Merrill scholarship has been undergoing a sea change, apparently mirroring a larger societal change. What among scholars even in the 1990s could but delicately speak its name, now does so frankly. High time, too.
Merrill was a poet who wrote from the perspective of a gay man, out of a gay life lived richly. His poetry reflects that. This, for many of us, is a no-brainer. Yet for years literary critics, while acknowledging the biographical fact of his same-sex orientation, resisted reading the content of Merrill’s poems through the lens of his particular gay sensibility. These critics resisted engaging the homosexual textuality of the poems—their homotextuality (as the literary critic Jacob Stockinger referred to it forty years ago).
But this is changing. As noted above, part of the reason must surely be societal. And, of course, enduring Merrill scholarship owes much to the work of excellent literary critics such as J. D. McClatchy, Stephen Yenser, Daniel Mendelssohn, Helen Vendler, and Langdon Hammer, among others, who insisted the poet’s sexuality could not be ignored.
As Paul Breslin observed: “Despite all their reticence, [Merrill’s] poems finally demand, no less than Walt Whitman’s, that [the reader] enter into an imaginary erotic relation with their maker.” And this requires for some readers “a willing suspension of heterosexuality.”
To put it another way, when we read Merrill, we can often read him more clearly if we don “lavender glasses.”
Let’s do it together, shall we? For my discussion, I’ve chosen a slender poem—the geode sonnet from “In Nine Sleep Valley”—that offers a particularly rewarding example of what reading Merrill this way can reveal. As we do so, we’ll keep in mind Merrill’s quip from another poem, “Getting Through”:
Everything is cryptic. Crystal-queer.
With Merrill, the “cryptic” requires “cryptography”—decoding what’s in code. He leaves us plenty of clues, being remarkably consistent throughout his years of using particular imagery as metaphor of particular experience and ideas. But this type of cryptic “encoding” is also a homotextuality common in gay texts—especially by men and women of Merrill’s generation—referencing communication and recognition through code. Get the hang of the code, and the “cryptic” becomes “crystal queer.”
“In Nine Sleep Valley” is a nine-poem sequence in Braving the Elements (1972). Here we have a gay male couple who are away for a vacation at a rustic cabin in the American Southwest. The context of the poem sequence, as will be seen, is itself a rueful pun: this couple is taking a break.
While poems #1 through #7 evoke elements of the men’s domestic intimacy, the product of many years, we also see growing alienation. In poem #8 (which I refer to as “the geode sonnet” since it is untitled), we have a metaphoric overview of the arc of their relationship. It begins:
Geode, the troll’s melon
Rind of crystals velvet smoke meat blue
At first mysterious, the evocation of geode – which we eventually recognize as metaphor for the relationship—as a “troll’s melon” with a “rind of crystals” appears both mysterious and attractive. Why melon? Why troll?
Well, of course, a geode when whole looks quite like a stone melon—and trolls are stone beings. But with lavender glasses we see additional associations: “troll” is common gay slang for unattractive gay men no longer young. Of course, this reference wouldn’t have escaped Merrill’s notice. Did he intend it? He certainly knew it, and he decided to use it.
The unattractive “troll” exterior of the melon (relationship) however, conceals within it fabulous sparkling crystals—its fruit. Fruit is the sweet fruition of experience, among other things. But do we think Merrill, ever incorrigible in punning and double-entendre, invoked a relationship as a fruit with a, well, straight face? As it is, this fruit is a rind of crystals. Merrill used crystals in many poems as metaphor for his queerness – as gay, as aesthete, as a rare and glittering crystallization of experience (e.g., “The Emerald,” “Domino,” “Pyroxenes,” “Christmas Tree,” etc.)
In the geode, these particular queer crystals of their relationship are “velvet” and “meat blue.” Cryptic? Code? Maybe just beautiful. Maybe beautiful code. Merrill’s generation of gay men often used “velvet” to signal “gay.” They certainly used “meat” as a sexual reference. Then the color that is “meat blue.” What color is meat that’s blue? Rather lavender, actually – and generally well aged.
Formed far away under fantastic
Pressures, . . .
The men’s relationship formed under fantastic pressures. Most men and women in long-term same-sex relationships in the US (especially “back in the day”) would immediately and viscerally recognize this as reflective of their experience.
. . . then cloven in two
By the taciturn rock shop man, twins now forever
The geode is a round entity cloven in two to become twin lovers. Of course this recalls the Platonic myth of the round people split by Zeus (some of whom were male/male), who recognize in the other their other half. The single love that formed “under fantastic pressures” has experienced a shattering alienation.
Note how this does not reflect the typical hetero relationship metaphor of complementary opposites coupling and becoming one. No, here we have identical twins imagery. Two of the same sex who derive from a single egg with the same DNA, have by a type of mitosis separated. It’s now two loves—not one.
Twins imagery for partners is ubiquitous within gay circles, gay art, gay fashion, gay porn. It’s a type of paradise. Twins are identifiable with a mysterious perfection as couple, evincing an unparalleled (or rather, paralleled) intimacy. But here we have the poignant paradox that the twinning only occurs as a result of a loss of unity. The ideal is achieved by its antithesis. As Stephen Yenser and J. D. McClatchy reflect, “Merrill believed, with Marcel Proust, that the only true paradise is a lost paradise. Love is not fully itself until it is lost, until it becomes memory, then becomes art.”
Will they hunger for each other
When one goes north and one goes east?
I expect minerals never do.
But what type of love is mineral love? Well it’s not animal or vegetable. While animal love, of course, refers to appetite-based affection, we know (most famously from Andrew Marvell) that vegetable love is dispassionate, cool, and spiritual. What then of mineral love? In Merrill this love is a product over time of titanic geologic processes. His “mineral” imagery in other poems refers to love itself, and the art deriving from love. He knew only too well that gay love that managed to survive past the animal stage in a hostile world of “fantastic pressures” had crystalized to something else—and his metaphor for that was mineral: crystals embodying earth, air, water, and fire, as J. D. McClatchy has argued.
Enough for them was a feast
Of flaws, the molten start and glacial sleep,
The parting kiss.
Thomas Mann reasoned that flawless beauty could only inspire admiration, not love, because love needed something to forgive. So, too, Merrill repeatedly celebrates in his poems the “flaws” that make up the bedrock of various experiences of love. This particular relationship did begin in a feast of flaws: both men’s formative years were spent presuming themselves to be inverts, perverts, essentially flawed in personhood as homosexuals. They met one another riddled with self-doubt, if not self loathing. And as happens in all good metaphors, in geodes, too, the literal microscopic flaws give the amethyst crystals their color: lavender. In quartz, the presence of “impurities” of iron and transient elements renders the silicates amethyst.
Still face to face in halfmoonlight
Sparkling comes easy to the Gemini.
Centimeters deep yawns the abyss.
Here the poem reaches its dense and ravishing climax with images Merrill has used and will use in other poems: “face to face,” “moonlight,” “sparkling” and “abyss”—all invoking loss.
Geode halves face to face, not whole. Plato’s round people who must turn and “face” the other seeking awkwardly, fumblingly, sexually, in a now imperfect way to approximate their previous wholeness. As well, we can see these men are still face to face despite their being “cloven in two,” despite their “parting kiss,” despite what separates them. Yet this particular “face to face” recalls Merrill’s beloved muse Marcel Proust, whose narrator in La prisonnière famously reflects that when deux êtres sont face à face (“two beings are face to face”), they must present an appearance different from what is real, a face ultimately unknowable to the other. Such loss!
In the image of “halfmoonlight,” we have a half-sphere in a poem about halved spheres; we see the lunar half-sphere “reflecting” – just the speaker, perhaps? Throughout this poem sequence, we see the speaker, not his partner, as the one willing to reflect on the relationship, and who accepts that it has suffered by the hazards of time and life together. The moon in Merrill’s poems is “explicit rune of change;” the changing moon evokes the speaker’s changeable life, his changing body, and the change in relationships. Here the moon is at the halfway mark, the speaker halfway through life, light draining from its face. Even as the moon wanes, even in the face of the loss change brings, change remains reflective. To what end? “Sparkling.”
“Sparkling” is a word our poet was ever fond of. He frequently uses it for referring to the particular pizzazz gay sophisticates bring to the world, what can make life “gay.” “Sparkling appearances” in his “Emerald” poem is the heroic task of the gay heart facing impossible requirements; if the heart rises to the occasion and puts on not just a brave show, but a beautiful and brave show, it is sparkling. These men in their separation nevertheless sparkle. As twins.
With “Gemini,” of course, we are back to the same-sex twinning that has occurred – and the scope and scale in the poem has moved from minerals to magma to glaciers to the moon to the very stars (the extravagant gesture of camp). Judith Moffett suggests we hear “Gemini” as the pun Merrill might make of their relationship: Jackson’s problematic view of the couple as “Jim ’n’ I,” in this poem sequence a sign (star sign?) of their alienation. But this alienation is the abyss in Merrill’s view, and it is what sparkles. Because the dazzling crystals would never have been evident had not the abyss yawned.
This return us to Yenser’s and McClatchy’s conclusion that Merrill believed “the only true paradise” to be a lost one. “Love is not fully itself until it is lost, until it becomes memory, then becomes art.”
And this is explicitly how Merrill concludes the ninth and last poem. Alienation is the result of the hazards of life; accepting the art that comes from this alienation is the true art.