James Merrill’s final book of poems, A Scattering of Salts, was written in his last years as his health was in steady decline after having been diagnosed with HIV. The inevitability of his own death and the trauma that AIDS had wreaked and was continuing to wreak in his life, and in that of his friends and community, are directly reflected in the context and the content of many of these poems. Here, Merrill’s tone became more direct than previously—darker, or at least more stark, as he gazed at his own illness and impending death. As James Materer observes,
The emotional power of many of Merrill’s late poems comes from abandoning the poetic “look askance” and gazing directly on what he calls the “stripping process,” which is the term Merrill coins in The Changing Light at Sandover to describe growing old. His last poems anticipate no special knowledge at the moment of death or . . . prospect of rebirth but instead a stripping [away] of everything we hold dear. (“James Merrill’s Late Poetry: AIDS and the ‘Stripping Process,’” Arizona Quarterly (2008): 136)
As we have seen, these final poems do not brood, they do not dread; they observe the fact that death is nearing for the poet and that he will not escape it.
Among the many fine poems in this collection, I would like to focus on “Pearl,” which provides a tender meditation on the summation of experience, on the arc and end of Merrill’s life, on love and the stripping process.
In the broadest sense, we can say that the poem is structured around the metaphor of the poet’s life and death (and his art’s life and death) figured as the development of a pearl in an oyster—experience accruing or “accreting” in layers like nacre around a “mote / Of grit”, building upon itself organically over time into something beautiful and precious, only to slip away once the “shucked, outsmarted meat” of the body is sloughed aside and the pearl is lost to the darkness where “an unconscious world . . . / . . . Shuts on it”.
The poem’s formal structure and shape reinforce this simple-seeming metaphorical construction by mimicking the shape of an open oyster shell with the “mote / Of grit”—the pearl—at the poem’s physical center. As the shape of the poem indicates, this mote of grit and the pearl it becomes are the central symbol of the poem and their significance is multivalent.
Though in the broadest sense the pearl signifies Merrill’s life in its fullness, we also find superimposed on this metaphor several particular thematic and imagistic overlays, transparencies, or plates under a microscope, which when seen “X-raywise” inflect the reading of the poem in nuanced ways. Sexuality and Merrill’s erotic life, his poetry, the simple reality of being alive in a body, even his infection by HIV, and his death, all become compressed into the single image of the pearl, at once signifying the fullness of the life that Merrill lived, as well as the grief over its loss.
Two of these transparencies seem especially important to a full reading of the poem. The first is the background eroticism—a tone of predominant though not explicit, sexual feeling. This eroticism evokes more than simple wordplay or tongue-in-cheek whimsical fun (though, that’s certainly part of what Merrill is doing), it also evokes for the reader the sense of Merrill in his body, sexually, as a gay man, coming to his climax, as metaphor of an entire gay life under difficult circumstances. The second, related transparency, which I have already alluded to is the oppressive, and unspoken presence of HIV and AIDS. This screen in particular exposes the dark irony of Merrill’s death, that he was infected and killed in a sense by the same sexual and loving impulse he had struggled so long to embrace.
The sexual and specifically gay erotic under- and overtones are apparent from the start.
Well, I admit
A small boy’s eyes grew rounder and lips moister
To find it invisibly chained, at home in the hollow
Of his mother’s throat: the real, deepwater thing.
Clearly at a literal level Merrill is referring to a pearl necklace that his mother is wearing. But he is also having fun playing with Aphrodite/Oedipal associations by referencing desire in his boyhood response to the pearl “in the hollow / Of his mother’s throat”—the “small boy’s eyes grew rounder and lips moister.” The sense of perhaps embarrassment at this desire appears evident, too, in that the speaker confesses something he might otherwise be reluctant to in the line “Well, I admit.” We see his desire, as well, in the boy’s moist lips evoking the image of the oyster itself (classically considered an aphrodisiac). So appetite for love is born in the boy.
A pearl as an object of desire and a type of desire (perhaps sexually embarrassing or taboo) appears, too, in an earlier poem, “Variations”:
. . . Love, great pearl
Swelling around a small unlovely need.
In both poems, that “small unlovely need” for the speaker is gay sex, his life as a gay man. In this light, the love, the pearls, “invisibly chained, at home” with mother, appears to be less seriously Oedipal than an indication of the way his mother’s love was at once “the real, deepwater thing” and the primary obstacle to his embrace of himself as gay, complete with love and sexual fulfillment. Certainly Merrill elaborates on this in his memoir, A Different Person, and in several poems, most explicitly the second poem of the diptych “Up and Down” called “The Emerald.”
The sexual line of imagery continues to be evoked in the way the speaker describes the development of the pearl: the process of layering nacre around the “mote / Of grit”. The metaphor of the accumulation of experience in layers over time is characterized in erotic terms: “. . . his would be the hand / . . . That one day grasped it . .. / Skin upon skin, so cunningly they accrete, / the input.” Knowing Merrill’s delight in sexual reference, the careful reader will recognize that we are dealing with the erotic, and the erotic tension seems to be ramping up with lines as suggestive as “accreting the input.”
The sexual allusions continue to accrete in the poem until, by the end, their physicality and sexuality draw out, pearl-like, that which is prized and which will be lost:
One layer, so to speak, of calcium carbonate
That formed in me is the last shot
The speaker acknowledges that one layer of the pearl that formed in him is the last shot. Here information from Merrill’s biography might add to the reading. Merrill’s last relationship—his “last shot” at love—was with a young actor named Peter Hooten. And according to friends, Merrill considered him quite a prize.
He then interrupts himself with an interjection about “Loss” referencing Sacha Guitry’s film, Les Perles de la Couronne:
The hero has tracked down
His prize. He’s holding forth, that summer night,
At the ship’s rail, all suavity and wit,
Gem swaying like a pendulum
From his fing—oops!
So, even as the poet identifies with loss and with the hero, he invokes the one layer of the stuff of love formed in him as “the last shot” (“shot” at least a quadruple pun: last shot of the film, last shot of his life, last shot at love, and, naturally, last shot in the orgasm that has been building in the erotic imagery over the course of the poem). The film’s star, with whom the speaker clearly identifies, has grasped his pearl prize. He’s standing at the rail in the climax scene, letting his prize dangle, when it drips off his finger and is lost.
By this point, the pearl of the necklace is a compression of many lines of interpretation, one of which is clearly a drop of ejaculate dangling like a pearl (nacre is, after all, the color of semen). Merrill’s characteristic tone of puckish mischief—“fing—oops!”—usually is a pretty sure cue to the reader that he’s being “naughty.”
But Merrill here gives us both love and loss. Lost love. His last shot. Like a drip of pearl falling into the sea and getting swallowed up into the “yawning oyster” of the “unconscious world.” His seeming levity lets us know we are dealing with serious matters. He’ll not have pain without leavening. So loss and irony’s glittering wink combine. The speaker’s “last shot” at love and sex has slipped from him.
Then the scene and poem close with a descent into darkness, following the pearl into the depths of the sea to the metaphorical and poetic death.
Where an unconscious world, my yawning oyster,
Shuts on it.
The irony of this last turn has a powerful finality; in part because of the realization that death, not a conceptual death, but the real death of the speaker and poet, is imminent: the world will no longer be his oyster.
The form and rhyme scheme of the poem gives further intensity to this sense of finality. The rhyme scheme has built up from the initial childhood portion of the poem [A, B, C, D, E, A, F, etc.] all the way to adulthood at the center of the poem (where “grit”—rhyme A—nestles in the center of the oyster). The rhyme scheme then unravels down the second half of life, invoking its “stripping away” [ … F, A, E, D, C, B, A]. The visual and aural patterning of the poem sets up the final line as the culmination and completion of all formal expectation. The echoes ring in the reader’s ear and eye—“Well, I admit . . . / Of grit . . . / Shuts on it.” Done. That’s a life.
But the pearl is much more than sexuality or the representation of any one lover. The pearl is love, and its beauty an accretion of a lifetime’s gracious layering response to joy, pain, and loss. And in the end, we lose it, too.
What is never explicit here, yet implied, is that the loss of the pearl in the midst of “suavity and wit” was Merrill’s contraction of AIDS, after his hand “Mottled with survival” finally grasped the pearl. So, in a darkly ironic move, his own death by infection could be seen here to be the direct result of his finally attaining that prize and pearl he sought. It was, after all, his appetite and his love for men that resulted in his infection. And Merrill addresses—even embraces—this devastating reality of his life and weaves it into the poem with haunting conviction.
It all comes down to that tiny mote of “grit” around which the pearl forms—the hinge of the poem—that invasive “angry grain of sand”. I have already suggested that this grit can be seen as the “small unlovely need” of sex and Merrill’s gay life, perhaps, too, “grit” in the sense of the courage and strength needed to live that life. But that invasive grit is also surely a figure of the virus itself. Merrill makes this clear enough in early lines that evoke the dendritic image of the virus as seen under a microscope:
Far from the mind at six to plumb
X-raywise those glimmering lamplit
Asymmetries to self-immolating mite
Or angry grain of sand
The self-immolating mite at the center of Merrill’s prized pearl—the figure of desire and appetite—is at the same time a figure for the virus. So, as in several other poems in A Scattering of Salts (e.g., “The Pyroxene”), the virus is figured as latent but always integrated into the very heart and core of the story of Merrill’s life.
The composed elegance of Merrill in the face of this fate, of the ultimate stripping process, of the loss of everything he loved or would love, is certainly the most striking feature of the poem. He does not “rage” like Dylan Thomas against “the dying of the light” but rather he invites the reader—amid the synesthetic wash of “soft bubble-blurred harpstring / Arpeggios” of the cinematic fade-out of the film version of his life—to “man the camera, follow” into the depths of an “unconscious world” that can only be death. In doing so, he draws our gaze down into the unseeing depths of our own end – his most gracious invitation giving way to the dark realization that his death is a fate we all share. But at the same time his invitation is a final welcoming embrace, his honoring the long relationship between poet and reader: a farewell kiss.