In “Investiture at Cecconi’s,” James Merrill weaves a beautiful, sapphic fabric whose warp and weft intertwine chiaroscuro threads of fate, epiphany, beauty, and death as the expression of an initiation into the realm of living with and dying from AIDS.
The poem opens, with notes of intimacy, outside the door of “their” Venetian tailor: “caro,” casual yet natural, the apostrophe, Kalstone. Pre-liminal, before he crosses the threshold, the speaker is already “losing patience” outside the door. This little pun is dear and obvious to me, the wife of a research doctor who has no patients with a “ts,” but, as I always say, has a great deal of patience to be able to deal with me. In the mid-80s, doctors of gay men were indeed losing patients every day.
The trigger for the dream is “the diagnosis.” Even more weighted than the “gnosis,” the knowledge, is the impersonal “the”: his status is certain; he now knows for sure what may have been sensed for some time as the inevitable. In this dream, ever conscious of time, the speaker “wants” evening clothes for the new year. This verb does much work: the choice of want puts us firmly in the treacherous and infectious territory of want as desire, even as it shows the lack of new evening clothes. Time-wise too we are at a liminal juncture—almost but not quite crossing over the New Year’s threshold.
Then, a light bulb goes on, and the ground is set for epiphanic illumination as well. In keeping with the Sapphics, in good Greek fashion, it’s an old woman who, Fate-like, “stitches dawn to dusk” in the back room. “One suspicious inch” is all she gives him at this moment—the poem never losing its sense of time’s wingèd chariot—not at this “late hour.”
“Fabrics? patterns?” Of course, we are in a tailor’s shop in Venice, and so, the diction of textiles becomes fatefully loaded. Fabric: “from French fabrique, from Latin fabrica ‘something skillfully produced,’ from faber ‘worker in metal, stone, etc.’” … the general sense being something made. “Patterns?”—“a repeated decorative design,” “a regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in certain actions or situations.”
Literally and figuratively: Threads interwoven, narrative, warp and weft; the idea of design, purpose, intention, and, in the poem, the idea that these are things that can or should only be clarified in the rational light of day—and by the guy in charge, no less. None of this late-night exploration into pattern, design, the very Dasein of the speaker.
However: the “lightning insight cracks her face wide,” a nicely assonant and even onomatopoetic image describing the woman’s sudden understanding. “Ma! The Signore’s here to try on his new robe!”
Robe indeed. Only at this moment in the poem does the speaker cross the threshold into the shop: just at this moment, with the help of the cleverly placed prop of a mirror triptych, the old woman diffracts into three: Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos, at your service. One hears that these gals are old hands with the tools of the sartorial trade.
“Back from no known space,” she re-converges into one, “by magic, arms full of moonlight,” light in darkness, a beautiful introduction to the description of the actual garment. Also, there is something almost medical in the physicality of the description of the gown’s being placed on the speaker’s body: this intimacy with his arms reminds us also of the veins (tubes, needles) through which blood is “drawn.” Cool is an apt description for the feel of silk, yes, but it is also the cool of death. “Glistening,” poetic as the word is, can also connote the sheen of sweat, of night sweats.
The line breaks on that “cool,” and our eyes then drop down to the phrase “silk in grave,” with the comma that ends that phrase and the substitution of a spondee for a trochee there, both of which provide a momentary pause and we find: “silk in grave.” Of course, this phrase syntactically moves on to fill out the description of the dressing gown, the shroud, “Oriental mourning” which “sheathes” the speaker, throat to ankles. Again the body parts described with intimacy: and how many sheathes does the body contain?
Though there have been a couple of epiphanic bursts of light in the dark sartoria thus far, the speaker, even five stanzas in, is still “uncomprehending.” But, in the final stanza, the old woman “cackles” out the answer to the dream-situation’s riddle: “Thank your friend, the Professore!” who, though “miles away, sick, fearful,” well into the ravages of his own disease process, has “yet arranged this heartstopping present.” In typical Merrill fashion, this phrase does double work: the “heartstopping” nature of the gift, both literal and beautiful; a “present,” a gift, and the present moment, this just-over-the-threshold instant of illumination.
A lovely image precedes that final line, however: “wonderstruck I sway, like a tree of tears.” Swaying not breaking, like a weeping willow, not a tree of life but a tree of tears, tears a signifier of course of great emotion, but also, simply, one of the bodily fluids, which in the mid-80s were beginning to be understood as the medium through which the disease could be transmitted.
It’s hard to recall, in oh-so-enlightened 2013, what it was like in the 1980s: the terror surrounding the virus and the mystery of its transmission. You couldn’t get on a New York City bus or go down into the subway without reminders of the plague around you; irrational fears ruled, on the streets and at cocktail parties. The virus seemed ubiquitous, and members of the gay community were dying by the dozens every day. Heartstopping indeed.
Imagine being a member of the high-risk population for this disease, which was, at that point, tantamount to a death sentence. Imagine the circumference of the charmed circle growing ever smaller, tightening, noose-like: a friend of a friend, an acquaintance, a friend, a lover. David Kalstone.
The word investiture does double work in this poem. Not only does it carry the literal meaning of the act of clothing or robing, but it also refers to an induction, a ceremony in which rank or honors are formally conferred on someone. The speaker has stepped over this threshold into the shroud-bearing arms of Fate. With the HIV diagnosis, Merrill enters this dread yet seemingly fated imaginative territory, his own induction into the society of those who would die for Beauty, for Desire: in the mid-80s, this was still a relatively circumscribed society made up predominantly, though not exclusively, of gay men.
This poem, and its companion piece, “Farewell Performance,” take us firmly yet beautifully into the territory of the possibility of Death caused by Desire; the idea of Aesthetic as something akin to life philosophy, a Weltanschauung.
Imagine the paradoxical relief of knowing, of certainty of diagnosis, after a liminal time of denial or simple not-knowing. Imagine, in the words of Mark Doty:
And someone said he asked for it,
Asked for it –
when all he did was go down
into the salt tide
of wanting as much as he wanted,
giving himself over so drunk
or stoned it almost didn’t matter who,
though they were beautiful…”
The Sapphic form, having put us firmly into ancient Greek territory, opens the door (opening, penetration, possible transmission) to the possibility of believing in this Fate. When your name happens to be Moira and you live in Greece for while, you begin to see the way the Greeks fully accept the dark and yet inevitable role of destiny. Literal fissures, doorways cracked open, slight openings in the body’s protective sheath—these let in what they let in, virus or epiphany. This Investiture leads to the acceptance of the possible—and in the mid 80s probably fatal (in the anglo sense)—consequences of having lived for Beauty, for Desire, and of being inducted (see also “Farewell Performance”) into this Beautiful yet Doomed Society.