocks the memory in a Proustian fashion in the first place is, of course, the question of whether or not a translation by Rilke of Valéry’s “Palme” does in fact exist. The poet, reading Valéry in French one night, recalls the German translation, where the blend of French and German then evokes a memory of his “Mademoiselle,” who taught him both languages. But when he then wants to revisit the Rilke translation, it’s nowhere to be found: he spends days “Ransacking Athens” for it to no avail. The poem proper doesn’t provide us with any sort of answer as to whether or not he ever finds it, or whether or not it even exists, but the poem’s epigraph, four lines from the translation, settle the matter: eventually the ransacking paid off.

An American living in Athens looking for a German translation of a French poem. The mélange of nationalities in the poem’s local narrative reflects events from the poet’s past on both a personal and a world-historical level. First, there is “Mademoiselle” herself, born a French child of an English mother and Prussian father, a mystery solved only “Long afterwards” when the poet learns her backstory from her nephew. But there is also then the backdrop of the approach of World War Two as the boy and his governess put together their puzzle. As they assemble borders on the card table in the library (there’s something evocative of the board game Clue here), borders across the Atlantic, simultaneously, are shifting and dissolving and being disassembled. If Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—” is a Civil War poem in which the poet’s own psyche mirrors what’s taking place around her, so, too, is “Lost in Translation” a World War Two poem, where what’s happening world-historically is mirrored in the act of a young boy putting together a puzzle with his Mademoiselle, herself “a widow since Verdun.” Not long after they’ve finished, “All too soon the swift / Dismantling” comes, a dismantling about to be played out on a much larger scale: “Irresistibly a populace / Unstitched of its attachments rattled down.” The sky crumbles, cities fall, habitations are swept away, and all that’s left in the aftermath is the “green / On which the grown-ups gambled,” a green that itself, in the form of Mother Nature, will be threatened, too, as a result of such reckless betting. Not for nothing is it referred to earlier in the poem, when the puzzle is still being put together, its populace assembled, as a “shrinking green,” where this threat that humans pose to their own environment will be further developed in both “The Book of Ephraim” and, more broadly still, the Sandover trilogy as a whole.

To go back though, now, to the scene in the poem’s London library (there are three libraries in the poem, one in New York, one in London, one in Athens). It’s a 26-line section (one for each letter of the alphabet? “Ephraim” in miniature?) all of which, save for the first three words, “Mademoiselle does borders—,” is enfolded within parentheses, themselves something of a container not unlike the miniature casket the medium considers. Thus, a puzzle piece rests in a casket held by a medium who is himself nestled securely within parentheses. Or, the puzzle piece resides within the casket-shaped block of stichic verse, itself contained within the larger poem that makes up a ninth of what is but Part One of a larger book fitted squarely in the middle of a now seemingly universe-sized oeuvre . . .

The setting is Holmes-esque: “A London dusk, December last.” The poet has ventured to a library to watch, with others, a grey-clad man who possesses supernatural powers in the form of second sight. He is handed the “plain tole casket,” not having seen what has been placed in it, and thereafter goes into a sort of trance, eyes closed, tracing, somehow, the object he is expected to divine all the way from its distant origins, hearing, first, the shriek of a saw in a forest of towering trees, as another green begins to shrink. At first, though, before the picture begins to take shape for him, he intones, “Even as voices reach me vaguely,” a line that, in a sense, will get stretched out into 33 lines to close section B of “Ephraim,” when JM and DJ themselves first vaguely come into contact with voices from the other world. But the shriek of the saw then drowns out whatever these voices were or might have been, a mechanical tool forestalling access to the divine, perhaps. (Merrill appreciated the Ouija board for, more than anything else, its clumsiness.) The medium, however, persists, and eventually comes to the conclusion that what the casket he holds in his hand contains is but “a freak fragment / Of a pattern complex in appearance only.” If something very near to this was never uttered by Holmes, it ought to have been. The initial title of A Study in Scarlet was A Tangled Skein, a metaphor for the knots of crimes and clues and suppositions that Holmes has to unravel into something linear via the application of reason and deduction. It’s not the worst metaphor one could come up with for anyone who picks up a volume of Merrill’s poetry, each poem, each line, each word of which can be profitably described as a “freak fragment / Of a pattern complex in appearance only,” as once appearances are pierced and “Panel[s] slid back” and recesses made familiar, it all clicks nicely into place, the effect of the poet’s own “long-term lamination / Of hazard and craft.” Lamination, here, is “the technique or process of manufacturing a material in multiple layers, so that the composite material achieves improved strength.” Merrill’s, then, is a poetry of lamination indeed, his efforts and techniques, his hazard and craft resulting in works of artifice that ought to garner no less applause than the medium’s successful divination, “Plywood. Piece of a puzzle.” Or, no less applause than Watson sees fit to regularly bestow upon Holmes after each new act of miraculous deduction.

One begins to think that if the pages of Divine Comedies, instead of being made from the same trees that puzzle pieces come from, were transparencies, the result of their all being laid on top of one another would be not so much a tangled skein of black lines and blotches, but the revelation of a charm to be uttered, and uttered by way of that most common of things we all learn to sing at an early age: the alphabet.

Works Cited

Conan Doyle, Arthur. A Study in Scarlet. Penguin Classics, 2001.

Merrill, James. Divine Comedies. New York: Atheneum, 1976.