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“Losing the Marbles”: Merrill and Sophrosyne

James Merrill has given us the birth-myth of his poem, “Losing the Marbles.” After decades of spending his winter months in Athens, Greece, Merrill wintered instead in Key West, where, in 1985,

“… we were talking about memory lapses, a topic increasingly relevant to everyone present. John Brinnin quoted Lady Diana Duff Cooper, who stayed young and beautiful for nearly ninety years. It seems that whenever a fact or a name slipped her mind, she would shrug and say cheerfully, “Oh well– another marble gone!” In a flash the image of the Acropolis in Athens appeared on my inner screen, and with it the history of Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century, removing and carrying off to London most of the Parthenon sculptures. I remembered that individual consciousness had virtually begun in Greece; I thought of the periodic angry efforts made by the modern Greek government to get the marbles back from England­ and so forth… I suspected that I’d presently find myself embarked upon “Losing the Marbles” and shamelessly said so… For my birthday a month later one of that evening’s guests gave me a little bag of marbles from the supermarket. That present in turn gave me the last section of my poem.”

Merrill would die of an AIDS-related heart attack 10 years after getting the idea for this poem. In another recounting of the story he described Lady Duff-Cooper as “someone else playing the trifle, life, away.” According to Daniel Mendelsohn, “One of this famously generous poet’s achievements… is to make death seem less scary.” In the first section of the poem Merrill remembers imagining his personal “heaven” as being an acrobat in ancient Athens when the Parthenon, “pristine” and glorious, “dwelt/Upon the city like a philosopher…

The Parthenon Marbles, “touchstones” of Western culture, were completed in 432 BC for the Athens of Pericles under the direction of Phidias, the great sculptor. On the frieze are 192 figures: thrillingly rhythmic, interlaced young men racing horses, young women in a stately march and a parade of the explicitly chosen most beautiful old men (Merrill was nearly 60 when he wrote this poem), distributed in two processions around the core of the temple like a palindrome (from the Greek for running back again, recurring). The processions meet over the entrance in a scene of a priest and a child folding a cloth while seated deities– larger than life– look on. This scene may represent the dressing of the cult statue of Athena, which sat inside the Parthenon, with a new peplos woven every year as part of the Panathenaia, the festival celebrating Athena’s birthday. For Merrill’s birthday, as he reports in section 7 of “Losing the Marbles”, he is given a kiss and a “pregnantly clicking pouch”, a sensual gift of renewal like Athena’s new dress.

The Parthenon frieze, characterized by Merrill as consisting of “wind-loosened tresses and the twitch of reins”, has been disseminated throughout the world by means of plaster casts. We owe its ubiquity to Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, whose name has become synonymous with cultural vandalism. Elgin was appointed British ambassador to the Ottoman government in 1799 and quickly obtained a permit to make drawings and casts, to excavate for fragments, and to remove “some pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures” from the Acropolis. Instead, he had most of the Parthenon frieze sawed off the stones on which it had been carved in situ. He also took fifteen metopes and one of the Caryatid statues from the nearby Erectheum. His letters make clear his hope to decorate his estate in Scotland with cheaply acquired “ornaments of beautiful marble”, and only after much controversy resulting from the display of the Parthenon Marbles in London did he sell them to the British government.

The dispute over returning the Marbles is ongoing but not new. In 1812, Lord Byron was already “breathing fire” at Lord Elgin and the British in Childe Harold, Canto II:

Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

John Keats, in his two 1816 sonnets “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”, mourned these “mighty things” brought over “a billowy main” to become a “shadow of magnitude.”

In 1982 another “eroded” Greek beauty, Melina Mercouri, ex-movie star and then Minister of Culture, visited London and asked to see the Marbles. The Director of the British Museum said publicly that it was not usual to allow burglars to “case the joint” in advance. Perhaps Mercouri’s performance in the 1964 film Topkapi (in which her character masterminds a museum heist) was too convincing.

“Losing the Marbles” is dedicated to John Malcolm Brinnin, who had given Merrill the idea for the poem by quoting Lady Duff-Cooper. Brinnin was, from 1949 to 1956, director of the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y, where he befriended (and more) the poet Dylan Thomas and chronicled his life, and was helpful (and less) during that poet’s decline and death in New York. The poem was to be about learning to forget, and in section 1 Merrill questions Dylan Thomas’s most famous injunction in order to move it, gently, from the threat of death to the threat of memory loss:

Here in the gathering dusk one could no doubt
“Rage against the dying of the light.”
But really–rage? (So like the Athens press,
Breathing fire to get the marbles back).
These dreamy blinkings-out
Strike me as grace, if I may say so…

One can hear, in the way grace can “strike” the poet, an example of how well each word in this poem is used to scatter meanings. “Strike” can call to mind not only the stroke that causes aphasia but also the aggressive “striker” in the game of marbles, the lightning strikes in section 5, a refusal to perform– a part of speech on strike, the gold strike in a sudden, brilliant idea, or even Streich, a prank or trick, in German.

Merrill’s puns and his acrobatic verbal agility are well-documented and discussed. In connection with this poem I want to stress the aspect of his verbal facility that is about balance.

Which brings us to Charmides and sophrosyne. The poem is addressed to “Charmides,” a choice that A.E. Stallings, who lives in Athens and knew Merrill’s friends, says is in the age-old tradition of giving lovers referred to in poems Greek names from antiquity. That Charmides was the name of the father of Phidias, who sculpted the Marbles, is not lost on Merrill, but chiefly Charmides is a character in the dialogue of Plato which bears his name. The dialogue is ostensibly an inquiry into the nature of the virtue of sophrosyne, greatly esteemed in ancient Athens but hard to translate into English.  The dialogue also features an intensely homoerotic celebration of the beauty and desirability of Charmides, who is compared to a statue.

Oscar Wilde’s 1882 poem “Charmides” relates the tragedy of a beautiful young man who commits the sin of agalmatophilia by sneaking into Athena’s shrine and undressing and making love to her statue. Wilde makes the other temple sculptures come to life in protest, but they cannot prevent the crime, which carries an echo of Lord Elgin’s.

Closer to Merrill’s time, Constantine Cavafy (whose work was well known to Merrill) wrote a 1916 poem “In a Town of Osrhoene” invoking Charmides, in which he connects the beauty of an injured, swooning man and the deathlike, sculptural quality of his pose:

…Yet, when the moon last night
displayed his beauteous body in her light
and made his amorous face conspicuous,
our thoughts went back to the Platonic Charmides.

Charmides was a well-established homoerotic figure. But In Plato’s eponymous dialog, sophrosyne is discussed amid a balance of lust and thought. In Plato, Charmides, like Merrill well born and talented, the great beauty of the day, appears to Socrates to be “a paragon, if he has only one other slight addition… If he has a noble soul.”

In translations, sophrosyne is rendered as “temperance”, but Temperance is too much a figure of repetitive self-measurement to allow for Merrill’s gift for balancing the self and its “bearing on the void”. The ancient Greek virtue is exemplified in his work by the way Merrill’s continual wordplay enables him to look at a thing, and have a thing, both ways, including his own life, disease and death.

According to Edith Hamilton, sophrosyne was the spirit behind the two great Delphic sayings, “Know Thyself” and “Nothing in excess.” Sophrosyne “…meant accepting the bounds which excellence lays down for human nature, …obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion.” She also says that we “have lost the conception of it.” Thus Merrill, in this poem, evokes something of great value that has been lost to memory.

“Losing the Marbles” progresses in seven sections through the changing light of a day, while the sacred Parthenon Marbles, first imagined as “pristine/ By early light or noon light” become, in its final section, marbles as toys, “tinily underfoot” yet capable of impersonating and reflecting the stars. David Ben-Merre describes this as “an epic poem of misplaced episodes” and yet structurally coherent: a palindrome. In section 1 Merrill loses the marbles and in 7 is given them back, in 2 and 6 we have the narrative of another poem’s loss and restoration, in sections 3 and 5 we have that poem itself, before and after, and in section 4, a riff on the Seven Wonders of the World.

In section 1, Merrill confronts the idea of the “groaning board” of human achievement “swept clean”. He may have still felt, as in his youth, a “chronic anxiety in the realm of ideas– theology, critical theory, Plato vs. Aristotle, and so on.”  “Shaped by ideas like everyone else, I nevertheless avert my eyes from them as from the sight of a nude grandparent, not presentable, indeed taboo, until robed in images.” He savors the idea of dying with an acrobat’s drum roll, tumbling out of time, and revisits the ruins of “capital” and “drum”, that he explored in “After Greece”:

…All through
The countryside were old ideas
Found lying open to the elements.
Of the gods’ houses only
A minor premise here and there
Would be balancing the heaven of fixed stars
Upon a Doric capital. The rest
Lay spilled, their fluted drums half sunk in cyclamen
Or deep in water’s biting clarity…

In section 2, in which a poem is destroyed, the clarity of rainwater, though sweet not salt, dissolves the poem’s ink the way tears dissolve the mascara of an acrobat or a man in drag. The storm-god “driving its silver car into the room” transforms a poem into a map of ”the undiscovered country”, connecting randomness and death. In “The Friend of the Fourth Decade” Merrill describes himself listening enviously while his friend extolls the joys of erasure by water:

… I now spend mornings
With a bowl of water and my postcard box.

…I cannot tell you what this does to me.
Scene upon scene’s immersion and emergence
Rinsed of the word….

Some of the words in “Losing the Marbles” do not survive immersion, despite their erotic resuscitation, “mouth to mouth”, with the kiss that would wake them. These are reduced to macron and breve, basic dualities: stressed and unstressed, 1’s and 0’s, dominant and submissive, remembering and forgetting, “rose-flawed white or black”. Yet by evening Merrill will be in a fever to restore them to life and to robe them in images.

Merrill calls section 3, which consists of the scattered remnants of the poem-within-the-poem, “deliberately incoherent, representing a text half effaced by rain… (and) fully restored in Section 5. This collection of remnants– or the poem­– stutters like the father’s dying words in “Time” or the telegram-style concisions of Sandover. But he has played with what survives, creating a kind of checkerboard. The twisting and dividing typography might be read, as in “An Upward Look” as two “halves of a clue”.

In Section 4, the poem’s heart, we return to the ancient world via epithets: “wind-loosened”, “foam-pale”, “rose-flawed”, “moon-rusted”. Merrill begins goofily enough, in heroic couplets, with an argument against crying over the spilt milk of “Mind” (including a conflation of Zen and Zeno’s paradox) or the crazy quilt of our restorations to the ancient Wonders. He invokes our modern taste for the imperfect and the incomplete in art. He comforts us with the notion of art as a “counterfeit Heaven” wherein ideas survive the minds that conceived them. He takes off on a cruise to visit the “removed and mute” Marbles in London, gives us a cameo by Melina Mercouri as another kind of acrobat, and then, gradually, settles into a calmer speculation on the future of art-making in defiance of its impermanence. Here, the temple built from plans has, “like a palindrome… quietly laid its plans for stealing back.”

Ah, not for long will marble school the blood
Against the warbling sirens of the flood.
All stone once dressed asks to be worn.

The Seven Wonders of the World have crumbled into the sea, but one may hear a wise ruefulness here instead of Matthew Arnold’s “eternal note of sadness”. Merrill picks up the wave-washed pebbles from “Dover Beach” as playthings for sensual, smiling goddesses, and the clashing, ignorant armies with “moon-rusted swords” are merely “men upon their checkerboards”.

In section 5 the poem-within-the-poem has been restored. Written in gorgeous syllabic verse resembling Sapphics, it leads us from the cryptic utterings of the Delphic oracle and the aging poet’s grasping at and recycling of ancient imagery back to the Odyssey and finally to infancy– the silence before we learn to speak.

In section 6 Merrill inquires into the process of restoration. He compares the eroded text of the storm-damaged poem, “the wrack”, to the shattered sculptures from the Parthenon’s pediment, asking who recreated

A syntax of lit faces
From the impediment?
No matter… Charmides?”

The lost, drenched, but invigorated words return, personified as acrobats “brimming” with fun. Merrill closes with a pantomime from a maxim of Chamfort, warning us not to speak of Death lest we remind him that we exist. “Shh!” Another silence.

In section 7, either the same day as in section 1 or a more memorable one, Merrill’s own birth day, the erotic images of earlier sections are replaced by images of fertility and creativity: the pregnant pouch, the DNA-like wisps, the marbles “embedded at random in the deck-slats” like human seed. By the end of the poem, Merrill gets rather than loses his marbles. Merrill’s friend brings him several things on his birthday:  the lover’s kiss that brings him awake and the bag of marbles, which can also represent a third thing: a “present”… after an entire poem about losing the past.

For Clara Claiborne Park, Merrill’s puns are more than the play of language for pleasure. They are evidence of a deeper intelligence, “the poet’s testimony to an ancient faith, the faith in the profound significances handed us by the adventitious and the random… the faith that appearances and chance connections are upheld by correspondences no earthly poet has created…”

Merrill ends the poem with an image of the constellations and the mythical spilt milk or sperm of galaxies in a line that, for a sculptor, also suggests the lost, eroded Marbles resuscitated and reinstalled: “The risen, cloudy brilliances above.” For our word “marble” comes from the Greek marmoros, “gleaming stone”, and marmairein, “to shine”.

“Losing the Marbles” is not merely a poem about learning to forget. It is also, of course, about the opposite: learning memory, personal and cultural. Rachel Hadas, who befriended Merrill in Athens in 1969, wrote in an essay about him that “…culture leaps boundaries of time and space. Such leaps can be thought of as infectious without the ominous connotations of illness and death, as laughter, or a taste for heroic couplets… can be passed on from one person to another­ like a gift.” In a lecture on Merrill at the 92nd St. Y in 2007 Helen Vendler said, admiring the ”enormous depth of observation and feeling in his last two books,”  that “no poet ever benefited more from being killed by disease than Merrill.”

In “Losing the Marbles” Merrill has balanced his fear of death and the obliteration of his work with the pleasure of being alive in the present, “here and now”, with heaven on the page where the acrobat is balancing words, the poet is writing and we are reading. The modesty with which he has made this heaven from marbles placed between the slats of his swimming pool deck is perfect sophrosyne.

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- who has written 2 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Meredith Bergmann is a sculptor and poet. Cities with her public monuments include Boston and New York, and she is currently working on the FDR Hope Memorial for Roosevelt Island (NYC). Pictures of her work may be seen at: www.meredithbergmann.com. Her poems, articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in the American Arts Quarterly, Barrow Street, Contemporary Poetry Review, The New Criterion, The New York Review of Art, The Same, The Tri Quarterly Review, and Sculpture Review, and online at MezzoCammin, PerContra and Umbrella. Her sonnets appear in Judith Dupré’s Full of Grace and the anthology Hot Sonnets. A chapbook is forthcoming from Exot Books. She is poetry editor of American Arts Quarterly and its website: www.nccsc.net.

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