Peacock Dramas

Imagine with me, for one moment, a brilliant “SAPPHIRE BREAST[ED]” cosmic peacock with a “SPREAD TAIL” and “EYES BURN[ING] RED / IN [A] FEATHERED MASK.” Imagine now, a peacock of equal beauty and celestial mystique, but in white with charcoal ocelli. The white peacock, reminding me, rather obviously, of a D.H. Lawrence novel title, appeared to me in a dream over spring break, while I was substitute teaching at a high school near my hometown. The royal avian originally had its tail folded, and appeared to be silently investigating the ground near where I was standing in the dream. I reflected on Mirabell and unassumingly treated the white peacock with immense respect, suggesting to passersby to “keep down the volume,” since I wanted to avoid startling the bird. White as death and with hundreds of black eyes, the peacock was unavoidably startled, and spread its tail plumes before me. There was an alarming look impressed upon me by the bird’s visage, one that spoke to artistic depths that people sometimes never resurface from—then my alarm went off at six o’clock.

I never discarded the alarm clock I purchased in high school, an old-fashioned one with the two metal bells on either side of the top like round ears and a hammer that goes back and forth between them. The sound of it inspires a deep loathing and an assortment of unpleasant memories from my time in high school. The Changing Light at Sandover was resting on my chest from the previous night with the pages spread open to section 3.4 of Mirabell. Also at my side was an abridged copy of Thoreau’s Walden and a book of sayings by Confucius. It seemed I was always waking up next to Merrill’s face in some variety. Spring break was halfway over, and I had been substituting every day and reading Sandover every night. Merrill’s dramatic characters even seemed to invade my dreams from time-to-time. I found comfort, though, in the fact that “SOULS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT,” as Mirabell points out, “THEY WEAR A VEIL / OF HUMAN EXISTENCE & THIS I WILL NEVER LIFT” (157). My dreams were not safe, but perhaps my soul was at least, from the black, bat-like entities that I periodically scanned the room in search of before falling asleep. Mirabell’s usage of the word “VEIL” inspires a line of inquiry that begins with the etymology. Veil originates from the Latin “velare,” meaning “to cover, conceal, mask, or disguise.” The “FEATHERED MASK” on Mirabell further suggests a sense of the dramatic in the second installment of the Sandover trilogy, and no doubt throughout the trilogy as a whole. Mirabell’s transformation, in section 3.4, from 741 to a brilliant peacock, presents the idea that Merrill himself is undergoing a type of transformation, a type of “veiling” or “disguising,” a corresponding simultaneous revealing and revelation, like switching masks as the play performance continues. Perhaps it’s easier to think of section 3.4 as a character costume change, where the Ouija board is the “stage” and the actors, or spirits, reside behind the curtain until their role appears. Further, Mirabell, behind the stage, where people watching the performance cannot see characters, changes costumes or assumes a new “disguise” for the performative experience which JM and DJ are both observing and creating.

Also, in the beginning of section 9, when Mirabell says, “NO VEIL REMAINS (OR ONLY ONE) / TO SCREEN OUR SENSES FROM THE SUN” (259). The “veil,” in this sequence, seems to be a covering, the o-zone, which protects earth from the sun. Mirabell is explaining the damage to the o-zone, an ecological concern regarding the destruction of the natural world by mankind. The “veil” in the sense of a “disguise” is also at play here, since Michael, the archangel, is represented by the sun. This idea also brings to mind the myth of Zeus and Semele, who perished as a result of viewing a god in his/her true form. Mortals are not meant to view raw divinity in this capacity, much like the sun, which, in all its glory, could incinerate the face of Earth.

Here, some speculation might be made in regards to the word “play,” where the poem itself takes the form of a dramatic production in addition to the post-structuralist conception of “play.” In this regard the poem is centered on the spirits “playing” games with JM and DJ by misleading them in a farcical “performance” with props, costumes, and fantastical explanations of another realm. Thus I ruminated on the suspicious nature of Mirabell and the other spirits in Sandover while examining the contents of my breakfast plate that morning. My mother had graciously prepared a piece of toast with jelly on it, which I stared at lost in a state of mind. The toast was the sole occupant of the plate, and the scene was all too ironic as I felt the toast was “lonely,” as if toast could possibly desire company. Either way, I glanced to the side of the table after a few minutes and noticed my copy of The Merchant of Venice, which I had checked out in my father’s name at the high school library. I was on a desperate hunt for this reclusive quote about carrots in the play that made me look like a fool last semester. Deceptive appearances seemed to stand in my consciousness as a subject for debate and admiration. Mirabell. Changing appearances. Changing light. The caskets of gold, silver, and lead that Bassanio had to choose from for the hand of Portia. “That’s a bingo!” (Excuse or admire the Inglorious Bastards quote…) This decision, based on appearances, leads many suitors for Portia’s hand to failure, often picking the casket with the most impressive outward appearance. Bassanio only correctly picks the lead casket by arguing that what appears outwardly is trivial in relation to what lies inside of this outward appearance. He says, “So may the outward shows be least themselves: / The world is still deceived with ornament.” This then played into Mirabell’s appearance, and the “representations” of all the spirits, who essentially have no appearance besides how they appear in the other spirits, as Maman (Maria) explains, “HE APPEARS IN US   OUR MINDS (HEARTS) ARE HIS MIRROR” (157). I took this to mean, as I took a bite of the lonely toast, that Mirabell only has an appearance as a type of “imaginative,” abstract entity of the mind (heart), but does this not sound solipsistic? I reflected on Stephen Dedalus walking down Sandycove with his hand over his eyes in the “Proteus” episode of Joyce’s Ulysses. Solipsism, i.e. the idea that one’s mind might be the only thing that exists, and all other things are generated therein or in relation to it. If Mirabell and the other spirits only take shape within “the mirror” of other spirits’ minds (hearts), then how might that be thought of metaphysically? And how does this relate back to the “grand drama” of Sandover? Later, in section 3.6, Auden explains that Mirabell’s transformation was of the imagination, “MM & I / IMAGINE U, YOU US, & WHERE THE POWERS / CRISSCROSS WE ALL IMAGINE 741 / & THEN TRANSFORM HIM!” (159). As Holmes would say, “The plot thickens!” Is art not the offspring of imagination? Does this mean Mirabell is art?

Questions wracked my mind as I stepped into my sister’s Jeep. Her absence in the foreign land of France made for the perfect opportunity to utilize her vehicle for day-to-day trips to Harlem, Montana. My father drove, and I pondered quietly for all twenty of the miles we traveled, occasionally glancing out the front window at the blinding morning sunlight, not a “golden setter,” but a “golden riser,” I laughed to myself thinking of “The Broken Home,” and reflected on the opening lines of section 9.9: “Sun is rising.”

In the school, I cradled Merchant and Coyote Stories, a book of Salish mythology, as I waltzed down the hall between students of varying shapes and sizes. Oh, high school. What a nightmare of hormones and drama. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 20” was on repeat in my head when I unlocked the door to the “culture studies” classroom, where students learned both the language and culture of the Gros Ventre tribe. The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes occupy the Fort Belknap reservation just minutes from Harlem, and their culture is as beautiful as their language is complicated. Many of the students at this high school associate with these tribes and rightly take pride in their ancestry. The classroom was quiet and empty. The chairs were stacked in the back and the room smelled stale. I noticed there were few posters in the classroom and hesitantly ventured to the teacher’s desk. “And for a woman wert thou first created / Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting…,” I thought. This brought to mind section 3.6 of Mirabell, when the cosmic peacock says, “NOW BEGINS THE LIFE OF OUR MINDS 5 AS ONE,” and a “UNION OF THE ELEMENTS” takes place (159). Incidentally, or perhaps not, Maria represents water, Auden represents earth, Merrill represents air, Mirabell represents fire, and Jackson represents nature, the five elements. Jackson’s representation of “THE SHAPING HAND OF NATURE” marks an interesting “role” for him, following in the footsteps of Mozart, Auden explains, in section 3.9.

As I skimmed through the familiar tales of Coyote Stories, which I originally read a few years ago on a whim, I discovered that five was a sacred number in Salish mythology, in addition to a number of other paganistic religions. For example, when Coyote, the trickster, was killed by Chickadee’s arrow, his brother, Fox, had to step over him three times to bring him back to life. A footnote directed me to the notes in the back, where it was explained that three had only become that sacred number since the Salish were in Christian boarding schools. Originally, the number of times required to bring someone back to life by stepping over them was five. In section 2.1 of Mirabell, it’s explained that five individuals have achieved immortality: “LADUMAN  SORIVA  RACHEL   TORRO & VON.” These “DEATHLESS 5,” mentioned again in section 2.7, “PURSUE THEIR LEADERSHIP UNDER VARIOUS GUISES…,” which links back to the idea of the “veil” and costuming for the “grand drama” of Sandover. For the spirits, this drama is a reality in which they costume themselves, like the “DEATHLESS 5,” to complete their “V work” (142). On top of that, five is also acknowledged as being the number of sides on a pyramid.

As if in spite of my lack of preparation, the bell rang and students began mayhem in the hallway. I tossed the book aside and began a few jumping-jacks for motivational purposes. I thought about Mirabell’s “lessons” and the craft of pedagogy originally mentioned in section “C” of The Book of Ephraim, “Back / To school from the disastrously long vac…” (10), as it had been some time since I had last substituted. The day moved at lightning speed, and soon I was in my father’s office, on prep, (he’s the school counsellor, and one that certainly “gets the job done”) leaning back in the red, cotton chair across from his desk. I stared at the ceiling, “And by addition me of thee defeated / By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.” Shakespeare. Then I leapt up from the seat and took off down the hall to the “culture studies” classroom, where I seized an Expo marker and wrote on the whiteboard: “WATER + EARTH,” then dropped a line to write, “AIR + NATURE,” finally writing below that, “FIRE.” Now, how do these elements, assigned to “childless” Merrill and Jackson in relation to their “parental figures” Maria and Auden, congeal? And where the hell does Mirabell, as fire, fall into this? I sat on the floor facing the board and contemplated the possibilities. Water and fire don’t get along. Earth and nature? Aren’t they quite similar? What about air? “MIND & ABSTRACTION,” according to Auden (164). Don’t judge something by its appearance. The caskets in Merchant. I glared at the book across the room.

After a few moments of silence, and frustration, I reared up from the dusty floor and patted my hands against my black jeans. A sigh followed, and I slouched into the red chair once more after a dismal walk down the barren hallway. Oh, it is a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing, to have a broken heart and a temporarily broken confidence. Merrill has a tendency to do that at times, but it’s good. We’re good, Merrill and I, I mean. My dream resurfaced in my mind as I sipped some coffee with “pumpkin spice” flavored creamer, the only variety available in the teacher’s lounge. Some time passed, some laughs with my father, and then I felt distracted and confused by Mirabell. Another sigh, and the rest of the day passed at the same lightning speed. A student here, a student there, a documentary about witchcraft in King James’ Scotland, pretty soon I was stepping into the Jeep again, reflecting on how bright the sun had been earlier that day. A giant burning orb of crimson orange. Hm. And as we drove home, I thought of the sun a few more times, a “creator” and a “destroyer.” I heard Michael’s final words in section 9: “…THE SUN LOOKS THROUGH YOUR EYES TO THE LIFE BEHIND / YOU” (275), and reflected on the aria “Nè men con l’ombre d’infedelta” by a familiar Romilda. I wondered if things would ever feel right, and if I would ever feel that again. I wondered about that life behind me, the things I said and did.

JH: You look tired. MJH: I’m doing okay. JH: What do you want for dinner? MJH: Leftovers.

Playing the Great Works

Frederick Buechner, a prep-school classmate, gifted Merrill his first Ouija board in 1952, one year after First Poems was published. Timothy Materer, author of James Merrill’s Apocalypse, suggests that “Merrill’s friend found a backdoor way to encourage the poet’s spiritual interests” (81), but, reflecting on Merrill’s earlier work, it becomes apparent that this motif had been steadily growing and manifesting itself even in First Poems. The Sandover Trilogy takes the unambiguous form of an Ouija board through all three of its books. As the three-part epic poem progresses, JM and DJ transcend, by way of guidance, through the “stages” of the afterlife of which Ephraim is stationed in the sixth of nine. With the transition from book to book, readers observe an intensification in the “power” of the supernatural beings that JM and DJ interact with, from Ephraim to Michael and Gabriel, the angels. These “stages” are not only a play on the word as it relates to drama, but also perform an allusive function as they relate to Dante’s Divine Comedy with its tiered afterworlds. Merrill makes this reference rather explicit by citing the Paradiso in an epigraph before section “A.” The Book of Ephraim, the first installment of The Changing Light at Sandover, opens with section “A,” which serves as an author’s preface before section “B,” which provides the setting of the backdrop and stage for Ephraim, who appears in section “C.” Since The Book of Ephraim originated in Divine Comedies, the foundation in Dante’s three-part epic of not-quite-the-same title is not only obvious, but also necessary for reading Merrill’s epic, Ephraim himself serving as a type of Virgil-like guide who, among other qualities, is somewhat more witty, gossipy, and light-hearted when conversing with JM and JD.

For my study of The Book of Ephraim, I was in pursuit of classical music to concentrate. Now customarily, I settle for George Frideric Handel’s opera, Serse, an opera which blends comedy and tragedy about Persian King Serse, who falls in love with Romilda. On this particular occasion, Handel’s opera was beginning to generate a depressive response from me, and this prompted me to listen to Vivaldi’s string concertos. Often times the concertos elicit a strong emotional response from me, but the immediate effect, in accompaniment with The Book of Ephraim, was highly positive. The process of selecting classical music to listen to brings Ephraim, in section “G,” to mind. Hans Lodeizen, who died of leukemia in 1950, and to whom “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace” is dedicated, enters the red room in section “G,” and “He teaches Ephraim modern European / History, philosophy, and music.” JM notes, in the next line, that “E is most curious about the latter.” Ephraim, according to Merrill, is fascinated by H’s explanation of modern European music, and this invites H to suggest that Ephraim, or music itself for that matter, “Has reached the stage of… TRANSFERRED EXPERIENCE.” I mused quite some time on this line of section “G” and arrived at the conclusion that this inference is in direct response to the effect of music on both occupants of the living world and the spirit world. Ephraim is intrigued by modern music, and being “Born AD 8,” noted in section “C,” his understanding of music is “simpleminded.” Music imposes a “transferred experience” upon the listener, which is noted by Arthur Schopenhauer, whose metaphysics of music is founded in the supposition that “music is the embodiment of the will.” “The Will” is also, perhaps not so coincidently, the title of a poem in Divine Comedies that Merrill references with a “conferatur” (Cf.) in section “A.” Materer notes that “The Will” is “a sequence of thirteen sonnets [which] recounts the breakthrough of the spirit world into Merrill’s poetic consciousness” (74). Materer also suggests that “The ‘will’ referred to is a document but also the other world as will and idea, which drives Merrill to take on the deferring task of prophecy” (74-75). One must ask, in light of these connections, if Merrill aligns music with prophecy, from his awakening to spiritual poetic inspiration in “The Will,” to H’s recognition of Ephraim’s “stage” in “transferred experience” through music.

Shortly thereafter, Merrill writes, “we must play him great / Works—Das Lied von der Erde and Apollon Musagète—,” for the purpose of exposing Ephraim to “great” modern European classical music. Either of these pieces, I thought, might provide insight into Merrill; that is, you can tell a lot about a man by what classical music he prefers. Das Lied von der Erde, literally translated to “The Song of the Earth,” is a two-voice orchestral composition by Gustav Mahler, the Bohemian-born, German speaking Jew. Ephraim himself is noted as being a “Greek Jew” in section “C.” The two-voice nature of the composition, which is technically a symphony, struck me as interesting in light of the fact that there are two sets of voices in The Book of Ephraim, the living world and the spirit world. Even more interesting is the fact that, as Mahler composed this symphony, one singer is a tenor and one an alto, one lower and one higher. The real question becomes: is the living world the higher or the lower voice of the two? Seeing as JM and DJ “transcend” as the epic continues, it doesn’t seem entirely unrealistic to surmise that the living world is the lower of the two voices, constantly aspiring or listlessly wandering to a “higher” realm, that of the spirit world which Ephraim occupies.  On the other hand, though… Merrill establishes this binary with hopes that the interpretation can go either way, where the living world is, in fact, the higher of the two, the alto to the spirit world’s tenor.

The second of the two “great works” is Apollon Musagète, or “Apollo, Leader of the Muses,” a ballet by Igor Stravinsky from the late twenties. The word “muses,” for me, inspires thoughts of “A Tenancy,” from Water Street, or the “three friends” Merrill lets into the new house, each bearing a gift. “Muse” also brings to mind Maria Demertzí Mitsotáki, Merrill’s Greek muse and a surrogate mother figure, who reappears in section “D” on a list of “Dramatis Personae.” The striking use of the name Apollo, the Greek god of music, light, prophecy, poetry, and the sun, seems all too connected to what Merrill is attempting in Sandover, prophecy, i.e. “The Will,” light, and its “changing” effects that begin in his Water Street poems, light as healing, etc., and poetry, of course. Apollo is sometimes noted as being a god of healing as well, reminding us of “An Urban Convalescence,” “Out for a walk, after a week in bed…” Perhaps this also refers readers back to “Verses for Urania,” Urania being one of the nine muses.

I’m left wondering how meaningful these two selections for “great works” truly are, and, knowing Merrill, they require a close examination. You have to wonder if Ephraim’s understanding of modern European music inspires him to “just listen harder” like Merrill’s “The Victor Dog,” which he dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop. Ephraim’s “simpleminded” understanding of music could be likened to the Victor Dog, who sits before the gramophone with head cocked to the side in utter fascination, but with an absentminded understanding of what the music is to an uneducated sensory experience, just the type that someone/something like Ephraim might lack. Among other things, Merrill appears to be establishing a pattern with the comprehension of music in relation to “non-humans.” Both “non-humans,” the Victor Dog and Ephraim, appear to be interested in understanding the music, but they initially lack the ability to comprehend it in the same fashion as Merrill, an opera enthusiast, according to The Fire Screen’s “The Opera Company” and other music-themed poems.

Later, in the same stanza of section “G,” Ephraim tells JM and DJ “HL REMEMBERS YOU / STILL HEARS THRU U JM A VERNAL MUSIC / THIS WILL BE YR LAST LIFE THANKS TO HIM…” Ephraim refers to Lodeizen, and I’m left guessing about the meaning behind “vernal music.” Does this mean “spring-like” music? What does Ephraim mean by the “spring-like” music that HL remembers JM through? I’m tempted to examine the semantics of Ephraim’s quote in section “G.” He says, through the Ouija board, “THIS WILL BE YR LAST LIFE THANKS TO HIM…” I’m focusing on “THIS WILL,” and how it might suggest something about Merrill’s interest in prophecy, and the interwoven implication that the human will is given form through music. Is music then a type of prophecy in Merrill’s terms? And what does Ephraim’s lack of knowledge about modern European music suggest about the spirit world? It would seem to argue that the spirit world is disconnected from the living world, where the spirits would be able to “observe” the activities of the living, such as their music. I’m left wondering how connected or disconnected the living and spirit worlds are from one another. If a mirror is how Ephraim sees JM and DJ, also through reflected water when Ephraim sees them swimming naked in section “B” (perhaps, since Ephraim embodies the love between JM and DJ, naturally, he would be able to see them engaging in an intimate activity), what ability do spirits have to view the world of the living? And does this just mean they can see and not hear, smell, touch, or taste?

The alignment of music with foresight, prophecy through music, also appears in section “F.” Merrill describes Miranda (who, in the context of islands reminds me of Shakespeare’s The Tempest…) as having “…sudden / Spells of pure unheeding, like a Haydn / Finale marked giocoso but shot through / With silences—regret? foreknowledge?” In music, “giocoso” refers to a joyful or pleasantly merry piece. Merrill writes “giocoso,” and then follows it with “…but shot through.” Haydn finales are characteristically fast in pace and cut in time. By “shot through,” Merrill points out the speed of a Haydn finale in relation to the joyous and cheerful sound. This line could also be indicative of deception; as in, a Haydn finale is “marked giocoso,” but it’s “shot through / With silences,” i.e. it’s not cheerful and joyous, but filled with silences, suggesting sadness. In that regard, “giocoso” is deceptive because the finale is not “giocoso.” Merrill then, I believe, asks if these silences are “regret” or “foreknowledge,” further aligning music with prophecy and the human will.

Sections “A” through “H” develop several motifs in addition to the overwhelming importance of music for understanding the connection between the worlds of the living and the spirits. A repeated idea is that of education, where Ephraim serves as a type of teacher for JM and DJ while they’re exploring and interacting with the spirit world through the Ouija board. After all, their experiences with the board are experimental, and according to Ephraim, the world of the living knows little of the spirit world. JM and DJ are students of Ephraim, who, again, represents their love. The spirit that embodies the love shared between Merrill and Jackson also acts as a teacher to them. I would argue that, in some strange way, Merrill intended for love to be an educational means in relation to the spirit world. This may hold implications as we continue through The Book of Ephraim, but for now it’s merely a theory. The next experience, continuing with section “I,” will be their “brush with Divine Law.”

Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Cornell University, 2000.

Yenser, Stephen. Notes to “The Book of Ephraim”: Commentary on the Poem. Poetry Daily, 2018.

A Morning Convalescence

Before sunrise on an unspecific day last week, I was asked by one of the three most important women in my life to give her a lift to work, seeing as her vehicle has been decommissioned for nearly three months now. The morning began at 4:15 a.m., when I opened my eyes and saw the half-face of James Merrill next to me, on the cover of his collected poems. This immediately brought to mind the poem, “The Thousand and Second Night,” in which Merrill writes, “I woke today / With an absurd complaint. The whole right half / Of my face refuses to move.” I also awoke with an “absurd” complaint (who wakes up at 4:15 a.m.??), and seeing his half-face on the heavy book next to me generated a chain reaction of thoughts related to the duality of man in my recent studies of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

At 4:55 a.m., I waited outside her apartment and read the first stanza of “An Urban Convalescence.” I shivered since the heat in my truck takes an average of sixteen minutes to kick in, which I checked with a timer function on my mobile. Only about ten minutes had passed since I first started it and cleaned snow off the hood. I read each line of the first stanza and ruminated on it, feeling a special “human” connection to the third line, which reads, “…chilled through, dazed and lonely…” I was indeed quite chilled, and definitely dazed in how tired I felt, an obvious side effect of watching British television shamefully late the night before. The loneliness aspect of the experience came from the singularly dull feeling of waiting in a cold truck in what seems to be the dead of night. It would be another two or three hours before the sun would even peek over the horizon. This carries an especially depressing weight; ask anyone who lives here.

The fifth line of the stanza evoked an image in my mind. Merrill describes the “huge crane,” which people are watching “Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.” Specifically, this idea of “the filth of years” brings to mind my past. It doesn’t seem at all a maddening speculation that everyone carries their pains and their regrets with them—forever. This garbage from the past, I feel, is often poorly navigated and rarely dealt with in an effective manner; rather, if we think of the “huge crane” as a type of catalyst for the destruction of an old, broken down way of thinking or living, or of memories that stay with us and bring about negativity and suffering, it makes sense that this catalyst would “Fumble luxuriously through the filth,” the negativity of our minds that comes from the past. Although, “fumble” suggests a type of imbalance, like an uncertainty of motion that, at least in football, represents an error. But now I want to think of how one might “fumble luxuriously,” an erroneous, clumsy act coupled with one that is comfortable and elegant. This is how Merrill describes the “huge crane” that is “tearing up part of [his] block,” and perhaps more interestingly, how I suspect he’s describing an act of mental deconstruction to disarm and move on from the past.

Just as I read the line that refers to Graves’s The White Goddess, I looked up and saw her hallway light flick on from the window. I put the book down and ran around the truck to open her door for her. She once commented on how much she appreciated it, so I labeled it a type of standard for our early-morning meetings. The roads were icy, prompting me to switch on my four-wheel drive while traveling, admittedly, much faster than the posted speed limit down 27th Street. After I dropped my companion off, I waved goodbye and proceeded to a coffee shop to continue my reading. I pulled out the dense Merrill book in the parking lot upon my arrival, looking once more at the first stanza. Merrill regards the “huge crane” as a feminine entity, labeling it “her” twice, perhaps linking it to Graves’ book about the feminine divine in mythology. I began toying with the idea that the crane represents something powerful enough to “deconstruct” the past, a feminine deity, of sorts, that rummages through “the filth of years,” and that’s why Merrill is reminded of The White Goddess. I was reminded of Merrill’s own “Lost in Translation” while reading the last line of the first stanza, due to the reminiscent quality of the sentiment, which is seen in the nostalgic recollections of his later poem. This line generates the sense that the poet is reveling, or musing on the past and material he’s encountered. Merrill utilizes associative memory strings, which build-off one another tangentially to create a form of organized daydream of his life. He also explores self-corrective interruption, which he learned from Elizabeth Bishop, according to an essay by Guy Rotella. A clearer example of this occurs in the third stanza, “–Or am I confusing it with another one / In another part of town, or of the world?–”

If I had to explain one major take-away from Water Street, published in 1966, I would have to bring up confessional poetry, reportedly started by Robert Lowell in 1959 with the publishing of his book, Life Studies. Timothy Materer, author of James Merrill’s Apocalypse, compares Lowell’s “For the Union of the Dead,” published in a poetry collection of the same name in 1964, with “An Urban Convalescence.” Confessional poetry seems to have had an influence on Merrill, as this poem, and poetry collection, seems to investigate the poet’s destructiveness as a necessity for creation. In the wake of destruction, creation of something new is given the chance to grow and develop. Can destruction, in and of itself, be a radical form of self-creation? “An Urban Convalescence” is the first poem in Water Street, and “A Tenancy” is the last. In “A Tenancy,” it appears that Merrill finally has found peace, inviting three muse-like figures into his home near the end, with consistent references to light “healing” and “changing” him, like the chair: “A changing light is deepening, is changing / To a gilt ballroom chair a chair / Bound to break under someone before long.” The next line continues, “I let the light change also me.” “A Tenancy” is about renewal, while “An Urban Convalescence” is about destroying the old to make way for the new, cleaning out the emotional pain from the past to build a brighter future. Of course, there are quite a few obvious implications embedded in this idea, since there is value in remembering the past, even its unpleasantries. Sites of destruction are recommissioned as opportunities to learn and grow. Merrill admits his own “moral waste,” his “filth of the years” in the last seven stanzas of “An Urban Convalescence,” where the form “tightens” as the poet enters indoors, a change from the structure presented before while “Out for a walk, after a week in bed…”

Works Cited

Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Cornell University Press, 2000, New York.

Merrill, James. Collected Poems. Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2001, New York.

Rotella, Guy. from “James Merrill’s poetry of convalescence”. Contemporary Literature 38.2, 1997, unspecified location.