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James Merrill Remembered

Two dreams from late spring/early summer 1995, by Rachel Hadas
http://www.RachelHadas.com

INTRODUCTION

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.

May

The latest dream: a lofty hotel lobby,
honeycombed with entrances and exits.
Feeling weak, I find a corner, lean
against the pale gold alabaster wall,
and feel its coolness seep into my shoulders.
Suddenly you appear and hurry past me
on your way out. An open door, a car
waiting ... I summon all my strength to say
before you vanish just how much I loved you.
I think you hear. You smile and then are gone.
The lobby like a hive, the steady stream
of transients moving in, out, up, and down;
empty and crowded world. Again alone,
I lean against the coolness of the stone.

Tea and a Dream

One eye open, on its little island
in the hotel moat, a green lagoon,
an alligator loiters. Four o'clock:
tea in the lobby with my hungry son.
Darjeeling, scones, meringues; but you are gone.
Pennies tossed into the fountain splash.
What do we wish for? Hush.

It is too late for thanks.
Repayment, rather--in what mortal coin?
You blow toward us in the soft Gulf breeze,
you shine on us in fitful springtime sun,
dismembered into myriad legacies,
scattered among the elements. You're gone,
an absence palpitating in my dream.

A black glass elevator,
sliding down the outside of a building,
shudders to a halt on the ground floor.
The passengers, all poets, getting out,
look at one another. It is dawn.
Has there been a party? You are gone.
Through avenues still silent we move off

in different directions
toward separate obligations
that await us--families, jobs, and time,
a lifetime's sum of days
on this strange foundation. You are gone.
The black box, emptied of its cargo, light,
rides again to a Parnassian height.

--Rachel Hadas

EDITOR'S NOTE

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.

--Chris Wayan



LISTS AND LINKS: friends - mentors - heritages - souls - death - revenants (the dead returning) - grief - letting go - towers - ascent - dream-poems - a third dream-poem of Rachel remembering a friend: Around Lake Erie and Across the Hudson -

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