James Merrill

Beauty and its double


During this week in Venice I have been trying to work out why I (and countless writers, painters and composers) love the place so much. Well, there is water of course. I have a thing for cities on water (Stockholm being another favourite city), perhaps because movement invariably slows. Brodsky said  that there is something ‘primordial about traveling on water’. In London we look at the river – some of my favourite aspects of the city are from the Thames – we cross it back and forth over bridges constantly, but we are seldom on it. Although the underground is a necessary means for navigating London, it removes us from the city by taking us below it, and so we miss the engagement with the street and what is happening there in real time (which is why I favour the bus, when I’m not in a hurry!).   

To get back to Brodsky, a long-time resident of Venice, he talks about the way that water unsettles the principle of horizontality, especially at night, when its surface resembles pavement. No matter how solid its substitute – the deck – under your feet, on water you are somewhat more alert than ashore, your faculties are more poised. On water, for instance, you never get absent-minded the way you do in the street: your legs keep you and your wits in constant check, as if you were some kind of compass. Well, perhaps what sharpens your wits while traveling on water is indeed a distant, roundabout echo of the good old chordates. At any rate, your sense of the other on water gets keener, as though heightened by a common as well as a mutual danger. The loss of direction is a psychological category as much as it is a navigational one.


This idea of being unsettled and alert is perhaps another reason I keep returning here. Nowhere else in the world feels so unreal (partly because of the efforts of tourists and those who cater to them to turn the place into Disneyworld); Venice has not been allowed to come into the modern age. Apart from the odd modern Scarpa-designed building, it remains firmly in its past (which is why so many poets have compared it to a graceful dowager). Its past is its glory.

Despite that, so much has been created here in the last hundred-odd years. James’s late novels, Wagner’s Tristan, and poems by Byron and Shelly, Browning, Brodsky, Merrill and Hecht, and of course, Pound’s Cantos. This city attracts those from other places who arrive, often in exile from where they started. It feels a final destination. Peter Ackroyd wrote ‘the perpetual sound of bells is a rehearsal for death’, especially when you think of those who have come here to die (fictional as well as actual).


Which brings me to death, decay, ruin. Venice is frail, crumbling. Water degrades its marble and stone, there is a delicate patina of rust and algae over its surface. James said ‘Venice is the most beautiful sepulchre in the world.’ And so it is. You are nowhere more reminded of demise anywhere else.

So I am here, with a group of poets (some visiting for the first time), exploring and thinking and writing. Trying to find something new to say about this place which has been written about thousands of times. I’ll end on something which has been said before, but for me captures the feeling of coming back, and the mixed sensations of this place – the first stanza of Amy Clampitt’s ‘Venice Revisited’:

Guise and disguise, the mirrorings and masquerades,
brocaded wallowings, ascensions, levitations:
glimmering interiors, beaked motley; the hide-
and-seek of Tintoretto and Carpaccio. From within
walled gardens’ green enclave, a blackbird’s warble —
gypsy non sequitur out of root-cumbered
terra firma, a mainland stepped from
to this shored-up barge, this Bucintoro
of mirage, of artifice. Outside the noon-dim
dining room, the all-these-years-uninterrupted
sloshing of canals; bagged refuse, ungathered
filth; the unfed cats, still waiting.

Back from the dead


To Matt’s Gallery to see the new Susan Hiller installation, Channels. I have always been a fan of Hiller’s work, for its curiosity, its humanity, its obsessive cataloguing of objects associated with the activity of living. At her Tate Britain retrospective several years ago, I became fascinated by her Homage to Joseph Beuys, a collection of bottles of holy water which Hiller patiently sourced from locations around the country, labelled and placed in a cabinet – like a medicine cabinet, but the ‘medicine’ contained in it was more about faith than pharmaceuticals. Hiller said of this piece: 

When I collect water from a holy well or sacred spring, I’m in the process of trying to turn banal tourism into a quest or pilgrimage. The waters supposedly produce powerful effects for believers, but what I treasure is the special mental space created by searching for them and thinking about them. These little bottles of waters are more than just souvenirs; they are containers of an idea about the potentials hidden in ordinary things and experiences. 


Yes. Isn’t that what a poem is too, a container for an idea that finds its source in ordinary things and events? I found myself imaging Hiller on her journey, carefully bottling those precious wells, in turn thinking about the people who come to them for solace.    

Hiller’s new piece is also about faith, or at least an examination of what happens to the human spirit when it faces the unknown. In a darkened room, a bank of analogue televisions form a tall wall. They are all tuned to nothing, and hiss their white noise into the silent gallery. From their flickering screens, a series of waving lines emerge, then disembodied voices that speak at once. One voice takes over, and begins a story of a near-death experience, the televisions registering the voice as a single green line that pulses with speech. Each voice introduces itself, and begins another tale. These experiences are remarkably similar – at the moment of death, the speakers would often hover over their dying bodies, or find themselves inexplicably in the company of strangers or long-dead family members, who are there to tell them it isn’t their time yet, before they regain consciousness. The voices tell their stories without emotion, but we find the emotion in ourselves, the listeners. Hiller’s act is to record them.


In my previous post, I talked about James Merrill’s epic poem, ‘The Changing Light at Sandover’. Merrill was the great chronicler of the other world, sensitive to our brief time here, our longer time beyond. I was put in mind of the other voices he ‘channelled’ sitting with the Susan Hiller piece, not just channels we watch, but also channels we follow – directions, paths, divergences.  

I will end with Merrill’s poem, ‘Lorelei’:

The stones of kin and friend
Stretch off into a trembling, sweatlike haze.

They many not after all be stepping-stones
But you have followed them. Each strands you, then

Does not. Not yet. Not here.
Is it a crossing? Is there no way back?

Soft gleams lap the base of the one behind you
On which a black girl sings and combs her hair.

It’s she who some day (when your stone is in place)
Will see that much further into the golden vagueness

Forever about to clear. Love with his chisel
Deepens the lines begun upon your face.                         


Seeing the light


I have spent the last couple of weeks in and out of the Hayward Gallery, in anticipation of the Poets After Dark event in April. I am one of the ‘dark poets’ – ten of us in total – commissioned to write a new poem inspired by the Hayward’s current exhibition, Light Show. The exhibition brings together artists who work with light in various ways: there are minimalist works from Dan Flavin, an immersive piece by James Turrell that plunges you into darkness and then confuses your concept of space, a wild strobe-lit ‘night garden’ by the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, Katie Patterson’s single bulb which simulates moon glow, Leo Villareal’s waterfall cascade of LEDs. The overall effect is to remind us how light (and sometimes the absence of it) effects our moods and minds, and of course, how technology (sometimes very simple or antiquated) creates the ability to make work that moves and changes before our eyes like a magic trick. The whole show is about magic, and illusion, and disorientation.  

But even before I went round, I had an idea of which piece I would choose. I have been a fan of Cerith Wyn Evans’ work for some years now, and when I discovered that the piece for the Hayward took as its starting point a line from a poem by James Merrill, it seemed the natural choice. Merrill’s line, ‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill’, is from the epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover, a 500-plus page formal exploration of his experiences with his partner, David Jackson, summoning spirits through the Ouija board. In their years of occult searchings, they managed to contact Auden, Yeats, Maya Deren and a Roman sage named Ephraim, to name a few. These voices appear throughout the poem as dramatis personae, and serve to guide, and sometimes chide, their mortal hosts. The overall effect is impressive, if not bonkers. One might dismiss Sandover as eccentric (if not formally accomplished) ramblings, and quite a bit of it is. But it also serves as a vehicle to record Merrill’s thoughts about mortality and afterlife, and the here-and-now life he led with Jackson. In ‘The Book of Ephraim’, Merrill talks about ‘one floating realm’, the other world, as opposed to ‘one we feel is ours, and call the real.’ And within the real, momentous events occur, which the poet attempts to process:  

We take long walks among the flying leaves
And ponder turnings taken by our lives 


Wyn Evans’ piece is not about this realm – the real, so much as the other – the floating. The work comprises three standing columns made out of obsolete incandescent strip lights, the harsh lightscape of classrooms and public-sector offices. Wyn Evans says of these columns: ‘They are in suspension, between heaven and earth. They have a life of their own.’ Indeed, they do – I have spent several hours sitting in their presence, watching then flare to light, and to heat (suggesting the presence of the physical body) then fade, with a bluish quivering after light, into cold darkness. The effect is haunting, moving. I can sit for some time, not writing, just watching their hypnotic movement (and watching other gallery visitors approach them, holding out their hands to catch their warmth, as if they might embrace them). I’ve jotted down a few lines in my notebook in an effort to try and work out what I think they are: columns, circles, towers, amusement arcades and how they work: elements, visible wires, like a magic trick exposed 

My poem is forming itself slowly. It started with a line from Merrill, which I’ve now removed, as he felt too strong a presence (perhaps like his Oujia board party guests), although Merrill seems to be hovering over it, a benign ghost. It feels like a slow unravelling, which is perhaps appropriate for the vastness of the subject. One line of Merrill’s stays with me:

A whole small globe – our life, our life, our life.

Information and tickets for Poets After Dark here: