blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On 'Lost in Translation"


David Kalstone

… ["Lost in Translation"] begins with the apparently random way things happen to us and it includes a number of episodes not explicitly related. … The poem weaves connections between the world of the child, vividly recalled in the present tense, and that of the remembering adult, who only makes his full entrance in the past tenses of the long rhapsodic coda. (Even a more recent episode – a mind-reader in London – is told as if the child were perceiving it: "This grown man reenters, wearing grey.") An odd massing of consciousness takes place. At first the poet speaks distantly of "the child," "the boy": it isn’t until midway through the poem that the child’s experience so recaptures him as to identify it in the first person, his very self: "Puzzle begun I write."

[Kalstone enumerates the various "puzzles" that make up the poem.] … All these experiences are felt, without anxiety, as analogous: Mademoiselle’s secret, the lost Rilke translation, the Valéry poem, the excitement of putting together the puzzle, the feel of the summer without parents. The sense of mysterious relations is crystallized for us when the puzzle, as if by magic (and in the only regular stanzas of the poem, the Rubaiyat stanza Merrill likes so much), gathers before our eyes: "Lo! It assembles on the shrinking Green." A fable emerges: grandly confronting one another, a Shiek and a veiled woman, who appear to be quarrelling, like Oberon and Titania, over a young boy, a page. The scene is captured in the manner fairy tales use; according to Bruno Bettelheim, the enchantment transfigures the violent and critical passages of life. Only below the surface do we feel the stronger implications of the completed puzzle, "Eternal Triangle, Great Pyramid!" and its relevance to the child’s own abandoned and perhaps disputed state.

What is interesting about this particular version of "The Broken Home" is that it is absorbed into a larger constellation of analogies whose model is "translation." The poem returns at the end to translation, to Valéry’s poem and Rilke’s version, to the sense of what is foregone and what is gained, and to the conviction that nothing is "lost" in translation, or that "All is translation / And every bit of us is lost in it." Merrill, unable to find the Rilke version, still feels he knows "How much of the sun-ripened original / Felicity Rilke made himself forego …" [Kalstone continues to quote to the passage that ends "A deep reverberation fills with stars."] In his own absorption of Rilke’s Valéry, Merrill performs the process acted out so many times in the poem. After the "warm Romance," after the enchanting childhood, he is left with the adult conviction or realization of a "ground plan left / Sublime and barren," the pattern discovered and echoed in unsuspected corners of life, "color of context," what might have seemed waste transmuted to "shade and filter, milk and memory."

from David Kalstone, "James Merrill: Transparent Things" (Chapter 3) in Five Temperaments (New York: Oxford U P, 1977), 125-126.


James Merrill

Foreign languages entered my life early in the person of my governess. Although we called her Mademoiselle she was not a spinster but a widow. Neither was she French, or even, as she led us to believe, Belgian, but part English and part, to her undying shame, Prussian. …

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. A single everyday object could be called assiette or Teller as well as plate – or were plates themselves subtly different in France and Germany? Mademoiselle’s French and Latin prayers seemed to invoke absolutes beyond the ken of our Sunday school pageants. At the same time, I was discovering how the everyday sounds of English could mislead you by having more than one meaning. One afternoon at home I opened a random book and read: "Where is your husband, Alice?" "In the library, sampling the port." If samples were little squares of wallpaper or chintz, and ports were where ships dropped anchor, this hardly clarified the behavior of Alice’s husband. Long after Mademoiselle’s exegesis, the phrase haunted me. Words weren’t what they seemed. The mother tongue could inspire both fascination and distrust.

From James Merrill, "Acoustical Chambers" (originally published in the New York Times Book Review in 1982), rep. in J. D. McClatchy, Ed. Recitative: Prose by James Merrill (North Point: San Francisco, 1986), 3-4.


Stephen Yenser

{Yenser’s extended survey of "Lost in Translation" focuses on numerous passages and discusses them in detail. In this, he is centered on Merrill’s description of the page in the jigsaw puzzle.] … Mademoiselle perhaps thinks the boy is the veiled woman’s son, and if so she might be swayed by her own maternal feelings or by her keen awareness of her employers’ domestic plight. We know that she knows a divorce is in the offing, because the boy sneaks a look at her letter to a curé in Alsace, where he reads "cette innocent mère, / Ce pauvre enfant, que deviendront-ils?" [(French): that innocent mother, / That poor child, what will become of them?] The boy assumes that these are the figures in the puzzle, but Merrill lets us understand, as we fit together our own pieces, that she is worried about him and his mother. This is pure Merrill, this casting of the poem’s one direct reference to its emotional and dramatic center in French and the misinterpreting of it. The principle of restraint is honored even as the imminent trauma is specified and authenticating detail is provided. These lines tell us that Mademoiselle, contrary to the boy’s superior observation about what she "thinks mistakenly," would not be all that wrong to believe that the "slave or page-boy" is the veiled woman’s son.

from Stephen Yenser, "Backward-Looking Figures" (chapter 1) in The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1987), 22.


Richard Sáez

Perhaps Merrill’s most revealing metamorphosis of Promethean fire is into the linguistic process of "Lost in Translation" (The New Yorker, 6 April 1974). Here he remembers piecing together a puzzle with his multilingual governess, which evokes the more recent memory of a German translation by Rilke of Valery’s "Palme." Although he cannot find the translation, he imagines what is lost and retained in it

                                Yet I can’t
Just be imagining. I’ve seen it. Know
How much of the sun-ripe original
Felicity Rilke made himself forego
(Who loved French words—verger, mûr, parfumer)
In order to render its underlying sense.

For a poem in which the piecing together of a puzzle at every juncture responds to the fitting of words into a poetic pattern, the progress from a meditation on what is lost in literary translation to the transformation of life into literature is quite natural: "But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation / And every bit of us is lost in it."

"Lost in Translation" is about Merrill’s poetry in even more telling ways. Like the oeuvre itself, the legend of the puzzle—seen through the almost predominant pattern of its design—represents an "Eternal Triangle": a page (whom the governess imagines to be a son) torn between service to his sire or his sire’s wife. (It is no surprise when the page’s missing feet are found under the table with the child’s own.) And the shapes of the individual pieces of the puzzle have—like the symbolist’s words—their own significance

                                    Many take
Shapes known already—the craftsman’s repertoire
Nice in its limitation—from other puzzles:
Witch on broomstick, ostrich, hourglass,
Even (surely not just in retrospect)
An inchling, innocently branching palm

But nowhere does Merrill speak quite so precisely about his own craft— the individual poems and the totality of his work—as in the description by a medium of a "hand-sawn" individual piece of the puzzle

But hidden here is a freak fragment
Of a pattern complex in appearance only.
What it seems to show is superficial
Next to that long-term lamination
Of hazard and craft, the karma that has
Made it matter in the first place.
Plywood. Piece of a puzzle.

The puzzle exists in Merrill’s poetry The whole is composed of intricately related parts, and it rewards explication even though once it has been puzzled out there may be little to do but dismantle it like the puzzle in "Lost in Translation." Its emphasis on "lamination" and "craft" returns us to a discussion of the forms of his poetry.

[….]

From "James Merrill’s Oedipal Fire." In Harold Bloom (ed.), James Merrill. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. Originally Published in Parnassus 3:1 (Fall/Winter 1974). © 1974 by the Poetry in Review Foundation.


Stephen Yenser

"Lost in Translation" calls into play three autobiographical situations. In the most recent one, which the poem outlines last, the setting is Athens, where Merrill had his second home, on Athinaion Efivon Street at the foot of Mount Lykabettos, from 1959 until the late 1970s, and the subject is his rereading of Valery's magnificent lyric, "Palme," and his subsequent search through the city's libraries for Rilke's translation of that poem into German. Merrill half-recalls having seen the translation years earlier, but when he cannot turn up a copy, he wonders whether he hasn't imagined it. That the translation does exist, and that he eventually finds it, his epigraph—an excerpt from Rilke's version attests. The memory of the French and the German poems, and the memory in particular of the exhortation to "Patience," calls up "His French Mademoiselle," in whose care he spent that summer in the family's home in Southampton and on whom he had a crush, though she must have been a good thirty years older than he, since "In real life" she had been "a widow since Verdun." That summer is the second situation in the poem. It occupies sections one, three, and four of five unmarked sections. The moment at which this memory of 1937 begins to unfold in the poet's mind, one of his variations on the celebrated madeleine passage in A la Recherche du temps perdu, comes at the end of his second verse paragraph:

Noon coffee. Mail. The watch that also waited
Pinned to her heart, poor gold, throws up its hands—
No puzzle! Steaming bitterness
Her sugars draw pops back into his mouth, translated:
"Patience, cheri. Geduld, mein Schatz."
(Thus, reading Valery the other evening
And seeming to recall a Rilke version of "Palme,"
That sunlit paradigm whereby the tree
Taps a sweet wellspring of authority,
The hour came back. Patience dans l'azur.
Geduld im . . . Himmelblau? Mademoiselle.)

By setting out first the remembered experience and only then, in the parenthesis, exposing the cause of the memory, the rereading of Valery's poem, Merrill's narrative sequence reverses Proust's. One result is that we are reminded of the elusiveness of a "source." Is the poem's real source the relationship with Mademoiselle? Or is it indeed Valery's lyric? Life or literature? To whose soft, imperative "Patience" is it finally traceable? Or is the source better represented by Rilke's translation? Merrill foreshadows the answer formulated at poem's end in this passage's little vortex of metamorphoses, where the sugar cubes translate the coffee's taste, the coffee's bitterness renders the boy's disappointment, that disappointment is sweetened by Mademoiselle's counsel, and her words accidentally predict his knowledge of Valery's lines—which antedate them. Through it all, the past moment of bittersweet anticipation and the present moment of nostalgia figure each other.

Given such density, it is remarkable that the poem's five parts make up such a clearly structured, nearly symmetrical arrangement. The first part, about the wait for and the arrival of the puzzle, is in a flexible mode that Merrill devised for poems in Water Street and has been refining ever since: verse paragraphs of occasionally rhymed iambic pentameter lines. This part concludes when, after the puzzle's pieces have all been spread out face up on a card table in the library , "The plot thickens / As all at once two pieces interlock." Because the "plot" is the poem's in addition to the puzzle's, the page's as well as the home's, the first section interlocks just here with the second, where Merrill gives up the blank verse for a line that is shorter and more and more insistently accentual and alliterative. The situation changes too, to the third situation mentioned earlier, as the poem records an experience that "lay years ahead" of the boy—in London, where the poet witnesses a demonstration by a medium. Ostensibly an afterthought, this second section fits with the first partly because it too takes place in a library and partly because it involves a piece of a puzzle—though there are also fundamental congruences. Merrill shifts back into blank verse for the central section's two paragraphs, where he describes the progress made on the puzzle by the boy and his Mademoiselle even as he reveals the latter's background, which is a good deal more complex than he had realized when he was eleven. Like the second section, the fourth has its own distinctive prosody, in this case Rubaiyat quatrains. This section describes the completed puzzle, which takes its picture from a painting allegedly done by a disciple of J.-L. Gerome that has an "Oriental" subject. It breaks off in the middle of a stanza, after not quite two lines, and the last section, which returns to the verse paragraph, tells of the dismantling of the puzzle and the poet's search for the Rilke translation.

Merrill's five-part organization, with its prosodically similar odd-numbered sections and unique even-numbered sections, might also have been modeled on the musical scheme known as rondo form (or second rondo form), which often follows an ABACA pattern. And if it were not, perhaps he would not object to the comparison, since he has commented more than once over the years on the potential usefulness of musical forms to the poet.

[ . . . ]

As it happens, he began going to the opera in New York—an experience he recalls fondly in "Matinees"—when he was eleven years old, which would have been the year commemorated in "Lost in Translation."

The opening lines of the poem recall the boy's wait for the puzzle, seemingly lost in translation from the puzzle rental shop—and at the same time they conjure that absence, heavy with imminence, that is the matrix of all poems:

[quotes ll. 1-10]

Hardly a line here but that tugs in Merrillian fashion in two directions. If the "library" implies intellectual work—the study of German, under the eye of Mademoiselle, or of "Palme" in Rilke's translation—the card table introduces the element of play, and together they go some way toward defining the experience of assembling a difficult puzzle, or the experience of writing a poem. The more and less insistent oxymorons in the phrases "keeps never coming," "Full of unfulfillment," and "Sour windfalls," and the latent antitheses of "Daylight" and "lamplight" and "arisen" and "fallen" embody Merrill's special knotty grain of thought. While the rhyme near the end of this quotation, "talk" and "walk," is a little flourish that acknowledges this tour de force of coupling, the term that sums it all up is "see-saw"—which perhaps also slyly extends the reference to the daily language lesson (with its conjugated verbs), itself opposed (as though to iterate the opening line's balance) by "picnic," whose own rhyming reduplication is echoed by "see-saw."

If we do hear a punning allusion to a language lesson in that last term, that is partly because these lines are rich with a sense of time's own richness. The negated continuous construction at the end of Merrill's second line vibrates with possibility. The present tense and the implied passage of time continue to correct each other through the second sentence, while in the third the "trickling sands" suggest both the seeming desolation of the boy's life and the hourglass that the dragging days keep inverting. Unobtrusive but most piquant of all is the fragment between quotation marks, which unexpectedly introduces the past tense. It would be said, years later, by someone affectionately remembering the collie. The single word "'did'" suddenly frames the whole scene, a miniature puzzle of activities, in the past. The following line confirms this point of view on things, for "back of us" has a temporal dimension too, so that the phrase "Sour windfalls" summarizes that entire little world, full of love and absence, good fortune and disaster.

This scene will not stay past, however. As "The clock that also waited / Pinned to her heart, poor gold, throws up its hands," Merrill again resorts to the past tense. Waited—throws, see—saw. No wonder the watch, which ought to be able to tell exactly what time it is, throws up its hands. As the hands meet at noon, so past and present keep converging in the poem. Though these early conjunctions, if noticed at all, are likely to seem merely quirky, they indicate the profound relationship between past and present implicit in the poem’s wizard initial sentence—as transfixing in its way as "Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure." And make no mistake: Proust is behind this poem as much as Valery and Rilke are, as he is behind so much of Merrill's work. If Marcel solves his long-standing problem and embarks on his "vocation" in the Guermantes's library at the end of A la Recherche du temps perdu, Merrill assembles his puzzle in the family library, and then in the London library, and finally in the unnamed library that presumably yields the Rilke translation. And it is Proust who adopts the relevant stereoscopic view of his youthful experience, and who uses "translation" as a further metaphor for the elucidation of the artwork:

. . . ce livre essentiel, le seul livre vrai, un grand ecrivain n'a pas, dans le sens courant, a l'inventer, puisqu'il existe deja en chacun de nous, mais a le traduire. Le devoir et la tache d'un ecrivain sont ceux d'un traducteur .

. . . the essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be "invented" by a great writer—for it exists already in each one of us—has to be translated by him, The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.

In such a passage as the opening verse paragraph of "Lost in Translation," the smallest pieces fall into place partly because of the poet's tolerance for perfecting.

[. . .]

Only a poet of the fiercest concentration would find in the stark translation a whole miniature acropolis, discover the pun on "capitals," and not only make us see in the umlaut the eyes of an owl but also let us hear its hoots in his assonance ("owlet," "umlaut," "vowel"). When the boy's puzzle arrives, we learn in the third verse paragraph, it turns out to be "A superior one, containing a thousand hand-sawn, / Sandal-scented pieces." These last words, with their lovely run of sounds ("thousand," "hand-sawn," "sandal"), are the exact analogy to those pieces .

From one angle, then, "Lost in Translation" is itself an intricate puzzle. It is a confirmation of this intricacy that there are several other dimensions to the relationship between puzzle and poem. For example, the puzzle's scene, when it finally takes shape, implicitly stages the situation in the boy's family. Again, the puzzle's composition reflects the poet's material. If much of Merrill's life has been devoted to writing and reading, so that the new poem will avail itself of forms tested before by him and by others, the cutter of the puzzle's pieces has his tradition:

                                    Many take
Shapes known already—the craftsman's repertoire
Nice in its limitation—from other puzzles:
Witch on broomstick, ostrich, hourglass,
Even (surely not just in retrospect)
An inchling, innocently branching palm.
These can be put aside, made stories of
While Mademoiselle spreads out the rest face up. . . .

These specific shapes have their own immediate relevance; Merrill invites us to put them aside and make stories of them that will suit "Lost in Translation." Thus we might say that the ostrich figures the boy's state of mind and the poem's manner. Left to his own devices, fearful of what he might see, the young Merrill has hidden his head in the puzzle's diverting desert—repeated here in the hourglass's recovery of the first verse paragraph's "trickling sands" and "tense oasis." Of course the oasis has also given the "inchling, innocently branching palm" a place to take root. It is as though these two were opposing impulses in the same life, responding to different sides of one experience: the cheerful and the awful.

The "Witch on broomstick" has a place in this story too, for she is a crucial element in what the boy has been overlooking. Although the original witch never appears here, she is represented in the puzzle, which pictures a sheik's new consort, who threatens his "old wives." This shadowy figure, who appears in Ephraim in the lead role in the unwritten drama of Merrill's youth that he thinks of as The Other Woman, will be one reason for the divorce. She also shows up in Ephraim in the guise of a character named Joanna, who flies into the poem carrying a Ouija board. Like her, the hour-glass has figured in Merrill's other work: he has poems called "Hourglass" andd "Hour Glass II" and the hourglass is an important motif in Scripts for the Pageant, the last of the Sandover books. The palm comes up in a number of his poems and of course in Valery's lyric. Merrill has absorbed much of "Palme" in "Lost in Translation," and lines especially relevant to this constellation of puzzle pieces occur in Valery's seventh stanza:

Ces jours qui te semblent vides
Et perdus pour l'univers
Ont des racines avides
Qui travaillent les deserts.

Merrill quotes Rilke's translation as his epigraph:

Diese Tage, die leer dir scheinen
und wertlos fur das All,
haben Wurzeln zwischen den Steinen
und trinken dort uberall.

And here finally is Merrill's own rendering, published several years after "Lost in Translation":

These days which, like yourself,
Seem empty and effaced
Have avid roots that delve
To work deep in the waste.

So beneath Merrill's "inchling, innocently branching palm" lies an untold, virtually untellable story. In addition to his own pain and regret, and his years of language study, of reading Proust and others, of writing and of waiting (for the puzzle to arrive, for the angel to descend, for the right word, the right moment for this poem or story or translation), there is Valery's poem, with all the experience stored in it and implied in his superb address to the tree.

[. . .]

And then beneath each writer's experience is his mother tongue, with its incalculable depths. This heritage is one subject of the poem's second section, the parenthetical digression in which Merrill recalls the medium's performance. This last consists of solving another kind of puzzle, of identifying without seeing it an object that has been shown to an audience, then "planted in a plain tole / Casket." Merrill's translation of the man's musings aloud "Through shut eyes" moves back in time, as the medium hears in his mind's ear "'a dry saw-shriek, / Some loud machinery—a lumber mill? / Far uphill in the fir forest / Trees tower, tense with shock, / Groaning and cracking as they crash groundward." As the medium tunes in that episode earlier in the object's history, the reader begins to hear the poet's own machinery. Rather like Pound in his first Canto's palimpsest, Merrill turns to a quasi Anglo Saxon verse to remind us again how the present translates the past. The transformations in a poem like this one, Merrill implies as the medium identifies the hidden object, are nothing compared to those of the forces that have produced its materials:

[quotes ll. 73-82]

The real marvel is the ogygian linguistic and historical process, which, like the poem, and indeed like the life, involves plan and accident. Such are the unities of world and page.

While that thought has its reassuring side, it also holds a certain "dread." To have one's eyes opened to this karmic process is not only to see how one's present uses one's past days, however "vides / Et perdus" they might have seemed, but also to see that one is but an ephemeral form of this always economizing flux. The "opening of lids" on "the thing itself" causes a frisson because in addition to the medium's eyelids, the "lids" include the one on the "tole / Casket." When the poet tells us that "All this lay years ahead," we hear not only a reason for breaking off this divagation on the medium but also relief at the thought that he can avoid for some time yet Henry James's "distinguished thing." In other words, "this" lies in the future from the point of view of the boy and in either the past or the future, depending on the referent, from the point of view of the man writing the poem. He has characteristically gone ahead and back at once. Somewhere the poor gold watch will be throwing up its hands again—while Proust will be clapping his.

"But to go back. All this lay years ahead": Merrill's use of the past tense in connection with the future event has much to do with the line's allure. We return to it because it rises above time so, and as we return, it takes still other forms. While "All this" is the evening in the London library, as well as the truncated vision of death, the phrase refers us also to this poem's account of that evening and of every thing else. "All this." Furthermore, since this account that is the poem lies years ahead of the boy, there is a strong sense in which his youth itself lies years ahead of him, to be found in "translation." The poem is a heuristic instrument, a way of discovering the self and knowing it.

But then who is to distinguish between discovery and creation in this area? It is only in view of what he has since become that Merrill can appear then—in the form of a figure in the puzzle, which in the third section begins to take shape—as "a small backward-looking slave or page-boy." He finds this figure in the puzzle exactly because in the middle of his own puzzle of a life he is looking backward. In looking backward, that is—and by "backward" I mean "over the shoulder" and "to the past," but not "shy," though Merrill means the latter too—the figure in the puzzle looks forward to the poet who will create him.

[ . . .]

This is one reason that to speculate as to whether Merrill has imagined this figure (or the whole puzzle) or has remembered him would only be to cloud the issue. One cannot say which is the case in the same way that one cannot say whether the poem began forty years ago, or in the "present" deciphering, or in the medium's performance. It "begins" in several places at once—as this account does, and as a puzzle does: "Mademoiselle does borders. Straight-edge pieces / Align themselves with earth or sky / In twos and threes, naive cosmogonists / Whose views clash."

The "small backward-looking slave or page-boy," "whose feet have not been found" yet, appears beside "Most of a dark-eyed woman veiled in mauve" whom he helps down from her kneeling camel. Mademoiselle perhaps thinks the boy is the veiled woman's son, and if so she might be swayed by her own maternal feelings or by her keen awareness of her employers' domestic plight. We know that she knows a divorce is in the offing, because the boy sneaks a look at her letter to a curl: in Alsace, where he reads "'cette innocente mere, / Ce pauvre enfant, que deviendront-ils?'" The boy assumes that these are the figures in the puzzle, but Merrill lets us understand, as we fit together our own pieces, that she is worried about him and his mother. This is pure Merrill, this casting of the poem's one direct reference to its emotional and dramatic center in French and the misinterpreting of it. The principle of restraint is honored even as the imminent trauma is specified and authenticating detail is provided. These lines tell us that Mademoiselle, contrary to the boy's superior observation about what she "thinks mistakenly," would not be all that wrong to believe that the "slave or page-boy" is the veiled woman's son. Although he is not literally her son, this pair mirror the young Merrill and his mother—as we know partly because the veiled woman looks "across the green abyss" at another figure: "a Sheik with beard / And flashing sword hilt (he is all but finished) / Steps forward on a tiger skin. A piece / Snaps shut, and fangs gnash out at us!" And we associate the Sheik with the father—what a delicate house of cards this is!—not only because of the pun on "finished" but also because, as we learn in the poem's last section, the boy's home has its own "mangy tiger safe on his bared hearth." These last words might stand for much of this poem's paradoxical quality, for Merrill's "hearth" hides his "heart" and the heart of the family's crisis, even as the adjective "bared" discloses their presence.

"One should be as clear as one's natural reticence allows one to be": Marianne Moore's dictum might have been the guiding light in this as in many another poem by Merrill.

Mademoiselle has her own family matters to conceal. Years later, speaking French to a French friend, the poet discovers that he has a German accent. Thus he finds out that Mademoiselle's first language was German. French by marriage, she finds it practical, in the prewar atmosphere, to pass. The poem's ubiquitous dichotomizing takes the form in her of "French hopes" set against "German fears." But her heritage is jigsaw-complicated itself, since she is the "Child of an English mother . . . And Prussian father" and was evidently raised in Alsace. No wonder she likes to do the borders of puzzles. No wonder either that her nephew turns out to be a "UN / Interpreter. " That last detail is one of several that indicate the relationship between her and the poet, who, in his capacity as translator of Valery and Rilke and the others, has an analogous occupation. He after all learned French and German from her—not to mention much else that would help make him the kind of poet he is. (Might not that be why Merrill tells us that she is a "remote / Descendant of the great explorer Speke"? Though in fact she seems to have descended from the American explorer Edmund Fanning, John Hanning Speke fits into the puzzle better. Just as Speke discovered the source of the Victoria Nile, so we might find in him, with his convenient name, an emblem of Merrill's own fluent explorations.)

A partner in the boy's creative enterprises, Mademoiselle is muse as well as substitute mother. When we hear that the UN interpreter's account of her background has "Touched old strings," those strings are not only those that sound a metaphorical chord. Besides helping him with puzzles, she "Sews costumes for his marionettes, / Helps him to keep behind the scene / Whose sidelit goosegirl, speaking with his voice, / Plays Guinevere as well as Gunmoll Jean." Indeed there exists a program, dated August 11, 1937, which advertises "The Magic Fishbone, by Charles Dickens, as interpreted by the Jimmy Merrill Marionettes. Given for the Southampton Fresh Air Home for Crippled Children." According to the program, "The action takes place in 'The Land of Make Believe,' and Jimmy Merrill himself will play King Watkins, I, the Queen, and Jerry, the Announcer." Just as Jerry, the Announcer, looks forward to that other Master of Ceremonies, Ephraim, so the goosegirl will one day emerge as Psyche in "From the Cupola" and Jean in "Days of 1935." (As for the King and Queen: one cannot but think of God Biology and Mother Nature in Sandover.)

[. . .]

The boy and Mademoiselle are so close as to shade off into each other. If she is "Herself excited is a child" when they get the puzzle, her "world where 'each was the enemy, each the friend' " has its equivalent too in his family life. By the beginning of the fourth section, everything seems to fit:

This World that shifts like sand, its unforeseen
Consolidations and elate routine,
Whose Potentate had lacked a retinue?
Lo! it assembles on the shrinking Green.

"This World" is at once the political world of the 1930s and the puzzle's world, the Sheik's, with its unanchored sections that combine in surprising ways. It is also the world of the poem as poem, its languages and forms and diverse resources—the poem which exemplifies its "elate routine" in the interlacing of "routine" and "retinue" and the internal rhyme of "Potentate" and "elate" and its "consolidations" in the shift at just this point into Rubaiyat quatrains, so that the puzzle's exotic form conforms to its matter. The puzzle's subject, the arrival of the new favorite in the Sheik's harem, is said to be "Hardly a proper subject for the Home," but it is the inevitable subject for this home. Even the progressive clarification of the puzzle's scene, which also suggests the boy's increasing understanding of his circumstances, parallels the development of the actual domestic situation. As we are first allowed to interpret the Sheik and the veiled woman, they stand in for the boy's father and mother. At this juncture, however, as though to trace the change in the father's affections, the veiled woman has become the mother's rival. Not for nothing is the woman veiled.

After some further shifting of its pieces, the puzzle represents more clearly than ever the boy's world:

[quotes ll. 147-154]

The Page transparently corresponds to the boy, on the verge of having loyalties divided between mother and father and of losing his footing—as the precarious shift in mid-sentence across the stanza break from third person to first person brilliantly confirms. Even as the identification is made, however, the poet retains a significant detachment, since the puzzle so wittily translates his story. Even to be able to see the family in terms of such archetypal patterns as the Oedipal triangle is partly to answer the boy's silent question as to whether he will find a "piece of Distance," for that is also a peace that comes with distance on an emotionally trying situation.

As Merrill moves his units about, they take on the polysemy of allegorical elements; as one's mental focus changes, now the subject is the puzzle proper, now the domestic microcosm, now the political alliances of 1938-1939, now the composition of the poem. The poem even makes a gesture or two in the direction of Sandover's macrocosmic and metaphysical concerns. The "shrinking Green" of the card table reminds us of the world's expanding deserts and the possible death of the planet, while the remark that it is "Quite a task / Putting together Heaven, yet we do" touches on the theme of the creation of God. It begins to seem that there is no subject "Lost in Translation" cannot handle as it shifts among home and world, world and page; often by virtue of the manifold richness of its particulars. At the end of the fourth section, in a bit of bravura, Merrill slips the last piece of the puzzle into place, as he recalls finding the Page's missing feet where they had fallen:

It's done. Here under the table all along
Were those missing feet. It's done.

But then whose should those feet be, "under the table," if not the boy's? And if the boy's, then the poet's, "Here under the table" on which the poem is being written. The poet is the boy is the Page. Or he is the page on which the poem's words reconstitute him, "a backward-looking slave" to his own needs. Thanks to such "under the table" transactions, it all comes right, it seems. "The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless," Yeats wrote to Dorothy Wellesley, whereas "a poem comes right with a click like a closing box." The solution of the last outstanding mystery and the reiteration of "It's done" make just such a "click."

Or is this case closed so easily? We need to notice that this fourth section does not come out even. These two lines on the feet, which seem to conclude it, are a kind of remainder. It is not even clear that they are part of a quatrain; they stand alone and fit neither with the preceding stanzas nor with the following verse paragraphs. In another moment, Merrill would have had to commit himself, for had the second line been carried to its end, it would have had to rhyme with "along," in which event these lines would have been a fragment of a Rubaiyat stanza, or not, in which event they would have been a short paragraph. It is a matter of "missing feet"—and of a missing metrical foot or two. A closure that is an opening, this passage is irrevocably in transition.

As the one form comes apart, so does the puzzle—as though this UN interpreter were an uninterpreter:

[quotes ll. 161-177]

Because Rilke looms so large in this poem, one is likely to recall his adumbration of the poetic process in the eighth Duino Elegy: "Uns uberfullts. Wir ordnens. Es zerfallt. / Wir ordnens wieder und zerfallen selbst" ("It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down. / We rearrange it, then break down ourselves"). But in Merrill's lines, along with the sense of an ineluctable cycle, there is the sense of synchronic events. Even as there are certain threads "que la vie brise," life is ceaselessly making new connections. The very same words that describe the breaking up of the puzzle create in themselves a subtle pattern. They begin to weave one of the new "costumes"—a mantle or a mantilla, say—with "Dismantling" itself. The "lace" in "populace," the more evident for "Unstitched" and "gown," takes the form of the attachments among "Unstitched" and "witch," "down" and "gown," "blue" and "too," "mousseline" and "green." The disintegration of the one narrative is part of another—to be specific, a little apocalypse. For if we are responsible for "Putting together Heaven," we are also responsible for destroying it along with our cities. These lines trace out in lyric form the story of much of Sandover. The underset of retrogression in this passage, the drift (reminiscent of the medium's reverse construction of the puzzle piece's history) from its "populace" and "city" back through "tent" to a virtually Edenic "Green" ("gambled" is also "gamboled"): this is a movement found also at a pivotal moment in Scripts for the Pageant. Before that, and before "Lost in Translation," Merrill ran his poetic film backward at the end of "18 West 11th Street," another poem about a childhood home that was destroyed, which concludes with an "Original vacancy" and a "deepening spring." As he puts the adage at the beginning of yet another poem about the partial destruction and rebuilding of a house, "Everything changes; nothing does. "

Nothing does: nothing changes. And nothing will do: no thing or poem or theory will finally suffice. Nothing will do, partly because something is always missing:

[quotes ll. 180-188]

Not finding that translation is comparable to Rilke's not finding equivalences for Valery's phrases. Having translated Valery's poem—as well as a variety of other works ranging from maxims by Chamfort through poems by Montale to stories by Cavafy and Vassilikos—James Merrill knows all too well "How much of the sun-ripe original / Felicity Rilke made himself forego / (Who loved French words—verger, mur, parfumer) / In order to render its underlying sense." But the plight is not just that of the literary translator. The lines just quoted pertain also to the unrealizable vision that motivates any poem, not to mention other projects. As Helen Vendler has seen, Rilke's rendering of Valery "mimics the translation—by Merrill himself, among others—of life into art." Not that "life" here need mean sensuous or concrete experience alone, whatever that might be. Rilke's passion for Valery's poems, for the French language, for language-these were part of his "life."

To fail to translate exactly, or rather to have to translate and thus to be inexact, to create a difference between the putatively original and the necessarily substitutive: this might be thought of as our very condition. It is no coincidence that Merrill's felicitous "Felicity"—meaning "bliss" and "good fortune" as well as the very "stylistic aptness" that the line break highlights—and the echo, by way of "sun-ripe" and the French words, of the "orchard back of us" call into play again the concept of Eden. The parenthesis itself, with its untranslated and by implication untranslatable words ("orchard," "ripe," and "to sweeten" or "to scent," respectively), is almost a tiny, tantalizing paradise, an enclosed orchard or hortus conclusus (as "paradise" means in its remote Old Persian origins). The orchard and the windfalls are always "back ofu s." Nothing will ever quite do.

Then one begins to see that for Merrill nothing will not do either. The Rilke translation is found. Mademoiselle, although she "kept back" her bit of truth, was not able to bury it. From one point of view, the piece of puzzle that the boy pocketed was lost, but from another it has been found, by the medium—"This grown man" who is also a translator of sorts, an agent of communication with an extrasensory world, a variation on the JM of the Sandover books. The "house torn down" rises again in the form of Sandover. Everything changes. To lose is to create an emptiness that must be operated in, a vacancy that will be filled. "Verger," "mur," "parfumer": these words are rendered inexactly in German and English, but the approximation is a matrix of possibility. Underlying the phrase "underlying sense," because it comes on the heels of the French words, for example, are the "scents" connoted by them. In that marvelous ruin that Rilke's translation is, "that ground plan left / Sublime and barren, where the warm Romance / Stone by stone faded, cooled," after a rain, "A deep reverberation fills with stars"—and what is such a "reverberation" if not at once an emptiness and a plenishing? "Reverberation": the word means a redounding of sound or repeated reflecting of light (or heat), a re-echoing, as of Merrill's echoing of Rilke's echoing of Valery (echoing his own sources). "Reverberation" might almost be a translation of "translation," and even though verberare is unrelated to verbum, Merrill wants us to catch a Cratylean glimpse of "rewording" behind the term, much as Stevens, for instance, means us to see "luminous" shining through his phrase "Voluminous master folded in his fire."

To translate, then, is as much to discover in transference as to lose. Here is Merrill’s concluding verse paragraph:

[quotes ll. 208-215]

Two orders of proposition appear here. In the first place, as in "A Fever," Merrill is aspiring, like Henry James, to be one on whom nothing is lost. But when nothing is lost at this level, that is largely because of an original openness to experience and a later strenuousness of memory. Nothing is lost, not because it cannot be lost, for indeed it might be that everything is lost in some sense, but because the possibility always exists that one might recall it in some form—as Proust is said in Ephraim "Through superhuman counterpoint to work / The body's resurrection, sense by sense." Nothing is lost in Proust because Proust lost himself in his life's work, or in his work's life, in his own "translation"—his "consuming myth," to adapt a phrase from Merrill's "From the Cupola." In the concluding lines in "Lost in Translation," the Proustian presence is the "self-effacing tree," the palm that appears and disappears as a blue puzzle piece in the blue sky and that conceals the poet's effort; or that gracefully translates his wrestling with his angel into a "Rustling" of fronds and wings, just as the patient palm invisibly "turns the waste" (Rilke's "Steinen," Valery's "deserts") into the sheltering fronds and the nourishing coconut. As Merrill's poem resurrects his childhood, so its last line recovers, by way of "Palme," its opening lines. As though to prove that nothing is lost, his "milk" translates Valery's "lait plat," which appears at the beginning of "Palme," along with "le pain tendre" that "Un ange met sur ma table." The table is there in the first line of Merrill's poem, where it has become the card table, while the milk and angel have been kept back until the end. But not lost.

In the second place, this passage concerns the nature of things. All is metamorphosis, it suggests; the world is all "context," its elements are all a fugacity whose interactive events may be either continuations of earlier phases of themselves or ever-new processes. Merrill will make a harder and deeper sense of the idea in Ephraim. This poem does not have to decide whether it intends a neo-Hegelian faith in evolution or a neo-Heraclitean hypothesis of flux. It is content to approve, in addition to memory, metamorphosis—rather in the vein of Merrill's recent sonnet "Processional," which sets forth the adventures of a "demotic raindrop" that is first "Translated by a polar wand to keen / Six-pointed Mandarin" and dreams of being further promoted into "a hitherto untold / Flakiness, gemlike, nevermore to melt":

But melt it would, and—look—become
Now birdglance, now the gingko leafs fanlight,
To that same tune whereby immensely old
Slabs of dogma and opprobrium,
Exchanging ions under pressure, bred
A spar of burnt-black anchorite,

Or in three tidy strokes of word golf LEAD
Once again turns (LOAD, GOAD) to GOLD.

If that "tune" had a title, it could be "Plus ca change." As early as Merrill's first play, The Bait (1953), he had set similar words to it: "our cold virtues, once thought durable, / But now abstract and frail as snowflakes / Alter to lazy water in the sun. / Fluidity is proof against major disasters. / The marbles melt and wink at me." (And Merrill winks at us, since his prose has crystallized to verse within this one speech.)

One remarkable thing about "Processional," really less hymn than scherzando, is its blithe overriding of categories, as in the conversion to "anchorite" of "anthracite. " In the translation envisioned here, alchemical, rhetorical, and natural metamorphic processes themselves change into one another. How could we not be somewhat lost in it?

from  The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1987). Copyright © 1987 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College


Lynn Keller

To the extent that Merrill is willing to point to a truth, it is the same one that preoccupies the other contemporary poets whose work we have examined: process. Perhaps in Merrill’s case, the proper term for his sense of continuous transformation would be the literary one, "translation," that figures so importantly in his great poem, "Lost in Translation." In that lyric Merrill is less concerned with translation as product, an achieved version in another language (Rilke’s version of Valery’s text), than with translation as action, as the transformational process described in both poets’ versions of that poem about a palm. Even when considering the translated poem, Merrill focuses on the action of its translator, who is imagined making himself forgo "much of the sun-ripe original / Felicity . . . / In order to render its underlying sense" (ellipsis added). Merrill’s interest is in the changes made in turning the poem from the "warm Romance" language French into the cool starkness of German. And while most of the poem concerns memories of the distant past—primarily of the summer when his parents divorced— these past events are not fixed, beyond translation. To remember the past is to make it active in the present and to find it changing, just as the speaker’s recent experience with a medium and a puzzle piece changes his sense of his boyhood’s many puzzles. Thus, as is appropriate for a poem about translation, the poem’s conclusion takes the insistently ongoing present tense:

[quotes ll. 208-215]

For Merrill, all art acts as the coconut palm does, translating loss, absence, waste into something substantial and nourishing.

One meaning of the verb "to translate" is "to express one thing in terms of another." That is also a standard definition of the action of metaphor. In Merrill’s oeuvre the text most obviously concerned with the process of translation, and with the action of metaphor, is his trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover.

From "I knew / / That life was fiction in disguise’": Merrill’s Divergence from Auden and Modernism." In Guy Rotella (ed.) Critical Essays on James Merrill. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996. Reprinted from Keller, Lynn. Re-Making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition. Reprinted by permission of Lynn Keller and Cambridge UP.


Return to James Merrill