Jimmy's Place: A Haven on Water Street

Sarah Gorham

This house has good karma. —J.D. McClatchy

In the New London Day, under the caption "Poet's Legacy: A House Provided," there's a photo of Merrill standing in his remarkable dining room. Four gauze-curtained windows look out over the harbor, a luscious pear tree, and Water Street below. The walls are painted, as Merrill described them, sunburn pink with brilliant white trim. Under an ornate tin ceiling, we ate our meals; we introduced our daughters to their first lobster rolls and scallops from the Bomster. There, with the pastel chairs pulled close, we tried our hand at the infamous Ouija board. We even used a teacup, as Merrill and Jackson had, but the spirits were not interested and spoke only in consonants. "Give us a vowel or two!" we pleaded. More random Ws, Bs, Zs.

We didn't feel deprived. All around us were the sounds of consolation—the foghorn, train whistle, and church bell; the off and true rhymes of Merrill's poetry; the fog-muffled purr of boat engines and gentle hiss of water seeping into sand. "Thought itself possesses a water pattern," Brodsky said. Soon I was thinking rhythmically and clearly, concentrating as I once had in my thirties. My writing began to absorb its surroundings. "She wears a fish-fin cloud. Stratus, anchored on a shoulder blade." Not a poem without its bluestem, cormorant, mummichog. In "Prayer," a sky-blue ketch pleaded to the harbor,

Oh, grant me the mettle,
the tack of renunciation.
So in my last hour
I can float without pain
inside the semi,
half-hearted circle
of your arms."

I was home. Gradually, unconsciously, I abandoned the formal James Merrill and began to call him by his nickname, Jimmy. I was on a first-name basis—a familiar and deeply satisfied presence drinking my tea at the dining room table, shuffling to the kitchen for another bowl of soup.


A tiny prefix separates belonging from longing. Yet the substance of these two words is miles apart, the difference between splashing about in the waves and frying on the tarmac with binoculars in hand. One morning, while I waited for Doug Radinocci's barber chair and a $10 trim, I mentioned how much we would like to live there, permanently—who wouldn't want to extend their interval in paradise? Did he know of any cheap housing? "Everybody asks me that," he said. "I live in Westerly myself; I could never afford the taxes."

The borough is filled with beautiful Greek Revival homes that remain dark nearly 10 months of the year, their owners miles away in New York or Boston. Yachts and yawls are dry-docked at Dodson's Boatyard, awkward and precarious, like whales perched in trees. Come July, everything changes. As Merrill wrote: "On Main the summer people / Took deep-rooted ease—A leaf turned red, to town they'd head."

The arrival of clement weather was a bittersweet experience for us. It signaled the end of our stay; in one short month, we'd have to forfeit our fantasy of ownership and belonging, dutifully acknowledge the arrival of the noblesse. Sure enough, our favorite coffee shop filled with angular blondes tugging immaculate, smock-dressed toddlers, their husbands hailing each other in overconfident voices. The grandest borough residences rustled with BMWs, picnic baskets, and evening cocktail parties. "Here comes The News," I wrote, "her wake like a slit opening in a woman's skirt." Rupert Murdoch's yacht was longer than a city block, its hull a deep forest green. Its tender was larger than most middle-class runabouts.

In one short month, another lucky writer would enter Merrill's study, dining room, sunroom and claim them, temporarily, as her own. Another poet or scholar would receive that transforming touch of Merrill's renowned, postmortem generosity. As Allan Gurganus said, so rare it is "when the great man is a good man. Some people contain their grace. Jimmy dispersed his."

In addition to annual gifts to the village improvement committee, and countless other causes, Jimmy had established the Ingram Merrill Foundation, which gave grants to writers, artists, and other foundations. My husband received a grant early in his career. The process was mysterious. The money was an instigating factor in his decision to leave business and try his luck at teaching and writing full-time. Nearly 20 years later, with the pressures of work squeezing our writing lives down to about an hour a day, Merrill again had pointed the way to an escape hatch. We had each finished more than 30 poems during our six months on Water Street—more than three years' worth under normal circumstances. Merrill's rooms had indeed been a stay against the ephemerality of a career.

Writers-in-residence at 107 have customarily left something behind, as thanks. We bought a new VCR and porch furniture. We wedged signed copies of our books into the burgeoning shelves. We scavenged for beloved white stones on Napatree Point and placed them next to Merrill's glass unicorns and miniature Buddhas. Then we packed up our van and left without looking back, with not a little sorrow for what we had found, there, in Jimmy's house.

Sarah Gorham is the author of three poetry collections: the forthcoming The Cure (Four Way Books, 2003), The Tension Zone (Four Way Books, 1996), and Don't Go Back to Sleep (Galileo, 1989). Her poems have appeared in Paris Review, Grand Street, Poetry, and the Nation, among other journals. She is the editor in chief of Sarabande Books.