"Braving the Elements" originally appeared in The New Yorker, March 27, 1995.
Braving the Elements
by J. D. McClatchy
The news that James Merrill had died (on February 6, 1995) in Arizona of a sudden heart attack at the age of sixty-eight caused a palpable shock in the literary world. Spontaneous tributes and readings sprang up at universities and gatherings around the country. Disbelieving letters and phone calls crisscrossed the circle of professional writers. Not since a grand chapter closed in the 1970s with the deaths of W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop has the loss of an American poet been as momentous, or as widely acknowledged to be so.
That is in part because, however compelling his ambitions or demanding his methods, Merrill's readers always felt a sort of intimacy. For fifty years, the poet had used the details of his own life to shape a portrait that in turn mirrored back to us the image of our world and our moment. When his sixth book of poems, Braving the Elements, appeared in 1982, Helen Vendler's review in the New York Times struck early what came to be the dominant note in appraisals of Merrill: "The time eventually comes, in a good poet's career, when readers actively long for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your life--under whatever terms of difference--makes you wish for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things, as Wordsworth called them, that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry."
For his funeral service in Stonington, on a raw February afternoon, the little village church--its whitewashed interior suddenly looking rather Greek--was filled. A piping soprano sang Bach's "Bist du bei mir" to the plaintive accompaniment of a virginal, and Merrill's good friend, the novelist Allan Gurganus, spoke a brief eulogy. "Some people contain their grace," he said. "James dispersed his. It was a molecular nimbus he lived within and he seemed, after nearly seven decades in there, largely unaware of its effervescent effect on the rest of us. How rare, when the great man is a good man." Later, at the cemetery where a mossy oblong of sod lay beside the tiny grave, a clutch of friends each sprinkled a handful of dirt over the poet's ashes. When it was his turn, one young poet also dropped into the grave a dimestore playing marble painted to resemble the globe itself.
The shock has slowly subsided for his friends into the dull realization that there will be no more of his witty company. Yes, he was a great poet and knew he was meant to end up as books on the shelf. Those twenty books have long since confirmed his mastery: he knew more about the language of poetry than anyone since Auden, and used it to make poems that will remain part of anyone's definition of the art. But so, too, his conversation. He liked, as he once said, "English in its billiard-table sense--words that have been set spinning against their own gravity." At a large dinner party or on a casual stroll, with old acquaintance or perfect stranger, he had an almost anarchic habit of turning everything upside-down. By his slight adjustment of perspective, or realignment of syllable, the dire became droll. He rarely relaxed his instinctive habit of reversing a truth or upending the mawkish, and his face--with its pursed smile and arched brow--loved to anticipate the pleasure his remark was about to give.
In 1994, for instance, at a Met performance of Otello, the Desdemona was in trouble long before her tragic end. Carol Vaness, playing the role in her own red hair, had developed a wobble and decided to withdraw. Her cover, in a more traditional balck wig, took over the last act. After the performance, making his way up the aisle, Merrill turned to a friend and shook his head with a rueful giddiness, "Poor Desdemona! She changed the color of her hair, but it didn't save her marriage."
The crack is characteristic in other ways. To begin with, he was at the opera, and nothing over the years had given him more pleasure nor at the start had taught him more. He began going to the Met when he was eleven, and one of his best-known poems, "Matinees," describes its effect. "The point thereafter was to arrange for one's / Own chills and fever, passions and betrayals, / Chiefly in order to make song of them." Opera--its ecstasies and deceptions, its transcendent fires and icy grandeurs,--is above all a stylized dramatization of our inner lives, our forbidden desires and repressed fears. It may seem surprising in a poet like Merrill, whose surfaces can be so elegant and elusive, but center stage in his work is passion. However his words may work to heighten and refine it, the urgency of the heart's desires is his constant subject.
That Merrill would joke not about Desdemona's murder but about her failed marriage also points to a distant event that came to shape his imagination. At about the same time he first started going to the opera, his parents separated. A bitter divorce followed, and because Merrill's father was one of the most powerful financiers in America, co-founder of the great brokerage house of Merrill Lynch, the story was front-page news. One tabloid even ran a photograph of young James with the caption "PAWN IN PARENTS' FIGHT." Again and again over the course of his career, Merrill would revisit the scene, nowhere more memorably than in his sequence of sonnets called "The Broken Home." Thirty years after the fact, the poem manages a knowing shrug. "Always that same old story-- / Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks." But the poem's impulse here to mythologize the trauma is part of a larger scheme. It was as if the divorce represented Merrill's own split personality. As much his father's son as his mother's boy, he had a temperament that by turns revealed what I may call paternal and maternal sides. He was drawn equally to the rational and the fanciful, the passionate and the ironic, idea and fact, America and Europe. And from the very beginning, his ambition as a poet had been--like the child attempting to reconcile his warring parents--to harmonize those two sides of his life. More often than not, he preferred to remain of two minds about all matters. But the energy spent in exploring those divisions and doublings, all the obsessions and inventions of his work, from the delicacies of metaphor on to the creation of an entire cosmogony, fuelled a career as remarkable as any in American literary history.
As children, most of us fantasize a glamorous alternative: our parents are royal and rich, we live in a palace, we are adored and powerful. But if those happen to be the facts of your life instead of your fantasies? His parents had a brownstone on West 11th Street, and a stately Stanford White pile in Southampton, "The Orchard," with its dozen bedrooms, its conservatories and rose-arbors, cooks and chauffeurs. In his 1957 roman á clef, The Seraglio, Merrill portrays his father in his later years as a sort of pasha, surorunded by wife, ex-wives, mistresses, nurses, and flatterers, a man who loved his wives deeply but cheerlessly while counting on other women for companionship and fun. He was a man whose face "would have made the fortune of any actor. Frank, earnest, noble in repose, it was kept from plain tiresome fineness by being always on the verge of some unlikely humor, mischief or doltishness or greed." Merrill's mother, Hellen Ingram, was Charles Merrill's second wife, a Jacksonville beauty who had once been a newspaper reporter and kept close tabs on her son. It's almost natural that Merrill's childhood fantasies weren't the usual ones. If his ballad, "Days of 1935," is a fair account of them, he imagined himself kidnapped like the Lindbergh baby and carried off to some shabby hideout by a gangster and his moll with whose cheap looks--her rosebud chewing gum, his sallow, lantern-jawed menace--he falls in love and from whose violent ways he begs not to be ransomed.
"It strikes me now maybe," he told an interviewer in 1982, "that during much of my childhood I found it difficult to believe in the way my parents lived. They seemed so utterly taken up with engagements, obligations, ceremonies--every child must feel that, to some extent, about the grown-ups in his life." In fact, like most childhoods, his was lonely. He craved affection, and spent most of his time with an adored governess, reading up on Norse myths or devising plots to present in his puppet theater. The loneliness--almost a necessary condition for any poet's working life--and the need to charm run right though his poems. By the time he was eight he was writing poems. By the time he was at Lawrenceville, he meant to make a career of it and told his father so. Charles Merrill, distressed by his son's determination, nonetheless took a businessman's approach. He secretly sent his son's fledgling poems and stories to three "experts," including the president of Amherst, and asked for their frank opinion of the boy's prospects. When they all agreed on a precocious talent, Merrill had a volume--called Jim's Book--privately printed, to the young author's immediate delight and future chagrin. The patriarch was heard to say he'd rather have a first-rate poet for a son than a third-rate stockbroker.
In his last years, Merrill had begun to notice in his shaving mirror each morning how much he had come to resemble his father. "A face no longer / sought in dreams but work as my own" is how one poem puts it. He never thought to look for that face earlier, since the young need always to consider themselves unique. In his memoir, A Different Person, published in 1993, he remembers looking at himself in 1950:
From the mirror stares inquiringly a slim person neither tall nor short, in a made-to-order suit of sandy covert cloth and a bow-tie. My bespectacled face is so young and unstretched that only by concentration do the lips close over two glinting chipmunk teeth. My hair, dark with fair highlights, is close-cropped. I have brown eyes, an unexceptional nose, a good jaw. My brow wrinkles when I am sad or worried, as now. Not that what I see dismays me. Until recently I've been an overweight, untidy adolescent; now my image in the glass is the best I can hope for. Something, however, tells me that time will do little to improve it. The outward bloom of youth upon my features will fade long before the budlike spirit behind them opens--if it ever does. It is inside that I need to change. To this end I hope very diffidently to get away from the kind of poetry I've been writing.
The kind of poetry he was writing then--his First Poems appeared in 1951--was very much of its time. Merrill had been a prodigy, turning out incised, world-weary sonnets at sixteen. He began publishing his work in leading magazines at twenty. The aloof, lapidary glamour of his poems, their dissolves and emblems, were meant both to disguise feelings only dimly known and to declare his allegiance to a line of poets that could be traced from Wallace Stevens back to the Symbolistes. But before too long, he had written a novel and had a couple of plays produced off-Broadway, and from both experiences he had learned to write a more fluid and inflected line, often coaxed by narrative.
By 1954, Merrill had decided to abandon New York City. He moved with his companion David Jackson to Stonington, a small Connecticut coastal village--half fishing fleet, half Yankee clapboard--that a friend suggested might remind him of Portugal. He and Jackson bought a house; they had a brass bed, a record player, a rowboat, a table and two chairs to work on, and no telephone. He loved the light glinting on Long Island Sound, and the cozy, steeled routines of village life; the town, he said, was "full of clever wrinkled semi-famous people whom by the end of our second season we couldn't live without." By 1959, he and Jackson had made another move, soon after bought another house, and for the next two decades spent half of each year in Athens.
Both moves were, in a sense, strategic withdrawals. Like his friend Elizabeth Bishop, Merrill did what he could to avoid having to lead a Literary Life. Stonington's bright calm began to give his work a more domestic focus. In the collection named for his address, Water Street (1962), there is a poem that speaks of his "dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent." Always aware that the very word stanza is Italian for "room," Merrill put together poems that would shelter his memories. Increasingly, his poems were autobiographical, reaching back to childhood or puzzling over some passing event or involvement. Merrill eventually described his poems as "chronicles of love and loss," and that term aptly stresses his sense of a life lived and understood over time, and links his two recurrent themes. From his college days on, Merrill's favorite writer had been Proust, for whom the only true paradise was a lost paradise. Love, for both writers, is not fully itself until it is lost, until it becomes memory, becomes art.
If the familiarities of Stonington afforded both distance and security, Greece gave him something else. Here was a landscape of ravishing ruggedness, a culture of exotic simplicities, life on a smaller human scale. Better still, a language--he quickly mastered it--in which his accent wouldn't at once betray his class. He loved the anonymity it gave him; he loved the very sound of it: kalókakó, cockatoo raucous / Coastline of white printless coves / Already strewn with offbeat echolalia." The poems set in Greece, vivid with local color, are the highlight of his two subsequent books, Nights and Days (1966) and The Fire Screen (1969). Landscapes as different as New Mexico and Key West would later figure in his work as well. Merrill was a poet who looked out at a scene or around a room to prompt him. "I always find," he told an interviewer, "when I don't like a poem I'm writing, I don't look anymore into the human components. I look more to the setting--a room, the objects in it." What was in front of his eyes would reveal what was in his mind. It was a quality he especially admired in the poems of Eugenio Montale, the way their ladles and love letters, their ordinary furniture and pets, led finally deep into a labyrinth of feeling.
The rooms of his Stonington house, which gave the impression of a boutique fantasque, were themselves an image of Merrill's inner life: a clutter of beloved tokens. An immense Victorian mirror would reflect masterpiece and tchotchke, piles of books on the horsehair divan, a glass bowl filled with glass globes, his bat-motif wallpaper, a Maxfield Parrish, a tanagra, a snapshot of his goddaughter, a Moghul miniature, a wooden nickel, cacti and shells, a Meissen plate, a lacquered Japanese travelling box, a wind-up toy bird, the upheld hand of the Buddha.
A couple of years ago, Allan Gurganus wrote to Merrill, urging him to reread Tolstoy's novella, Married Happiness. The poet dutifully looked for it, but could only find it in French, in one of the work Pleiade editions he kept by his bed in Stonington. When he opened to Le Bonheur Conjugal, out fluttered a piece of paper on which, twenty years earlier, he had typed a stanza from Byron's poem "Beppo," lines that he imagined at the time described a person he might grow to resemble:
Then he was faithful, too, as well as amorous,
So that no sort of female could complain,
Although they're now and then a little clamorous;
He never put the pretty souls in pain;
His heart was one of those which most enamor us,
Wax to receive and marble to retain.
He was a lover of the good old school,
Who still become more constant as they cool.
Rather like his father, Merrill was a lover of the good old school. He's found his own bonheur conjugal in 1952 with David Jackson. Jackson could play the piano, write a story, dash off a watercolor; he was ebullient, daring, funny, irresistible. Over their years together, the strains in their relationship were sometimes apparent. But they stayed together--if latterly at a certain distance from one another. It was as if Merrill were determined to keep for himself the kind of relationship his parents had thrown away. He was just as constant to his other lovers as well. He'd had affairs before he met Jackson, and several afterward. He had a way of turning each affair not only into an abiding friendship but into poetry as well. He wrote some of the most beautiful love poems of this century. He relished Borges's definition of love as the religion with a fallible god, and few poets have looked on love with such a vulnerable and wary eye:
Where I hid my face, your touch, quick, merciful,
Blindfolded me. A god breathed from my lips.
If that was illusion, I wanted it to last long;
To dwell, for its daily pittance, with us there,
Cleaning and watering, sighing with love or pain.
I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights
Even of degradation, as I for one
Seemed, those days, to be always climbing
Into a world of wild
Flowers, feasting, tears--or was I falling, legs
Buckling, heights, depths,
Into a pool of each night's rain?
But you were everywhere beside me, masked,
As who was not, in laughter, pain, and love.
Merrill wrote openly and seriously about homosexual love long before that was fashionable. "As in the classic account of Sarah Bernhardt descending a spiral staircase--she stood still and it revolved around her--my good fortune," he wrote in his memoir, "was to stay in one place while the closet simply disintegrated."
When I first met Merrill, he was forty-six and had earned his first full measure of fame. Nights and Days had won the National Book Award, whose judges (W. H. Auden, Howard Nemerov, and James Dickey) singled out "his insistence on taking the kind of tough, poetic chances which make the difference between aesthetic success or failure." And he had just published Braving the Elements, whose exquisite austerities mark a kind of extreme in his work. Dense and rapturous, the poems here are set amid the hazards of history and romance. His narrative skills turn out Chekhovian vignettes like "After the Fire" or "Days of 1971," where the end of an affair helps him to a wistful self-knowledge he calls "Proust's Law":
a) What least thing our self-love longs for most
Others instinctively withhold;
b) Only when time has slain desire
is his wish granted to a smiling ghost
Neither harmed nor warmed, now, by the fire.
When Braving the Elements was awarded the 1973 Bollingen Prize, Merrill was the subject of a Times editorial attacking those who continue to "reward poetry that is literary, private, traditional." That has been a sentiment, a peculiarly American fear of the Fancy, that other readers have shared. Some of his early critics used to condescend to his work by calling it "bejewelled." Ironically, their contempt was close to a larger truth. From the start, but nowhere more than in this book, Merrill took his bearings from the four elements--earth, air, fire, water--and in so many of his poems the jewel is their embodiment. Crystal prism or emerald brooch, waterfall or geode, dragonfly or planet, whatever brilliant lens he chose, it was to inspect more carefully the natural world's wonders. "It's not the precious," he once told a young writer, "it's the semiprecious one has to resist." And like most strong poets, he seemed largely indifferent to his critics. He knew his worth, and disdained the lust for celebrity. "Think what one has to do," he noted wryly, "to get a mass audience. I'd rather have one perfect reader. Why dynamite the pond in order to catch that single silver carp? Better to find the bait that only the carp will take."
He was a poet who trusted language to tell him what anything means. Rhyme, wordplay, paradox only help reveal the hidden wish of words. Indeed, the OED is the collective unconscious of English speakers, he'd say; all of our ideas and feelings are to be found there, in the endless recombinations of our words. He was himself rather shy of ideas in poems. "I avert my eyes from them," he joked, "as from the sight of a nude grandparent, not presentable, indeed taboo, until robed in images." Those images are an astonishment. He will note a hotel's "strange bed, whose recurrent dream we are," or describe a plot of zinnias as "pine cones in drag," or Kufic script as "all trigger tail and gold vowel-sac." His lines are animated with colloquial idiom and mercurial wit. Their perfection of tone is made to seem offhanded, their weight of allusion and symbol deftly balanced. If the surfaces of his poems are sometimes difficult, it may be they only seemed so because for most of his career other poets were loudly trumpeting the virtues of the plain style. For his part, Merrill would say that the natural world isn't "See Jane run." The more natural way to put it is actually more complex: "Where on earth can that child be racing off to? Why it's little--you know, the neighbor's brat--Jane!" So, too, the syntax of his poems darts and capers. The effect on a reader can be vertiginous.
By the mid-1970's, his poems were growing longer. But even he was surprised by the project that occupied him for eight years, from 1974 to 1981. Actually, it was a project that preempted him. Since they first moved to Stonington, he and David Jackson had, on spare evenings, sat down at a homemade Ouija board and chatted with the great dead. No sooner did he write up these encounters, in the volume Divine Comedies (1976), which won him the Pulitzer Prize, then the spirits demanded he attend to more rigorous lessons they would give him. "Don't you ever think there comes a time," Merrill explained in an interview, "when everyone, not just a poet, wants to get beyond the self? To reach, if you like, the 'god' within you? The board, in however clumsy or absurd a way, allows for precisely that. Or if it's still yourself that you're drawing on, then that self is much stranger and freer and more farseeing than the one you thought you knew." Resisting the impulse to be either wholly skeptical or merely credulous, Merrill sat for the lessons. The curriculum ranged from subatomic particles to cosmic forces, and the cast of thousands included Akhnaton, Pythagoras, Montezuma, T. S. Eliot, Maria Callas, bats and unicorns, scientists and neighbors, God Biology and Mother Nature. In his epic account of it all, the poet managed to make the otherworldly revelations into a very human drama of acceptance, resistance, and ambivalence. And by the time he'd gathered all seventeen thousand lines of his epic adventure into a single volume, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), he had written what is--with the possible exception of Whitman's "Song of Myself,"--the strangest and grandest American poem ever, at once eerie, hilarious, and heartbreaking.
His last book, A Scattering of Salts, is a wonderful anthology of his characteristic strengths as a poet. There are portraits and elegies, sonnets and free-verse riffs, high style and slang. There are pungent, elliptical little lyrics, and the longer, loping narratives that were his specialty. In one, he describes "family week" at a dude ranch rehab center he is visiting to be with his then lover, who has sought treatment there. The poet tries to adjust to the New Age therapies:
...this wide-angle moonscape, lawns and pool,
Patients sharing pain like fudge from home--
As if these were the essentials,
As if a month at what it invites us to think
Is little more than a fat farm for Anorexics,
Substance Abusers, Love & Relationship Addicts
Could help you, light of my life, when even your shrink...
The message then? That costly folderol,
Underwear made to order in Vienna,
Who needs it! Let the soul hang out
At Benneton--stone-washed, one size fits all.
It ends with a haunting, lovelorn speculation that blends the newest jargon with one of poetry's oldest images:
And if the old patterns recur?
Ask how the co-dependent moon, another night,
Feels when the light drains wholly from her face.
Ask what that cold comfort means to her.
Cozy chats over the Ouija board acknowledge death as an event but not a fact. They might even be said to represent at some level a denial of death. But the three collections Merrill published during his last decade take a more realistic look at mortality. This final book has an almost Yeatsian vigor in the face of the end. What Merrill sees on the microscope slide is everything we dread. "Dread? It crows for joy in the manger. / Joy? The tree sparkles on which it will die."
The earnest young poet I was in 1972 found the James Merrill who had kindly invited me to dinner one spring night dauntingly sophisticated. His features were faintly elfin, and his voice--a soft, cultivated baritone--drew one mothlike toward its flickering brightness. He had read everything (I found out later that in his twenties he had taken one winter to read all of Dickens, another for Balzac) but skated past any ponderous discussion of literature--though he could quote at will whole passages of Baudelaire or Da Ponte or Cole Porter. He never played The Poet in company, but felt himself "more like a doctor at a dinner party, just another guest until his hostess slumps to the floor or his little beeper goes off." He never read a newspaper or voted, yet was scornfully eloquent about the technocracy's myopic bureaucrats and "their sad knowledge, their fingertip control." He worked at his desk everyday, and, even to the extent that he lived for pleasure, he lived rather simply. If he meant to be a dandy in his dress, the results were more often merely eccentric. Old Auden wore carpet slippers to the opera. You could spot Merrill there in mauve Birkenstocks over lime-green socks, neatly pressed corduroys with Navajo belt buckle, a shirt from the Gap, a Venetian bow tie, a Loden cape and baseball cap.
He chief pleasure was friendship. Over the years, his friends ranged from Alice Toklas and Maya Deren to Richard Wilbur and Alison Lurie. To each he was tender and loyal. His friends, in turn, responded in such coin as they happened to have in their pockets. In 1968, when Stephen Yenser sent him a fervently used book--a palm-sized, velvet-covered, dog-eared copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, which Merrill adored--the poet responded in kind:
Fortunate those who back from a brief trip,
To equinoctial storms and scholarship,
Unwrap, first thing, a present from a friend,
And into Omar's honeyed pages dip.
That was an inspiration, yours I mean . . . I may ask to have the little book buried with me, in the tavern garden. The trip itself was uneventful--Atlanta, Jamaica, and long-enough in Palm Beach to get on an ill-starred plane; a motor failed, it had to limp back to Miami where it landed in a phoenix-nest of fire trucks, its passengers by then--vacant, sun-tanned oldies all of them--more dead than alive. One of my neighbors had never flown before and decided never to do it again. The other, more worldly, simply removed her earrings and harlequin glasses against the crash landing that, with luck, we would all be able to dine out on that very evening. Life has moved at such a pace since then that perhaps after all we did crash and I am buried by the tavern with Omar in hand. I've written countless letters, finished the ballad ["The Summer People"], corrected most of an appalling English translation of a Greek friend's novel, and lost eight pounds. All very uncharacteristic behavior. Here in town [Stonington] all the cellars are flooded and everyone is agitating for McCarthy. I'm not sure what a primary is, but we're going to have one for the first time in our local history. He's clearly doomed to lose out, like all the others admired in the past by one's friends. The ballad is my pride + joy. I all but get up in the middle of the night and give it a bottle. Like an infant, it doesn't weight very much, but its little nostrils and toenails are wonderfully complete.
Richard Howard once noted that the art of living was one of Merrill's greatest talents. "What one wants in this world," Merrill wrote, "isn't so much to 'live' as to . . . be lived, to be used by life for its own purposes. What has one to give but oneself?" It was always to Merrill that his friends turned when they needed advice. Here, for instance, is part of a 1973 letter he sent me from Greece. I seem then to have been in the throes of some now-forgotten crisis of the heart. How sweetly he edged up to my worries, and even more sweetly moved past them. He began by describing the crowded summer in Athens, and his being content to stay blithely above it. Then he expands from details to his theme:
The iron gates of life have seldom seen such traffic, to judge from the confused rumor that reaches us here in the shade of the pearly ones. The real absurdity, you will say, (and I'll agree, it's all so novel), is to feel in one's bones how utterly a boundary has been crossed. Here one is in Later Life, and it's perfectly pleasant really, not for a moment that garden of cactus and sour grapes I'd always assumed it must be. Oh dear, this sort of thing is probably just what you mean by being "recessed" into myself. But it's odd. I mean, the times of greatest recession into the self have always been, for me, times of helpless suffering, such as you're going through; when there's no escape from the self. Perhaps any circumstance, any frame of mind, content, pain, trust, distrust, is a niche that limits visibility--for both the occupant and the onlooker? I read your last letter, in any case, with pangs of recognition. There's no special comfort, is there? in being understood at times like these. One is mortified by one's predicament, and at the same moment so curiously proud of its ramifications. You won't be ready yet to like the fact of belonging to a very large group of people who've all had--allowing for particular differences--the same general experience. Later on, when your sense of humor and proportion returns, that fact ought rather to please you: to have so shared in the --or at least a human condition.
The other evening we made an exception and went next door to meet Alan Ansen's houseguest, a Mr Burroughs--a sallow, nondescript party who talked of nothing but drugs and sex-crimes, just like my mother's Atlanta friends. Luckily dear Tony [his Alexandrian friend, Tony Parigory] was there, and told us another of his Egyptian stories. Onto a Cairo bus one hot summer day, when "everyone" has fled town, climbs a man holding a huge watermelon in both arms. Unable to support himself, he lurches against various passengers one of whom flares up. There are words. The man with the watermelon draws himself up: "Hm! It's obvious you don't know who I am." The other looks him over, then slowly ticks off each point on his fingers: "August. Cairo. On a bus. Holding a watermelon. Who could you be?"
If it helps to write me about your troubles, don't let shyness hold you back. And if you'd rather I didn't comment, another time, upon what you tell me, I should understand that very well.
Of course, he gave a great deal more than advice to his friends. He was a soft touch, and had learned the difficult art of giving money away gracefully. A friend's staggering medical bill or the downpayment on a house, appeals from ballet companies or animal shelters, stories of neglected old poets on the skids or a young painter who needed equipment . . . his sympathy was easily sparked. In the late 1950's, dismayed by the size of his inheritance, he used a good chunk of it to establish the Ingram Merrill Foundation, whose board of directors was empowered to award grants to writers and artists. Over the years, hundreds of people were helped. The edge was always given to the promising beginner.
What Merrill couldn't give away was the stigma that came with his wealth and privilege. Epicurus famously said that riches don't alleviate, only change one's troubles. The fortune that gave Merrill the chance both to distance himself from the family who made it and pursue an odd, intricate career was, I'd guess, a nagging source of embarrassment for him and may have occasioned, in turn, his aversion to grand hotels and restaurants, his recycled razor blades and spartan diet. He used long ago to confuse his companions by declaring, "Thank goodness I come from poor parents." He meant that his parents' values had been formed--by the example of their hard-working, middle-class parents--before they had money. In a sense, his own values were old-fashioned. What sustained Merrill was a dedication to his calling, a high ambition, and a deeply moral purpose. If we give equal weight to each word, then this definition of a poet he once offered sums him up: he was "a man choosing the words he lives by."
When Merrill's ashes were sent back to be buried in Stonington, a box of papers came along too. Among them was a poem called "Koi." Behind the house he had been renting in Tucson for the winter is a small ornamental pool of koi, the Japanese carp. The poem--the last he wrote, a couple of weeks before he died--is about those fish and his little Jack Russell terrier, Cosmo. Of course it wasn't written as a last poem, but circumstances give it a special poignancy.
Also sent home was his notebook. It's open now on my desk. He'd kept a series of notebooks over the years, their entries irregular, often fragmentary. Things overheard or undergone. Dreams, lists, lines. An image or an anagram. The writing--even the handwriting--is swift and elegant. But the last page of this notebook is nearly indecipherable. Suddenly, at the end, you can see the difficulty he was having: the script is blurred, and that may be because he had lost his glasses. His breathing too was labored. On Saturday, he'd been admitted to the hospital with a bout of acute pancreatitis. I spoke with him by telephone on Sunday, the night before he died, and asked about his breathing. He struggled to say that, though he'd been given oxygen, the doctors were unconcerned and scheduled his release. The rest of the conversation was banter and gossip and plans for the future: a cataract operation, the new Pelleas at the Met. His notebook, though, tells another, more anxious story. The last page is dated 5.ii.95, the day before his death. There are two dozen line, sketches for a poem to be titled "The Next to Last Scene." Typically it starts by looking around his hospital room, and opens with what in retrospect seems a heart-catching line: "A room with every last convenience." It glances at TV set, cassette player, smiling lover. He would often, when drafting a poem, fill out the end of a line, knowing where he wanted to go although not exactly sure how he would get there. He'd done so here. I can make out "To see the other through." And then, the very last thing he wrote, "To set the other free."
To set the other free. Who is this "other"? The longer I gaze at the page, the more resonant the phrase becomes. Is it everything beyond and beloved by the self: the man in his life, the world's abundance? Or all that burdens the soul, distracts the heart? The psyche? The imagination? Or perhaps he means--this has been the case for the last fifty years--the enthralled reader. It is still intolerable to think that there will be no more of his resplendent, plangent, wise poems, that their author is like the mirror ceremonially broken at the end of Sandover, "giving up its whole / Lifetime of images."
Reprinted with permission of J. D. McClatchy
(c) 1995 by J. D. McClatchy