THE THOUSAND AND SECOND NIGHT
for Irma Brandeis
1 / RIGOR VITAE
Istanbul. 21 March. I woke today
With an absurd complaint. The whole right half
Of my face refuses to move. I have to laugh
Watching the rest of it reel about in dismay.
Under the double burden, while its twin
Sags on, though sentient, stupefied.
I'm here alone. Not quite—through fog outside
Loom wingèd letters: PAN AMERICAN.
Twenty-five hundred years this city has stood between
The passive Orient and our frantic West.
I see no reason to be depressed;
There are too many things I haven't seen,
Like Hagia Sophia. Tea drunk, shaved and dressed . . .
The house of Heavenly Wisdom first became
A mosque, is now a flame-
less void. The apse,
Still wears those dark-green epaulettes
On which (to the pilgrim who forgets
His Arabic) a wild script of gold whips
Has scribbled glowering, dated
Slogans: "God is my grief!" perhaps,
Above you, the great dome,
Bald of mosaic, senile, floated
In a gilt wash. Its old profusion's
Hypnotic shimmer, back and forth between
That of the abacus, that of the nebula,
Had been picked up from the floor,
The last of numberless handfuls,
By the last 18th-century visitor.
You did not want to think of yourself for once,
But you had held your head erect
Too many years within such transcendental skulls
As this one not to feel the usual, if no
Longer flattering kinship. You'd let go
Learning and faith as well, you too had wrecked
Your precious sensibility. What else did you expect?
Outdoors. Uprooted, turban-crested stones
Lie side by side. It's as I might have feared.
The building, desperate for youth, has smeared
All over its original fine bones
Acres of ocher plaster. A diagram
Indicates how deep in the mudpack
The real façade is. I want my face back.
A pharmacist advises
After the hour of damp heat
One is addressed in gibberish, shown
Into a marble cell and thrown
On marble, there to be scrubbed clean,
Is wrapped in towels and a sheet
And led upstairs to this lean tomb
Made all of panes (red, amber, green)
With a glass star hung in the gloom.
Here sits effaced by gemlike moods,
Tastes neither coffee nor loukoum,
And to the attendant who intrudes
(Or archeologist or thief)
Gravely uptilts one's mask of platinum
Still dripping, in a sign of life.
And now what? Back, I guess, to the modern town.
Midway across the bridge, an infantile
Memory promises to uncramp my style.
I stop in deepening light to jot it down:
On the crest of her wrist, by the black watered silk of the watchband, his grandmother had a wen, a hard mauve bubble up from which bristled three or four white hairs. How often he had lain in her lap and been lulled to a rhythm easily the whole world's then—the yellowish sparkle of a ring marking its outer limit, while in the foreground, silhouetted like the mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent, mass and minarets felt by someone fallen asleep on the deck of his moored caïque, that principal landmark's rise and fall distinguished, from any other, her beloved hand.
Cold. A Wind rising. An entire city
Dissolved by rhetoric. And out there, past
The mirror of the Bosporos, what black coast
Reflecting us into immobility?
On this side, crowds, a magic-lantern beam—
Belgians on bicycles, housewives with red hair,
Masts, cries of crows blown high in the rose-blue air,
Ataturk's tailcoat . . . It is like a dream.
The "death-in-life and life-in-death" of Yeats'
Byzantium; and, if so, by the same token,
Alone in the sleepwalking scene, my flesh has woken
And sailed for the fixed shore beyond the straits.
2 / THE CURE
The doctors recommended cortisone,
Diathermy, vitamins, and rest.
It worked. These months in Athens, no one's guessed
My little drama; I appear my own
Master again. However, once you've cracked
That so-called mirror of the soul,
It is not readily, if at all, made whole.
("Between the motion and the act
Fall the Shadow"—T. S. Eliot.)
Part of me has remained cold and withdrawn.
The day I went up to the Parthenon
Its humane splendor made me think So what?
One May noon in the Royal Park, among
The flora of l'Agneau Mystique—
Cypress, mimosa, laurel, palm—a Greek
Came up to name them for me in his tongue.
I thanked him; he thanked me, sat down. Peacocks
Trailed by, hard gray feet mashing overripe
But bitter oranges. I knew the type:
Superb, male, raucous, unclean, Orthodox
Ikon of appetite feathered to the eyes
With the electric blue of days that will
Not come again. My friend with time to kill
Asked me the price of cars in Paradise.
By which he meant my country, for in his
The stranger is a god in masquerade.
Failing to act that part, I am afraid
I was not either—ah, who is?
He is, or was; had brothers and a wife;
Chauffeured a truck; last Friday broke his neck
Against a tree. We have no way to check
These headlong emigrations out of life.
Try, I suppose, we must, as even Valéry said,
And said more grandly that I ever shall—
Turning shut lids to the August sun, and all
Such neon figments (amber, green, and red)
Of incommunicable energy
As in my blindness wake, and at a blink
Vanish, and were the clearest hint, I think,
Of what I have been, and care to be.
3 / CARNIVALS
Three good friends in as many months have complained,
"You were nice, James, before your trip. Or so
I thought. But you have changed. I know, I know
People do change. Well I'm surprised, I'm pained."
Before they disappeared into the night
Of what they said, I'd make a stab at mouthing
Promises that meant precisely nothing
And never saved my face. For they were right.
They weren't young friends, what's more. Youth would explain
Part of it. I have kept somewhere a page
Written to myself at sixteen to my self at twice that age,
Whom I accuse of having become the vain
Flippant unfeeling monster I now am—
To hear them talk—and exhorting me to recall
Starlight on an evening in late fall
1943, and the walk with M,
To die in whose presence seemed the highest good.
I met M and his new wife last New Year's.
We rued the cold war's tainted atmospheres
From a corner's table. It was understood
Our war was over. We had made our peace
With—everything. The heads of animals
Gazed in forbearance from the velvet walls.
Great drifts of damask cleaned our lips of grease.
Then L—her "Let's be friends" and her clear look
Returned in disbelief. I had a herd
Of friends. I wanted love, if love's the word
On the foxed page of the long-mislaid book.
A thousand and one nights! They were grotesque.
Stripping the blubber from my catch. I lit
The oil-soaked wick, then could not see by it.
Morning, a black film lay upon the desk
. . . Where just a week ago I thought to delve
For images of those years in a Plain Cover.
Some light verse happened as I looked them over.
Postcards from Hamburg, Circa 1912
The ocelot's yawn, a sepia-dim
Shamelessness from nun's coif to spike heels,
She strokes his handlebar who kneels
To do for her what a dwarf does for him.
The properties are grim.
Are, you might want to say, unsexed
By use. A divan covered with a rug,
A flat Methusalem of Krug
Appear from tableau to tableau. The next
Sows him with muscle flexed
In resurrection from his underwear,
Gaining an underworld to harrow.
He steers her ankles like—like a wheelbarrow.
The dwarf has slipped our for a breath of air,
Leaving the monstrous pair.
Who are they? What does their charade convey?
Maker and Muse? Demon and Doll?
"All manners are symbolic"—Hofmannsthal.
Here's the dwarf back with cronies . . . oh I say!
Forget about it. They,
In time, in pain, unlearned their tricks.
Only the shrouded focusser of the lens
May still be chasing specimens
From his lone bathysphere deep in the Styx.
St. Pauli's clock struck six;
Sighing, "The death of sin is wages,"
He paid his models, bade them dress and go,
Earthlings once more, incognito
Down swarming boulevards, the contagious-
ly easy, final stages,
Dodged even by the faithful, one of whom
(Morose Great-Uncle Alastair)
Their doctrine unconfessed, we may assume,
Into his brazen tomb.
We found the postcards after her divorce,
I and Aunt Alix. She turned red with shame,
Then white, then thoughtful, "Ah, they're all the same—
Men, I mean." A pause. "Not you, of course."
And then: "We'll burn them. Light the fire." I must
Meanwhile have tucked a few into my shirt.
I spend the night rekindling with expert
Fingers—but that phase needn't be discussed . . .
"The soul, which in infancy could not be told from the body, came with age to resemble a body one no longer had, whose transports were far beyond what passes, now, for sensation. All irony aside, the libertine was 'in search of his soul'; nightly he labored to regain those firelit lodgings . . . Likewise, upon the Earth's mature body we inflict a wealth of gross experience—drugs, drills, bombardments—with what effect? A stale frisson, a waste of resources all too analogous to our own. Natural calamities (tumor and apoplexy no less than flood and volcano) may at last be hailed as positive reassurances, perverse if you like, of life in the old girl yet."
". . . faced with such constant bickering, Cynthia would have to pinch herself to recall how warmly and deeply those two did, in fact, love one another."
—A. H. CLARENDON, Psyche's Sisters
Love. Warmth. Fist of sunlight
Pounding emphatic on the gulf. High wails
From your white ship: The heart prevails!
Affirm it! Simple decency rides the blast! —
Phrases that quick to smell blood, lurk like sharks
Within a style's transparent lights and darks.
The lips part. The plume trembles. You're afloat
Upon the breathing, all-reflecting deep.
The past recedes and twinkles, falls asleep.
Fear is unworthy, say the stars by rote;
What destinations have been yours till now
Unworthy, says the leaping prow.
O skimmer of deep blue
Volumes fraught with rhyme and reason,
Once the phosphorescent meshes loosen
And the object of your quest slip through,
Almost you can overlook a risen
Brow, a thin, black dawn on the horizon.
Except that in this virgin hemisphere
One city calls you—towers, drums, conches, bells
Tolling each year's more sumptuous farewells
To flesh. Among the dancers on the pier
Glides one figure in a suit of bones,
Whose savage grace alerts the chaperones.
He picks you out from thousands. He intends
Perhaps no mischief. Yet the dog-brown eyes
In the chalk face that stiffens as it dries
Pierce you with the eyes of those three friends.
The mask begins to melt upon your face.
A hush has fallen in the marketplace,
And now the long adventure.
Let that wait.
I'm tired, it's late at night.
Tomorrow, if it is given me to conquer
An old distrust of imaginary scenes,
Scenes not lived through yet, the few final lines
Will lie on the page and the whole ride at anchor.
I'm home of course. It's winter. Real
Snow fills the road. On the unmade
Brass bed lies my adored Scheherazade,
Eight-nights asleep, tail twitching to the steel
Band of the steam heat's dissonant calypso.
The wind has died. Where would I be
If not here? There's so little left to see!
Lost friends, my long ago
Voyages, I bless you for sore
Limbs and mouth kissed, face bronzed and lined,
As earth held up, a text not wholly undermined
By fluent passages of metaphor.
Now if the class will turn back to this, er,
Poem's first section—Istanbul—I shall take
What little time is left today to make
Some brief points. So. The rough pentameter
Quatrains give way, you will observe, to three
Interpolations, prose as well as verse.
Does it come through how each in turn refers
To mind, body, and soul (or memory)?
It does? Good. No, I cannot say offhand
Why this should be. I find it vaguely satis—
Yes please? The poet quotes too much? Hm. That is
One way to put it. Mightn't he have planned
For his own modest effort to be seen
Against the yardstick of the "truly great"
(In Spender's phrase)? Fearing to overstate,
He lets them do it—lets their words, I mean,
Enhance his—Yes, what now? Ah, How and when
Did he "affirm"? Why, constantly. And how else
But in the form. Form's what affirms. That's well
Said, if I do—(Bells ring) Go, gentlemen.
And when the long adventure reached its end,
I saw the Sultan in a glass, gown old,
While she, his fair wife still, her tales all told,
Smiled at him fondly. "O my dearest friend,"
Said she, "and lord and master from the first,
Release me now. Your servant would refresh
Her soul in that cold fountain which the flesh
Knows not. Grant this, for I am faint with thirst."
And he: "But it is I who am your slave.
Free me, I pray, to go in search of joys
Unembroidered by your high, soft voice,
Along that stony path the senses pave."
They wept, then tenderly embraced and went
Their ways. She and her fictions soon were one.
He slept through moonset, woke in blinding sun,
Too late to question what the tale had meant.
Text from James Merrill: Collected Poems, ed. J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser (New York: Knopf, 2002). First published in The New Yorker, June 13, 1964 pp. 36-38. Notes are adapted with additions from James Merrill: Selected Poems, ed. J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser (NY: Knopf, 2008).
for Irma Brandeis: See the information on Brandeis on this website: "Merrill and the Muse."
RIGOR VITAE: A play on the Latin phrase, rigor mortis (rigidity of death) substituting vitae (of life) for death.
21 March: "On or near the vernal equinox or first day of Spring. The place and date locate the poet between seasons and continents, March 21 being the vernal equinox, dividing winter and spring, and the Straits of the Bosporus being the boundary between Europe and the Middle East, 'The passive Orient and our frantic West.'“ Langdon Hammer, James Merrill: Life and Art (p. 324).
absurd complaint: Bell's Palsy.
PAN AMERICAN: The logo of Pan American Airlines.
"Byzantine, Go Home!": Apparently expressing the historical conflict between Greek and Muslin cultures.
That of the abacus, that of the nebula: An abacus is the slab that forms the top of a column's capital, and a nebula the astral formation once seen in Hagia Sophia's mosaics.
Hamam: A Turkish bathhouse.
Hagia Sophia: Hagia Sophia, Turkish Ayasofya, Latin Sancta Sophia, also called Church of the Holy Wisdom or Church of the Divine Wisdom, a cathedra built at Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in the 6th century CE (532–537) under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (www.britannica.com/topic/Hagia-Sophia). Since Islam forbids images, the mosaics and paintings were covered ("acres of ocher plaster"), often with quotations from the Quran on the material covering them. The building is now a museum under continuous renovation.
Dahin! Dahin!: A quotation from Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821, 1829) by the German poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). In the lyric beginning "Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blühn" ("Do you know the land where the lemon trees blossom") the character Mignon is remembering the idyllic Italian setting of her childhood.
Suleiman the Magnificent: (1494/5-1566) Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1530 to 1566, the empire's golden age, during which he commissioned the building of architectural masterpieces, including Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul.
gemlike moods: An allusion to the imagery of the "aesthetic" or "decadent" movement of later 19th Century poetry, as in Walter Pater: “To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life” (The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, 1873).
wen: Merrill’s governess (1933-38) was Lilla Howard, “Mademoiselle.” Merrill said he “worshipped” her, including the lavender wen on her wrist” (Langdon Hammer, James Merrill, 30).
"death-in-life and life-in-death": From the 1930 poem "Byzantium" by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939).
"Between the motion and the act / Falls the Shadow": From "The Hollow Men" (1925) by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965).
l'Agneau Mystique: The Sacred Lamb, an icon of Jesus Christ and the focus of the painting Adoration de l'Agneau Mystique, where the Lamb appears in a densely planted garden. (Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, known as the Ghent Altarpiece of 1432, Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.)
last Friday broke his neck / Against a tree: From Langdon Hammer, James Merrill: Life and Art: Merrill "learned from Tony [Parigory ] that a truck driver named Taki, a sweet young man who’d been a sexual partner for Parigory and then Merrill that spring, had been run over and killed while taking a nap in the shade of another driver’s truck" (321).
Valéry: the French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945), "Le vent se lève !… Il faut tenter de vivre!" ("The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live.").
Three good friends: See manuscript 2 on the "Carnivals" page, where Merrill writes at the top: "for C. F. & K," likely references to Claude Fredericks, Frederick Beuchner, and Kimon Friar." See Langdon Hammer, James Merrill: Life and Art, pp. 322-23.
"page / Written to myself at sixteen": Perhaps hinted at in the reference to the "foxed page of the long-mislaid book." Stephen Yenser recalls Merrill saying that a source for this passage was the poem "A Letter from a Girl to Her Own Old Age" by Alice Meynell (1847-1922).
late fall 1943: The object of his romantic crush is evidently a student he met in his first semester at Amherst College in Fall 1943.
Stripping the blubber from my catch: In manuscripts of the poem, as in Manuscript 6 of "Carnivals," Merrill connects the blubber image to the phrase "early hunts for love."
Plain Cover: Perhaps the photographs of their sexual partners kept my Merrill and David Jackson.
Hofmannsthal: Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), Austrian author who wrote the libretto for Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.
postcards: See the webpage on this site, "Postcards from Hamburg, Circa 1912."
A flat Methusalem of Krug: A double magnum bottle of Champagne Krug.
death of sin is wages: An inversion of St. Paul's "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).
deep in the Styx / St. Pauli's clock: In Greek mythology, the Styx is a river in Hades. The St. Pauli church is associated with the red light district in Hamburg.
Germaine Nahman: Merrill's friend wrote from Paris, France on March 11, 1963 to give her permission for The New Yorker to publish her name as the (fictitious) author of this passage.
A. H. Clarendon: A fictitious author, whom Merrill also cites in "The Book of Ephraim," section Q.
Cynthia would have to pinch herself: "Those 'two,' if Cynthia is one of Psyche's Sisters, will be Eros and Psyche themselves, body and soul" (Yenser, p. 133).
Scheherazade: The narrator's cat, and the name of the storyteller in The Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights). The storyteller herself appears with the Sultan in this poem's fifth section.
One city calls you . . . suit of bones: The city is Rio de Janeiro at Carnival time and the bones refer to a skeleton costume.
Spender's phrase: From the poem by the English poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995) known by its first line, "I think continually of those who were truly great."