Thursday, March 1, 2007

James Merrill, "Farewell Performance"

Art. It cures affliction. As lights go down and
Maestro lifts his wand, the unfailing sea change
starts within us. Limber alembics once more
make of the common

Lot a pure, brief gold. At the end our bravos
call them back, sweat-soldered and leotarded,
back, again back - anything not to face the
fact that it’s over.

You are gone. You’d caught like a cold their airy
lust for essence. Now, in the furnace parched to
ten or twelve light handfuls, a mortal gravel
sifted through fingers,

Coarse yet grayly glimmering sublimate of
palace days, Strauss, Sidney, the lover’s plaintive
Can’t we just be friends? which your breakfast phone call
Clothed in amusement,

This is what we paddled a neighbor’s dinghy
out to scatter - Peter who grasped the buoy,
I who held the box underwater, freeing
all it contained. Past

Sunny, fluent soundings that gruel of selfhood
taking manlike shape for one last jete on
ghostly - wait, ah! - point into darkness vanished.
High up, a gull’s wings

Clapped. The house lights (always supposing, caro,
Earth remains your house) at their brightest set the
scene for good: true colors, the sun-warm hand to
cover my wet one ...

Back they come. How you would have loved it. We in
turn have risen. Pity and terror done with,
programs furled, lips parted, we jostle forward
eager to hail them,

More, to join the troupe - will a friend enroll us
one fine day? Strange, though. For up close their magic
self-destructs. Pale, dripping, with downcast eyes they’ve
seen where it led you.

~

I don't have my Collected Merrill, so I can't post the source for this poem; and, since I got it from the internet, I believe it's missing a dedication - "For DK" if I remember, Merrill's friend David Kalstone. I don't know that I have much more to say about this outstanding elegy - the tone is delicately pitched, the language and imagery both surprising and fittingly dignified, even haunting. The poem is written in the Sapphic stanza, after the ancient Greek poet Sappho; it is dominated by trochees (long-short / stressed-unstressed) with certain optional spondees (long-long / stressed-stressed), giving the verse a falling rhythm (as opposed to the more typical iamb) which has been claimed as appropriate to mournful verse.

41 comments:

Quotidian Poet said...
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Quotidian Poet said...

In honor of my birthday, I thought I'd post a poem. Odd, I know, to be celebrating with elegies. But this marks eight years that I've been writing a poem a day, and this elegy, taking a line from Merrill's poem and likewise written in Sapphics, really felt like a triumph in my development when I managed to work it through five years ago.
I'd also like to mention that I share this birthday with Richard Wilbur. Which is all the more appropriate, since Wilbur and Merrill went to Amherst College together and would send poems to each other in celebration of their birthdays (Merrill's is March 3).
Anyway, here's the poem:


Scenes from the Sierra Nevada

Under pines, firs, towering coastal redwoods
watching silent, agelessly still their wise trunks—
Here we scatter grandmother’s ashes, to be
finally peaceful.

Ten or twelve light handfuls, a mortal gravel
boxed in tin austerely, now all that’s left of
Someone’s mother, wife, when you take away the
life and the water.

Grandpa, kissed lip quivering, sobs and moans for
her and himself, wondering why it was that
She was gone, and he left to live without her.
No one can know why.

Then his three years suffering lonely, losing
balance, eyesight, memory—faces, names, life
Disassociating like melting snow, as
Alzheimer’s takes him.

Toward the end, he sat in a mountain hospice,
needles, dry cones, lingering—he a seed pod—
Empty, vacant eyes while my mother fed him,
sapling with gaunt limbs.

By the pines, the firs, a few paces from where
trunks of redwoods carry her life in their rings,
Here again we watch as the dust to dust falls,
silently pausing.

Layla said...

Good words.

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