We are a two-poet family, fiercely competitive—not of each other's
poetry but of each other's time to write poetry. Upon seeing this
gorgeous space, we announced simultaneously, "I'll take it." When
reason returned, we settled on a division of morning and afternoon. I
worked upstairs from 8 to 12 and Jeffrey followed from 12 to 5. We
passed wordlessly on the narrow stairs shortly after Saint Mary's
Church bell struck noon. It was a familiar relay, only this time we
exchanged a bit of heaven, instead of one of our squalling, defiant
The solarium was a late improvement to the house, an expansion of attic
into a large, sociable space. Merrill's grand piano is tucked under one
eave, with haphazard piles of dusty Chopin and Brahms; a clay stove
sits against one wall, tin flue extending to the ceiling like a
periscope. And in the center of the room, an awkward array of couch,
coffee table, and two Victorian stuffed chairs.
Then there were the windows. Lining three walls, they offered views of
Stonington Harbor to the west, Rhode Island's Little Narragansett Bay
to the east, and to the south, fidgety hemlocks and densely packed
Greek Revival houses. If the eye could penetrate their wood-shingled
rooftops, a view of New York's Fishers Island would reveal itself, a
long baguette along the horizon. Three states on three sides, a
panorama coveted by even the wealthiest Stonington residents.
I wedged a folding table under the harbor vista, the perfect spot to
write until the sun rose high enough and my computer screen greened
out. Later, I would bring home folders and novels bleached pale and
dry, damage I treasured because it was somehow real sunlight, unimpeded
by the persistent haze that hangs over Louisville. I began each morning
with binoculars, sweeping the sound from harbor to first breakwater.
Seagulls, herons, finches all dipped and glided within inches.
"Anemometer," I wrote in my notebook: "a device for measuring wind
speed with small cups," attached to the chimneys of several houses
below. Then, "howser, outriggers, dredges, winches, kedge, warp, weft,
woof." Once we kedged our way off a mud bar on the Mystic River, the
silty anchor tossed again and again till our boat glided free. "Here
comes the Challynger,
her wake like a bride's wedding train," my first strangled sentence.
Stonington is the last commercial fishing town in Connecticut and all
year long, lobster boats, scallopers, and other huge rusted fishing
vessels motor in and out of the harbor. I coveted their names—Anna Marie, Patriot, Northern Orion—more
businesslike than the clever ones stenciled on pleasure boats. Still,
at night and with all their lights on, they looked chimerical, like
drifting amusement parks.
Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in.
Embark, and the romance quits our vessel, and hangs on every other sail
on the horizon. —Emerson
We called it "the media center," a tiny alcove with Merrill's album
collection, books, phone, fax machine, and a stereo system that dated
from the '70s. Lean your shoulder into one bookshelf and the entire
case swings open to reveal Merrill's study. Once a closet, the room was
humanized by a window overlooking the harbor, more bookshelves, and a
built-in napping bed. I retreated to this foam-padded hollow when
Jeffrey snored, when the Frisbee green of the bedroom floor was more
than I could bear, when I longed for oxygen. In all kinds of weather, a
direct streak blew off the sound to my open face, cool and delicious
Merrill's desk was cleared of all his belongings, a clean slate for the
writer-in-residence. An additional stand-up desk held note cards
embossed with his address, brass pushpins, and other odds and ends.
Otherwise, Merrill's books filled the place. There was an entire wall
of his own work: 30 volumes of poetry, nonfiction, and so on. Above the
bed, another wall of poetry, most of these volumes signed "To
Jimmy"—his devoted friends called him Jimmy. The intensity of their
inscriptions was startling. They spoke of his companionship,
mentorship, always his generosity. Some of these poets also had passed
away, making the dedications all the more poignant.
It took nearly a month before I felt suited to the place. The evidence of genius was intimidating. His Collected
alone was three inches thick. Then there were the plays, fiction,
essays, the critical works. Merrill was gay; I was not. I'd never had
the pleasure of meeting him, as so many others had. And, risking an
unappreciative glance at the gift horse, I was depressed by the seating
arrangements. His office chair was unpadded, designed, it appeared, to
ruin the lower spine. So I bought a new one and created unkempt piles
of books and magazines. It was my way of nesting, with the Columbia Encyclopedia and Merrill's 1974 edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as sturdy bottom branches.
I tiptoed my way toward the great writer, and my own poetry, by rereading Water Street, still my favorite of Merrill's books. Then all of The Changing Light at Sandover and a memoir of his escapades in Europe, A Different Person. Later, Alison Lurie's unsettling sketch of Merrill and his lover David Jackson, Familiar Spirits. I followed two threads simultaneously—memoirs of expatriate writers, including Thekla Clark's Wystan and Chester, Joseph Brodsky's Watermark, and Edmund White and Hubert Sorin's Our Paris, as well as remembrances by Stonington writers—Anthony Bailey's In the Village and Eleanor Perenyi's More Was Lost.
The freedom to follow any old trail through literature was
exhilarating. My memory and vocabulary began to stir after a long,
In my notebook, I scribbled "trou de memoire"—a pun referring to both a memory lapse and a hole dug into history. I took the time to browse, fell in love with cicatrix, tarbony, mullein. Said White: "The word for torch is the most beautiful in French chalumeau,
a close rival to Edgar Allan Poe's proposal for the most beautiful
sound in English, ‘cellar door.' " Wystan (the W. in W.H.) slipped into
a poem I called "Passeggiata":
We are Auden's ‘force of nature,'
as he called the citizens of Ischia.
As he watched, drunk from
and considered humanity from a
Then, an abundance of sea tales, including Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever, Nathaniel Hilbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, Alistair MacCleod's No Great Mischief and Island. I read this short description from MacCleod's miraculous short story "In the Fall":
And always the shreds of blackened and stringy
seaweed that the ocean has ripped and torn from
its own lower regions, as if this is the season for
self-mutilation— the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair.
I stumbled through the house that day in a haze of grief; it was that
kind of story. It was that perfect, like the crystalline last line in
Merrill's poem "Prism": "The day is breaking someone else's heart."