From A Scattering of Salts (1995)
Poem/Lines Copyright by The Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University
I peered into the crater’s heaving red
And quailed. I called upon the Muse. I said,
“The day I cease to serve you, let me die!”
And woke alone to birdsong, in our bed.
The flame was sinewed like those angels Blake
Drew faithfully. One old log, flake by flake,
Gasped out its being. Had it hoped to rise
Intact from such a wrestler’s give-and-take?
My house is made of wood so old, so dry
From years beneath this pilot-light blue sky,
A stranger’s idle glance could be the match
That sends us all to blazes.—Where was I?
Ah yes. The man from Aetna showed concern.
No alarm system—when would people learn?
No outside stair. The work begins next week.
Must I now marry that I may not burn?
Never again, oracular, wild-eyed,
To breathe on a live ember deep inside?
The contract signed in blood forbids that, too,
Damping my spirit as it saves my hide.
Take risks! the crowd chants in a kind of rage
To where his roaring garret frames the sage
Held back by logic, by the very thought
Of leaping to conclusions, at his age.
Besides, the cramped flue of each stanza draws
Feeling away. To spare us? Or because
Heaven is cold and needs the mortal stuff
Flung nightly around its barenesses, like gauze.
Last weekend in a bar in Pawcatuck
A boy’s face raw and lean as lightning struck.
Before I knew what hit me, there you were,
Sweetheart, with your wet blanket. Just my luck.
I touched the grate with my small hand, and got
Corrected. Sister ran to kiss the spot.
Today a blister full of speechless woe
Wells up for the burnt children I am not.
Magda was molten at sixteen. The old
Foundryman took his time, prepared the mold,
Then poured. Lost wax, the last of many tears,
Slid down her face. Adieu, rosebuds and gold!
That slim bronze figure of Free Speech among
Repressive glooms woke ardor in the young,
Only to ring with mirth—a trope in Czech
Twisting implacably the fire’s tongue.
One grace: this dull asbestos halo meant
For the bulb’s burning brow. Two drops of scent
Upon it, and our booklined rooms, come dusk,
Of a far-shining lamp grew redolent.
The riot had been “foretold” to Mrs. Platt,
The landlady, by a glass ruby at
The medium’s throat. “Next she’ll be throwing fits,”
Gerald said coldly. “I shall move. That’s that.”
Torchlit, the student demonstrators came.
Faint blues and violets within the flame
Appeared to plead that fire at heart was shy
And only incidentally to blame.
Consuming fear, that winter, swept the mind.
Then silence, country sounds—and look! Behind
Me stands the blackened chimney of our school,
Crowned with a stork’s nest, rambler-rose-entwined.
A sunset to end all. Life’s brave disguise—
Rages and fevers, worn to tantalize—
Flickers to ash. What’s left may warm itself
At the hearth glowing in its lover’s eyes.
Dear Fulmia, I thought of you for these
Obsidian trinkets purchased, if you please,
In a boutique at the volcano’s core.
(Extinct? I wonder.) Love, Empedocles.