James Merrill Remembered
Two dreams from late spring/early summer 1995, by Rachel Hadas
I've dreamed about James Merrill many times, both during the twenty-six years of our friendship and since his death. In the two poems that follow, Merrill's death makes itself felt obliquely. These poems aren't joyful if fantastical reunions, like "Around Lake Erie and Across the Hudson". Rather, they both in different ways explore the way a person no longer living is nevertheless central--a presence, a motivation.
In "May," Merrill is present, but just barely; he hurries away as if for an important appointment the nature of which is all too easy to imagine. In "Tea and a Dream," he is absent--"gone"--but in a sense all the more present.
Both dreams contain large public structures--a lobby, an elevator--and are populated by groups of people--specifically, in "Tea and a Dream," by poets. This sense of a group is absolutely true to the feeling after Merrill's death of a circle of grieving friends, many of whom were poets. No one person could claim to have been central to Jimmy's life, but then no one had to bear the loss alone either. As Richard Kenney wrote to me at the time, "We all collapse a little; may it be toward each other."
And toward Merrill too. For both these poems, like "Around Lake Erie," use the second person, lyric poetry's distinctive way of turning toward the person to whom the poet speaks. The intimacy of apostrophe is in no way invalidated by the death of the person addressed.
Elizabeth Bishop dreamed at least once about George Herbert. Robert Frost did appear to me in a dream years ago--was it because as a child I'd met the famous old man? I don't dream, or haven't yet, of Sappho or Keats, Dickinson or Whitman. But I feel very fortunate that the poet who was my dear friend continues to be a living presence in my dreams.
The latest dream: a lofty hotel lobby,
Tea and a Dream
One eye open, on its little island
It is too late for thanks.
A black glass elevator,
in different directions
This account is from Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams (ed. by Roderick Townsley, 1998, Univ. Of Pittsburgh Press). An excellent retrospective of Rachel's poetry including "May" is Halfway Down the Hall (1998, Wesleyan Univ. Press). Highly recommended; it's available through her website above.
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