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Past, Present, Perfect: An Overdue Pilgrimage to Stonington, Connecticut


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James Merrill with wisteria in Charlottesville, 1976. Photograph by Rachel Jacoff.

In French the word merle means blackbird, a dark bird of the thrush family. A blackbird’s song marks its territory. The male has black feathers and a yellow beak. It is in the same genus as the meadowlark. Forty years after first meeting James Merrill at my teacher David Kalstone’s Chelsea apartment, I am sitting at his desk in Stonington, Connecticut, with his large Petit Larousse open before me. Searching for the meanings of our names in French, I am distracted by a blackbird perched on the windowsill, drinking a little dew and then swaying on a nearby branch. It speaks in polished, rudimentary tones with a slow tempo.

Merrill’s big desk is in a small room—in an apartment of small rooms—behind a hinged bookcase that creates a very private space. Still, I can hear a train whistle, a foghorn, halyard lines clinking against the masts of sloops anchored in the harbor, church chimes, and bits of conversation from villagers below on Water Street. These must be the sounds Merrill heard, too, while working. He was an early riser and liked to give the first hours of the day to his poems, which reflect, mirrorlike, so many of my own feelings. Mirrors are also a motif in his poems—mirrors that remember us across the years, reflecting our beauty and dissolution alike. It has taken me some days to sit at his desk.

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Mirror in the Merrill House. Photograph by Henri Cole.

In French, my name means collar, and I think immediately of the metaphysical poet George Herbert’s poem “The Collar,” published in 1633, a poem in which the fervid speaker seeks more freedom in his life. It is a poem of strong feeling, almost like a rant. Like his friend Elizabeth Bishop, Merrill loved Herbert’s poems and could quote them by heart. During my twenties and thirties, perhaps there was no living poet I admired more than Merrill, and I am drawn still to this American poet, who was said to be writing even while needing oxygen on the night before his death more than twenty-five years ago.

Long ago, in the eighties and nineties, Merrill and I shared an editor, Harry Ford, who seemed unconcerned that publishing poetry can be a money-losing proposition and gave our books his distinctive typographical cover designs. When he took me on, I was his youngest poet, as Merrill had been years before. Though Harry had found Merrill’s First Poems “ornate,” he loved his second book, The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, and eagerly published it. This put Merrill on the map of American poetry, if there is such a map hanging in a long hall somewhere in America. In 1995, when Merrill died unexpectedly in Arizona while vacationing, his body was flown to New York City, where Kathleen Ford, Harry’s wife, was asked to identify it. She told me, “Its solidness befitted the great poet he was.”

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Photograph by Henri Cole.

Sometimes I think Merrill is misunderstood as a technically masterful, unemotional poet. This is what was once said about his friend Elizabeth Bishop, too. Because he is so often described as elegant, I wonder if this is code for homosexual, for this is how my work is sometimes described also. Long ago, Merrill told me that he was grateful for the neglect of his early work, because when the praise came later in his life, it came abundantly, for this visionary author of The Changing Light at Sandover. This was his complex, epic poem, one which seemed authorized by Dante, with its guide figure, Ephraim, standing in for Virgil, with its conversations with “the other side,” with its occasional terza rima, with its repeated theme of stars, and with an epigraph from Paradiso XV: “You believe the truth, for the lesser and the great / of this life gaze into the mirror / in which, before you think, you display your thought.”

In Stonington, I am pretending not to be a guest as I climb the steep and narrow studio stairs to water Merrill’s ancient jade plant. It appears to thrive even in neglect, like a poet in middle age. Is it true that a jade plant brings financial good luck? Is it true that an extract from its succulent leaves can be used to treat wounds? Is it true that the jade is a tree of friendship, something Merrill had a marvelous gift for?

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Dining room table. Photograph by Henri Cole.

Each day I walk around the village. Sometimes Gigi, a friend of my youth, accompanies me. Her family has lived in Stonington for six generations. When she was a teenager, she met Merrill because her grandparents lived across from him on Water Street. He read Gigi’s first poems before she went off to study writing at Iowa, and she gave him vegetables grown in her backyard garden. As a young woman, she married a local artist and teacher, who later died at sea while lobstering. She once lived in a little house without central heat over on Gold Street. The village was different then, with its noble houses falling down and laundry hanging out on lines to dry. Now the homes have been refurbished. The artists and the Portuguese fishermen have been replaced by wealthy summer people, but there is still a fishing and lobstering fleet.

On Saturday mornings, I accompany Penny, a new village friend, to the farmers market on the other side of the railroad tracks, where we buy fresh bread, local vegetables, and a basket of white peaches to share. Because Penny is a patient listener, the pretty cheesemonger tells her the story of her life, while angry bees fly around and explore the little mountains of pungent cheeses. Every evening a small group of villagers swims from DuBois Beach to the breakwater. I am afraid of the jellyfish and stand alone on the shore to watch the swimmers until their arms and legs disappear into the chop of dark water.

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James Merrill and Rachel Jacoff. Photograph courtesy of Rachel Jacoff.

Ever since Hurricane Henri, the tropical cyclone that made landfall in late August, the blue sky has sparkled without a cloud. All day I listen to seagulls, who have so much to say as they circle around the harbor. I am relieved not to be visited by the restless, lonely spirits that frequented Merrill’s Ouija board. Later today, I am meeting Jonathan for a BLT. We’ll sit on a park bench near the library and talk about his new book on Bishop. He’ll show me his signed first edition of Geography III, and I will feel covetous. Then Sibby, a villager, will introduce me to her goats, her hens, and her aggressive, polyamorous rooster, whose comb will turn pale a few days later, a fatal sign. Then I’ll have a drink with the village warden, Jeff, the mayor of the borough, and his wife, Lynn, who will dig up a gorgeous autumn fern from their yard for me to plant at Merrill’s grave.

“What would Merrill think of my being here?” I ask my friend Rachel, a retired Dante specialist who knew him. “He would be so delighted,” she insists. In his too short, peripatetic life—like Bishop, he died at sixty-eight—he frequently loaned his homes to his friends, as he did to Rachel during a sabbatical in the eighties. In his will, Merrill left the three-story building at 107 Water Street, including his penthouse apartment, to the Stonington Village Improvement Association, which conceived of the one-month writers’ residency program that brought me here. I imagine Merrill folding his clothes in the basement laundry room like me, and walking to the post office to mail his postcards, and putting an avocado pit in a glass of water to start its rooting. He kept no garden, but he was “earth’s no less.”

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The Perényi’s front door. Photograph by Henri Cole.

At a handsome house on Main Street, I visit the ashes of my poetry teacher David Kalstone, who was a brother-like friend of Merrill’s from the sixties. David died of AIDS in 1986, when he was only fifty-three. That was the year I came out to my parents. I don’t know how I survived that dark decade. David’s illness was mercifully brief—pneumonia, the dimming of his mind, and confinement to bed. Like many, he was cared for by friends and had no formal funeral. Some of his ashes were emptied “into the black, starlit water of the Grand Canal” in Venice, as Merrill told those gathered later at a memorial. Some more of his ashes were taken in a dinghy out into the tidal river just east of Stonington and emptied underwater. In an unpublished diary, which was preserved along with his papers, Merrill describes “a ‘man-sized’ cloud of white, dispersing, attended by a purple-&-white jellyfish acolyte.” A last teaspoon was sprinkled with lilies of the valley under an old apple tree in the writer Eleanor Perényi’s garden. There was a reading of the Sidneys’ translation of the twenty-third Psalm: “Thus thus shall all my days be fede, / This mercy is so sure / It shall endure.” Though the apple tree is gone, a horse chestnut reaches happily toward the sunlight today. Perényi’s son, Peter, and his wife, Sharon, who live there now, serve me a slice of coffee cake with a cappuccino on their back porch. While we talk about the past, Libby, their handsome rescue dog—part Great Pyrenees, part Anatolian shepherd—sits at my feet. Unusual mushrooms like shameless phalluses,” known as stinkhorns grow around the garden. If eaten when young, they are said to be crisp and crunchy with a radishy taste. Their caps are coated in a dark, olive-green slime and crowned with a small white ring.

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Shameless phalluses. Photograph by Henri Cole.

Soon after David’s death, Merrill composed a quatrain in his diary: “Beloved friend, the sky + sea / of Stonington’s your limit? No: / To Heaven fly, to Venice flow. / Home-free, home-free.” And there are these sorrowful sentences: “Every ½ hour I just break into sobs—sounds I’ve never before heard come out of me. No quarrel ever. No tension. Pure fun & communion. A 2nd self I could reach by telephone, or walking into the next room … there are no more where they came from, the friends of one’s heart.” The poet Adrienne Rich wrote to J. D. McClatchy, who’d helped care for David: “When I first knew David he was a graduate student at Harvard and I was a divided woman poet/faculty wife with 3 young children … He and Randall Jarrell were the first critics to encourage what I was doing in the 1960’s when many who had approved my earlier work were getting uneasy.” Unlike other critics of the day, David didn’t think the generation preceding Rich and Merrill’s was “the last word, the ultimate canon.”

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David Kalstone in his apartment reading. Photograph courtesy of Rachel Jacoff.

Some years after David died, I visited Merrill in Key West, where he then spent his winters. We sat at the back of his house in a big sunny room with cedar walls. John Malcolm Brinnin—the biographer, critic, and poet—was there. Both men wore Birkenstock sandals, and Merrill sat in a big bamboo chair that was a birthday gift from the poet Mona Van Duyn. They were talking about their elderly mothers—Merrill’s was 92 and Brinnin’s 102. When Brinnin recounted how on his mother’s hundredth birthday she’d asked, “What’s birthday?” and there was silence. After all, they were elderly, too.

Merrill invited me to lunch at a small Spanish restaurant with only a handful of tables that was tucked away on a back street. It was unchanged from “Elizabeth’s time,” he told me. In 1938, Elizabeth Bishop had bought a house in Key West at 624 White Street, with her friend Louise Crane. In her journal, she writes about the lime tree in her yard, in whose “cool shadow” love was nurtured and betrayed. We shared an order of rice and beans with plantains, and for dessert, we divided a serving of flan, which he slid off the plate with his fingers and then licked them. On a tiny shelf over the door to the kitchen, there was a display of large dusty santos—ornamental figures from the Christmas crèche—and I remembered Merrill’s poem “Santo”:

Francisco on his shelf,
Wreathed in dusty wax
Roses, for weeks and weeks
Hadn’t been himself—

Making no day come true
By answering a prayer
Just dully standing there …

Merrill said this poem expressed “in miniature the whole self-revising nature of the Sandover books, where no ‘truth’ is allowed to rot under a single, final aspect.”

After Merrill paid for our lunch, he calculated to the penny what the tip should be and left this exact amount. Then we walked to the library, where he hoped to find an English-French dictionary at the used-book sale to help him translate a sonnet by the French poet, novelist, dramatist, freethinker, and occultist Victor Hugo. Today I can find no translation of Hugo in his Collected Poems and I wonder which sonnet it was. It was Merrill’s sonnet sequence “The Broken Home” that first made me a fan of his work. The poem appeared in his breakthrough volume, Nights and Days, published when he was only forty. It is composed of seven sonnets about his relationship with his wealthy, energetic father, Charles E. Merrill, a founding partner of the investment firm of Merrill Lynch. The poem is a meditative lyric, but narrative, too, with psychological intensity. As there are in some of Bishop’s poems, there are discreet references to the poet’s homosexuality.

The poem’s sonnets are not strict—each is linked to another by a theme or image. Because each sonnet presents a self-contained scene, the poem expands and contracts like the reader breathing, feeling, and thinking. It begins with the speaker alone on the street observing a little family framed by a window. Then, later, “in a room on the floor below,” Merrill lights a candle and speaks to the flame: “Tell me, tongue of fire, / that you and I are as real / At least as the people upstairs.” The word real reappears, because the solitary speaker longs to be as real as the little family he sees in the window.

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James Merrill’s embroidered child’s chair. Photograph by Henri Cole.

Some years before my visit to Key West, Merrill had flown to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and been diagnosed with ARC or AIDS-related complex, though this was something he remained silent about for the rest of his life, telling only a few friends. Merrill was not a poet of grievances, but in his diary he opens up:

“The state of my health has made me stop drinking (or all but) + smoking (entirely) and kept me harder at work, I think, than I’d have been otherwise.”

“Art is a not-at-all reluctant alternative to life.”

“My days are numbered. But so are everyone’s, if only in retrospect … Thousands of people are in my exact position, only they haven’t thought (or wished) to take a blood test. I know that I shall (unless a miracle cure emerges) be dead in 3 years, more or less.”

Though Merrill described his illness as “bearable,” he wrote that it was nevertheless “appalling to live in a present whose future … has been so frostbitten.” He reminded himself to reread the lines 8–14 on page 304 of his Changing Light at Sandover:

Ah, it’s grim. Yet what to ask
Of death but that it come wearing a mask
We’ve seen before; to die of complications
Invited by the way we live. Bad habits,
Overloaded fuses, the foreknown
Stroke or tumor—these we call our own
And face with poise.

This was written before the modern drugs for treating HIV. I say modern, though forty years later there is still no miracle vaccine or cure.

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James Merrill’s dictionary. Photograph by Henri Cole.

During my stay in Key West, I borrowed Merrill’s bicycle and rode across town while he exercised on his cross-country skiing machine. I rode through the vast cemetery and found Bishop’s house, which was hidden by a jungle of trees and potted plants. Its unpretentiousness pleased me—its wide-open shutters and front door, motor scooter parked in the yard, and comforter hanging from a second-floor window. Merrill wrote in his diary: “EB more present in later poems. The figures walking up and down the icy beach … we stand back from them … we see more of the human condition mimed out for us than ever previously.” Certainly, this is true of one of Merrill’s last poems, “Christmas Tree,” in which he sees himself and his destiny in a tree brought down from “the cold sighing mountain” to be “wound in jewels” and kept warm for a short time, with a “primitive IV” behind it “to keep the show going,” before it is left out on the “cold street”—just “needles and bone”—to be “plowed back into the Earth for lives to come.” Elsewhere in his diary, Merrill writes, “Life is so like Chekhov—the characters + motives all sweetness, the plot deadly nightshade.”

Merrill wanted me to see his Key West study and he was amused when I feigned indifference. It was a small space with a single bed at one end and a narrow desk beside a window at the other. The room was divided by tall bookshelves, and when I told him it reminded me of a student’s dorm room, he was pleased. He showed me the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary that had once belonged to Auden, in which he still hoped to discover marginalia. The small office’s modesty made me remember something the poetry critic Helen Vendler once said to me about Merrill: “He could have chosen anything, but despite enormous wealth and good looks, he chose poetry.”

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David Jackson and James Merrill’s graves. Photograph by Henri Cole.

 

Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan. He has published ten collections of poetry, most recently Blizzard, and a memoir, Orphic Paris. A selected sonnets is forthcoming.

James Merrill diaries quoted courtesy of the James Merrill Papers, Julian Edison Department of Special Collections, Washington Universities Libraries. Copyright to the Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University.

Adrienne Rich letter to J. D. McClatchy (dated January 6, 1987) quoted courtesy of the Adrienne Rich Literary Estate. Copyright Adrienne Rich Literary Estate, 2022.

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