Monday, December 18, 2006

James Merrill, "b o d y"

Look closely at the letters. Can you see,
entering (stage right), then floating full,
then heading off—so soon—
how like a little kohl-rimmed moon
o plots her course from b to d

—as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door?
Looked at too long, words fail,
phase out. Ask, now that body shines
no longer, by what light you learn these lines
and what the b and d stood for.

~

From A Scattering of Salts (1995)

Today's poem is a sort of double-layered riddle poem. On one level it is a dramatization of the positioning and shape of the letters in its title, "b o d y". On another, it is a meditation on human life - the span from b birth to d death - and the body's decay during that time. Merrill (1926-1995) was very much occupied with this subject at the time of writing this, his final collection, as he was ailing due to the AIDS virus. The meanings of "o" and "y" remain enigmatic - in parallel with birth and death, they might suggest old age and youth, but that does not seem to fit the use in the poem. "Y", at least, seems to be in part a suggestion of the question "why?" - "unanswered", which lies beyond d/death. If anyone else has ideas of what these might signify, please share.

(More on Merrill here: www.poets.org/jmerr/)

4 comments:

Dominic said...

the O sifnifies "one" or the circle (process) of life between birth and death.

Natalie said...

The kohl-rimmed moon on a stage refers both to the passage of time (moons meaning months) and to the Shakespearian quote "all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players." From birth until death we walk across a stage playing a part. (Kohl is often used as stage makeup.) "By what light you learn these lines" again refers to acting, though now Merrill is asking about the beyond - when you no longer have a body, what is left?

Patrick Croft said...

This poem is very intricate in design. From Merrill's description of the word 'body', you can observe that the parallel structures of both the 'b' and 'd', visually appear to stand erect like walls.. or in this case stage curtains. Merrill's intention in this work was to provide a metaphorical analogy between the structure of the word 'body' and the actual lunar progression through various stages of activity. He decorates the poem with several undertones of intellectual puns which help annotate the consistent feed of knowledge and discovery throughout the cycle of life.

Patrick Croft said...

This poem is very intricate in design. From Merrill's description of the word 'body', you can observe that the parallel structures of both the 'b' and 'd', visually appear to stand erect like walls.. or in this case stage curtains. Merrill's intention in this work was to provide a metaphorical analogy between the structure of the word 'body' and the actual lunar progression through various stages of activity. He decorates the poem with several undertones of intellectual puns which help annotate the consistent feed of knowledge and discovery throughout the cycle of life.