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.

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