Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation
"Lost in Translation" was first published in the New Yorker on April 6, 1974. It later became part of James Merrill's collection Divine Comedies, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. This work, and the subsequent award, helped cement Merrill's reputation as one of the top young American poets.
The poem is a complex study of loss and the artistic rendering of experience. Merrill presents fragments of experience that become apt metaphors of loss and dislocation in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world. The poem's fragmented, yet ultimately unified form highlights the contradictory nature of the creation of art, as the artist strives to "translate" experience into the stylized structure of a poem.
Merrill focuses on the speaker's memories of his childhood at the point when his parents were separating and he was struggling to adapt to his newly disrupted world. The boy anxiously awaits the arrival of a puzzle, which he and his French nanny will put together. When the puzzle finally arrives, it comes alive to him, as it evolves into a metaphor for his own experience. As the pieces of the puzzle "translate" into a unified, meaningful whole, Merrill explores the tensions between art and reality and the problems inherent in establishing an absolute vision of human experience.
James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City on March 3, 1926, to Charles Merrill, a stockbroker and cofounder of the firm Merrill Lynch, and Helen Ingram, a newspaper publisher. Merrill developed an appreciation for languages at a young age, when he learned French and German from his governess, who appears in his poem "Lost in Translation." His parents encouraged his poetry writing during his adolescence. This was apparent when Merrill's father had a collection of Merrill's poetry, Jim's Book, published when his son was only sixteen.
Merrill attended Amherst College, where he first met Robert Frost, one of his major influences. He had to leave Amherst from 1944 to 1945 to serve in the U.S. Army at the end of World WarII. After the war, he returned to college, had his first book of poems printed privately under the title The Black Swan (1946), and graduated from Amherst summa cum laude in 1947.
After college, Merrill moved back to New York City to write. However, he found the atmosphere of the city too distracting, so he decided instead to travel throughout Europe for the next two and a half years with his companion, David Jackson. Merrill's memoir, A Different Person (1993), describes this period in Europe.
In 1951, First Poems, his first trade book, was published and received favorable reviews. In 1955, he moved to Stonington, Connecticut, with Jackson. Merrill then founded the Ingram Merrill Foundation, an organization that awards grants to artists and writers. His first novel, The Seraglio, was published in 1957. Two years later, he and Jackson moved to Athens, Greece.
In the years following the move, Merrill's poetry gained acclaim, and he cemented his reputation as one of the top young American poets. In 1976, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedies, which includes the poem "Lost in Translation." He received several other awards for his work, including the National Book Award in Poetry in 1967 for Nights and Days, the Bollingen Prize in 1973 for Braving the Elements, a second National Book Award for Mirabell: Books of Number in 1978, the National Book Critics Circle Award for his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982, and the first Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize in poetry awarded by the Library of Congress for The Inner Room in 1990. He was also a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction for The (Diblos) Notebook in 1965. Merrill served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1979 until his death in 1995. He died in Tucson, Arizona, at age sixty-eight from a heart attack brought on by complications of AIDS.
The opening quotation of "Lost in Translation" is from a translation by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) of lines 61–64 in the poem "Palme" by the French poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945). Rilke writes, as Merrill quotes:
Diese Tage, die leer dir scheinen
und wertlos für das All
haben Wurzeln zwischen den Steinen
und trinken dort überall.
These lines in English would be "These days, which seem empty / and entirely fruitless to you, / have roots between the stones / and drink from everywhere." This passage announces two of the subjects of the poem: translation and search for meaning. The first three lines of the poem itself then create an atmosphere of anticipation as a boy waits in "daylight" and "lamplight" for a "puzzle which keeps never coming." The juxtaposition of "tense" and "oasis" in the description of the table-top in line 4 suggests that the puzzle will provide pleasure for the boy, but pain if it never arrives. This juxtaposition is extended into the next two lines as life becomes either a rising "mirage" or something falling "into place."
In lines 8 through 11, the speaker lists the activities the boy engages in during his "summer without parents," cared for by his governess. The activities do not seem pleasurable to the boy, as he notes the "sour windfalls of the orchard" behind them. The speaker indicates the real cause of his unease when he notes that the boy's parents are absent, suggesting that this is a "puzzle" to the boy, "or should be." The stanza ends where it began, with the boy's impatience over the missing puzzle, which he notes in his diary ("Line-a-Day").
In the second stanza, the speaker notes that the boy is in love with his governess, whose husband died in Verdun, a World War I battle. The religious governess, "Mademoiselle," prays for him, as does a French priest, and helps him put on puppet shows. She talks with him at night about pre–World War II tensions in Europe and her "French hopes, German fears." Mademoiselle knows little more than the "grief and hardship" she has suffered.
The two continue to wait for the puzzle as even Mademoiselle's watch becomes impatient, "[throwing] up its hands." She tries to alleviate the boy's "steaming bitterness" with sweets, an act that translates as telling him to "have patience, my dear," which is expressed in French ("Patience, chéri") and in German ("Geduld, mein Schatz"), the two languages she has been teaching him.
The lines evoke a memory in the speaker, who digresses in a parenthetical passage to present time.
He notes that the other evening he remembered reading something by Valéry that triggered a memory of Rilke's translation of Valéry's "Palme," which appears at the beginning of the poem. He makes the connection between Valéry's poem and the boy's situation, admitting here that he is the boy. The thought of the tree in that poem, which has "roots between the stones and drink[s] from everywhere," becomes a "sunlit paradigm." It is a model for him of "patience in the blue," ("patience dans l'azur"), a characterization of the slow growth of the palm tree. He goes back to the past when he tries to translate the French words into their German equivalents, asking Mademoiselle hypothetically if he is correct.
In the third stanza, the promised puzzle appears from a New York City shop and has a thousand wooden pieces, smelling like sandalwood. Some pieces have shapes he has seen before in other puzzles, including a "branching palm" that the speaker insists was really there and not just imagined. Mademoiselle excitedly spreads out the pieces that initially look like "incoherent faces in a crowd," before a pattern can be discerned. Each piece will eventually be placed together by "law," the design of the puzzle maker. The "plot thickens" as the pieces interlock and become a story.
In the first line of the fourth stanza, Made-moiselle attends to the puzzle's borders, but the speaker jumps immediately to the future, this time to an evening in London, the past December. People are gathered in "the library" for a demonstration by a psychic. The audience has seen an object hidden in a casket behind a panel before he arrived. The psychic shuts his eyes and tries to visualize the object. He sees something in the object's history that may involve the chopping down of trees, "groaning and cracking" as they approach a lumber mill.
- Random House Audio has published an audio-cassette of Merrill's poetry, read by the author, as part of "The Voice of the Poet" series (1999).
What the psychic has been describing is the process of making a puzzle piece from plywood. He suggests that the process appears to be complex, but it is not complex compared with the "hazard and craft," the fate ("karma"), that made its original matter. This process of making a puzzle piece, along with arranging the pieces to form the puzzle, can be likened to the creative process of the poet. After the psychic identifies the piece, he opens his eyes and is applauded. The speaker, however, feels an unidentified sense of dread, perhaps a result of the contemplation of "karma," and immediately turns his attention once more to the past.
The next stanza continues the focus on creation as it opens with a repetition of part of the first line of the previous stanza, with Mademoiselle forming the borders of the puzzle. The speaker suggests that the pieces have their own artistic energy, as they are "align[ing] themselves" into a scene of the earth or sky, taking over the act of creation. He describes the straight-edged pieces as naïve scientists, studying the origins of the universe, "whose views clash." The others, "nomad inlanders," begin to arrange themselves into different shapes that in time become "sophisticated unit[s]."
Eventually, by suppertime, clear pictures have formed and come to life for Mademoiselle and the boy. In one cloud, they see a sheik with a "flashing sword hilt" and, in the other, a "backward-looking slave or page-boy," whose feet are not yet complete, helping a woman off a camel. Made-moiselle mistakenly thinks the boy is the woman's son. The speaker finds some crucial pieces just before bedtime, which help "orient" the images. He leaves the puzzle with a yellow section, which "promises" to be a "sumptuous tent."
The boy writes in his diary that he has begun the puzzle and peeks at Mademoiselle's letter to the priest, in which she has written "this innocent mother, this poor child, what will become of them?" ("cette innocente mère / Ce pauvre enfant, que deviendront-ils?"), referring, most likely, to the boy and his mother. In another parenthetical digression, the speaker notes that when he was a boy, he did not try to find out more about Mademoiselle, who was French only by marriage. A friend later reveals that the speaker's own French has a German accent ("Tu as l'accent allemand"), taught by Mademoiselle, who was of English and Prussian ancestry. The speaker does not find this out until years later, however. He recognizes how Made-moiselle must have suffered, being caught between the German and French worlds just as World War II was breaking out. The speaker returns to the past as Mademoiselle says goodnight to the boy, telling him to "sleep well" ("schlaf wohl") in German and calling him "darling" ("chéri") in French. She kisses him and makes the sign of the cross, a Catholic blessing, on his forehead.
In these stanzas, the speaker focuses on the world of the puzzle as "it assembles on the shrinking Green." He describes the "noblest" slaves ("avatars") with their plumes, scars, and vests trimmed with fur ("vair"). In another scene in the picture, "old wives" ease boredom with a narcotic made from hemp ("kef") and sweet drinks, insisting that if Allah wills ("Insh'Allah"), their straying husbands will tire of their mistresses or kill them.
The speaker digresses for a moment, suggesting that this is hardly a subject for "the Home," and notes that the puzzle is a recreation of a painting allegedly done by a follower ("a minor lion") of the French Orientalist artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). He asks "dear Richard" (most likely Richard Howard, to whom Merrill dedicated the poem) to investigate the true author.
In stanza 11, the speaker introduces Houri, one of the beautiful maidens living with the blessed in the Islamic paradise, and Afreet, an evil demon in Arabic mythology. In a play on the word thieves, he calls the two "thick as Thebes," referring to the ancient capital of Upper Egypt. Both try to claim the boy in the puzzle, who cannot decide "whom to serve" and has not yet found his feet. The suggestion here is that the boy in the puzzle represents the boy in the poem, who is torn between two divorcing parents. The speaker hopes the boy will find "that piece of Distance" from this troubled situation, the "Eternal Triangle": father, mother, child.
The puzzle is done, except for the sky; the blue pieces become fragments revolting against being placed into a pattern, not knowing how they will fit together. They have "quite a task" arranging the pieces of "Heaven," but they eventually do. And then the puzzle is complete. The boy's missing feet have been found under the table, and the last pieces have been put into place.
With the puzzle complete, Mademoiselle returns to her work on the puppet shows, and "all too soon" the puzzle is dismantled. When lifted, the puzzle stays together in some parts and separates in others. Each image in the puzzle eventually falls apart, including the tent, which appears as a creamy sauce ("mousseline"). Only the green top of the table, "on which the grown-ups gambled" remains as the day ends. The speaker sees analogies, since he is a poet, between the green table and the "green dusk"—a false coincidence, since he can construct his own memory of the event. He also notes his "mangy tiger safe on his bared hearth," analogous to the tiger in the puzzle. These analogies, or similarities between unlike things, reinforce the boy's connection to the puzzle.
The speaker explains that before the puzzle was boxed and sent back to the shop on New York City's Upper East Side (the "mid-Sixties"), one piece "contrived," as if by its own intention, "to stay in the boy's pocket." Finding further analogies between the puzzle and life, the speaker admits that last puzzle pieces often went missing, like the high notes of Maggie Teyte, an English soprano (1888–1976) famous for her singing of French songs; the popularity of collies; a house; and bits of Made-moiselle's "truth."
Back in the present, the speaker notes that he has spent the last few days searching in Athens for Rilke's translation of Valéry's "Palme." He notes the difficulty that Rilke had, or any translator has, in the process of translation: how much of the original he had to sacrifice in order to portray "its underlying sense"; how much the "warm Romance" of the original "faded"; how the nouns were exaggerated and thus lonelier, cut off from the source. The German accent mark ("umlaut"), representative of Rilke's language, can only "peep" and "hoot," since it is like an "owlet," without maturity, becoming an echo ("reverberation") that nonetheless is "fill[ed] with stars."
The speaker ends with a series of contradictions, asking whether the original is lost or buried, "one more missing piece." But then he insists that "nothing's lost" or else all our experience with the world necessitates translation and that "every bit of us is lost in it. / (Or found-." In parenthesis, he reflects on the end of a relationship with a former lover ("S"), surprised at the resulting peacefulness. The final image is of the loss of that relationship, which becomes "a self-effacing tree," the context of a poem perhaps, "turn[ing] the waste," as does the tree, into "shade and fiber, milk and memory." Here the speaker reflects on the power of art to ease a sense of loss and "translate" sorrow into comforting images of shade and sustenance. This last image ties to the loss experienced by the boy in the first stanza, when he suffers the absence of his parents and turns to the construction of a puzzle to provide him with comfort.
Merrill suggests that the poet "translates" experience into the form and content of poetry. This process is not perfect, since the final work of art is never an exact translation of the original source material. He focuses much of "Lost in Translation" on this complex process. The poem begins with two contrasting images: the library, a place of study, and the card table, a place of play for the boy and the adults who gamble on it. This juxtaposition suggests that the work of a poet, which the speaker often refers to as he thinks about Rilke's translation of Valéry, necessitates both study and play. The poet must study the works of other poets, their forms and content, as he plays with words to discover a new artistic creation that will more closely express the poet's experience.
When the speaker studies Valéry's "Palme," he focuses on "That sunlit paradigm whereby the tree / Taps a sweet wellspring of authority." The tree in the poem becomes a paradigm that he can use to express himself through his own poem. When he thinks of the tree in "Palme," a characterization of the slow growth of the palm tree, it triggers his memory of the time he waited for the puzzle to arrive and Mademoiselle tried to calm his "steaming bitterness" with words of comfort: "Patience, chéri. Geduld, mein Schatz." The patient growth of the tree, "Patience dans l'azure," finds a correlation in Mademoiselle's words.
Many of the pieces of the puzzle, which becomes a metaphor for the boy's situation, "take / Shapes known already—the craftsman's repertoire." He finds one shaped like a palm, like the one in the poem that recalls Mademoiselle's comfort words. Yet the boy makes his own interpretation of the pictures in the puzzle, one that more closely correlates with his experience. He refuses ultimately, though, to identify himself with the boy in the puzzle when he insists that Mademoiselle is wrong when she decides that the page-boy is the woman's son, suggesting the difficulties inherent in artistic representation.
Power of Art
Merrill notes the power of art when the speaker's reading of "Palme" triggers a childhood memory. He invests the puzzle with a similar power when the pieces appear to arrange themselves as Mademoiselle and the boy withdraw into the background. The pieces "align themselves with earth or sky" and become "naïve cosmogonists / Whose views clash" or "nomad inlanders" who "Begin to cluster . . . /. . . on the straggler . . . / To form a more sophisticated unit." The figures in the picture come alive and gaze at each other across clouds.
The closing lines suggest the power of art to help us cope with loss. As the speaker thinks of a ruined past relationship, the loss becomes "a self-effacing tree," like the palm in the poem and in the puzzle, turning "the waste" into "shade and fiber, milk and memory."
Iambic Pentameter and Blank Verse
The intricate five-part structure of the poem reinforces the link between the puzzle and the boy/poet. The first part, stanzas 1–3, focusing on the wait for the puzzle, is arranged in verse paragraphs that often contain iambic pentameter lines, ten-syllable lines with metrical units of one un-stressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. This section ends with the suggestion that all the parts of the poem come together to form an organic whole, much like the pieces of the puzzle: "The plot thickens / As all at once two pieces interlock."
In the second section, stanza 4, Merrill shifts from blank verse (unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter) to a more poetic form, as the lines get shorter and more rhythmic. The time and place move to a scene in the future when the speaker witnessed a psychic's performance. The link between the first and second sections is established by having both scenes set in a library and through the puzzle piece that the psychic "sees" hidden in the box.
The third section, stanzas 5 and 6, returns to the blank verse of the first section as the scene shifts back to the boy and Mademoiselle and to the picture in the puzzle emerging, along with certain details of Mademoiselle's background. The fourth section, stanzas 7–14, focuses on the completion of the puzzle, as it shifts to tightly controlled quatrains (stanzas of four lines each) until the final stanza, which breaks off into a closed couplet. A closed couplet is two lines of rhymed verse that comes to a strong conclusion, as here, where the two lines announce that the last piece has been found and the puzzle is complete. This section links to the subject of the final section, through the focus on artistic creation, after the puzzle is taken apart and shipped back to the shop. This fifth section, stanzas 15–18, returns to the initial verse paragraph form.
Topics For Further Study
- Read some representative poetry by W. H. Auden and compare themes and structures used in his poetry with those of "Lost in Translation." Three poems you might want to look at are "Musée des Beaux Arts," "Stop All the Clocks. . ."("Twelve Songs: IX," sometimes called "Funeral Blues"), and "The Unknown Citizen."
- Some scholars find elements of the confessional, an autobiographical verse form, in Merrill's poetry. Research this school of poetry and Merrill's life and determine whether there is any evidence for this claim.
- Research the effects of divorce on children. What effects do you see on the boy in the poem?
- Many poets have focused on childhood memories in their poetry, including "Piano" by D. H. Lawrence, "My Papa's Waltz," by Theodore Roethke, and "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden. In each of these poems, as in "Lost in Translation," the speaker describes a childhood memory that involves a parent. After reading these selections, write your own poem that focuses on a particular memory that you have of an experience with one or both of your parents.
World War II
The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that would culminate in World War II. This war resulted from the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. These militaristic regimes gained control as a result of the Great Depression experienced by most of the world in the early 1930s and from the conditions created by the peace settlements following World War I. The dictatorships established in each country encouraged expansion into neighboring countries. In Germany, Adolf Hitler strengthened the army during the 1930s. In 1936, Benito Mussolini's Italian troops overtook Ethiopia. From 1936 to 1939, Spain was engaged in civil war involving the fascist army of Francisco Franco, aided by Germany and Italy. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, and in March 1939, Germany occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy invaded Albania in April 1939.
One week after Nazi Germany and the USSR signed the Treaty of Nonaggression, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany after a U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19 that same year. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war.
The Vietnam War was a conflict fought in South Vietnam and the surrounding areas of Cambodia and Laos. Fighting on one side were the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese forces and an international coalition (including, among others, South Korea, Thailand, and Australia). The other side of the conflict was represented by North Vietnamese forces and a South Vietnamese guerrilla militia known as the Vietcong. The war started in 1954, soon after the provisions of the Geneva Conference divided Vietnam into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Conflict initially broke out as a civil war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam but escalated as the United States threw its support to South Vietnam, initially by sending money and advisers and later by sending troops as well.
After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed in August 1964, the United States increased its military aid to South Vietnam. By the end of the decade there were 550,000 American troops caught up in the conflict. North Vietnam gained armaments and technical support from the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. Despite massive bombing attacks, the United States and South Vietnam failed to push back the insurgency.
Compare & Contrast
- Early 1970s: After fighting a brutal and unpopular war in Vietnam, the United States pulls out its troops. Soon after, Saigon falls to the Communists.
Today: The United States is involved in another unpopular war, this time in Iraq. Even though elections have taken place, many believe that civil war will break out in that country.
- Early 1970s: Communist insurgents refuse to recognize elections in South Vietnam and continue fighting against the South Vietnamese and American troops.
Today: Insurgents in Iraq, made up of Iraqi civilians and terrorist groups, carry out similar attacks against occupational forces.
- Early 1970s: The Watergate scandal exposes corrupt campaign practices, including break-ins at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and illegal wiretaps of American citizens.
Today: Scandals emerge during the 2004 presidential election concerning smear campaigns like that conducted by the "Swift Boat Veterans" and alleged illegal voting procedures.
Progress was made with peace talks when President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to seek reelection in 1968. After Richard Nixon was elected that year, he began troop withdrawals along with intensified bombing campaigns. In 1970, Nixon ordered the invasion of Communist strongholds in Cambodia.
Public opinion in the United States turned against the war as the number of casualties grew and reports of war crimes like the massacre of civilians at My Lai surfaced. Huge demonstrations took place in Washington, D.C., as well as in other cities and on college campuses. A peace agreement was finally reached in January 1973, but fighting between North Vietnam and South Vietnam did not abate. On April 30, 1975, South Vietnamese President Duong Van Minh surrendered to the Communists. Saigon fell as the last American troops left the country. More than 50,000 American soldiers died in the conflict, along with approximately 400,000 South Vietnamese and over 900,000 North Vietnamese.
The Watergate affair refers to a series of scandals that eventually led to Richard Nixon's resignation of the presidency of the United States. It began with the burglarizing, on June 17, 1972, of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C. Police arrested five men who had attempted to break in to the party offices and plant wiretaps. Two of those involved in the break-in were employees of President Nixon's reelection committee.
One of the burglars, James McCord, sent a letter to the trial judge, John Sirica, claiming that a large-scale cover-up of the burglary was being conducted by the White House. His charges led to the ensuing political scandal. The media took an active role in covering the investigations. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, both reporters for the Washington Post, broke many significant details concerning the break-in and subsequent cover-up, aided by their mysterious informant, "Deep Throat."
At a special Senate committee investigatory hearing of corrupt campaign practices, the former White House counsel John Dean testified that the former attorney general John Mitchell had approved the burglary and that two of the president's top aides had been involved in the cover-up. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox found through his investigations of the affair that the Nixon reelection committee had conducted widespread political espionage that included illegal wiretapping of American citizens.
Cox sued Nixon in order to get him to hand over tapes of his presidential conversations during the early 1970s. Nixon initially refused, but he was eventually forced to give them up. One of the tapes contained a significant gap, allegedly caused by Nixon's secretary. Another, however, contained conversations in which Nixon admitted that he had participated in the Watergate cover-up from the outset. This tape became known as the "smoking gun" tape.
By 1974, the majority of Americans believed that Nixon was involved in the cover-up, and confidence in his administration steadily eroded. The public began to call for Nixon to resign. On July 30, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee adopted three articles of impeachment against Nixon for obstruction of justice. Nixon later admitted that he had tried to halt the FBI's investigation into the break-in. At 9 p.m. on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon appeared on national television and resigned the office of the presidency. The next morning, Nixon resigned formally; transferred the office to Gerald Ford, who became the new president; and left the White House.
By the end of the 1970s, Americans appeared to adopt a pervasive attitude of pessimism. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal had shaken their belief in government, and a distrust of human nature had grown after the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In an article for the New York Times Book Review on Scripts for the Pageant, Denis Donoghue determines that Merrill's "common style is a net of loose talk tightening to verse, a mode in which nearly anything can be said with grace." He finds a strong connection between W. H. Auden and Merrill, an association other scholars have noted as well, especially in his Divine Comedies.
Louis Simpson writes in his review of that collection, also in the New York Times Book Review: "Auden would have liked all this very much—he had small patience with simplicity, whether natural or assumed." Simpson likens the poems in Divine Comedies to "a kaleidoscope—a brightly colored pattern or scene twitching into another pattern." Deeming Merrill's writing "ingenious" and "witty," Simpson finds that "a society of cultivated readers might give [the poems] a high place" but acknowledges that Merrill would be too obscure for most. Still, he writes, "it is hardly the poet's fault that there are few readers of this kind of poetry."
Harold Bloom, in his review for the New Republic, claims, "James Merrill . . . has convinced many discerning readers of a greatness, or something like it, in his first six volumes of verse, but until this year I remained a stubborn holdout." Bloom insists that Divine Comedies "converts" him, "absolutely if belatedly, to Merrill.... The book's eight shorter poems surpass nearly all the earlier Merrill."
One of the eight shorter poems in the collection is the celebrated "Lost in Translation." The poem was apparently also important to Merrill, who moved it to the final position in From the First Nine, 1946–1976, the reissued edition of his first nine volumes of poetry. As any poet knows, the words at the end of a line or a poem, or in this case a book, are placed there for special emphasis.
Echoing many a scholar's view of the poem's theme, Robert B. Shaw, in his article in the New York Times Book Review, states that Merrill "makes his most profound impression on the reader . . . as a connoisseur of loneliness: the loneliness of a child grown up and still in search of his absent parents." Willard Spiegelman, in his article on Merrill for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, calls the poem "impressive" and argues that it "pinpoints, more succinctly than any of Merrill's other short poems, the issues of loss and possession." He cites a quote from Robert Frost, who claimed that poetry "is what is lost in translation," and concludes, "Merrill's poem proves the adage wrong, since loss through translation is the motive for the poem itself."
Donoghue writes that Merrill "has always been sensitive to 'the golden things that go without saying,' and the things, equally golden, that have gone without saying until he has said them." It is this poetic craftsmanship that has prompted others, likeR. W. Flint in his article for the New York Times Book Review, to conclude that Merrill "has long since taken his place as one of the most accomplished satirists, wits and lyricists of the age."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In the following essay, Perkins examines the exploration of the problematic process of gaining knowledge in Merrill's poem.
Prior to the twentieth century, authors structured their works to reflect their belief in the stability of character and the intelligibility of experience. Traditionally, literary works ended with a clear sense of closure, as conflicts were resolved and characters gained knowledge about themselves and their world. Poetic images coalesced into an organic whole that expressed the poet's view of the coherence of experience. Many writers during the twentieth century challenged these assumptions as they expanded literature's traditional form to accommodate their characters' and their own questions about the indeterminate nature of knowing in the modern age—a major thematic concern for these writers. The critic Allan Rodway, in an article on the problem of knowledge in Tom Stop-pard's plays, explains this focus as a question: "How do we know we really know what we think we know?" James Merrill continues this inquiry in "Lost in Translation" as he examines the tentative nature of communication and its relationship to the difficulties inherent in the process of gaining absolute knowledge.
In an article in the New York Times Book Review, later reprinted as "Acoustical Chambers" in Recitative: Prose, Merrill discusses the autobiographical nature of "Lost in Translation" and the inability of words to convey truth. He notes that he had a governess named "Mademoiselle," who was neither French—which she had led him to believe—nor an unmarried woman (she was a widow). He remembers, "By the time I was eight I had learned from her enough French and German to understand that English was merely one of many ways to express things." He also discovered the difficulties of translation, since "the everyday sounds of English could mislead you by having more than one meaning." After thinking about how specific words could have alternate meanings in different contexts, he concludes, "Words weren't what they seemed. The mother tongue could inspire both fascination and distrust."
In "Lost in Translation," Merrill uses a puzzle as a metaphor for the problematic nature of acquiring knowledge, a process that depends on the arrangement of words and memory into a coherent pattern. He does this through the fragmented form of the poem, which shifts back and forth in time, and through its language, which juxtaposes contrasting images in four languages.
The poem's main focus is on the speaker, who, through memory, tries to piece together a concrete image of himself as a boy. This task, however, becomes impossible, owing to the fact that the poem contains so many gaps, as David Perkins notes in "The Achievement of James Merrill." Perkins writes that, when the speaker tries to interpret his experience, "too many interpretations come to mind" as he "moons and pores over events, memories, images, words, detecting always more possible meanings."
The speaker tries to focus on one main event in his past: a time when he and his French nanny put together an intricate puzzle sent by his absent parents. What the boy sees in the puzzle appears to express the problems he is experiencing at home. A male and a female figure in the puzzle become combatants, waging a battle over who will win a page-boy. The boy in the puzzle looks backward, much like the speaker who digs into the past to try to gain a true sense of self.
Perkins concludes that the scene depicted in the puzzle represents "family tensions at a time when [Merrill's] father was taking a new wife. The past—that summer, his parents, and what was going on between them—is similarly a puzzle . . . and solving it is impossible." The boy cannot understand why his parents are not with him: "a summer without parents is the puzzle." The piece that will provide the answer is missing, as is the last puzzle piece. Appropriately, the missing pieces are the boy's feet, which would "ground" him in the puzzle. The boy similarly lacks grounding without the knowledge of his place in his newly disrupted family.
Although the pieces that make the puzzle complete are eventually found, the puzzle must be dismantled and put away "all too soon." In this process, each image eventually falls apart. The boy holds on to one piece, which means that the puzzle will never again be complete. The speaker admits that last puzzle pieces often go missing, like bits of Mademoiselle's "truth." As he struggles to find all the missing pieces that will identify his place in his shifting familial triangle, the boy also, unknowingly, has been denied information about Mademoiselle's identity, since she has withheld facts about herself in an effort to hide her Prussian ancestry, a dangerous secret during the war years.
The poem suggests that memory is unreliable and therefore cannot provide absolute knowledge of the past. Perkins concludes that "to recall the past is inevitably to transform it creatively, as the painting both reflected and transformed the family crisis, or as Merrill does in writing the poem." Merrill employs metaphors of creation in his focus on the speaker's attempts to understand his past. The dominant metaphor is of translation, which Perkins notes is "a process in which the original is both reconstituted and lost."
The speaker reveals that he is actively constructing his memory of his past in an attempt to understand it, when he compares images in the puzzle to objects in his home. He notes "the false eyes of (coincidence)" in his "mangy tiger safe on his bared hearth," similar to the boy's translating a "vibrant egg-yolk yellow" into a "pelt of what emerging animal / . . . To form a more sophisticated unit" in the puzzle.
What Do I Read Next?
- Several scholars see similarities between Merrill and W. H. Auden. Look at some of Auden's poems in Collected Poems (1991).
- Divine Comedies (1976) also contains The Book of Ephraim, another of Merrill's celebrated poems.
- Merrill's epic poem The Changing Light at San-dover (1982) has themes similar to those of "Lost in Translation."
- For a comparative study of American poetry, read Richard Howard's Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950 (1980).
The speaker attempts to translate Rilke's translation of Valéry's poem "Palme," as the boy tries to "translate" the images of the puzzle, suggesting that gaining complete understanding of each is impossible. The boy sees a sheik in one cloud (which is how he describes the pieces of the puzzle already fitted together) and a "dark-eyed woman veiled in mauve" in another. The two gaze at each other "with marked if undecipherable feeling." These two figures become Houri, one of the beautiful maidens living with the blessed in the Islamic paradise, and Afreet, an evil demon in Arabic mythology, who fight over the page-boy, in an analogous situation to that of the boy. Mademoiselle determines that the boy is the woman's son, but the speaker insists that she is mistaken. Of course, Mademoiselle's reliability is in question after the speaker discovers the truths she has hidden about herself. The speaker points out the difficulties in translation here. If he is not the boy in the puzzle, then who is he and how will he come to understand his experience?
Evans Lansing Smith, in his article on the poem for Explicator, concludes that Mademoiselle's "genealogical puzzle implicates the historical and linguistic complexities of the modern world, because she speaks English, French, and German in the poem, sometimes simultaneously." She often uses different languages in the same sentence ("Schlaf wohl, chéri" and "Patience, chéri. Geduld, mein Schatz"). These three languages, as well as Arabic, are used in the poem, suggesting the inexactness of language. The speaker notes the difficulties of finding exact translations when he questions his German equivalent to "patience dans l'azure" ("Geduld im . . . Himmelblau?").
Merrill reinforces this view through his word choice in the poem. Perkins concludes that "his syntax extends horizontally, packing thought within thought.... He spreads metaphors like nets to see what they will catch." Merrill inserts clever juxta-positions that, in effect, construct and deconstruct reality and knowledge. For example, he includes oxymorons, that is, contradictory or seemingly incompatible words, in the phrases "keeps never coming," "Full of unfulfillment," and "Sour windfalls." In other lines he juxtaposes daylight with lamplight and "arisen" with "fallen," creating "a see-saw" of language and so of reality. Merrill ends the poem with a series of contradictions that reinforce the problematic nature of translation and of understanding, suggesting that "nothing's lost" and then "all is translation / And every bit of us is lost in it / (Or found."
Daniel Mendelsohn, in his review of Collected Poems, concludes that in his poetry, Merrill flips "the world upside down for you, making you wonder about that stuff you thought was 'air'—and . . . about just where you stand in relation to everything and anything." The questions Merrill raises in "Lost in Translation" force us to recognize our inexact knowledge of ourselves and our world.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "Lost in Translation," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Evans Lansing Smith
In the following essay, Smith discusses the metaphor of the puzzle in "Lost in Translation" and how Merrill links the content of the poem to its form.
Putting broken pieces back together by the power of poetry is one of James Merrill's great themes. A good example is his wonderful poem "Lost in Translation," which uses the metaphor of the puzzle as an analogy for a traumatic childhood, marriage and divorce, the mysteries of reading and writing, and the creation and destruction of the world.
In the first stanza (a curtal sonnet), the boy and his governess, "Mademoiselle," wait for the jigsaw puzzle to arrive from a toyshop in Manhattan. The puzzle arrives; its pieces are spilled out upon the empty green card table (where the adults gamble). As it is gradually assembled, it becomes plain that the puzzle reflects the boy's situation in relation to his parents; "A summer without parents is the puzzle," the poet remarks, "Or should be." Like the page in the puzzle, the boy's "feet have not been found," nor his role in relation to his parents: is he a "son," a "slave or page boy"; will he be possessed by "Houri or Afreet," those forces of good and evil that "claim the Page"? His parents' divorce is equally bewildering, and it is mirrored by the picture that gradually emerges as Mademoiselle and the boy put its pieces together. A bearded Sheik on one cloud stares "eye to eye across the green abyss" at a "dark-eyed woman veiled in mauve" on another cloud. She is "being helped down from her camel" by a small boy, whom Mademoiselle significantly mistakes for "Her son."
As it turns out, "His French Mademoiselle" is herself a puzzle, the pieces of whose biography are slowly put together as the poem progresses, and over the years that follow its construction. She is only "French by marriage," having been "a widow since Verdun." She is the "Child of an English mother, a remote / Descendant of the great explorer Speke, / And Prussian father"—all of Europe, it seems, has gone into the making of Mademoiselle. Her genealogical puzzle implicates the historical and linguistic complexities of the modern world, because she speaks English, French, and German in the poem, sometimes simultaneously. She mixes up pieces of the language, saying "Schlaf wohl, cheri," before the boy goes to bed, and "Patience, cheri. Geduld mein Schatz" while he anxiously waits for the puzzle to arrive.
But the puzzle is more than a biographical, historical, and linguistic metaphor: it serves naturally as a symbol for the interlocking mysteries of hermeneutics and poeisis, of interpretation and composition. We as readers struggle to put the pieces of the poem (parents, Mademoiselle, the boy, the picture of the puzzle, the psychic parlor game in London, the poem by Rilke) together, pieces that the poet has assembled. From the start, the poem is connected to the dynamics of poeisis, of storytelling: Each item of the "craftsman's repertoire" can be "put aside, made stories of" until "The plot thickens / As all at once two pieces interlock."
Merrill uses two clever devices to link the content of the poem (puzzle as metaphor of poesis) with its form. The first involves four parenthetical digressions inserted between passages devoted to the puzzle, like the pieces between its parts. One parenthesis is devoted to Rilke's lost version of a poem by Valery. A second longer parenthesis (an entire stanza inserted, like the middle of a puzzle between its "Straight-edge pieces," between the repeated remark that "Mademoiselle does borders") is devoted to a psychic in London, who identifies an unseen object as "'Plywood. Piece of a puzzle.'" A third provides Mademoiselle's biography, and a fourth is addressed to Richard Howard, whom the poet asks to track down the French painting on which the puzzle is based.
The second device linking the form of the poem to the metaphor of the puzzle is one familiar to all readers of Merrill. In the central section of the poem, where all the pieces of the puzzle are finally put together, Merrill moves from the longer stanzas (mostly in blank verse, with a scattering of rhyme) to a sequence of seven carefully crafted and consistently rhymed quatrains (aaba) closed by a couplet when the last piece is found. That yields a double sonnet, composed of three quatrains preceding the parenthetical stanza addressed to Richard Howard, and three quatrains succeeding. All are devoted to the completion of the "World" represented by the puzzle's picture. All the syllables, stanzas, and rhymes fall into place, to generate a formal image of completion (of both poem and puzzle). Even so, the reader is not denied the pleasure of Mademoiselle and the boy, for what initially appears to be a series of an arbitrary number of quatrains, turns out to be a double sonnet, whose seven quatrains correspond to the seven days of the Creation.
For the creation and destruction of the world, the emergence of cosmos from chaos, turns out to be the final tenor of the metaphor of the puzzle—which has served equally well as a symbol for the complexities of biography, history, language, poeisis, and hermeneutics. Before the puzzle arrives from the shop, the card table prepared for it is empty, "a tense oasis of green felt," or "green abyss," analogous to the "void" on the "face of the deep" in Genesis 1:2. After the puzzle finally arrives, its "thousand hand-sawn / Sandal-scented pieces" are scattered over the green abyss in a profusion analogous to the "Chaos" of the beginning in Hesiod's Theogony. It is out of the emptiness of the abyss, and the chaotic sprawl of the puzzle pieces, that a cosmos will gradually be assembled—a "World" of earth and sky, with a city ("Thebes") inhabited by the archetypal characters of "the craftsman's repertoire" (witch, Sheik, veiled woman, page, retinue of vassals, demonic forces of "Houri" and "Afreet"). All in all, the poet acknowledges, it is "Quite a task, / Putting together Heaven, yet we do."
Merrill emphasizes the cosmic metaphor of the puzzle by calling it a "World that shifts like sand," and by calling the earth and sky "naive cosmogonists / Whose views clash," like the contestants in the divorce. The parenthesis devoted to the psychic's identification of an invisible object as a piece of a puzzle also brings the vast process of cosmo-genesis into the metaphorical domain of the poem. It evokes the "fir forest" in which the "Trees tower" that will yield the wood for the puzzle, which forms a "a pattern" quite "superficial" in comparison to that "long term lamination / Of hazard and craft, the karma that has / Made it matter in the first place."
If the completion of the puzzle mirrors the creation of the world, so its return to the toyshop signifies a miniature apocalypse. When Mademoiselle and the boy lift the "two corners" of the puzzle, it hangs together for a moment, and then collapses: "a populace / Unstitched of its attachments, rattled down" onto the green surface of the table, and then the sky "crumbled, too," long after the city had fallen and the "tent [. . .] swept away." Then the pieces are "boxed and readdressed / To the puzzle shop in the mid-Sixties," leaving only "the green / On which the grown-ups gambled," and "A green dusk" illuminated by the "Last glow of west." The Creation—that puzzle whose mysteries we will never comprehend—has returned to the "abyss" of its beginning.
Source: Evans Lansing Smith, "Merrill's 'Lost in Translation'," in Explicator, Vol. 59, No. 3, Spring 2001, p. 156.
In the following essay, Kalstone considers the verse of The Fire Screen, Braving the Elements, and Divine Comedies.
It would be interesting to know at what point Merrill saw a larger pattern emerging in his work—the point at which conscious shaping caught up with what unplanned or unconscious experience had thrown his way. In retrospect a reader can see that Braving the Elements (1972) gathers behind it the titles—with full metaphorical force—of Merrill's previous books. In The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, Water Street, Nights and Days and The Fire Screen, he had referred to the four elements braved in the book which followed them. (Divine Comedies extends it one realm further.) The books do present experience under different aspects, almost as under different zodiacal signs. And The Fire Screen is, among other things—and preeminently—the book of love. It reads like a sonnet sequence following the curve of a love affair to its close. Like important sonnet sequences, the implied narrative calls into play a range of anxieties not strictly connected to love, in Merrill's case challenging some of the balanced views of Nights and Days.
"The Friend of the Fourth Decade" is the launching point for this book—the poet at forty, setting one part of himself in dialogue with another. What is being tested here is the whole commitment to memory, to personal history, to a house and settling down—the very material to which Merrill entrusted himself after Water Street. The "friend" is an alter ego who comes to visit—really to confront—his poet-host, after a long absence. In the opening scene, against the settled atmosphere of his host's house, the friend is shot through with the setting sun so that he appears to be "Any man with ears aglow, / . . . gazing inward, mute." The temptation the friend represents is crystallized in a dream at the close of the poem. "Behind a door marked danger . . ."
Swaddlings of his whole civilization,
Prayers, accounts, long priceless scroll,
Whip, hawk, prow, queen, down to some last
Lost comedy, all that fine writing
Rigid with rains and suns,
Are being gingerly unwound.
There. Now the mirror. Feel the patient's heart
Pounding—oh please, this once—
Till nothing moves but to a drum.
See his eyes darkening in bewilderment—
No, in joy—and his lips part To greet the perfect stranger.
The friend has taught him a mesmerizing game in which saved-up postcards, a whole history of personal attachments, are soaked while the ink dissolves. The views remain, but the messages disappear, "rinsed of the word." When the poet tries it himself, watching his mother's "Dearest Son" unfurl in the water, the message remains legible. "The memories it stirred did not elude me."
"The Friend of the Fourth Decade" tests a dream of escape, a drama extended and detailed by the poems set in Greece which follow it in The Fire Screen. In some sense the book is like Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel, a deepening encounter with another language and a more elemental culture, in which the speaker becomes, from poem to poem, more identified with his new world, cleansed of the assumptions of the old. In "To My Greek," the Greek language, encountered as if it were a demon lover, or a siren, becomes a radiant, concrete release from the subtleties of the "mother tongue" and the burden of "Latin's rusted treasure." A newcomer to Greek, he is forced to be simple, even silly. With Merrill the experience is characteristically amplified. He treats it as a temptation to become "rinsed of the word" and to humble himself speechless in the presence of "the perfect stranger." Both the transcendental and the self-destructive overtones of that phrase from "The Friend of the Fourth Decade," where the "perfect stranger" is also Death, haunt this book.
The initiation into Greece is inseparable from the exhilaration and the mystery of a love affair. It was anticipated in "Days of 1964," the wonderful Cavafid conclusion to Nights and Days, and is allowed to run its course in The Fire Screen. In "The Envoys" Merrill finds a series of emblems for the sense of adventure and risk experienced in the lover's presence. In three narrative panels, he introduces creatures the lover momentarily traps and tames, binds and then frees: a scurrying lizard, a frightened kitten and a beetle threaded and whirled around his head:
You knotted the frail harness, spoke,
Revolved. Eureka! Round your head
Whirred a living emerald satellite.
The experience is absorbed as a
"modulation into a brighter key / Of terror we survive to play."
Teach me, lizard, kitten, scarabee—
Gemmed coffer opening on the dram
Of everlasting life he represents,
His brittle pharoahs in the vale of Hence
Will hear who you are, who I am,
And how you bound him close and set him free.
What he shares with the creatures is a moment at the gates of some other world, not insisted on, but imagined as if he were enjoying the danger. All the Greek poems, not only the love poems, benefit from that expansion of feeling. In a dramatic monologue whose tripping couplets are meant to suggest the energetic singsong of a simple Greek speaker, "Kostas Tympakianakis," Merrill seems almost literally to take up the speaker's invitation: "You'll see a different cosmos through the eyes of a Greek." He adopts the violence, the pride, the clear-eyed tone of the Greek. He accepts the welcome challenge, "Use my name," slips on the offered identity, but registers the gap between them in Kostas's final line: "Who could have imagined such a life as mine?" It is a small but telling rebuke of the poet's imagination always ticking away, its pressures momentarily relieved by taking on the voice of another. The Fire Screen contains several poems given over to the pleasures of evoking particular figures, humble like Kostas or sophisticated like Maria, the "muse of my off-days." It sees Greek peasant life through others' eyes ("David's Night at Veliès") or addresses itself to shared moments of happiness, as in "16.ix.65," with "evening's four and twenty candles" and the four friends who return from the beach "with honey on our drunken feet."
But at the core of the Greek section of this book are the love poems, some of them full of lyric intensity, others sharp and painful, like the dramatic soliloquy or fragment "Part of the Vigil," which is, in a sense, the turning point of the affair, a surreal exploration of the images in the lover's heart:
If all you knew of me were down there, leaking
Fluids at once abubble, pierced by fierce
Impulsions of unfeeling, life, limb turning
To burning cubes, to devil's dice, to ash—
What if my effigy were down there?
What, Dear god, if it were not!
If it were nowhere in your heart!
Here I turned back.
The lover's image is to "Blaze on" in the poet's own "saved skin." But the poems which follow register both the end of the affair and the folly of thinking of the Greek experience as an escape or oblivion. "Another August," "A Fever" and "Flying to Byzantium" are among the most powerful poems in the book. With "Mornings in a New House," as he imagines a dwelling half way back toward cooler American landscapes, the whole experience modulates into a new key, absorbed, retrospective, fading into myth.
It is appropriate in Merrill's work that recovery should be imagined in terms of a "new house" (or a repainted one in the more comic and detached version of "After the Fire"). "Mornings in a New House" has him, "a cold man" who "hardly cares," slowly brought to life by a fire laid at dawn. Once again the new house is the available image to set against exposure. "The worst is over," the fire a tamed recall of the shattered (or spent?) affair. Against its "tamed uprush.... Habit arranges the fire screen." The details of the screen, embroidered by his mother, place the entire lapsed passion into a withering perspective:
Crewel-work. His mother as a child
Stitched giant birds and flowery trees
To dwarf a house, her mother's—see the chimney's
Puff of dull yarn! Still vaguely chilled,
Guessing how even then her eight
Years had foreknown him, nursed him, all,
Sewn his first dress, sung to him, let him fall,
Howled when his face chipped like a plate,
He stands there wondering until red
Infraradiance, wave on wave,
So enters each plume-petal's crazy weave,
Each worsted brick of the homestead,
That once more, deep indoors, blood's drawn,
The tiny needlewoman cries,
And to some faintest creaking shut of eyes
His pleasure and the doll's are one.
It is hard to disentangle the impulses which contribute to this poem—harder even because the poet has added a footnote taking some of it back, imagining passion as itself a defense, not a danger, like the screen of fire that protects Brünnhilde in Wagner's opera. But, in the poem proper, the fire screen is devised against the damages of love. It bears, in a sense, the whole retrospective power of his writing, the ability of memory and art to absorb and rearrange experience. What marks this off from earlier moments in Merrill's poetry is the long perspective which the poem opens up, receding past his immediate pain, past his own childhood of "The Broken Home," to his mother who stitched the screen as a device involving her mother.
After all the carefully noted impulses in The Fire Screen to leave the mother behind—the attempts to rinse away her handwriting in "Friend of the Fourth Decade"; even the efforts to be free of Latin languages, the "mother tounge"—the poet returns to her in a new way. The "new house" of this poem is interwoven with the house his mother had sewn, her mother's house, dwarfed by giant birds and flowery trees. The discovery of these entwined destinies "deep indoors" draws blood. There is something like the remorse of "Childlessness" in what happens. The resources of art are seen as self-protective, even vengeful, a miniaturization of human powers, like the moment in the earlier poem when the annihilated village—teeming generations in dwarfed versions—is loaded aboard sampans and set adrift. But in "Mornings in a New House" the experience is without guilt and is shared in its brittle complexity. Waves of warmth and anger carry him inward to an identification with the "tiny needlewoman" mother, to share the childish pleasure and fear which even then would shape her feelings for the child she would one day have. With "some faintest creaking shut of eyes" they both become toys in a larger pattern, at once foreshortened and part of their shared, terrifying but ungrudging humanity. I think what is most notable in this poem is that Merrill, however rueful and pained, has emerged from the erotic fire into a newly defined and felt natural perspective—one which becomes visible and palpable at length in many of the poems of his next book, Braving the Elements.
I have talked about the double action we must watch in Merrill's poems, the way he twins a witty surface with the poet's power to discover the veined patterns of his life. We must pay special attention to his puns and his settings; they open alternative perspectives against which to read the time-bound and random incidents of daily life. In Braving the Elements (1972) and Divine Comedies (1976), he has become a master of this idiosyncratic method, something one might call—with apologies—symbolic autobiography, Merrill's way of making apparently ordinary detail transparent to deeper configurations.
This is quite clear in "After the Fire" and "Log," which move us from the world of The Fire Screen to that of Braving the Elements. The brisk narrative of "After the Fire" brings back the Greek housekeeper Kyria Kleo, whom in "Days of 1964" he had seen wearing "the erotic mask / Worn the world over by illusion / To weddings of itself and simple need." Now, in the new key of "After the Fire," the Athens house has been repainted after a mysterious blaze. Under its "quiet sensible light gray," the house hides his old love affairs as it hides those of Kleo and her rumpled son Noti, their erotic escapades buried and part of the past. The mood of Braving the Elements is the mood of the opening invocation, "Log": banked flames of passion, burning and diminution, a life "consumed with that which it was nourished by." The muse discovered "After the Fire" is Kleo's mother, the half-crazed crone. In the yiayia's presence, the candles which gutter before old lovers' ghosts are replaced:
The snuffed-out candle-ends grow tall and shine,
Dead flames encircle us, which cannot harm,
The table's spread, she croons, and I
Am kneeling pressed to her old burning frame.
The comic crone turns before our eyes into a sybilline figure, mistress of the now harmless flames of passionate memory. She is, in a sense, the informing spirit of the book, for what is new about Braving the Elements is the way it opens to long—in some cases, geological—perspectives, the kind of prehistoric, penetrating wisdom which dwarfs and absorbs moments of intense present pain. The book contains, once again, love poems and poems involving the Oedipal trials of childhood. But these familiar sources of anxiety are in Braving the Elements transposed to a different key, resolved as by the all-embracing parenthesis of dream.
For example, family triangles make mysterious appearances in "18 West 11th Street," but as part of a poem in which several generations are run through a New York house, almost as in a strip of film. The house is one in which Merrill spent the first years of his childhood. With one of those attempts history makes to try and rival fiction, this was also the house accidentally destroyed in 1971 by Weathermen who were using it as a center for making bombs in the absence of the owners, parents of one of the revolutionaries. Richard Sáez, in a penetrating reading of the poem, points to the unlikely and eloquent connection it makes between "Cathy Wilkerson's destruction of her paternal home and James Merrill's pained elegies for his." The parallels, Sáez asserts, "are acts of fate as well as their active wills," as poet and radicals enact in their mutually incompatibile fashions, but with equal intensity, the conflict of generations. " '18 West 11th Street', like the House of Thebes, becomes an emblem for some unavoidable matrix of fate which involves both poet and revolutionary." Inexcapably linked to one another, the generations are themselves dissolved in the mirrors of the house and the long stretches of time, each generation finding its own means to suffer and to rebel. Sáez is right to single out the close of the poem as having a special new power in Merrill's work:
Forty-odd years gone by,
Toy blocks. Church bells. Original vacancy.
O deepening spring.
Sáez points out—that "the 'Original vacancy' of the poem's conclusion is not merely the scene of departure from the poet's childhood. It is man's timeless exclusion from his unforgotten home." Yes, but the phrase also looks forward and seems to say "To Let." With the church bells and "toy blocks" the cityscape seems both distanced and renewed. Of course, the toy blocks are also the children's devices against their parents, whether as poems or explosives. And they are assumed into the ongoing beauty of the exclamation. "O deepening spring." Here Sáez is particularly acute: "In the concluding tercet nature itself is deflected from its amoral cyclical course to be glazed—not with the gilding, yellowing dust of earlier and lesser achieved poems but—with a patina of human destiny."
That same sense of unfolding destiny informs "Up and Down," a poem whose ingredients are familiar in Merrill's work, but never in so rich a combination. In an earlier book this might well have been two separate poems: one, "Snow King Chair Lift," reflecting the brief exhilarating rising arc of a love affair; the other, "The Emerald," an extraordinary and sympathetic encounter with his mother. But one thing Merrill does in his work is move toward larger and larger units of composition, not only long poems, but combinations of different forms, like the free juxtapositions of prose and more or less formal verse units in "The Thousand and Second Night" and "From the Cupola." The two sections of "Up and Down" limn out, together, an emotional landscape which neither of them could singly suggest.
On the surface it is a poem of contrasts: rising in a ski lift with a lover, descending into a bank vault with the mother; the ostensible freedom of one experience, while in the other, "palatial bronze gates shut like jaws." Yet the exhilaration of the ski lift—it begins in dramatic present tenses—is what is relegated finally to a cherished snapshot and to the past tense: "We gazed our little fills at boundlessness." The line almost bursts with its contradictions: unslaked appetite, or appetite only fulfilled and teased by "gazing our little fills." The lovers have not quite reached the condition of the Shakespearean "pitiful thrivers in their gazing spent"; they are more buoyant, but with a redirected and only momentary pleasure. "The Emerald," on the other hand, begins in brisk easy narrative pasts and moves toward a moment in the very present which the ski-lift section had forsaken. More important, whatever the surface contrasts between the two sections, there is an irresistible connection between the discoveries made by each. Or rather, the feelings of the opening poem enable the son to understand what happens to the mother in the closing poem. In the vault an unexpected secret jumps to light:
Rustle of tissue, a sprung
Lid. Her face gone queerly lit, fair, young,
Like faces of our dear ones who have died.
No rhinestone now, no dilute amethyst,
But of the first water, linking star to pang,
Teardrop to fire, my father's kisses hang
In lipless concentration round her wrist.
The effect resembles the moment of thunder and lightning on the chair-lift in Part I, but here things are seen in a prolonged transforming light, the queer deathlike glow when the "mudbrown" coffin of a box is opened. It is as if the glimpse of "boundlessness" in Part I can only be extended and refined in the eternal light of underground. The poet and his mother are seen as part of a performance in the "green room" which the emerald suggests. Before his eyes she grows both youthful and like the dead. Surviving two husbands, she can still be transfixed by memory, transformed by the bracelet. "My father's kisses hang / In lipless concentration round her wrist." Contraries are reconciled: "star to pang, / Teardrop to fire." She is bride, widow and mother all at once, and something like the eternally preserved Mesopotamian consorts, "girl-bride jewelled in his grave."
Against this background mother and son have the unspoken reconciliation discussed earlier in this chapter. He slips onto her finger the emerald she had intended for his bride, the very ring his father gave her when the poet was born. All these elements compose an increasingly luminous frieze: "The world beneath the world is brightening." It is one of those moments assumed, as many are in Braving the Elements, into an ongoing process of time, and experienced not elegiacally but with a sense of promise. That deepening emotional landscape is most strongly suggested in the new physical surroundings of Braving the Elements. A series of difficult poems takes place in the Far West. Pieces like "Under Libra" and "In Nine Sleep Valley" are love poems played out against dwarfing panoramas and the geological erosions of a non-human world.
Geode, the troll's melon
Rind of crystals velvet smoke meat blue
Formed far away under fantastic
Pressures, then cloven in two
By the taciturn rock shop man, twins now forever
Will they hunger for each other
When one goes north and one goes east?
I expect minerals never do,
Enough for them was a feast
Of flaws, the molten start and glacial sleep,
The parting kiss.
Still face to face in halfmoonlight
Sparkling comes easy to the Gemini.
Centimeters deep yawns the abyss.
In "Under Libra" ancient stones are introduced into the poet's house ostensibly as doorstops and paperweights, but really as reminders of another scale of living. He goes "in the small hours from room to room / Stumbling onto their drugged stubborn sleep." These talismans overshadow desire; they place it in a perspective where past and future edge out the present. The solid human protagonists of the poem are dissolved before our eyes:
. . . .Ten years from next morning, pen in hand,
Looking through saltwater, through flames,
Enkindlings of an absent I and you.
Live, spitting pronouns, sparks that flew
And were translated into windiest
Esperanto, zero tongue of powers
Diplomatic around 1 a.m.'s
Undripping centerpiece, the Swan....
Days were coming when the real thing
No longer shrugged a wing.
Some of the poems are pure ventriloquism. "The Black Mesa" speaks; so do "Banks of a Stream Where Creatures Bathe." They seem to embody a consensus of human voices, mythically inured to experience. History, the details of private lives—everything repeats itself in the long views these poems take. Hearing the poet take on these roles is like talking to survivors. "The Black Mesa," addressing the low flatland, musters for a moment the tone of an eager roue, but finally lapses back into a weary geological view of his experience, outwaiting all competitors and invaders: "I steal past him who next reclaims you, keep / Our hushed appointments, grain by grain. . . . / Dust of my dust, when will it all be plain?" The effect is to make expressions of human tenderness mere instances of the larger erosions and destinies which outlast them.
"Syrinx" is the most successful of such poems. She is, of course, an established mythological figure, brightly familiar from Marvell: "And Pan did after Syrinx speed / Not as a nymph, but for a reed." Merrill takes up her fragile link to the nature from which she was abstracted, "a thinking reed." Just who is she in this version? She addresses the poet as if she were his muse and his lover. She is sophisticated enough to know about slipware and to quote Pascal; also, to make puns about fashion and the Pan-pipe's traditional shape: "Among the wreckage, bent in Christian weeds, / Illiterate—X my mark—I tremble, still / A thinking reed."
"Bent in Christian weeds" makes it sound as if she were used to dresses by Chanel, and "Illiterate—X my mark" walks a tightrope of ingenuity and feeling. As unlikely as her witty denial of literacy may be, Syrinx keeps shucking off the claims of words as if they were merely garments. The most outrageous example is the incorporation of the musical scale: "Who puts his mouth to me / Draws out the scale of love and dread—/O ramify, sole antidote!" The musician's breath or the lover's kiss, and then the high tragedienne's apostrophe, which, on a second glance, taking in the enjambment ("d—/ O"), we see disintegrate magically into the musical scale. This is precisely the action the poem repeats over and over: a human gesture, then the witty af-flatus and effort of words which slip back before our eyes into analytic formulas, the do-re-mi of the scale, or the particles of a mathematical formula which expresses metastasis. Syrinx seems caught between human demands and ingenuity, which make her "tremble, still" and, on the other hand, her sense of being a worn part of a growing and disintegrating world:
Each year, cloud, hornet, fatal growths
Proliferating by metastasis
Rooted their total in the gliding stream.
Over and over the cleverness of the poem is matched by a hypnotic natural intonation, no more than in the astonishing close; as Syrinx slides back into her "scarred case,"
Whose silvery breath-tarnished tones
No longer rivet bone and star in place
Or keep from shriveling, leather round a stone,
The sunbather's precocious apricot
Or stop the four winds racing overhead
Nought Waste Eased Sought
Those last four words clothe the cardinal points in notions of human aspiration and loss, which we may understand in varying combinations and intensities, depending on the order in which we read them. But ultimately they slip back into the toneless ideogram of the ongoing winds. How odd human words and feelings seem, depicted in this particular way. The lozenge of four words is tinged by, but ultimately surpasses, individual feelings. Source: David Kalstone, "Essay on Three Collections by James Merrill," in Modern Critical Views: James Merrill, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 57–67.
Bloom, Harold, "The Year's Books: Harold Bloom on Poetry, Part I," in New Republic, November 20, 1976, p. 21.
Donoghue, Denis, "What the Ouija Board Said," in New York Times Book Review, June 15, 1980, p. 3.
Flint, R. W., "Metamorphic Magician," in New York Times Book Review, March 13, 1983, p. 6.
Mendelsohn, Daniel, "A Poet of Love and Loss," in New York Times Book Review, March 4, 2001, p. 16.
Merrill, James, "Acoustical Chambers," in Recitative: Prose, edited by J. D. McClatchy, North Point Press, 1986, pp. 3–4.
—, "Lost in Translation," in Collected Poems, Knopf, 2001, pp. 362–67.
Perkins, David, "The Achievement of James Merrill," in A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After, Harvard University Press, 1987, pp. 644–45.
Rodway, Allan, "Stripping Off," in London Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 3, August–September 1976, pp. 66–73.
Shaw, Robert B., "James Merrill and the Ouija Board," in New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1979, p. 4.
Simpson, Louis, "Divine Comedies," in New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1976, p. 210.
Smith, Evans Lansing, "Merrill's 'Lost in Translation,'" in Explicator, Spring 2001, Vol. 59, No. 3, p. 156.
Spiegelman, Willard, "James Merrill," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 165: American Poets since World War II, edited by Joseph Conte, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 173–87.
Blasing, Mutlu Konuk, "Rethinking Models of Literary Change: The Case of James Merrill," in American Literary History, Vol. 2, No. 2, Summer 1990, pp. 299–317.
Blasing explores a postmodernist emphasis in Merrill's work.
Buckley, C. A., "Quantum Physics and the Ouija-Board: James Merrill's Holistic World View," in Mosaic, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 39–61.
Buckley focuses on Merrill's interplay of science and poetry.
Vendler, Helen Hennessey, "James Merrill," in Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 205–32.
Vendler includes a comprehensive explication of the Divine Comedies.
White, Edmund, "On James Merrill," in The Burning Library: Essays, edited by David Bergman, Knopf, 1994, pp. 43–55.
White focuses on Merrill's "ambitious" The Book of Ephraim.