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… the T.S. Eliot Prize.

The poem made me think of another poem, by James Merrill, probably because they’re both about art and air. Let’s take a look.

First, Philip Gross, this year’s winner.

Opera Bouffe

The count of cappuccino,
the marquise of meringue,
all the little cantuccini…
and what was the song they sang?

Oh, the best of us is nothing
but a sweetening of the air,
a tryst between the teeth and tongue:
we meet and no one’s there

though the café’s always crowded
as society arrives
and light glints to and fro between
the eyes and rings and knives.

We’ll slip away together,
perfect ghosts of appetite,
the balancing of ash on fire
and whim—the mating flight

of amaretti papers,
my petite montgolfiere,
our lit cage rising weightless
up the lift shaft of the air.

So the count of cappuccino,
the marquise of not much more,
consumed each other’s hunger.
Then the crash. And then the war.


Next, Merrill.

Farewell Performance

for DK

Art. It cures affliction. As lights go down and
Maestro lifts his wand, the unfailing sea change
starts within us. Limber alembics once more
make of the common

Lot a pure, brief gold. At the end our bravos
call them back, sweat-soldered and leotarded,
back, again back – anything not to face the
fact that it’s over.

You are gone. You’d caught like a cold their airy
lust for essence. Now, in the furnace parched to
ten or twelve light handfuls, a mortal gravel
sifted through fingers,

Coarse yet grayly glimmering sublimate of
palace days, Strauss, Sidney, the lover’s plaintive
Can’t we just be friends? which your breakfast phone call
Clothed in amusement,

This is what we paddled a neighbor’s dinghy
out to scatter – Peter who grasped the buoy,
I who held the box underwater, freeing
all it contained. Past

Sunny, fluent soundings that gruel of selfhood
taking manlike shape for one last jeté on
ghostly – wait, ah! – point into darkness vanished.
High up, a gull’s wings

Clapped. The house lights (always supposing, caro,
Earth remains your house) at their brightest set the
scene for good: true colors, the sun-warm hand to
cover my wet one …

Back they come. How you would have loved it. We in
turn have risen. Pity and terror done with,
programs furled, lips parted, we jostle forward
eager to hail them,

More, to join the troupe – will a friend enroll us
one fine day? Strange, though. For up close their magic
self-destructs. Pale, dripping, with downcast eyes they’ve
seen where it led you.


Both poets are getting at something having to do with the separation between art and life; both poets notice our immense pull toward fantasy, beauty, intensity, toward the distillation of real experience into imaginative perfection. Both caution us about the danger of that pull.

In the Gross poem, the frothy delicious escapism of light opera, light-as-air opera, sweetens the actual air, sweetens our lives. It’s adorable, yummy, we eat it up, this spectacle of counts and marquises warbling in bustling, brightly lit cafes.

But it’s all pretend, of course: we meet and no one’s there. The performers are ghosts of appetite, apparitions carrying in flight a reflection of their audience’s hunger for art to be life.

When the play’s over, when the performers float away in their absurd confectionery balloon, reality resumes in all its dark heft. Perhaps there’s the suggestion here that our addiction to fantasy weakens our capacity to survive reality.

The simple exact end rhyme, the Mother Goosey feel of the thing, lends a clever contradiction to the Gross poem. Its surface is as light as light opera, a happy sing-songy lilt; yet its content’s increasingly bleak – ghosts, ash, and then the final crash and burn. The contradiction captures our denialist draw toward art as escape. We don’t want to see what’s beneath these happy lines.

Merrill’s is an elegy; it’s written in memory of a friend of his. The poem has three acts, as it were: an opening act describing a dance company performance the poet attends not long after his friend’s death; a middle act recalling the poet and other people taking a boat out to scatter his friend’s ashes into the water of a sound (the word ‘sound’ allows the poet lovely pun-latitude); and a final return to the performance as the dancers take their bows.

As in the Gross poem, art both “cures affliction” and causes it — “You’d caught like a cold their airy / lust for essence.” Art changes us; its transformative alembics spin our lives into gold, and we desperately don’t want its magic to end, don’t want dismissal into the painful chaos of real life.

So the poet’s friend tried to import art to his life, to lead the life of an aesthete — “palace days, Strauss, Sidney…”

We too want to “join the troupe,” though truly living that airy essence exacts a toll – it “self-destructs.”

will a friend enroll us / one fine day?

Will our sublimate too be rolled out onto the water some sunny afternoon?

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