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Off Yemen, in the Red Sea.

And yes, there’s a poem for that.

Island in the Works. James Merrill.


***********************************

From air seen fathom-deep
But rising to a head –
Abscess of the abyss
Any old night letting rip
Its fires, yearlong,
As roundabout waves hiss –

Jaded by untold blue
Subversions, watered-down
Moray and Spaniard…
Now to construe
In the original
Those at first arid, hard,

Soon rootfast, ramifying,
Always more fruitful
Dialogues with light.
Various dimwit under-
graduate types will wonder
At my calm height

Vapors by then surmounted
(Merely another phase?)
And how in time I trick
Out my new “shores” and “bays”
With small craft, shrimpers
Bars and rhetoric.

Darkly the Old Ones grumble
I’ll hate all that. Hate words,
Their schooling flame?
The spice grove chatted up
By small gray knowing birds?
Myself given a name?

Waves, as your besetting
Depth-wish recedes,
I’m surfacing, I’m home!
Open the atlas. Here:
This dot, securely netted
Under the starry dome.

(Unlike this page – no sooner
Brought to the pool than wafted
Out of reach, laid flat
Face-up on cool glares, ever
So lightly swayed, or swaying…
Now who did that?)

————————-

From air seen fathom-deep
But rising to a head –
Abscess of the abyss
Any old night letting rip
Its fires, yearlong,
As roundabout waves hiss –

[The poet describes the look of an early, still-turbulent volcanic island from a satellite or plane. Suggestive of profound depth, it nevertheless shoots up – rises to a head – and we can already begin to think of this suddenly emergent creative fire as poetic inspiration, rising to the poet’s head. Out of who knows what depths, poetic inspiration surfaces –


Brilliantly, concentratedly, / Coming about its own business.

Abscess of the abyss is very Merrill, an almost silly, almost lame assonance, consonance, alliteration all at once. He wrote it because it’s fun.]

Jaded by untold blue
Subversions, watered-down
Moray and Spaniard…

[After the spectacular ignition, things quickly cool. Think of Shelley’s remark:

‘The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within…could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the result; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline; and the most glorious poetry that has been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.’

What’s left is, to be sure, the natural world re-created, aestheticized (Moray and Spaniard); but watered-down… In another poem, about the cooling of sexual passion, (“In Nine Sleep Valley”) Merrill writes of “the molten start and glacial sleep.” ]

Now to construe
In the original
Those at first arid, hard,

Soon rootfast, ramifying,
Always more fruitful
Dialogues with light.

[The poet sets to work writing, trying to capture the brilliance of his original conception, trying to burn with Pater’s gem-like flame: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” His inner light wants to maintain a poetically ramifying, fruitful dialogue with the light of the world.]

Various dimwit under-
graduate types will wonder
At my calm height,

Vapors by then surmounted
(Merely another phase?)
And how in time I trick
Out my new “shores” and “bays”
With small craft, shrimpers
Bars and rhetoric.

Darkly the Old Ones grumble
I’ll hate all that. Hate words,
Their schooling flame?
The spice grove chatted up
By small gray knowing birds?
Myself given a name?

[Old and young – jaded and immature – both look skeptically upon the poetic project. Why muck up the world with words? It’s all been said already. Or silent and pristine is better than loud and ‘knowing.’ Why use your ‘small craft’ as a poet to add useless arbitrary labels to things (‘bays,’ ‘shores.’)?

Of course this is the poet himself, grappling with his own contempt for language, its schooling flame – the way, once hardened into words, into naming, the original gem-like expressive inspiration risks becoming merely pedantic.]

Waves, as your besetting
Depth-wish recedes,
I’m surfacing, I’m home!

[Depth-wish — what a wonderful twist on death-wish. The waves want to drown the hot volcanic elements struggling to establish a living island; but the poet struggles free and, with his poetic fire intact, surfaces.]

Open the atlas. Here:
This dot, securely netted
Under the starry dome.

[The atlas, the book of poetry, the poet’s period (‘dot’), proves that he prevailed, that he created, against immense counterforces, his poem. This poem.]

(Unlike this page – no sooner
Brought to the pool than wafted
Out of reach, laid flat
Face-up on cool glares, ever
So lightly swayed, or swaying…
Now who did that?)

[Or not. The poet ends on a light note, throws cold water on his artistic flare-up. All that fire eventuates after all in just a thin page with fragile marks on it. The poet takes the page out to his pool and the wind wafts it out of reach and into the water, where it lies absolutely flat, with no chance of volcanic ascension. And whose ‘untold subversion’ was that? A malignant wind from the gods? Or did the poet subvert himself, bringing his flimsy page out to the windy pool?]

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