Nightgown (James Merrill)

April 27, 2009

A cold so keen,
My speech unfurls tonight
As from the chattering teeth
Of a sewing machine.

Whom words appear to warm,
Dear heart, wear mine. Come forth
Wound in their flimsy white
And give it form.


I have for a long time marvelled at James Merrill’s poems, so lyrically precise, so lush with sound. “Nightgown” is the first poem I ever memorized. When a friend several years ago sent me a hardback of Merrill’s tremendously thick Collected Poems, it was almost sobering. The memory of it reminds me of something Walter Benjamin wrote in an patchwork essay called “One-Way Street”: “When a valued, cultured, and elegant friend sent me his new book and I was about to open it, I caught myself in the act of straightening my tie.” There are some books, some writers, one feels compelled to come to dressed appropriately, as if for an elegant party to which one had no reason to expect an invitation.


Today, I dedicate this to you: you are long
like the body of Chile, delicate
like an anise flower,
and in every branch you bear witness
to our indelible springtimes:
What day is today? Your day.
And tomorrow is yesterday, it has not passed,
the day never slipped from your hands:
you guard the sun, the earth, the violets
in your slender shadow when you sleep.
And in this way, every morning
you give me life.


Neruda’s poems often testify to love’s capacity to breath life into the Other. So too the poem, with its hands in the soil, can sow seeds whose roots rise into wings. He wrote elsewhere that it was his duty (as a poet)

to understand everybody, becoming
weak, unyielding, compromised, heroic, vile,
loving until I wept, and sometimes ingrate,
a savior entangled in his own chains,
all dressed in black, toasting to joy.

(from “For All We Know”)

Neruda’s love poems seem always to pass through the countries he has loved, absorbing the sun and moon, the gardens and the sea, and all the lives he draws to himself only to give them back in his poems. “Here is what I have and what I owe,” he writes somewhere, beckoning the reader to come, to listen, that they might together toast to joy.


   I had forgotten you,
sky, and you were nothing
more than a vague presense of light,
seen–without a name–
by my tired indolent eyes.
and you appeared, among the lazy
and despairing words of the traveller,
as a vision of small repeated pools
in a watery landscape seen in a dream…

   Today I have gazed at you slowly,
and you have gradually risen up to your name.


Who Knows…

   Who knows what’s at the back of every minute!
   How many times the sunrise
has happened behind a mountain!
   How often the royal thrill of a new horizon
held in its golden womb a clap of thunder!
   That rose was deadly poison.
   That cruel sword gave life.
   I dreamed of a flower meadow
–at the far end of a long road–
I found myself in a marsh.
   Then I dreamed of the glory of all things human,
and found myself in the divine.

(Trans. by J.B. Trend and J.L. Gili)


Discussing the poets of his country, Jiménez said: “The true poetry of Spain, the only possible kind of written lyric poetry, was begun by the feelings of Everyman and by the few strange mystics, whose landscape was the sullen rock and the marvellous sky. They all try to fly, naturally; and for that reason the best Spanish lyrics have been, and are, inevitably mystical, with God or without Him.”

Jiménez’s nod to the “landscape [of] sullen rock and the marvellous sky” intmates something central about the Spanish poets of his time (Machado, Hernandez, Lorca, etc.)–that one could write the sacramental without necessarily invoking God. Light alone, which illuminates “the glory of all things human,” was sufficent to wed heaven and earth. This sensibility, at least in part, is due to a Spanish culture which Jiménez himself described as “deeply realist and falsely religious, Catholic rather than Christian, ecclesiastical rather than spiritual, a country of roots and feet rather than of wings.”

However beautifully we might describe the objects in our lives, they appear only through the mediation of light. For Machado, this could be a cause for distress. He writes, “Those wonderful pinewoods, and those mountains of stone, which know nothing of us, however much we know of them! This has its charm, though it is also solemn cause for distress.” But for Jiménez, though they remain silent, “At times, they leave a rose behind them,/ an ash-grey essence unperfumed,/ sensual pledge of a faith left namelss.”


Cervantes said that a translation is like looking at the wrong side of a tapestry. I have always believed, rather, that is like looking at a new tapestry–informed, no doubt, by the original, but no less “new” or original. J.B. Trend, one of Jiménez’s translators, tells tells us that “poetry [in translation] does not not really depend on the…vowel-harmony or beauty of the original verbal sounds, but on the colour of the poetic emotions.” A nebulous phrase, no doubt, but I like it because it invokes painting, which is fitting when talking about Jiménez. Early in his career, Jiménez had thought of becoming a painter. One of his primary interests was the way in which light and the objects it illumines converse with one another.

Look, light, you are left alone
to play, there, with the leaves so green.
What will you do, now that your sun’s left you alone?

. . . Come to this leaf of paper,
this white leaf and my dark sorrow…

(from “Last Light”)

1964 (Murray Shugars)

April 7, 2009

My mother stood in the driveway
looking down like an ice-fisher, her legs
steaming from her broken sack of waters.
The Pontiac idled like a furnace in December.
Snow fell through the window
my father rolled down to yell,
Let’s fucking go, will you?

My mother has a scar, her stomach
opened like a window pried with a knife.
There was no struggle
when I was born. She slept.
The doctor lifted me like a small melon
clinging to the vine.


My friend Murray Shugars has a new chapbook out from Dos Madres Press. Fittingly, the the book opens with “1964,” a prelude to the other poems collected, which cling to those vines rooted deep within our own past, in the places we grew up.