Three Poems by James Merrill

DAYS OF 1994

These days in my friend’s house
Light seeks me underground. To wake
Below the level of the lawn
—Half-basement cool through the worst heat—
Is strange and sweet.
High up, three window-slots, new slants on dawn:
Through misty greens and gilts
An infant sun totters on stilts of shade
Up toward the high
Mass of interwoven boughs,
While close against the triptych panes
Rock bears witness, Dragonfly
Shivers in place
Above tall Queen Anne’s Lace—
More figures from The Book of Thel by Blake
(Lilly & Worm, Cloudlet & Clod of Clay)
And none but drinks the dewy Manna in.

I shiver next, Light walking on my grave …
And sleep, and wake. This time, peer out
From just beneath the mirror of the lake
A gentle mile uphill.
Florets—the mountain laurel—float
Openmouthed, devout,
Set swaying by the wake of the flatboat:

Barcarole whose chords of gloom
Draw forth the youngest, purest, faithfullest,
Hands crossed on breast,
Pre-Raphaelite face radiant—and look,
Not dead, O never dead!
To wake, to wake
Among the flaming dowels of a tomb
Below the world, the thousand things
Here risen to if not above
Before day ends:
The spectacles, the book,
Forgetful lover and forgotten love,
Cobweb hung with trophy wings,
The fading trumpet of a car,
The knowing glance from star to star,
The laughter of old friends.


Room set at infrared,
Mind at ultraviolet,
Organisms ever stranger,
Hallucinated on the slide, fluoresce:

Chains of gold tinsel, baubles of green fire
For the arterial branches—
Here at Microcosmics Illustrated, why,
Christmas goes on all year!

Defenseless, the patrician cells await
Invasion by barbaric viruses,
Another sack of Rome.
A new age. Everything we dread.

Dread? It crows for joy in the manger.
Joy? The tree sparkles on which it will die.


   Well, I admit
A small boy’s eyes grew rounder and lips moister
To find it invisibly chained, at home in the hollow
Of his mother’s throat: the real, deepwater thing.
   Far from the mind at six to plumb
X-raywise those glimmering lamplit
Asymmetries to self-immolating mite

Or angry grain of sand

Not yet proverbial. Yet his would be the hand
Mottled with survival—

   She having slipped (how? when?) past reach—
   That one day grasped it. Sign of what
But wisdom’s trophy. Time to mediate,
Skin upon skin, so cunningly they accrete,
   The input. For its early mote
Of grit

   Reborn as orient moon to gloat
In verdict over the shucked, outsmarted meat….
One layer, so to speak, of calcium carbonate
   That formed in me is the last shot
—I took the seminar I teach

In Loss to a revival—

Of Sasha Guitry’s classic Perles de la Couronne.
The hero has tracked down

His prize. He’s holding forth, that summer night,
At the ship’s rail, all suavity and wit,
   Gem swaying like a pendulum
From his fing—oops! To soft bubble-blurred harpstring
Arpeggios regaining depths (man the camera, follow)
Where an unconscious world, my yawning oyster,
   Shuts on it.