Oh, dear. I have the probably harmless tendency of developing crushes on dead writers, fellas who were most likely, or in some cases on record as being, wrecks at human relationships. Kerouac was my first affair of this sort, and from that high school-through-college infatuation, I moved on to Kierkegaard, Walter Benjamin, and Zbigniew Herbert. And now look: on the narrowing edge of forty, the madness hasn’t ceased; here comes poet James Merrill to make me simultaneously swoon with delight and seethe in mad envy at his wordplay.* “The Broken Bowl” is too long to reel off here in its entirety– and the version I have, found in From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976, seems to have been redone in later collections, and not, to my manner of thinking, for the better. But the unsentimental way in which Merrill moves, without your even suspecting it, from the consideration of a shattered glass container to the wholes love can construct out of the fragments left behind by battered lives, is quietly stunning– and the first time I read it out loud, I ended up in tears.
Here are the last couple of stanzas:
No lucid, self-containing artifice
At last, but fire, ice,
A world in jeopardy. What lets the bowl
Nonetheless triumph by inconsequence
And wrestle harmony from dissonance
And with the fragments build another, whole,
Inside us, which we feel
Can never break, or grow less bountiful?
Love does that. Spectral through the fallen dark,
Eye-beam and ingle-spark
Refract our ruin into this new space,
Timeless and concentric, a spotlight
To whose elate arena we allot
Love’s facets reassembling face by face,
Love’s warbler among leaves,
Love’s monuments, or tombstones, on our lives.**
Well. At least I have the words to keep me company. Throw in some Chet Baker, and we’ve got ourselves a mood…
* My selection of love objects seems to be getting increasingly futile; in addition to being dead, Merrill didn’t even like girls. There goes any possibility of ghostly sweet nothings. N.b., most times this barrier of gender preferences-at-odds popped up in the past, my dreamy ardor tended not to take no for an answer. In one instance, after spending a semester in college making an infatuated ass out of myself with a linguistics professor, it was revealed to me that my true love was gay. At my sheepish look of incredulity, a Southern belle classmate of mine tried to comfort me with, “Oh, don’t worry, honey, he’s European; you couldn’t have known.”
** James Merrill, “The Broken Bowl,” in From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976 (New York: Atheneum, 1984), 7.