One of the most important American poets of the twentieth century, James Merrill, is the subject of this summer’s online feature by Herman Asarnow. He elaborates on his admiration for Merrill’s lyrical poem “Pearl,” which appeared in 1995’s A Scattering of Salts. Asarnow’s unpacking of Merrill’s poem also ushers in Poetry Northwest’s newest issue, “Enthusiasms.” Look for it on newsstands and in bookstores this summer.
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Well, I admit
A small boy’s eyes grew rounder and lips moister
To find it invisibly chained, at home in the hollow
Of his mother’s throat: the real, deepwater thing.
Far from the mind at six to plumb
X-raywise those glimmering lamplit
Asymmetries to self-immolating mite
Or angry grain of sand
Not yet proverbial. Yet his would be the hand
Mottled with survival–
She having slipped (how? when?) past reach–
That one day grasped it. Sign of what
But wisdom’s trophy. Time to mediate,
Skin upon skin, so cunningly they accrete,
The input. For its early mote
Reborn as orient moon to gloat
In verdict over the shucked, outsmarted meat….
One layer, so to speak, of calcium carbonate
That formed in me is the last shot
–I took the seminar I teach
In loss to a revival–
Of Sasha Guitry’s classic Perles de la Couronne.
The hero has tracked down
His prize. He’s holding forth, that summer night,
At the ship’s rail, all suavity and wit,
Gem swaying like a pendulum
From his fing—oops! To soft bubble-blurred harpstring
Arpeggios regaining depths (man the camera, follow)
Where an unconscious world, my yawning oyster,
Shuts on it.
–James Merrill, from A Scattering of Salts, 1995
James Merrill’s “Pearl”
Reader, banish your fear of the feeling you get when you don’t know at first glance what a poem is saying. Tighten your self-esteem’s seatbelts and ride with me in a high revving poem—beautiful of form and function—that fires twelve cylinders of poetic effects and yet packs its greatest power in a two word aside. James Merrill’s “Pearl,” a poem published just before his death in 1995, ripples with the poet’s power to manipulate language and form to set forth the tenderest, most primal feeling, love of one’s mother, and to show us through its imagery and form that it takes a lifetime even to approach an understanding of how the raw rub of the grit of our experience might, someday, grow in us the nacre of wisdom, a jewel for which we must pay deeply.
First, look at this poem, survey its territory on the page. Notice that the short line at the center, “Of grit,” hinges two equal halves, and that the last line, also short, “Shuts on it,” rhymes with it—as does, you notice, the first line, “Well, I admit.” We haven’t even started reading, but now we see this poem might be about circling back to beginnings. Being curious about these rhymes, we check further and discover that the second line of the poem and the second-to-last, and so forth, also rhyme, which confirms that we should watch for patterns signaled at the start and returned to later.
Next, read the poem’s sentences, ignoring the line breaks.
Immediately, notice the first sentence stretching the bounds of everyday language by switching subjects—from the poet-“I” to a six-year-old boy moved as he sees a beautiful pearl “at home in the hollow/Of his mother’s throat.” We notice, too, that the boy is emotionally moved without being able at his age to know or wonder how the “mite” of a grain of sand can, in this life, this world, result in something beautiful. (In a later reading, we will suddenly understand that Merrill here puns ironically because that “mite” is also mighty in birthing a pearl, in giving rise to understanding.) The switch in the first sentence’s subject tells us we’re reading a poem of reflection—and, if we remember how the rhymes suggest a circular pattern to the poem’s thought, we may also now expect that the poem will be about how the unknowing boy of six comes to know how life’s grit itself perishes (is “self-immolating”) even though it is the origin of the pearl of wisdom.
Now, see how the poem’s next three sentences confirm our supposition that the boy, as a man of age, “Mottled with survival,” will be he who will have “one day grasped” how the pearl he once viewed round-eyed and moist-lipped would suggest to him “wisdom’s trophy” and how “Time” “mediate[s]” “cunningly” the accretion of layers of experience, “the input” that can turn grit to a pearl. But there’s pain in this, too. His growing awareness happens over the speaker’s life in contrast to his unawareness that his mother, the bearer of the pearl (ironically, what serves as the grit for his eventual pearl of wisdom), has “slipped (how? when?) past reach.“ Wisdom may be attainable, but sometimes at the expense of our attention to those we love, the loss of whom we can acknowledge, and dare bare painfully, only in a parenthetical aside, because we realize—too late and painfully—that we have taken too little care, absorbed as we are in such worldly wonders as grit becoming pearl.
As we follow the poem’s thought, we realize now it’s no sappy poem peddling the complacent adage that age brings wisdom. The next sentence, that the beautiful “orient moon” of the grit-turned-jewel “gloat[s]/In verdict over the shucked, outsmarted meat….”adds to the poem’s mental toughness. It leverages three insights: the speaker’s memory of his mother’s death, his pain at his inability to attend sufficiently to the how and when of her death, and the universal pain of loss-through-death that never loses its mystery for us humans. All this raises our awareness of an irony embedded in the transformation of grit to pearl. The pearl survives the beloved mother who wore it, as it survives the oyster that bore it, as the poet—the mother’s pearl—also (painfully, because of his loss of her) survives the mother who bore him.
The next sentence, a long one, returns the poem’s subject to the “I” of the first line, informing us of an important shift in the poem to the speaker’s reflection of how his layers of understanding, the “layer[s]…of calcium carbonate/That formed in me,” have accreted. (Even beauteous pearls and wisdom are, in the end, just chemicals.) This sentence’s one layer of wisdom is embodied in the speaker’s making the connection between a scene in an old movie and his life—“the seminar I teach/in loss”—which has been a life-long study of the pain from such things as his mother’s death and his barely aware apprehension of it. The hero of the film and the speaker of the poem are alike. Having “tracked down/His prize,” a pearl he has been searching for, the movie hero is “holding forth…/At the ship’s rail, all suavity and wit,/Gem swaying like a pendulum/From his fing—“, just as the poem’s speaker has been commenting suavely in this stylish, formally glittering poem on his memories of his mother’s pearl and the ideas of loss and the inability to be fully aware even of important relationships. Then—“oops!”—the movie hero drops the long-sought pearl overboard, just as the poem’s speaker had dropped his memories of his mother and the felt presence of her death in his life.
The poem’s last sentence, invoking the sounds of a silly, Hollywood swirl of liquid arpeggios, like the poem’s circular and layered rhyme scheme, drops the pearl back to its source, “an unconscious world, my yawning oyster.” The poet reminds us with the harsh words unconscious and yawning set against the romantic musical backdrop that the world little notes, nor long remembers what we did here. In fact, like his mother’s (and soon the mottled poet’s) earthy grave, this oyster swallows (“shuts”—with all the finality of that word) on the life it originated.
This poem’s layers of poetic effects literally center on the grit that was, for the poet, his mother’s death. The layers of the pearl of his life have been the reflecting and reflecting and reflecting he has done on her death and on all the losses he has experienced as a human being. Painful, beautiful, hard-won, easily lost: James Merrill in his last year here took stock of what has made life for him an exquisite pearl that gains lustre when set next to very human skin, his mother’s and his own.
Seven First-Steps for Reading a Poem
- Put your “mental feet” up before you begin reading! Sit back and relax, and don’t be anxious if you are unsure, if you feel confused, if you don’t understand something in the poem.
- Take in what the poem looks like, it’s shape on the page, how it starts, how it ends.
- Read the poem according to its sentences, not its line-breaks (which you can think about later).
- “See, feel, smell, taste, hear” (in your mind) the imagery and metaphors, imagine them happening, act them out physically, if you have trouble “seeing” them.
- Palpate the poem’s words to feel the bones and organs beneath their denotative skin.
- Read the poem aloud: hear and feel the poem’s sounds and rhythms with your body.
- Only after the first reading, look up what you don’t know–words, allusions, anything you don’t know, and read the poem at least three times.
Herman Asarnow is the author of Glass-Bottom Boat (Higganum Hill Books, 2007), a collection of his recent poetry. Asarnow’s poems have appeared in such venues as The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, Meridian, Tar River Poetry, Southern Humanities Review, and West Branch. His essays can be found in North Dakota Quarterly, Cincinnati Review, High Plains Literary Review, Iron Horse Quarterly, and Portland Magazine. And his translations of the poetry of Noni Benegas, one of Spain’s leading contemporary poets, have been published in Marlboro Review and Meridian.
This feature on James Merrill appears appears exclusively in Poetry Northwest Online. Subscribe today