The Unstiflement of the Story: James Merrill’s “The Broken Home”

James Merrill3

“The Broken Home” is a sequence of seven sonnets that appeared in Merrill’s 1966 volume Nights and Days. The sonnets are connected by imagery, themes and autobiography, concerning, as they do, two central issues: the trauma of Merrill’s parents’ divorce and the poet’s own incomplete or “broken” childless home. The sonnets travel far, both temporally and spatially, through actual details of the poet’s life as well as through the poet’s worldly perceptions and sedulously analyzed inner life.  It is in this poem, argues Timothy Materer, that Merrill learned how not only to be the “host” of his own past, inviting it in through archetype and allusion, but also how to “be at home in it.” Reading “The Broken Home” closely with Merrill’s memoir, A Different Person, reveals just how clearly Merrill’s autobiography (tempered by psychoanalytic insight) came to “be at home” in his poems.

Formally, the poem displays all of Merrill’s dexterity and inventiveness, consisting of seven sonnet variations: unrhymed, rhymed pentameters, rhymed free verse, rhymed tetrameters, rhymed free verse, slant rhymes, and concluding with a perfect Petrarchian sestet.  Like the broken home itself, the sonnets are broken up into different metrical and rhyming patterns (each of the rhyming sonnets avails itself of a different rhyme scheme). Merrill also engages in richly textured wordplay; throughout the poem the reader encounters puns, homophones and double-entendres, sometimes wry, often humorous, at times surprising or unsettling and, as in the final image of the seventh sonnet, confidently beautiful.

The first sonnet places the poet outside of the action, observing parents and a child through a window in the warm glow of evening “gleaming like fruit” in stark contrast to the poet, in his “sunless” (and son-less) “cooler” room below. The poet seeks assurance from a “book of maxims” and a “tongue of fire” that “you and I are as real/at least as the people upstairs.” The family romance witnessed through the window upstairs prompts the poet to question the value of his own life and fruitfulness, or creativity. Are he and his poems as real as the parents and child upstairs? The existential question of this sonnet is, if not answered, argued with in sonnet six, which appears to win the debate, at least for the poet, if not the Merrill dynasty.

In the second sonnet the poet moves firmly into autobiographical territory. Here the father is not the angry father figure of earlier poems, but Charles Merrill, Wall Street investor, his “soul eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex/And business” who married every thirteen years. Merrill’s mother, Hellen Ingram, was the second of Charles Merrill’s four wives. Judith Moffet, in her introduction to Merrill’s poetry, has observed this sonnet’s “clear, sane, civilized voice that pulls the reader’s direction in two ways. It registers the regret of a son whose father’s soul was obscured by two consuming interests that could not be shared until ‘too late;’ at the same time it is distracted and entertained by the devices of Merrill’s style: the astronomical metaphors (eclipse, chilled wives in orbit), the double-entendres (cloud banks, sable, rings) and the cliché “time is money” being stood on its head . . .”

In A Different Person, Merrill writes, “My father, in 1950, had six years to live. To this day he remains an almost perversely mild and undemanding presence in my thoughts, triggering none of the imaginary confrontations I have with my mother. His company, by those last years, was an end in itself. As part of his entourage, I no longer questioned how to improve the hour.  I didn’t care if I ever wrote another poem; I lay back, contented in the very arms of Time.”

The third sonnet opens out to an historical scene that serves as a backdrop for the breakdown of the parents’ marriage. “Always the same old story—/Father Time and Mother Earth,/A marriage on the rocks.” Merrill himself had this to say in a Paris Review interview with J.D. McClatchy: “That bit in “The Broken Home”—‘Father Time and Mother Earth,/A marriage on the rocks’—isn’t meant as a joke. History in our time has cut loose, has broken faith with Nature.  But poems, even those of the most savage incandescence, can’t deal frontally with such huge, urgent subjects without sounding grumpy or dated when they should be still in their prime. So my parents’ divorce dramatized on a human scale a subject that couldn’t have been handled otherwise. Which is what a poetic turn of mind allows for. You don’t see eternity except in the grain of sand, or history except at the family dinner table.” Merrill appears, in this interview, to distance his use of autobiography from the confessional by claiming for it a larger purpose.

Intriguingly, Father and Mother in “The Broken Home” each are given star billing in their own sonnets, but those sonnets, the second and the fourth, are separated by the third, which describes a marriage “on the rocks.” David Kalstone notes that,

When Merrill uses an idiom, he turns it over curiously. So, for example, the dead metaphor “On the rocks” springs unexpectedly to life . . . Behind the gossip columnist’s phrase (“on the rocks”: shipwreck dismissed as if it were a cocktail) lies a buried colloquial truth about the tensions eternally repeated in a worldly marriage, Father Time and Mother Earth, reenacted erosions and cross purposes.  Beneath amused glimpses of 1920’s bravado, the verse penetrates to parents’ energies (both envied and resented) that shape and cripple a child’s.

Ultimately the reader sees that the poem is not about the child as a pawn in the parents’ dysfunction, but what the poet makes of his child-self. The sequence and tone of the sonnets in the poem itself is mimetic of a child coming to terms as an adult with the separate experience and understanding of parents as people.

In the fourth sonnet the poet moves from an archetypal world to the private world of childhood.  Merrill has said, in the Paris Review interview previously quoted, that the incident described in the sonnet was the subject of a poem he had written at the age of seven or eight. “It was a poem about going with the Irish setter into my mother’s room—an episode that ended up in ‘The Broken Home.’ The Irish setter was named Michael and I think the poem began: “One day while she lay sleeping,/ Michael and I went peeping.” The incident assumes an Oedipal cast in “The Broken Home” where the boy, led by the dog enters the bedroom of the sleeping mother, “clad in taboos.” She awakens, terrifies the dog, who sinks to the floor and the boy, who flees the room.  The sonnet, too, “throbs like a bruise,” full of sexual images and mythical allusions—the hair outspread (like Medusa) and the “satyr-thighed” dog.  Note, too, the play on words of “satyr” and “setter.”  Merrill’s struggles with his mother’s inability to accept his homosexuality and life style are well documented in A Different Person, particularly in the course of his psychoanalysis with Doctor Detre. “I failed to make out why my poetics had to be so mixed up with her . . . .”

The fifth sonnet presents a painful memory of an overheard conversation between parents “who love each other still” followed by a series of alchemical images and a resolution, of sorts as the poet sees that neither parent is to be blamed for the broken home: they are now “cool in the graveyard of good and evil,/ They are even so to be honored and obeyed.” Echoes of this line are found in the memoir: “Small wonder we honor our father and our mother even when we can’t obey them.  Without their imprint of (imperfect love), the self is featureless, a snarl of instincts, a puff of stellar dust.” Merrill has a particular attraction to the word “still”—as he says, its “triadic resonance of immobility, endurance and intensification (“Eleanor grew still more animated”) was perhaps the hardest to resist. Deep in the pinewoods of my vocabulary, it yielded an intoxicating moonshine I would keep resorting to in small, furtive sips.”

Opening with a play on the word “invert” (to describe a homosexual), the sixth sonnet can be read as both an admission and an affirmation. The poet acknowledges a worldly disengagement (“I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote”) and yet an insistence: “I trust that I am no less time’s child than some/who on the heath impersonate Poor Tom/Or on the barricades risk life and limb.” Nor does the poet try to keep a garden. Instead, he grows a single avocado: “roots pallid, gemmed with air” which grows “small gilt leaves” until

Fleshy and green, I let them die, yes, yes,

And start another, I am earth’s no less.

Materer writes “this softly rhymed couplet is Merrill’s quiet defense of what we saw him admitting was a ‘begemmed’ style as he acknowledges (ironically) that the critics of his early poetry were right.  In an age of political revolt, he (like Wilde’s Dorian Gray) never even reads newspapers. In an age of poetic experimentation, he writes sonnets in which the appropriate metaphor for his poems are the avocado’s ‘gilt leaves’ . . . Like drafts of poems, the leaves die only to be revised again and again. Against this portrait of the writer as an aesthete, or even an invert, Merrill offers his defense: ‘I am earth’s no less.’”

The final sonnet appears to answer a question Merrill posed in A Different Person: “Do I conclude that my life has been less a flight from the Broken Home than a cunning scale model of it?” The reader sees a child and a red dog roaming the corridors of the broken home “still” (immobility? endurance? intensification?)—in the corridors of memory the broken home will always exist, but the actual home is now a school, where someone might learn something,  “or, from my window, cool/with the unstiflement of the entire story,/Watch a red setter stretch and sink in cloud.” The red setters beloved by Father Time and the red setter, Michael, who led the boy to flee Mother Earth resolve, in this final image, into a setting sun, or son.


About Lorna Blake

Lorna Knowles Blake’s first collection of poems, Permanent Address, won the Richard Snyder Memorial Prize from the Ashland Poetry Press and was published in May 2008. She teaches at the Brewster Ladies Library and serves on the editorial board of Barrow Street, as well as on the Advisory Board of the West Chester Poetry Center. She lives in Cape Cod and New Orleans.
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One Comment

  1. Blake’s critique of Merrill’s “The Broken Home” was rather insightful. It allowed me to penetrate the poem deeper than my own personal reading and that’s quite something, given some reviewers have a tendency to bore the reader. It was very elegantly written, as well.

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