THE FRIEND OF THE FOURTH DECADE
~ by James Merrill
When I returned with nuts and drinks my friend
Had moved to to the window seat, back to the view.
The clear central pane around which ran
Smaller ones, stained yellow, crimson, blue,
Framed our country’s madly whipping flag,
Its white pole above roofs, the sea beyond.
That it was time for the flag to be lowered
Shed light on his tactful disinvolvement–
Or did he feel as punishment somehow
Those angry little stripes upon his shoulders?
A huge red sun flowed positively through
Him in spots, glazing, obscuring his person
To that of Anyman with ears aglow,
On a black cushion, gazing inward, mute.
After dinner he said, “I’m tired of understanding
The light in people’s eyes, the smells, the food.
(By the way, those veal birds were delicious.
They’re out of Fannie Farmer? I thought so.)
Tired of understanding what I hear,
The tones, the undertones. Of knowing
Just what clammy twitchings thrive
Under such cold flat stones
As for what I catch myself saying,
Don’t believe me! I despise Thoreau.
I mean to learn, in the language of where I am going,
Barely enough to ask for food and love.
“Listen,” he went on, “I have this friend–
What’s that face for? Did you think I had only one?
You are my oldest friend, remember. Well,
This new friend collects stamps. I now spend mornings
With a bowl of water and my postcard box.
Cards from all over. God! Those were the years
I never used to throw out anything.
Each card then soaks five minutes while its ink
Turns to exactly the slow formal swirls
Through which a phoenix flies on Chinese silk.
These leave the water darker but still clear,
The text unreadable. It’s true!
Cards from my mother, my great uncle, you!
And the used waters deepen the sea’s blue.
“I cannot tell you what this does for me.
Scene after scene’s immersion and emergence
Rinsed of the word. The Golden Gate, Moroccan
Dancing boys, the Alps from Interlaken,
Fuji, the Andes, Titian’s Venus, two
Mandrills from the Cincinnati zoo–
All that survives the flood, as does a lighter
Heart than I have had in many a day.
Salt lick big as a fist, heart, hoard
Of self one grew up prizing above rubies–
To feel it even by a grain dissolved,
Absolved I mean, recipient with writer,
By holy water from the tap, by air that dries,
Of having cared and having ceased to care…”
I nodded and listened, envious. When my friend
Had gone where he was going. I tried it, too.
The stamp slid off, of course, and the ink woke.
I watched my mother’s Dearest Son unfurl
In blue ornate brief plungings-up,
Almost a wild iris taking shape.
I heard oblivion’s thin siren singing,
And bore it bravely. At the hour’s end,
I had my answer. Chances are it was
Some simple matter of what ink she used,
And yet her message remained legible,
The memories it stirred did not elude me.
I put my postcards back upon the shelf.
Certain things die only with oneself.
“You should see Muhammed’s taxi,” wrote my friend.
“Pure junkyard Bauhaus, angular, dented white,
It trails a wedding veil of squawking dust,
Each ride is worth your life– except I’m just
Not afraid. I’m not.
Those chiefly who discern us have the juju
To take our lives. Bouncing beside Muhammed,
I smile and smoke, am indestructible.
Or else I just can’t picture dying
On foreign soil. These years are years of grace.
The way I feel towards home is . . . dim.
Don’t worry, I’ll go back. Honeymoons end.
Nor does the just man cheat his native earth
Of its inalienable right to cover him.”
Finally a dung-and-emerald oasis,
No place I knew of. “Here,” he wrote on the back,
“Individual and type are one.
Do as I please, I am the simpleton
Whose last exploit is to have been exploited
Neck and crop. In the usual bazaar,
Darker, more crisscrossed than a beggar’s palm,
Smell of money draws them after me,
I answer to whatever name they call,
Drink the sweet black condescending dregs,
Try on their hungers like a shirt of flame
(Well, a sports shirt of flame) whereby I’ve been
Picked clean, reborn each day increasingly
Conspicuous, increasingly unseen.”
Behind a door marked DANGER
(This a dream I have about my friend),
Swaddlings of our whole civilization,
Prayers, accounts, long priceless scroll,
Whip, hawk, prow, queen, down to some last
Lost comedy, all that fine writing
Rigid with rains and suns,
Are being gingerly unwound.
There. Now the mirror. Feel the patient’s heart
Pounding– dear God, this once–
Till nothing moves but to a drum.
See his eyes darken in bewilderment–
No, in joy– and his lips part
To greet the perfect stranger.
Each of the eight sections in James Merrill’s poem is fourteen lines in length, a sort of modernist sonnet sequence, limpidly clear as a glass bowl filled with water, and a perfectly inflected short story told in off-hand conversation. (Merrill wrote novels and plays, as well.) See his poem, “The Broken Home,” also told in fourteen-line segments, a recapitulation of his famous father’s life-course, for a similarly artful narrative.
I love how this piece evokes the age of postcards, before the quick e-mail blast or the Facebook posting, before Twitter, before voice-mail, and before texting on cell phones. I saw an exhibit of Merrill’s postcards to friends, and very often he was writing to tell them at what address he’d be and when, also at what phone number he could be reached when he arrived. So postcards, along with phone calls and parties, were his “social media.”