A room is compensation for the ephemerality of a career. —Joseph Cornell
When James Merrill died in 1994, he willed his large, turn-of-the-century house on Water Street to the Borough of Stonington, Connecticut. The village improvement committee was free to use the building any way it desired; Merrill made no stipulation in his will. But the National Book Award–winning poet had been an important figure in the village's ongoing literary tradition. The committee decided to keep Merrill's legacy alive by creating a writer-in-residence program. Since 1996, a lucky poet or scholar has lived, for either six months or a full year, in Merrill's curious home across from the harbor. (No stipend is offered, and application is by nomination only.) Writers chosen for residency are notified more than a year in advance. Several Merrill House residents have reported "the happiest period of my life," surrounded by Merrill's books and knickknacks, far removed from the snarl of city life—Boston, New York, or Louisville, in our case.
My husband, Jeffrey Skinner, and I received our call to apply in late 2000. We submitted bios, books, and samples of projects we intended to work on, as well as proposals for community outreach. Months later, we were officially summoned to serve as 2002 James Merrill House poets-in-residence. We drove 913 miles east, arriving in a New England drizzle and damp.
The ground floor at 107 Water Street hosts a village barber, who is almost never without customers, and the Hungry Palette, a fabric shop. An eccentric retired priest lives on the second floor. The third and fourth floors were Merrill's domain, six rooms in which some of the most significant poetry of the last century was written.
It has to be said—upon seeing the apartment for the first time—we were startled by its modesty. "Not what I expected," Jeffrey murmured. Merrill's kitchen was renovated very simply during the '60s. His many prize certificates hung in inexpensive frames over a dented file cabinet, in marked contrast to the illustrious names signing off on the awards—W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, James Dickey.The parlor is small and dim, even with its oversized Baroque mirror that clears the ceiling by only a half-inch, even with the dazzling bat wallpaper mentioned in Merrill's epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover.
We passed through the parlor and climbed a precipitous staircase with brass handholds on the left and a strong wooden railing on the right. In an instant, our dark first impressions dissolved in a flush of sunlight.