The story of my 28-year friendship with James Merrill begins in April 1967 at the University of Wisconsin. Merrill was in Madison to teach a creative writing course in poetry. I had entered Wisconsin’s Ph.D. program the previous fall as a Teaching Assistant, bringing with me a bachelor’s degree (majors in English and philosophy, minor in biology) from Hanover College in Indiana, and an MA in English from Colorado State University. These were the nether regions of academe; Wisconsin was a decisive step up for me. I had just turned 24.
In those days the English Department was quartered in Bascom Hall, a picturesque old building crowning a hill above the city of Madison. The underclass of first- and second-year teaching assistants, who were paying for graduate school by teaching freshman composition, shared a big office on the third floor. My desk formed one corner of the block of desks pushed together in the middle of the room; a tall, slender second-year man called Steve Yenser occupied a desk facing the far wall. Merrill had admitted several TAs to his poetry course, including the two of us. Until the notice went out inviting students to apply for the course, I had never heard of James Merrill or read any of his work, though he had just won the National Book Award (whatever that was) for a poetry collection, Nights and Days.
We at Wisconsin were lucky and knew it; creative writing courses given for credit were not common on the campuses of that time. And I had experienced something in college that may have intensified my eagerness to get into this one. For five weeks during the spring of my senior year, a poet called Lionel Wiggam1 had been in residence on the Hanover campus. The arrangement was informal; his job had been simply to give a reading and make himself available to student writers. From this availability an odd relationship, platonic but intense, had formed between the two of us, eventuating in a scholarship for me to the 1964 Indiana University Writers Conference, where he was on the faculty. Three years later we were still corresponding. At 50 or so Lionel had published a slim volume, The Land of Unloving, in which some poems from a precocious, decades-earlier collection had also been included. His lyric verse was deft but dated. His startling handsomeness, somewhat marred by bad teeth (slightly protruding, with gaps), had qualified him at one time to model aftershave and menswear; for years I owned a little black-and-white stand-up poster, purloined from a barber shop, on which Lionel pondered the dilemma: “Which Stephan’s dandruff remover is right for your hair?” The mysterious mutual attraction continued to fascinate and perplex me, and the mask of sophisticated posturing to frustrate me. I didn’t know how to make Lionel feel safe enough to show me what was behind the mask, yet faith in his essential goodness made me want to confirm it, reassure him, convince him to stop hiding, from me and from everyone.
He was, of course, gay. I both did and didn’t understand this, both did and did not realize the degree to which that fact accounted for both the mask and the attraction. My gaydar, though accurate, was instinctive. Consciously, I wasn’t able to connect homosexuality itself, the mysteriously compelling abstraction, with people I knew, or to relate to the reasons why a person like Lionel (or James Merrill) should object when a clueless young woman kept urging him, in effect, to stand up and be wholly himself before the world. A long poem about Lionel, as a knight in self-protective armor, hadn’t been finished in time to include it with my application to the course. But another more general poem about masking (and unmasking)2 did go off in the mail to Mr. Merrill. It can’t be claimed that he hadn’t been forewarned about me.
My poems, including that one, were in most ways old-fashioned for their time, being modeled on the formal sensibilities of Tennyson, Kipling, Stephen Vincent Benét, Vachel Lindsay, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others I’d discovered in the umpteenth edition of Louis Untermeyer’s fat red anthology3. Apart from Frost and the early Yeats, there were no moderns in my list of influences — no writers of free verse, either, though it’s worth mentioning that a Fundamentalist upbringing had marinated me from birth to college, not only in the tetrameter/trimeter stanzas of hundreds of hymns, but also in the powerful, rhythmic prose of the King James Bible.
I had been trying to move beyond form, was aware that that way of writing was viewed as being behind the times, but all my natural feeling was for rhyme and meter. Had I known it as I paged through my notebook of poems, choosing which to send with my application, a young poet who wanted to work in form but needed to learn to use it more inventively, and to modernize her language, could not have been about to fall into better hands.
This article has been adapted from Unlikely Friends, my unpublished memoir of the relationship.
On the first day of James Merrill’s poetry class, two fellow TAs and I had arranged to meet in our office and walk down together to our classroom on the second floor. I had left Sharon Furrow in the restroom across the hall, where she lingered until it began to look as if she might make us late. “What’s she doing over there?” Dave Keller grumbled. “Primping, probably,” I said. “Well that won’t do her any good,” said Dave. Evidently he had been included in some affair, perhaps a dinner with faculty or administrative types, to which I had not been invited, and at which he had acquired certain information. He told a few anecdotes and mentioned money, while I processed the realization that our teacher might be gay — and realized, with a small guilty start, that I hoped he was gay4. Why would I hope that? — having barely time to think the question before Sharon reappeared and we hurried downstairs.
The man we were about to encounter was to be one of a handful of people who would matter most to me over the course of a lifetime, but no intimations of a linked future visited me that Wednesday afternoon. “I thought he looked like a cute rodent the first day in class,” I wrote in my journal. Alison Lurie had viewed him a dozen years earlier as “a kind of Martian”: “supernaturally brilliant, detached, quizzical, apart.” In the Wisconsin social landscape he did cut an extraordinary figure, but to me he seemed not so much alien as exotic, a rara avis (Lurie says that in 1955 he had “something of the air of a clever, inquisitive bird”; twelve years later this was still true). The exoticness was not a matter of dress. Edmund White, in City Boy, mentions serapes and embroidered jackets and a fondness for purple from the same general period, Lurie a Japanese kimono of gray-striped silk, with deep sleeves cuffed in black, and red straw and silk sandals, from an earlier one, but we in Madison never glimpsed the bird-of-paradise aspect of our rara avis, who wore coat and tie in the halls of ivy. It was more a matter of voice and manner, and mannerism, seen against the sober-sided foil of the university’s faculty.
Nowadays in a poetry workshop, everyone faces inward around a table or circles the chairs, not just to facilitate discussion but to telegraph a degree of equality between teacher and student writers. Lionel’s workshop at the IU conference had been set up that way, in a seminar room. A similar arrangement would have helped us here. But ours was a regular classroom, chairs all in stiff rows facing front. In this type of setting we had been programmed to expect our professors to project authority; the TAs among us were all practicing our own versions of command presence before our freshmen.
The visiting poet projected nothing of the sort. While we settled into place, turned curious faces toward him, made sotto voce remarks to one another, his nervousness showed in small twitchy movements. Then or soon, he lit a cigarette and inserted it into a holder, the first ever seen, I imagine, in that venerable room and the first most or all of us had ever seen actually being used anywhere. In due course he began to read our names off a list. (Thinking back through all the years to the moment when I heard him pronounce my own name for the first time — he rushed through “Judith” and made a slow rising trochee of “Moffett?” — it feels as if he called me into being in a way, as if he were Adam, or God.) That chore dispensed with, memory says he then leaned forward in his desk chair, flicked ash from his cigarette, cast his eyes at the ceiling, and hesitatingly stated, “I don’t know . . . that we necessarily need to wonder . . . what poetry is.” (When I quoted this line to him, long afterwards, he sighed: “Ye-e-e-es, oh dear, lots of helping verbs . . .”)
At that first class meeting, did I remember to wonder whether JM was gay? Probably there was too much else to wonder at; and anyway, I didn’t know how to tell. A better question would be, why did I care? I would find out, but not for another 20 years.
We were encouraged, perhaps expected, to write some poems in the course of the eight weeks, and to bring these to “James” for critiquing during his office hours. An office, BH 307, had been assigned to him on the third floor of Bascom Hall — convenient for us TA’s crammed into 350, who could run down the hall between student conferences. Class time, though, was mostly spent reading and discussing the poetry of a selection of contemporary poets our teacher admired.
I know for certain that we read, or read from, John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs and Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel, but am hazy about other poets and books. The Berryman I’m sure of because I can see and hear JM in front of the class — I’ll use the Ouija board’s solution to the problem of how to refer to him in these early days — declaiming with a wicked grin and a wriggle of delight, “There ought to be a law against Henry. / Mistah Bones — there is!” The Bishop I’m sure of because it was the source of a classroom epiphany for me. The first poem in her book, “Arrival at Santos,” ends with the line, “we are driving to the interior,” and something JM said in the course of discussion suddenly revealed to me that by “interior” Bishop meant both the interior of Brazil and the interior of the self. One might assume that by this point in my academic progress I would have learned to hear both levels of a line like that, but I’d actually read very little contemporary poetry and none of the moderns but Eliot, whom I hadn’t really taken to, and a little bombshell went off in my own interior as I grasped this concept. (According to an interview done at the time in Contemporary Literature, we also read some Robert Lowell and spend a day on the Rubaiyat. I’m surprised I don’t remember that last; I liked Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat a lot and could quote some it by heart.)
Another thing I began to learn in the class, thanks to what he chose for us to read, and learned later and better from the master’s own example, was how form could be coaxed to behave playfully. Some of this could be seen in Berryman’s dialect sonnets, but “Arrival at Santos” showcased a sort of playfulness that appealed to me more:
Please, boy, do be more careful with that boat hook!
Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen’s
skirt! There! Miss Breen is about seventy,
a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall,
with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression.
Her home, when she is at home, is in Glens Fall
s, New York.
And so on. I saw that this was not a way of cheating to make the demands of form easier to comply with, which I wouldn’t have admired, but that adding extra syllables in just the right places made the lines funnier, and that breaking lines and stanzas in unexpected ways achieved the same purpose. For a young formalist so straitlaced that Dickinson’s slant rhymes (up/step) had disturbed her in junior high, this was an illuminating realization.
The only thing I remember being assigned to do was, alas, a very peculiar task to give to such a group in such a place. One day our instructor brought to class a portable record player and told us we were to translate a bit of German lieder, “Ich Grolle Nicht,” by Schumann, into singable English. When he placed the record on the turntable and the needle on the record, and an operatic soprano voice began to sing, a barely controlled panic gradually filled the room. It’s likely that no one in the class had ever heard that song before, and certain that many of us knew no German. Also, this was 1967 and most of us were writing — had only ever written — free verse. JM was asked to play the record again and again, and again, and did so, looking less and less charmed as we distinctly failed to seem excited and energized by the challenge he had given us. He provided a rough verbal translation — there was frantic scribbling — and we were on our own.
When I trudged down the hall to his office with my terrible English version of “Ich Grolle Nicht,” he snatched the paper and began actually to sing, in a reedy smoker’s voice, with extravagant gestures, “I’ll not complaaain, / Though my heart BURRRRRST! with pain . . .” I managed to lose that sheet of paper long ago, but recall my own forced laughter and intense mortification, and his dramatic arm-waving rendition of the final couplet: “— The serpent that consumes it AND! can see-ee, / My love, how very wretched yoo-oo! must beee”. It was funny, sort of, but funnier now than then; indeed, told this way the story sounds almost cruel, as if he had set us a task at which we could not possibly do well, for no reason but to amuse himself by humiliating us. In fact, it was nothing but a simple failure to imagine his students in their actual lives; there’s no question that this bizarre, wrongheaded, insensitive assignment was one he would have thoroughly enjoyed being asked to complete himself.
(Bizarre, wrongheaded, insensitive . . . but six years later, where was I but in Stockholm on a Fulbright Translation Grant, making rhyming, metrical English versions of Swedish lyric poetry? If there’s a causal connection I can’t see one; still, it makes you stop and think.)
Even apart from this, JM was not a particularly effective classroom teacher in Madison. He had not understood, or at any rate not cared or been able to act upon, the truth that putting a lesson across effectively is rather like putting the shot — requires more energy than anyone who hasn’t done it can begin to imagine. Some classes went better than others, but if teaching evaluations had been done in those days, I doubt that his would have come out very well. His approach was to make the lesson available, and if we wanted to learn it, fine. A few of his students were mad to take what he had to offer, and willing to supply the energy a teacher more committed to (and ego-involved with) the job would have supplied from his own resources; those were probably the ones who got As. Others must have been less willing. One day I left him a note inviting him to dinner, in which — supposing that “you might feel a little depressed that the class this afternoon didn’t pick up the way the one last Wed. did” — I suggested reasons why that might have happened. “I used to think it was my fault when my freshmen would fail to catch at anything I tossed at them, and learned finally . . . that it was them — or the weather or Hell Week or something quite extraneous — instead of me. I would do all the same things, but what turned them on one day would leave them cold the next.” How I had the nerve to call attention to his failure, then offer to explain it away as not really his, I cannot now imagine. He must have taken it as kindly meant, however, since he came to dinner anyway.
So the weeks passed. Each Wednesday he would be languidly present before us. “He tilts his head [chin] [up and] forward when he talks in an odd, delicate way,” I recorded, “because of his contacts, he says. His build is slight . . . [in his own words] ‘all bone and fat’ (precious little fat!) . . . There is no awkwardness about the man; in a thin, graceful, unmuscular way, he undulates when he moves.” He would speak for a while in his hurry-up-and-hesitate style and quirky, unplaceable accent; William F. Buckley, Jr. is the only other person I ever heard speak with that particular drawling inflection pattern. Every little while he would pause to lift his cigarette holder slowly to his lips, which would slowly begin to pucker, so that by the time the holder made it to his mouth, the mouth was ready to receive it. (“Very nervous mouth,” says my journal, “behaves almost like a sphincter.”) He would inhale, tilt his head back while the smoke poured forth, then pick up his train of thought. Mesmerized, I watched him go through this coordinated slow-motion procedure again and again, wondering how on earth he could seem so entirely unselfconscious of the effect it produced. He would lick his lips rapidly between sentences or puffs, back and forth and back and forth. The mannerism must have been characteristic, since Edmund White reports in City Boy that “he licked his dry lips with the sudden, darting flicker of the amphetamine dieter.”
I was not put off by the lip-licking, cigarette-holder-mediated smoking, or head-tilting, all of which seemed like different facets of his exoticism. He was simply an order of being very very different, not just from any teacher, but from any person I had ever encountered before, and probably everyone in the class could have said the same.
The only student poem I recall being the focus of class discussion—though there must have been others — was written by an undergraduate. His name was Brad Burdick, but he already went by the nom de plume of Antler5. The poem began: “Standing at the urinal . . .” and developed a forgotten theme around the presence of a spider in the fixture, ending with “I baptize the spider . . .”. Whether Antler volunteered to stand and read this out himself, or whether JM read it for him — I hear it being spoken in the latter’s voice — the class was then invited to discuss it. I found the poem comical verging on ridiculous, but JM’s attitude said we should consider it seriously.
…if teaching evaluations had been done in those days, I doubt that his would have come out very well
Antler and his partner Jeff Poniewaz6 who was also taking the course, were gay undergraduates; in their case even I could see that. I found it hard to tell them apart, but I didn’t try very hard. Both were effeminate and thin and seemed small, and I’m afraid my friends and I referred to them dismissively as “the little Ginsberg boys,” because one day in class either Antler or Jeff had held up a letter and announced that Allen Ginsberg had just written that he was to give a reading on the campus that spring. Having made his announcement, Antler or Jeff then didn’t quite know how to conclude the moment gracefully. “So, uh, we just thought we would pass that along,” he said, or something of the kind. It was comically obvious that what they wanted to pass along was not news of the reading, which would be widely publicized, but the fact that Ginsberg had written to them personally about it.
I had nothing against these two, certainly, but felt little sympathy for them either, which seems worth wondering about. In college I had encouraged one of my best friends, a guy named Rob Baker, in later years editor of the magazine Parabola, to go ahead and do whatever was necessary to find out whether he was gay. And I’d won a contest with an essay entitled “Should Homosexuality Be Considered As an Ethical Problem?” — a daring topic to embrace in 1963 in southern Indiana, believe me; the title was not read out on Awards Day. So it seems strange that I made no effort to befriend Antler and Jeff. My guess is that they were just too young and spindly to be interesting to me then. The strange attraction was to mature gay men, wise with experience, seasoned by time and suffering, representing or offering what these striplings, at 20 or thereabouts, obviously couldn’t. And also, and this might have mattered, with regard to the “cooked” vs. “raw” schools of poetry we were on different teams.
A final observation about the course. In 1967 the United States was obsessed with the war in Vietnam. The war was an especially urgent preoccupation on campuses full of young men with college deferments, at least a few of whom may have been taking JM’s course. A year earlier, Allen Ginsberg had written “Wichita Vortex Sutra”; six months later, Robert Lowell would be marching on the Pentagon. Other high-profile poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“Where Is Vietnam?”) and Robert Bly (“Counting Small-Boned Bodies”) were publishing anti-war poetry, taking part in protests, turning down invitations to the White House. That particular spring, virtually anyone else teaching a course like ours would have leavened Elizabeth Bishop and “Ich Grolle Nicht” with some of this work. From my present distance I wonder whether Antler and Jeff, who are active in the peace movement now, and were dedicated to everything Ginsberg then, might have braved up and requested that JM include some of this poetry in the course; or whether others did.
Given the above, a remark he made in class one day seems worth reporting. A woman student had brought up the war, and the pounding Lyndon Johnson was taking because of it. Criticism of the war, she felt, was entirely appropriate; but some of the vicious things people were saying about Johnson, ridiculing his looks and Texas accent for instance, were irrelevant to policy and therefore, this person thought, out of bounds.
JM disagreed. No, he said, the President was fair game. Those who seek high public office make themselves willing targets, and must expect and accept what high visibility brings with it, including the fact that some will despise them for personal qualities. He implied that people should feel quite free to say any scurrilous thing they liked about politicians and other public figures, true or not, fair or not. It served them right. There was no obligation to be responsible.
Not having yet absorbed the lesson of “The Broken Home,” I hadn’t understood that when this poet wrote “I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote,” he meant it literally. I wonder now whether JM ever voted in an election in his life. While I knew him he remained consistently dismissive of political issues, writing to me once that he wished he had known years earlier how beside the point such things were, how emphatically they were not what really mattered. His reasons were emotional and personal, as the poem makes clear, but that day in class I took for reasoned philosophy what was simply personal feeling. The statement troubled me, and I would imagine not only me.
The spring of 1967 was Gay Male Poet Season in Madison. JM had been brought in to teach the eight-week course, and also to gave a reading; the university-wide spring poetry event, held in a cavernous auditorium setting (packed to the rafters, if there were any rafters — it might have been held in an open-air venue like a stadium), featured Allen Ginsberg; and between JM’s arrival and the Ginsberg extravaganza the English Department also sponsored a reading by Robert Duncan. Ginsberg and Duncan were as forthright about being gay as JM was silent. To the best of my memory, no other poets read that semester. Coincidence? I wonder. Wisconsin, however this came about, was positioning itself as a liberal institution deserving of its growing reputation as the Berkeley of the Midwest. The following year, student demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the university’s investment in Dow Chemical, which made napalm, would reinforce that reputation.
In May JM and I sat in a Bascom Hall classroom larger than our own, with semicircular tiers of chairs facing a podium, as Robert Duncan, glaring defiantly at his audience, read something like, or maybe exactly like: “I saw a man / where a woman should have been.” Did I glance covertly at JM then? Probably. Certainly I was watching closely afterwards when he hurried up, shook Duncan’s hand with a nod and a grin that struck me as ungenuine, and flashed out the door. I thought he was making his escape; but I may have been wrong about this. Duncan had annoyed me by loudly proclaiming himself to be a Poet—I thought a real one wouldn’t have needed to insist—and by talking about “expressing his eros,” which seemed a truly dorky thing to say. At our third dinner I remarked that I hadn’t liked Duncan’s face. Shooting me an exasperated look, JM said that he had just wanted to put his arms around him and tell him not to mind7.
“Are you going to Ginsberg’s reading?” I asked JM, probably at this same dinner. “No,” he replied, and I heard in his tone a warning not to pursue the subject. I think he flew to St. Louis, to visit Mona Van Duyn and Jarvis Thurston, while Ginsberg was in town. But I went to the reading myself, and enjoyed it more than I’d expected to. The poems were not my favorite sort but the poet was personally appealing, mild and modest despite his fame. The little Ginsberg boys were much in evidence between bleachers and platform; I pointed them out to the friend, not in our class, with whom I attended the event. By this time JM had been invited home with them, and had reported after his visit that while their idol had not dominated the conversation, the Letter had been prominently displayed on the mantelpiece.
Of our teacher’s own de rigeur reading I have a visual memory but little else. I couldn’t make much of the poems, though I was listening hard, and his few introductory remarks were not very clarifying. Before reading “An Urban Convalescence,” for instance — a good choice had he set it up more helpfully — he explained what a pousse-café is, as if that were all a sensible audience would need to know in order to follow such a poem being read aloud to it for the first time.
He was simply an order of being very very different, not just from any teacher, but from any person I had ever encountered before.
If JM scheduled formal conferences with students during his office hours, I have no memory or record of it; I think we were just supposed to drop by when we had something to show him8. I also remember feeling reluctant to do that, as if intruding would be an imposition. I’m not sure how much business he got — how generally this reluctance to impose was shared. Nevertheless I did sometimes seek him out there, and his welcome always seemed sincere. I had been trying for a while to learn to write free verse, and during the eight weeks of the course I completed a suite of three free-verse poems, their source a trip to Mexico that my ex-boyfriend and I had taken the previous summer. JM was very good at this one-on-one coaching, focused and alert. The poem he liked best of my three, about driving through an immense cloud of migrating butterflies, ended like this in the draft he saw:
We traveled so for hours,
Colliding with butterflies, while great pastel
Multitudes flew over, lilting and fluttering,
While the air blew white with little wings
Like scraps of powdered muslin, beating toward the sea.
JM zeroed in on the last line. Why use a simile? Why not simply “Wings, / Scraps of powdered muslin,” letting the comparison make itself?
Another poem we discussed, in which I was much more deeply invested, was “Sir Cameo,” the one about Lionel Wiggam, the poet in residence I had met at Hanover College. I don’t remember what JM may have suggested I do with the writing. He surely recognized how much the poem’s instinctive strategy (and the writer’s sensibility) had in common with his own. “Sir Cameo,” a whole single-spaced page long, begins in loose rhyming pentameters which gradually come to pieces under the pressure of what’s being described, before reorganizing themselves to segue into a sonnet at the end. The middle is very dense. I thought I had secured permission to write like that from JM’s example, but here is evidence that I was doing it before I had met or read him. The intensity of what I was feeling and trying to express had the effect of making the whole thing badly overwritten, and its theme might well have raised the eyebrows of a poet on record as rejecting our torchlit hunts for truth in favor of sparkling appearances. This is how it ends:
Don mail for everyday
Like denim, buckled round you scalp and shin,
Stomach and heart, and passion. Let me stay
To watch the visor clamp, the teeth begin,
To hear the insisting, emphasizing voice
Drop its best names: learn all that desperate bluff
You foist on all with palisading poise.
Poise cannot always keep you close enough,
Such heat beats past it, such a breathing sound,
So surely will the good and human man,
Bursting his cloudy breastplates like the sun,
Redeem my vigil; and, his guise undone
A little while, be honest as he can
Before the furious buckles ring him round.
The point of view I had assumed here, of watching and waiting faithfully for the moment when the mask would drop to reveal “the good and human man,” could not have been farther from JM’s own entrenched convictions. And yet, instead of recoiling, he commented on the poem’s optimism in a way I recall as completely respectful—though the word “optimism” threw me a little; I had been stating not hopes but beliefs.
We must have spoken occasionally during these sessions of something besides poetry. His office was the setting for one memorable exchange, possibly a propos of a moment in a Ginsberg poem when someone has sold blood to a hospital, or of a blood drive on campus. I objected to the very idea of selling blood; I thought it should be given for free, that taking money for an essential organic substance was sleazy. He responded with an anecdote. A friend, traveling somewhere by boat in a desperately poor country, had been offered money if he would — pause to find a suitably sanitized phrase — “have a bowel movement” so that the host country could use the product for fertilizer. What did I think about that? Nonplussed, and a bit embarrassed, I was still pleased at his amusement, and that I’d been deemed not too prudish to be told such a story.
When the semester had ended and JM had driven away, I wrote up an extended journal entry in which I said almost nothing about the course but a lot about the teacher I believed I might never see again. “He came to dinner a bare 3 times, always waited to be asked, never initiated anything (lest I misunderstand his motive? lack of sufficient interest?) unless as a substitute for something else we couldn’t do. Yet he always seemed glad, even eager, to accept invitations & the last time he was here we talked pretty well.” One cringes at what that probably means about the first two times. It’s a wonder I found the courage to invite him at all. I worked up to it by providing a list of possible activities, including arboretum walks, birdwatching, tennis, and renting bikes, as well as “scintillating conversation.” He replied that a lot of what I had suggested sounded far too strenuous, but that he loved company and conversation, also that “I come equipped with bottle” — to spare me the expense of providing something alcoholic, I suppose. I told him I didn’t drink, but please not to let that bother him. And he did arrive with a flask of something amber, which he proceeded to empty throughout the evening.
“The first time he came he professed not to be a thinker,” my journal says, “and the third time allowed that he’d had a year of analysis in Rome.” A little precis of his life, that sentence. The line about not being a thinker was probably occasioned by something of mine that I’d given him to read, an essay I was calling my “ethical treatise.” I’d been thinking and arguing about ethics since leaving the Baptist Church, the summer after my freshman year at Hanover, and that spring of 1967 had attempted to systematize my thoughts on paper. I’d started working on it about the time our course began, and had given him a copy of the finished essay, which I called “The Vigilance That Must Never Falter”9 — a line from Camus’ The Plague. I wanted him to know who I was. Not knowing who he was, I couldn’t have imagined how this document, with its earnest title, must have made him groan, but I suppose the claim not to be a thinker was by way of begging off making a response. All the same it was true: he was not a thinker. I described him once, years later, as very intelligent but not at all intellectual; he instantly agreed.
I’d also given him another essay, written the previous fall, about (of all things) a man named Jimmie Dodd, who in Mickey Mouse Club ears and a shirt emblazoned with his name had led the original Mouseketeers through their song and dance routines, back in the Fifties. JM did read that one, and wrote me a token response, but by this time he must have been wondering where on God’s green earth the Fates had delivered him. The third piece of reading I pressed upon him was Lionel Wiggam’s book, The Land of Unloving. Here at least he had his bearings. The poems were “small in more than one sense,” he wrote; and “There is either virtue or madness (or equal parts of both) in an idiom unchanged by the course of a quarter century.” Thus did JM dismiss Lionel and his work; but that story wasn’t quite finished, as we were to discover.
As dinner partners we were very oddly matched, as even I could see. He had told me he loved company; I knew the ethically correct thing would be to invite other people, make a little occasion of at least one of our evenings, but I didn’t do it. The thought of providing an edible meal for even a small group of graduate students was daunting; I had hardly ever “entertained.” And after the first evening I gave up any such notion completely. Not even my current boyfriend, fellow English TA Joe Pirri, got to come, not even once. That my guest would have enjoyed himself more in less unworldly, less Mousketeerish, less sober-sided company was a thought I thrust away. I wanted him all to myself.
(At the very end of his time at Wisconsin I called JM’s room about arrangements, and he was laughing when he answered. “The Yensers are here!” he announced. The Yensers! “We’re having drinks and talking about [whatever].” Drinks! In his room, where I had never been invited! Instantly I was pierced to the heart with jealousy, a first inkling of the agonies of sibling rivalry I would suffer for years over Stephen Yenser’s friendship with our shared mentor as it deepened in ways I could not hope to compete with. No, there was just no way I could have made myself include anyone else in those evenings in Madison.)
“He brought beer or a pint flask with him to dinner every time, smoked a great deal (cigarette holder), was nice about my not doing those things but not interested beyond politeness in why not,” says the journal. After consuming our casserole or spaghetti and salad, served on my landlady’s crockery at the kitchen table, we would adjourn to the other, or bed-sit, room of the apartment. I would perch on the daybed, he in the rocking chair, flask on the floor beside him. What did we talk about for three evenings, with only one of us drinking? Henry James, for one. My boyfriend Joe, for another; JM’s interest in that subject seemed genuine. His own name: a few old friends and family called him Jimmy, he said, but mostly he went by James; “I like James.” I made a plea on behalf of the physical pleasure to be derived from the “strenuous” sort of activities he had rejected; he retorted rather sharply that he gave his body plenty of pleasures of other kinds and didn’t need those.
My journal notes a few additional topics. “He has an independent income, which means he doesn’t have to work — doesn’t in fact, have to take Poet-in-Residence positions. . . . He dropped various maxims: ‘First impression are always (did he say always?) right,’ was one.” Glancing around my furnished apartment in the basement of my landlady’s house, he commented, a propos of nothing I recall, “You know this is a pretty [awful? dismal? some pejorative adjective] place, don’t you?” Knocked off balance, I said yes; but in fact it was the nicest of the four I’d rented in three years of graduate study. Ordinarily JM’s manners were impeccable; the remark seems out of character. One evening it emerged that my best-beloved 20th-century poet, Stephen Vincent Benét — soon to be the subject of my research, and eventually of my dissertation — had lived in Stonington, Connecticut, where JM himself owned a house he would soon return to. My delight upon learning this was almost instantly dampened, however, when he added, “You know Benét isn’t a very good poet, don’t you?” He pronounced the name BEN-ay. I’m ashamed to say that, flustered, I agreed with this as well.
But then he told a charming anecdote. When he was at school, he said, a friend — Frederick Buechner, in fact — had sent Benét one of his poems and gotten an encouraging letter in response. JM decided to follow his example, and had also received a letter from Benét—not, he said, perhaps quite so enthusiastic about his poem as about his friend’s. It was exactly the sort of kindness I would have expected from Benét and the story made me happy.
I first heard about the Ouija-board adventure during one of these after-dinner conversations, including such now-familiar details as that the “friend” with whom he approached the spirits was “the psychic one,” and that they had given up the board because it was consuming them, taking over their lives. The tale added a new (and slightly queasy-making) aspect to JM’s exotic aura. He seemed entirely serious, yet how could he be? It may have been on the same evening that he related what a woman friend (Maya Deren?) had told him about the native gods of some tropical country (Haiti?): that because the people no longer believed in them, their powers were fading. How sad, he said, and seemed to mean it. At a loss, I said nothing. He must have seen my perplexity and changed the subject.
On our first evening together, April 21, he arrived at the door very shaken, having just learned of the Colonels’ coup in Greece. I was, alas, as unable to respond to this news that had so shocked him as he had been to respond to ethics or Jimmie Dodd, and seeing this he dropped the subject and became sociable. It must have taken an effort. He told me that same evening that he had accepted the Wisconsin offer partly because, for personal reasons, he hadn’t wanted to be around his closest friends just then. In fact the reasons had to do with a devastating crisis in the relationship with his former lover Strato — who would now be living under a military dictatorship, with consequences impossible to imagine.
“At the door, after his third dinner, James shook my hand & both of us considered the possibility of a courteous kiss (I’m pretty sure), but I opened the door and he went through it10. Today, when he delivered me back [after lunch at a Chinese restaurant], he shook my hand again, darted in & kissed my cheek, then remembered to write his Stonington address in The (Diblos) Notebook, then let me kiss him too, and said I’d made the Wisconsin weeks less dreary or words to that effect.” Social kissing wasn’t part of my background; this was worth noting down. And then he drove away, leaving gifts—inscribed copies of The (Diblos) Notebook and Water Street, a record album (The Marriage of Figaro) — and feelings I would be sorting out for years to come.
At the end of this long entry, the journal attempts to sum up my impressions. I had done the math and figured out that JM was 41. “He is, I think, eminently refined and tasteful, probably homosexual (if Dave Keller’s pretty dependable rumors and my own sense of the lack of expectation — of physical waves, response, role-playing — are correct), probably also intellectually a rather simple man, though emotionally and psychologically I imagine he’s anything but simple. . . . He’s social, conversational, what is appropriately called ‘terribly charming,’ and I know that every second he’s holding back — or, better, declining to expose — not only something, but almost everything.” Then in a rush of words: “He captivates me, so much so that even knowing that what I‘ve seen is visible-iceburg-sized I want to have at him, know him, understand him and be his friend.” In frustration I add that “Everything that matters to him is buried much too deep for me to get to in 8 unimportunate weeks.”
The object of all this scrutiny and longing would have moaned aloud had he read these sentiments — though he might have guessed them, since he already knew that Lionel’s fending-off mannerisms had affected me in exactly the same way. Doesn’t the long history of detective fiction tell us that an impulse to get behind the mask, discover the secret, is the natural response to being shown a mystery? Not so natural, perhaps, in this poet who valued illusion in others and cultivated it in himself; yet by making himself particularly available, taking the trouble to provide clues and bestow gifts, catching an early plane back from St. Louis to attend my choir’s performance of Bruckner’s Grosse Messe — having already confided that choral music “just sounds like noise” to him — wasn’t he asking in a way for the torchlit hunt for Truth that I was to pursue from that day forward? He might well have preferred to be pursued by a less compulsive, less needy, more compatible peasant, yet there is an element of semiconscious collaboration in all this, as I see now for the first time, writing these sentences nearly 50 years after the end of that seminal semester.
The date of the summing-up entry was May 24, 1967. Confirmation had come a few weeks earlier that I’d been awarded a Fulbright “Lektorship” to Sweden — a teaching gig for graduate-level academics — at the University of Lund, and would be sailing on the Gripsholm in July, on my way to becoming less unworldly. At the end of this long entry I wrote, “Maybe Europe will be some kind of equalizer.”
I’ve emphasized my sense of how exotic James Merrill seemed to us in Madison. What’s equally obvious in this account is that I myself was very far from being a standard-issue young female graduate student of American literature. My own oddness showed less plainly, though some of it could be deduced from the essays I had burdened him with — the one on ethics, the other about the leader of the long-disbanded Mouseketeers — and also from my eschewing makeup and feminine clothing, and from a certain Ellen DeGeneres-style mannishness in the way I moved. A few years after Madison, when I cut my long, peeled-back, often braided hair, JM thought the change an improvement: “Pigtailed for action,” he told me when he’d seen the new do, “you could have been the child of that couple in American Gothic…that hair wasn’t so much either mannish or feminine as sexless.’”
Sexless is right on target. Born in Louisville to working-class parents, I grew up from age three in Cincinnati, where my father went to art school on the G.I. Bill, then took a job in a commercial art studio. My parents had finished high school — exceptional in both their families — but neither had gone to college. They were Fundamentalists and so was I — profoundly so, until I broke with the Conservative Baptists, as a college freshman, over evolution.
We were upwardly mobile, but cultural enrichment and worldly vice were equally absent from this background. Surrounded throughout childhood by adults who neither smoked nor drank, then sent to a Presbyterian college where drinking on or off campus could get you expelled, I tried neither of these vices — nor pot, a third — until I’d started graduate school at Colorado State in 1964, at which point I systematically worked my way through everything I’d always been sternly cautioned not to do. I’d made it all the way through college with my virginity (barely) intact, but recreational sex was the one proscribed activity I happily indulged thereafter. But smoking was disagreeable, and alcohol and marijuana made me feel bad, and obscurely frightened. I didn’t try to overcome these responses.
So far, so ordinary, if unusually straitlaced. What was not ordinary: as far back as I could remember, I’d wished desperately to be a boy.
In grade school I’d played Tarzan with boys in the woods, climbed trees and swung on ropes like a monkey, and gotten away with it because my mother assumed that puberty would straighten me out. Instead, when my breasts grew enormous and my heavy periods came with crippling cramps, I had panic attacks and heard voices singing. My father’s avid interest in the loathsome breasts intensified the terror. My novels dramatize much of this; I won’t go into detail here, but will only explain that as a very young child I had been felt up by chain-smoking, inebriated members of my father’s step-family of alcoholics, and that my mother and grandmother, who were supposed to be protecting me, had done nothing to stop it. I remember none of this, and did not understand (or report) my sinking dread later on, when we would visit Louisville and I was left to spend the night at Grandma’s house, where two of the perpetrators continued to menace me until I was eight or nine.
Many years of therapy led finally to the conclusion that, from the age of not-quite-three, I had viewed women as faithless and powerless and had somehow determined not to identify with them11; which meant that the young person who screwed up her courage and invited James Merrill to dinner was afflicted with severe gender dysphoria. During the very weeks that our course was going on, I worried in my journal about being “really neurotic about wine — or beer, or whatever else, that has alcohol in it” (when Joe imbibed it, though evidently not when JM did). I also recall standing in the library stacks that spring, reading avidly about female-to-male transsexual surgery. “I’m having troubles again being reconciled to femaleness all my life,” I’d written awkwardly the previous January. “I certainly ought to have been a man.” From my unrecognized breakdown at 13 I’d been rescued, improbably, by Mickey Mouse Club, or more accurately by Jimmie Dodd. It would take 20 years and two more crackups before killer anxiety was to drive me into the treatments that eventually provided a way of understanding what went wrong.
I couldn’t remember a time when I hadn’t wanted to be a boy. I had this thing about gay men. But decades would pass before I understood that the boy I wanted to be was himself gay — so he might have nothing intimate to do with women at all.
No sooner had JM driven off in his VW beetle than I sat down and read The (Diblos) Notebook in one gluttonous gulp. That same day I recorded ruefully that “I was hunting too hard for James in it & by consequence missed both James & the novel. I’ll try again later when I’ve had time to cool.” My first letter to him, written several weeks later, admits as much, but adds, “I have an idea that I’ll like it less, even later and cooler, than THE SERAGLIO, to which I devoted parts of several days in Mr. Pollak’s rare book room. I had to endure Mr. Pollak, too, to do it; no small compliment, that. What’ zis, what’ zis, you got a crush on him or something? . . . Anyway, I liked it very much.” I went further, confessing that “I read it the wrong way too (how much of you is Francis? how much of Francis is you?) but it didn’t seem to make as much difference. . . . I recognized the Ouija board story you told me the first night you came to dinner and was amused when Francis discovers what a good conversation piece it makes.” My news was that Joe and I had gone camping for a week, that I had followed JM’s example and acquired contact lenses, and that I’d received a postcard from Lionel, whom I would be meeting for dinner in New York before boarding the Gripsholm. “I expect it’ll be fun, but wildly superficial”; in the circumstances I would just have to let him be “phony and desperate.” I also reported to JM that I’d written a sestina about him, my first — but not, not then, that the sestina had been inspired by the extraordinary effect his picture on The Seraglio’s dust jacket had had on me. I couldn’t have explained it then, but looking at that image of a 10-years-younger JM had been like looking into a mirror and seeing myself: a different but complementary person, recognized and loved on sight, urgently necessary to understand.
JM’s first letter to me was preceded by a postcard, with a photo identified on the back as “OLD WHISTLER HOUSE, STONINGTON, CONN. Home of the late Stephen Vincent Benét” — a typical kindness, as I would learn. The letter, dated June 15 and responding to mine, is chatty and breezy, and shows no sign of the uneasiness I’d half-expected from him upon learning of my avid detective work and sestina-writing. “I’m glad you liked the Seraglio. I like it too, there’s more to hang on to.” A remaindered copy was on its way to me — news that thrilled me as much as his final paragraph disturbed me. “Did you enjoy at all that little chamber war in the Middle East? I thought it had ‘concentration and gusto’ — two of the 3 things Miss [Marianne] Moore looks for in poetry (the third is humility) — and could well serve as an example to other wars in the present + future—but I can see, from here, that I’m not amusing you.”12 Indeed he was not. Declaring that public figures are asking to be vilified, avoiding Vietnam, and now trivializing the Six Days War? It was disturbing; but if this was part of who he was, I needed to know.
“Everything that matters to him is buried much too deep for me to get to in 8 unimportunate weeks.”
I was getting ready to go abroad for a year, and very busy. My next letter, dated July 5, thanked him for the book and recounted something of my travels and labors. I joked about my reservation (made for me by Lionel, at his suggestion) at the Barbizon Hotel for Women at 63rd and Lexington for two nights, before I would board the ship on the 21st. I may have had an ulterior motive in giving him this information; at any rate I’d only just arrived in my room from the airport, on the afternoon of the 19th, when he surprised and delighted me by calling to say bon voyage. And no sooner had we hung up than the phone rang again: Lionel, arranging to meet me in the lobby.
What ensued that evening and the next day was nothing at all like what I’d expected. Whatever it was, it was neither fun nor superficial; and after writing five journal pages about what had happened, I then used six sheets of Barbizon letterhead note paper to tell JM about it — not surprising, I suppose, given that Lionel and JM had been linked in my imagination from the beginning, and that the phone call the night before had brought the latter vividly to mind.
In a recent journal entry I had written, “Lionel both treasures and fears me.” This was perceptive; but two powerful yet opposed feelings for an imperfectly known person, myself, should have been a red flag — would have been later on, when I’d learned something about how transference works. At any rate, some of the encounter did go as expected. Lionel was very, very nervous, which at first put me at (relative) ease. He said he’d gone back into group therapy. The point of the evening was a quick guided tour, to orient me for the following day when I was to sightsee on my own till dinnertime. The tour was actually very helpful, he’d given some thought to it; but also, bewilderingly, he kept attacking me. He jabbered and chattered, ranging widely through a barrage of comments and questions, breaking off once to ask, Why didn’t I say anything? It was like bleeding me to make me talk. I would try to respond to his questions, but he kept pouncing on whatever I said and wrenching it into its least attractive sense. Under the mask of hospitality stalked an astonishing amount of hostility. It seemed good that we would be having dinner in his apartment the following evening, when the first flood of nervousness might have abated and the time might pass more pleasantly. I thought we had plenty of time.
Not so, however. Coming back from the UN the next day, I bumped into Lionel as I was returning to the hotel; he had just dropped off a note to say dinner was off, he’d been suddenly called out of town. But he suggested we go into the Barbizon coffee shop, and there he let me have it. Something he’d written once, that more than anyone he’d ever known I was a kind of externalized conscience for him, now became the peevishly voiced complaint that “I always felt on trial with you.” I went after people I admired, such as himself, in order to “depose” them, protect myself from being hurt. (Unable to produce a reply on the spot, I said I would write him an answer. Sure, he said, when I won’t be there to answer back.) He declared that I needed to be hurt terribly, to shake up my sense of security. Having praised my honesty in letter after letter, he now accused me of ramming honesty down people’s throats.
Mostly I sat stunned beneath this onslaught, but I did speak up at that swipe, saying I didn’t tell people what I actually thought unless they asked to be told. Oh, he said, and I suppose they learn not to ask twice? The refined character who had never been coarse in letters or in my hearing now aggressively said “shit” and “balls” and that the Barbizon behind us was probably “full of horny lesbians.” He may have been a little drunk. Certainly he was beside himself with rage. It’s possible that the hostility of the previous evening had caught him as much by surprise as it had me, and may have warned him to invent some excuse not to spend any more time in my company; but if so, circumstances had foiled him.
Finally he got up and ordered me to leave through the back door of the coffee shop, which led into the lobby of the hotel. When I picked up my key at the desk, I found that besides the note Lionel had also left me a used copy of E. M. Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread. Sensing a message in the choice, I tried to read some of it once I was back in my room, but was too shocked and upset to focus on the story; instead I turned to my journal, and then to JM. The drubbing should have made me angry — it does now — but all I felt then was pain. Even that afternoon I realized “at least some of what must be grinding at him,” and had the sense to wonder “how much of the trouble is on my side.”
If nothing that had passed between us up to this point had caused JM to distance himself from me, that letter might have done it; but his relish for scenes of passion and betrayal is a matter of record, and in fact my plight seemed to touch a sympathetic nerve. His reply, which reached me in Sweden, is dated July 22, the same day my cri de coeur arrived in Stonington. It’s a wonderful letter, well worth quoting in its entirely:
My first thought on a second reading of your letter was, How fitting for that kind of scene with Lionel to take place on the virtual eve of your departure from America. One learns from all the best books that nobody returns unchanged from Europe — or at least that the best people don’t. Not everyone, though, gets quite as elaborate a kick-off as you did. It is all very complicated. We all know better than to idealize other people, as you and Lionel did one another in certain ways. We know perfectly well that friends and strangers alike are fallible—even ‘insecure’, to use a word he is perhaps fond of—yet it never stops us from expecting to find an Adult behind a 20- or 40- or 60-year-old mask. I hate scenes myself, hate getting angry, hate hurting people I love and who I know love me, yet it happens, I do it, they do it, and somehow the horrified heart accommodates the memory of those hardly believable instants. If Lionel is in group therapy, you can perhaps take his behavior as a compliment: he was treating you the way he treats the people who are right now more important to him than anyone else. Then there is the whole question of the age difference. Don’t underestimate it. Yours is the age where one chiefly receives impressions; his is the age where one chiefly makes them. You are still transparent, he is already opaque. If he does not love himself, or to the degree that he isn’t satisfied with the kind of person he has become, to that same degree it would be possible for him to feel your interest + receptiveness as the ultimate torture—forgetting, of course, that he isn’t transparent, that you will never fully distinguish this or that glaring (to his eyes) weakness. Perhaps I’m talking partly about myself. But I’d like to think that I thought of human character as having a comic structure (for all that one need only live closely with someone for a few years to disprove that hypothesis) — but here I grind to a halt, on the verge of saying that life is neither real nor earnest, which may be a truth too close to the bone to bear sober utterance. All I know is that when one takes people very seriously indeed one either hurts them, or is hurt by them, or both. My ethics in this respect were formed by Lotte Lehmann in Rosenkavalier, Act I—’Light must we be, light-hearted and light-handed…’ Go to the opera, won’t you, while you’re there? If only to Bergman’s production of “The Rake’s Progress” which is said to be a great, great thing, and will probably be in repertoire at Stockholm. See how easy it is to change the subject?
I’ve been reading ‘The Last Puritan’. Thought if it bored your freshmen it might entertain me, as indeed it has done, at least until the War breaks out. Perhaps only the old should be allowed to write novels. Did you ever read ‘The Leopard”? Or Rose Macaulay’s ravishing ‘Towers of Trebizond’?—written when she was around 80. So much less stuffy, less upholstered than all those books eye-deep in a contemporary scene, taxis and smalltalk and sententiousness…What I wanted to say above, and didn’t, is only this: one doesn’t always have the choice, but when one is fond of somebody one owes it to them not to let them hurt you—can you pierce that flurry of pronouns? Be strong.
Another misty evening has fallen. I am on a bland diet, no alcohol, not even a drink to look forward to. But it’s better than Madison, by + large. More records, more rooms. I hope you are practising formal manners to greet your colleagues and students with. Many of the former may expect to kiss your hand. Don’t flinch. Be strong.
This is insightful, caring, and enormously kind, and I was more grateful to have it than I can say, though he is only partly right. Lionel had demonized as well as idealized me. I had, not idealized, but identified with him, as I had already begun to identify with JM. The New York bullyboy was no more the “real” Lionel than the flattering correspondent had been. He would live almost 40 years beyond that scene in the Barbizon coffee shop, and I would write him two more letters many month later (which he would answer), but I never saw him again; if the “good and human man” I still believed in, cowering inside that suit of mail, did manage to burst his cloudy breastplates one day, I was never to know. But it mattered less than it might have once. After this exchange with JM, the torch had been passed. •
1 The James Cummins Bookseller website has this to say (a copy of The Sun Also Rises, inscribed to LW by Hemingway, is being offered for sale):
“Lionel Wiggam was a poet, screenwriter, short story writer, and one-time male model who lived on the edge of celebrity without ever quite becoming a household name. He wrote the screenplay for the 1947 movie ‘Smash Up,’ starring Susan Hayward and Eddie Albert. Who could forget ‘Tap Roots,’ from 1948, starring Hayward, Van Heflin, and Boris Karloff? The answer is that most people have. Wiggam continued writing and publishing stories at least into the 1960s.” And poetry; The Land of Unloving was published by Macmillan in 1961.
Tennessee Williams mentions Wiggam’s early poetry collection in his Notebook for 1936, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton. “We saw Lionel Wiggam’s new book ‘Landscape with Figures.’ Clark [Mills] expressed his contempt for Wiggam—I said ‘Of course he’s a typical romantic.’ And quoted two very lovely lines from one of his poems.” A footnote informs us that “Williams would borrow aspects of Wiggam’s poems in his work, including his title Landscape with Figures for a pair of short plays, ‘At Liberty’ and ‘This Property Is Condemned.’
LW died on August 16, 2005. He was either 88 or 90, depending on which given birth date is accurate. His obituary in the Princeton Alumni Weekly for Dec. 14, 2005, provides the information that “In his earlier days, he was considered one of the Ford Modeling Agency’s top 10 models.” And a fellow Princetonian comments: “I lived in the same building as Lionel Wiggam and John Pegues-Kelley at 1020 Third Ave. in New York City for close to 10 years. He was a very pleasant man and a great neighbor!”
John Pegues-Kelley died in 2004. Among his survivors listed in the funeral home announcement is “his friend, Lionel Wiggam.” ^
2 I must have written this 16-line sonnet-like poem, pretentiously called “Lacrimae Rerum,” in the spring of 1965, while in the master’s program in English at Colorado State University. Its elevated, antiquated language reflects what I was reading at the time — all classics, no contemporaries — but there is no scheme to its rhymes; in fact three lines don’t rhyme at all. This must represent what passed with me at the time as “experimental.” I reproduce it here to demonstrate that masking was very much on my mind before I had ever met James Merrill or read any of his work.
There are few faces left with mouths and eyes
That have not turned to masks of vacant pits
Weeping out lacquered gore like Oedipus,
And ridged jaw-muscles locked upon a smirk.
Faces crowd past, each closed in its disguise,
Sunken eye-pockets bleeding painted tears.
O lost and coffined faces piteous!
You can be resurrected if you dare
Destroy and cast the scaly viperous fears
From out the entombments in you where they lurk,
Coiling and fastening the little fangs
Whose venom turns you blind and hideous.
Not one of you believes that in the rest
The same fears coil and strike; that everywhere
Behind locked faces fiercely the valved heart
Lurches the hasped and rib-stockaded chest. ^
5 And still does. Antler has continued to write, and has won several literary awards, among them (quoting from his website) “the 1987 Witter Bynner Prize awarded annually ‘to an outstanding younger poet by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York City, and the 1985 Walt Whitman Award, given annually to an author ‘whose contribution best reveals the continuing presence of Walt Whitman in American poetry.’” Antler’s book-length poem Factory was published in 1980 as #38 in the City Lights Pocket Poet Series, and praised by Allen Ginsberg, who also had high praise for his second book, Last Words ( Ballentine, 1986). He is a committed environmentalist, pacifist, and gay activist. ^
6 Jeff also went on to publish poems, win significant awards (a 1987 “Discovery Award” from PEN), see his work praised by Allen Ginsberg, and become an activist for gay causes and the environmental. At last report, he and Antler were still friends. ^
7 My note inviting him to a third dinner çhez moi begins: “Dear James—When is it that the Duncan shendig [sic] was to happen, tonight (Monday) or tomorrow night?” From this I deduce that a “shindig” must have been thrown for Duncan by the Department, in conjunction with his reading, and that “James” had been planning to attend it. If I went myself the memory is lost; but it doesn’t sound as if I expected to. ^
9 A version of this essay, retitled “The Habit of Imagining,” appeared in The Christian Century for December 24, 1975, pp. 1176-1179. Essentially it’s a critique and reframing of the Golden Rule, and it comes out where Immanuel Kant did, at the Categorical Imperative. ^
12 James Merrill to Judith Moffett, letter, June 15, 1967. © 1967, 2015 by The Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University, courtesy of the James Merrill Archive at the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC. ^
Photos courtesy of the author. Letter excerpts © 1967, 2015 by The Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University, courtesy of the James Merrill Archive at the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.