On "An Urban Convalescence"
"An Urban Convalescence" is designed to act out a false start and implicitly to suggest a search for more revealing and durable images. What he appears to be learning to do is to disentangle his own needs and style from the clichés of the world of fashionable destruction a clarification of feeling signalled in the crisp rhymed quatrains [at the end of the poem: Kalstone cites the last stanzas]. Much of the poems feeling is gathered in the now charged associations of house: the perpetual dangers of exposure and change, of fashion and modishness; the sifting of memory for patterns which will truly suffice. [This poem] is just such a shifting of memory. Entangling inner and outer experience, it leads us to see the poem itself as potentially a "house," a set of arrangements for survival or, to use Merrills later phrase, for "braving the elements." Poems were to make sense of the past as a shelter or a dwelling place for the present.
Lynn Keller (1987) ["An Urban Convalescence"] is the first of Merrills lyrics to employ what was to become one of his most characteristic and effective patterns: A present experience recalls some past event(s) and the overlay of several temporal frames, like transparencies that build a single image, brings new insight as well as resolution of some internal conflict.
from David Kalstone, "James Merrill: Transparent Things" (Chapter 3) in Five Temperaments (New York: Oxford U P, 1977), 87-88.
The primary model for his rendition of mental process seems to be Elizabeth Bishop, whose work he has so often praised, particularly for its refusal of oracular amplification. The informal talking to oneself and wondering aloud "Was there a building at all?" "Wait. Yes" the questions, as well as the explanatory parentheses "(my eyes are shut)" are surely inspired by Bishop. The deliberate flattening and slackening, however, can be traced to Auden, from whom Bishop also learned: "I have lived on this same street for a decade," "It is not even as though the new / Buildings did very much for architecture."
[A]mong the developments signaled by "An Urban Convalescence" is the transformation it records in the speakers attitude. The poem portrays a conversion experience of sports; religious allusions the crowds "meek attitudes," the old man like a vengeful God directing the cranes demolition, the speakers posture of prayer with "head bowed, at the shrine of noise" prepare for the speakers confrontation with his own failures, or, one might say, his sins.
By the poems close, he no longer rationalizes his behavior with "that is what life does" and instead determines to care for whomever and whatever he encounters. Refusing to fantasize about a lost world of Jamesian elegance "that honey-slow descent / Of the Champs- Elysees, her hand in his" he focuses on another destination: "the dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, the love spent." Audens Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being, the work that (along with The Sea and the Mirror) so captivated Merrill in the forties, helped Merrill to identify that destination. Audens poem celebrates Mary and Joseph as people who might "Redeem for the dull the / Average way" and insists that moments of revelation have little to do with lifes real challenge: "In the meantime / There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, / Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem / From insignificance."
From Lynn Keller, Re-making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition (New York: Cambridge U P, 1987), 201-202. Copyright 1987 Cambridge University Press .
Mutlu Konuk Blasing
No one has accused James Merrill of being postmodern. If anything, his accomplished formalism and his reliance on traditional verse forms and conventions have made his poetry seem slightly anachronistic. If we are not to dismiss Merrill as a reactionary but to try to define his place in postmodern American poetry, we need to rethink the models of literary history and change such which we have read American poetry since World War II, for his work challenges the ways we have configured the aftermath of modernism.
Merrill s work calls for a model of literary change that is not based on contests between such binary oppositions as past and present, convention and originality, tradition and experiment. If the possible uses of the past are confined to the reductive models of iconoclasm, nostalgia, and reactionary recuperation, we cannot account for Merrill’s project, which is rhetorically and functionally discontinuous with the canonical tradition his forms invoke. "An Urban Convalescence," which opens Water Street (1962), has been singled out by Merrill’s readers as marking the beginning of his mature work. I propose, however, to cast this poem on a larger, historical stage as an exemplary postmodern ‘beginning" at the end of the modern idea of history as progress. To highlight Merrill’s "lateness" to modernity and progress, we can approach "An Urban Convalescence" by way of a detour and consider Paul de Man’s remarks on the figure of convalescence. "The human figures that epitomize modernity, he writes, are defined by experiences such as childhood or convalescence, a freshness of perception that results from a slate wiped clear, from the absence of a past that has not yet had time to tarnish the immediacy of perception of a past that, in the case of convalescence, is so threatening that it has to be forgotten" (157). If this use of convalescence is "modern," Merrill’s use of the figure is clearly different. He diagnoses "the sickness of our time" not as a Nietzschean "historical sickness," but precisely as forgetfulness, a series of slates wiped clean in response to a threat posed by the mere presence of the past. Of course the "freshness," this modern erasure of history, is the postmodern poet’s very sickness, his particular past, and Merrill’s poem traces his "convalescence" from just such "modernity."
The poem begins with an emblematic modern scene:
[quotes lines 1-8]
Luxuriating in the "filth of years," jaws dribbling "rubble," the crane is doing the work of demolition. While the scene suggests an unseemly overindulgence in the detritus of the past, the crane is also the agent of urban renewal. Making things "new" by tearing them up, it represents a militant commitment to change, which regards the "simple fact of having lasted" as a threat that calls for the swift retribution of a BLAST. And the mystification and even religious awe that attend the scene ironically hint at the spiritual mission of this breaking of the vessels.
With the allusion to Robert Graves, this devastation that leaves "not one stone upon another" reverberates with more specific historical and literary connotations. The ‘huge crane" brings to mind Graves’s White Goddess, presumably because cranes were sacred to the goddess—a mother-muse figure who authorizes an Orphic model of a poetic language grounded in nature. Graves also links cranes to the invention of writing and cites a legend that Mercury invented the letters after watching a flight of cranes, "which make letters as they fly" (224). In Egypt, Mercury was Thoth, the god who invented writing and whose symbol was the crane-like white ibis (227). Graves further suggests that the association of cranes with writing and literary secrets makes sense because "cranes fly in V-formation and the characters of all early alphabets, nicked with a knife on the rind of boughs or on clay tablets, were naturally angular" (227). At the "close" of his book, he offers a poem imagining the wrathful second coming of the goddess at her "cannibalistic worst," in the form of "a gaunt, red-wattled crane," to punish "man’s irreligious improvidence" that has led to the exhaustion of the "natural resources of the soil and sea" (486).
Merrill’s bringing in Graves effects an odd pun. If the reference to Graves suggests that the crane as goddess is punishing "man’s" improvidence, its incarnation as a mechanical crane—an agent or, at least, an accomplice of "man’s" sins against nature—is problematic. Furthermore, the destruction wrought by the mechanical crane the "old man" operates is purely mechanistic, demystified, and urban, and takes place in the linear time of Time; this crane is indeed an agent of forgetfulness. The crane as a goddess incarnate, however, is an elemental force, whose destructions belong to the cyclical time of nature and myth, and she threatens to avenge herself on those who forget. Merrill’s conflation of historical and mythic forces and conceptions of change in a pun enables him to equate these mastering "ideologies" and thus lightly to sidestep both. His pun exposes the nostalgia underwriting a modernity that seeks to return to and recover a foundation through technical progress. By positioning himself at the margins as a "meek" bystander, he resists both progressive history and a regressive appeal to myths of return.
In this maneuver, the pun on "crane" becomes a textual "ground" that stages the conflict and continuity between progressive historical time and cyclical myth. Unlike a metaphor, a pun highlights a nonhierarchical, synchronic duplicity, doubleness, or difference internal to the signifier. The distance between the mythic crane, a symbol or reincarnation of the goddess, and the technological crane committed to an urban destruction and renewal is the distance between mythic-pastoral and technological-urban conceptions of death and rebirth. Merrill’s pun compresses the conceptual and historical distance between two different systems in a synchronic doubleness and figures it as internal to language. Grounding himself in a purely literal and accidental resource, Merrill questions the claims of both the technological and the mythic "crane"—the Janusfaced deus ex machina of the modernist aesthetic. Thus "the close of The White Goddess," with which Merrill opens, is not merely the conclusion of Graves’s book but the end of a poetic era.
[W]hile Merrill’s mock-sublime "crane" makes light at once of an Orphic poetic and of a now senile faith in technical renewals, he also "obeys" both principles, if "inversely," for a pun is a curious hybrid. Its truth is, after all, technical, residing in its letters; at the same time, it gives of an uncanny double of super- or sub-literal vision. For Merrill’s relation to these master myths is not a progressive antagonism: he is not out to destroy them in order to install other, more valid myths in their place. From his postmetaphysical perspective, all truths are rhetorical, and all ideologies, mastering and marginal, are textual options. And he presents this rhetorical position not as a timeless truth but as indicative of the historical state of affairs at "the close of The White Goddess."
Merrill’s narrative of convalescence unfolds the options that the crane levels. The speaker remembers the figure of a garland decorated the lintel of the building being torn down. The iconoclastic destruction of received structures—specifically structures of closure like buildings—is "inscribed" with a garland, "stone fruit, stone leaves, / Which years of grit had etched until it thrust / Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing." Again, the garland "sways" into "focus" as an emblem of the cyclical-mythic time that underwrites the modern project of catastrophic progress, of radical breaks with history. Next, Merrill moves to the memory of another representation of natural force—"a particular cheap engraving of garlands." The engraving evokes an equally fuzzy and belated avatar of the White Goddess, whose link to reproductive forces and "deadly" power still manages to register, just as the forlorn pastoral emblem of "garlands" still manages to be remembered—if at the expense of the history of the buildings and the people themselves, whose features "lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions." The engraving was
Bought for a few francs long ago,
All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,
Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch
Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand
Of no one I can place
And this forgetfulness locates Merrill in his "urban" setting, in Graves’s words, "The Goddess is no townswoman: she is the Lady of the Wild Things" (481). By forgetting the goddess, Merrill both implicates himself in the modern "sickness" and turns away from a pastoral recuperation. Following this episode, stanzas of drastic "exposure" underscore the poet’s new clarity about his place on the margins of progressive history and natural force, which are themselves only figurations of centers of power—emblems and chapters in the "massive volume of the world." Such knowledge of pervasive textuality, which is also "self-knowledge," delivers him "indoors at last" to an explicitly and historically textual "house."
The speaker’s move indoors coincides with a formal switch to quatrains. Merrill himself calls this poem "a turning point" for him and associates this turn with a return, with his staged formal switch: "I remember writing half of it and thinking it was going to be impossible to finish. Then I had the idea of letting it go back to a more formal pattern at the end" (Recitative 45). Elsewhere, he tells us that "’Stanza’ is the Italian word for ‘room,’" and relates his fondness for regular stanzas to his attachment to "interior spaces, the shape and correlation of rooms in a house," rather than the vistas it commands or the "human comedies" it stages (Recitative 3). Here, the enveloping abba rhyme reinforces the enclosure of the quatrains. And the poem’s resolution suggests that convalescence will involve remembering closures and interior spaces, answering a "dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent." Given the in-and-out movement that constitutes the poem’s adventure, from "out for a walk" to "indoors at last," the repeated "out of’ in the final line has an added resonance. "Out of" may mean not only "constituted of" but "outside the lived life, the spent love. If we register both senses, the house-poem made out of the lived life moves out of the life lived. Merrill here dedicates himself to his special brand of transpersonal autobiographical writing. For his move "inside," to the at least temporarily protected space of his own life, is modified by the fact that he also moves into quatrains. Subscribing to such marked conventions without any effort to naturalize his forms effects an impersonal, intertextual erosion of the personal, and Merrill’s formalism, always sharply aware of this, does not offer protection but leaves him open to a different kind of history and loss
Merrill often makes the textual dangers and "losses"—of signature and singularity, of authorship and authority—that are internal to writing his explicit subjects, but his conventional forms also work implicitly to efface the speaking subject, dispersing it in the drift of impersonal time and history. Poetic conventions such as meter, rhyme schemes, and stanza forms, are timing devices that are also always more than mere schemes, because they remember a past and carry with them the burden of a public history. Thus Merrill’s urban convalescence inside quatrains represents more than an urbanity of manners that remediates the natural or the oracular. A convalescence that identifies the "indoors" with formal stanzas dissociates the "inside" from the subjective or the intuitive. As the architectural metaphor of house also signals, Merrill is interested in public building, in transmitting a public history. His conventions make for this historical dimension, while his artificial staging of his forms registers their anachronism and thus divests them of historical authority. Urban as well as urbane, Merrill can maintain a critical distance from progress and historical authority, from Orphic, oracular, or intuitive speech and conventions.
For Merrill, change and continuity are not polar opposites: continuity is infected with change and change with continuity. For example, situating himself inside quatrains in "An Urban Convalescence" allows him to revise himself and question what are presumably his authorizing values. He begins with a diagnosis of planned obsolescence as "the sickness of our time" that requires things be "blasted in their prime." Yet he immediately overturns this judgment:
There are certain phrases which to use in a poem
Is like rubbing silver with quicksilver. Bright
But facile, the glamour deadens overnight
For instance, how "the sickness of our time"
Enhances, then debases, what I feel
This "revision" implies that his "conservative" rejection of novelty has itself joined the "great coarsening drift of things" (Recitative 60) or "progress." His second thoughts occur, however, in a conventional form that would conserve the past. In this disjunction, his conventional forms divest themselves of authority: they are dissociated from a conservative ideology that would judge the present by taking refuge in the canonical authority of the past. If originality and novelty are outmoded concepts for Merrill, so is the expectation of a correlation between convention and authority. He employs conventions not because they carry a prescriptive authority but as if they did, at once remembering and transmitting a past and denying it any absolute vitality or validity beyond its being there, a shared, public past. For the anachronism of his forms in the time of Time and in one’s own "life lived" and "love spent" are evident enough. Moreover, to claim any inherent validity or recuperative efficacy for his forms would reinscribe him in the logic of modernity. Indeed, when he stages his more elaborate forms within larger pieces—as when he breaks into quatrains in the middle of a poem containing blank verse or even prose—he presents such forms as quotations cut off from their original contexts, functions, and "grounds." In his hybridizing use, the "quoted" forms both carry historical associations and assume new functions in their new contexts. Such functional discontinuity again subverts any claim to canonical authority, and traditional forms are at the same time technically closed and rhetorically open.
Merrill’s distinction is his ability to register at once the textuality and the historical nature of writing. His polyvalent literalism and his fondness for "accidents" and puns in general foreground the play of the signifier and approach an internalization of history within poetic language. His conventional formalism, however, holds this tendency in check by placing poetic language within a public literary history. Thus he can be grounded in textuality, doing without historical or metaphysical foundations, yet stop this side of an ahistorical, self-reflexive subjectivity, for the textual inside is governed by publicly recognizable, historically coded rules, which transmit a past even if they do not carry any inherent validity.
From "Rethinking Models of Literary Change: The Case of James Merrill." In Guy Rotella (ed.) Critical Essays on James Merrill. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996. Orig. published in American Literary History 2 (1990).
Mutlu Konuk Blasing (1995)
For Merrill, change and continuity are not polar opposites; continuity is infected with change and change with continuity. For example, situating himself inside quatrains in "Urban Convalescence" allows him to revise himself and question what are presumably his authorizing values. He begins with a diagnosis of planned obsolescence as "the sickness of our time" that requires things be "blasted in their prime." Yet he immediately overturns this judgment:
[Blasing cites lines that begin "There are certain phrases" and end "debases, what I feel"]
The "revision" calls into question his "conservative" rejection of novelty, for his rejection itself joins "progress," or "the great coarsening drift of things." His second thoughts occur, however, in a conventional form that would conserve the past. In this disjunction, his conventional forms divest themselves of authority, for they are dissociated from a conservative ideology that would judge the present by taking refuge in the canonical authority of the past. If originality and novelty are outmoded concepts for Merrill, so is the expectation of a correlation between convention and authority. He employs conventions not because they carry a prescriptive authority but as if they did, at once remembering and transmitting a past and denying it any absolute vitality beyond the fact of its being there a shared, public past.
Merrills distinction is his ability to register at once the textuality and the historical nature of writing. His polyvalent literalism and his fondness for "accidents" and puns in general foreground the play of the signifier and approach an internalization of history within poetic language. His conventional formalism, however, holds this tendency in check by placing poetic language within a public literary history. Thus he can be grounded in textuality, doing without historical or metaphysical foundation, yet stop this side of an ahistorical, self-reflexive subjectivity, for the textual inside is governed by publicly recognizable, historically coded rules, which transmit a past even if they do not carry any inherent validity.
From Mutlu Konuk Blasing, "James Merrill: Sour Windfalls on the Orchard Back of Us" in Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: OHara, Bishop, Ashbery and Merrill. (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1995), 167-168.
The major poem of Water Street is "An Urban Convalescence" (3-6), a narrative meditation occurring in the time and space between sickness and relative health. Its unnamed "generalized" ailment -- at once physical and psychic, private and public, literal and figurative -- suggests that this mediate place is one we all always inhabit: life. The word "convalescence" -- derived from the Latin inceptive (a verb form expressing the onset of process) -- implies a condition of ongoing cure rather than a progress from illness to health. The speaker of "An Urban Convalescence" (I'll call him Merrill) is out for a walk after a week in bed. This bland activity yields a dizzying mixture of attitudes, tones, and ideas, all rendered with feverish clarity in a blend that is somehow both seamless and transgressively disrupted.
A portion of Merrill's "block" is being tom down (or "up," as the poem puts it in a half-mocking echo of the lingo of urban renewal). As he observes this quotidian rite, Merrill's descriptions are both secular and religious, rootlessly up-to-date and rooted in tradition. He is caught in the drift of the contemporary, where everything comes down "Before you have had time to care for it. " (The mixture of affectless factual description, implied social criticism, and self-accusation -- although he has lived on the street for ten years, Merrill can't "recall / What building stood here" -- is characteristic.) Meanwhile, the poet's witness to the scene -- whether it's conceived of as mere event, as careless or mad destruction, as the cyclical repetition of a secular sacrament, or as a sacrificial prelude to renewal -- also partakes of pious traditions: he joins "the dozen / In meek attitudes.... Head bowed, at the shrine of noise." How far such language mocks or blesses a remnant community or an apostolic succession seems beyond definition. The effect is to keep all aspects and implications of the experience in play rather than to choose among them, redeem them, arrange them in a hierarchy, or otherwise control or "finish" them.
Given the contents of Merrill's particular "block" (his "head," in the flip pun -- the richly layered edifice, or pousse-cafe, of his own cultural consciousness), the scene evokes literary and aesthetic matters. Watching a crane transfer rubble, Merrill recalls the avian crane at the end of Robert Graves's The White Goddess, where it represents the chastisement of a paternal, mechanical, and linear art by the maternal, organic, and cyclical forces of myth. This reference might imply an attack on "progress" (in city building or art), but the terms and significance of Graves's monitory tale aren't preserved intact here, any more than New York's buildings are. This crane is a machine (although represented as female); an old man (Graves, with his half-cracked theories?) "Laughs and curses in her brain." Again, Merrill doesn't select from or make a hierarchy of aesthetic arguments and positions; instead, he represents a postmodern situation in which all of the past's ideas and approaches are available for use, along a continuum of imitation extending from respectful repetition through eclectic pastiche to derisive travesty. The "construction" site typifies artistic decreation and creation; it suggests such large, opposed aesthetic categories as innovation and conservation. But it does so in such a way that those categories and their multiple variants (including the modernist debate between the idea that destruction is the necessary prelude to renewal and the contrasting belief that the broken link with the past must be restored, if only by shoring fragments against our ruin) are equally present possibilities rather than mutually exclusive ones demanding a thoroughgoing commitment to one aesthetic position or another.
Merrill's reconstructive effort to recall the torn-down building fails, but it engenders other, associative memories: a building in Paris, the end of a heterosexual love affair (among the poem's themes is a closeted declaration of alternative domestic arrangements: "another destination"), and a shard of decorative garland (this remembered detail at first seems a solid architectural element, then a flimsy bit of cheap engraving; as Merrill prepares to leave New York for Stonington's seaside village, it invokes and dispels pastoral treatments for urban ills with the same mixture of coolness and warmth that marks the poem's setting forth of its other plural arrays). Aestheticizing memory may ameliorate, but here (sadly, happily) it lacks the power either to restore or replace the poem's damaged structures, whether the city's lost buildings, the poet's fading memories, or the competing counters of a historically aware aesthetic consciousness. The house of memory and imagination "shudders ... / And ... collapses, filling / The air with motes of stone"; "Wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver." The scene (outer and inner) is deracinated, yes, but with the old connections showing. This -- including the relations, mirrorings, and repetitions of outer and inner, past and present realms -- is Merrill's version of the postmodern condition; perhaps the term "convalescence" defines it more nearly than "sickness" or "health."
From this point, "An Urban Convalescence" seems to advance toward a traditional conclusion, drawing a lesson from the experience undergone and rendered. Having described a series of broken connections, Merrill writes, "Well, that is what life does," then swears to abide by dark revelations: "Gospels of ugliness and waste." But the exhausted or indifferent delivery drains those gestures of conclusiveness; it calls into question the whole history of redemptive literary gestures which convert sites of destruction to sites of instruction. At the same time, the speaker does seem to have learned something about his own involvement as person and poet in the cuttings off and tracings he's observed (grudgingly, he admits that the tears in his eyes come from "self-knowledge"). Perhaps that will provide a conclusion. It doesn't. In an autobiographical poem written at the height of the "confessional" period, Merrill is dissatisfied with confessionalism's authorizing aesthetic, in which painful experience is redeemed by the self-discovery it provides. As the poem's symmetrically paired but also sequential phrases have it, "Wait. Yes."; "Wait. No."
Now the poem moves indoors: literally, in that the poet returns home; figuratively, in that the form tightens into the roomlike enclosures of quatrains. But once again, what seems like a gesture of summation and closure isn't exactly. Rather than resolve the poem's issues, the quatrains repeat them. In the process, they subject their own language to criticism (in a small reprise of the poem's larger buildings and breakings, the slick phrase "`the sickness of our time"' "Enhances, then debases" what the poet feels). And the quatrains themselves are deliberately imperfect, with rhymes displaced or slanted. That is, Merrill turns to traditional form here without claiming for it any conservative or other guarantee to restore "health" or preserve it. Like old and new buildings, like the forms of memory, or the range of available aesthetics, conventional form is one of many fashions for representing or constructing experience. It is neither to be discarded as outmoded nor revived as redemptive.(4)
Even so, as my use of the word "deliberately" above suggests, Merrill remains committed to the faith that art can be convalescent, although not salvific. After so many false starts at conclusion, "An Urban Convalescence" does conclude, with a promise both sturdy and chastened, rich with the humanist effort to make a satisfactory structure and bereft (and purged) of humanist confidence that a single structure will satisfy everyone (including the always altering self) in every time and place. What remains is "the dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of love spent." The past tense, the air of exhausted expenditure, the tricky implications of distance and engagement in the expression "out of" -- all those details qualify without canceling the poem's affecting commitment to constructive building. The overall effect of "An Urban Convalescence" is something like that of a work Merrill alludes to covertly, its presence all but concealed by his overt reference to Graves. During the 1950s, Merrill had been learning from Elizabeth Bishop how to use self-corrective interruption as a strategy of inclusion and complication, a way to roughen without destroying a too-perfected poetic surface. In Bishop's "The Bight" (Complete Poems 61), a cranelike dredge bears "a dripping jawful of marl"; Merrill's crane's "jaws dribble rubble." "The Bight" also shares with "An Urban Convalescence" the depiction of a scene of domesticity and destruction through an amalgam of pastoral and mechanical details. Purged (and bereft) of redemptive faith, it, too, accepts the distressing, convalescent fact that "untidy activity" (the fall and rise of cultures, aesthetic theories, human relationships, houses, poems) "continues, / awful but cheerful."
from "James Merrill's poetry of convalescence." Contemporary Literature 38.2 (Summer 1997)
The domesticity of the opening and closing poems of Water Street, "An Urban Convalescence" and "A Tenancy," establishes the volume's down-to-earth quality. Both poems express Merrill's need for a settled life after the rootless one he had been living since 1947. "A Tenancy" concludes the volume with the poet welcoming his friends into his new life in Stonington, Connecticut, where in 1956 Merrill and David Jackson permanently moved into a house on Water Street. Before Merrill attains this fulfillment, the opening poem must deal with the internal and external destructiveness that threatens the hope of stability. In " An Urban Convalescence," the poet is still in New York, which resembles Robert Lowell's Boston in "For the Union Dead." Like Boston, New York is suffering through an urban renewal in which buildings are destroyed before "you have had time to care for them." Although there is nothing in "An Urban Convalescence" as apocalyptic as the Hiroshima image of "For the Union Dead," Merrill 's poem also envisions total destruction. The equivalent of Lowell's dinosaur-like steam shovel in Merrill's poem is a "huge crane" from which the "jaws dribble rubble":
An old man
Laughs and curses in her brain,
Bringing to mind the close of The White Goddess.
The allusion to Robert Graves's The White Goddess is to a disaster as total as the Hiroshima bomb. Graves maintains that all true poets write in praise of the female, natural life force represented by the Moon goddess. As the triple deity Diana (virgin huntress), Ceres (mother goddess) and Hecate (goddess of hell), she is called the White Goddess. Her nature may thus be destructive as well nurturing. We glimpse her destructiveness in "Childlessness" when "the enchantress, masked as a friend" appears in the heavens as a sunset that is both beautiful and noxious, with "poisons visible at sunset" (SF 71). A, rationalistic, patriarchal, urban culture has suppressed the worship of the White Goddess, which will lead to a destructive reassertion of her power. In the conclusion to The White Goddess, Robert Graves says that "the longer her hour is postponed," the more "exhausted by man's irreligious improvidence the natural resources of the soil and sea "will become; and so the more mercilessly destructive her return. Graves portrays her apocalyptic return in the form of a "gaunt, red-wattled crane" who will use her beak "like a spear" to wipe out a society of frogs who worship a log. The jaws of Merrill's crane destroy the urban landscape and threaten those who watch with "meek attitudes," but it is only preparing the way for more "towering voids." Borrowing an image from Mallarme, Merrill imagines the "massive volume of the world" closing after its revelation of "Gospels of ugliness and waste" (SF 58).
More serious than this physical destruction is the internal loss of places and people whom Merrill's persona can no longer envision. His attempt to imagine the destroyed building sets off a series of associations in which he tries to recapture his past and a vaguely remembered personal relationship. But the "whoIe structure" of the attempt collapses like a building, "filling / The air with motes of stone" (SF 58). Returning to his apartment, its "walls weathering in the general view," he imagines the destruction of the new buildings and then even entire cities:
The sickness of our time requires
That these as well be blasted in their prime.
You would think the simple fact of having lasted
Threatened our cities like mysterious fires.
Merrill is not so willing to moralize or invoke apocalyptic imagery as Robert Lowell is in "For the Union Dead." Instead, he criticizes his own phrase " sickness of our time" as a facile expression that "Enhances, then debases, what I feel" (SF 59). What gives anyone the right to diagnose the moral sickness of the times? After admitting his own inner waste, Merrill can only acknowledge the need to make something out of his rootless life: "some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent" (SF 59).
from James Merrill's Apocalypse. Copyright © 2000 by Cornell UP.
Return to James Merrill