James Merrill
Young James Merrill with his pet terrier at "The Orchard" in 1930.

Young James Merrill with his pet terrier at "The Orchard" in 1930. James Merrill Papers, Julian Edison Department of Special Collections, Washington University Libraries.

People who love animals
once loved people.”
– Howard Moss

Because you are a terrier
–“earth-dog,” a digger –
it’s only natural, once on the bed,
you’ll burrow fast and far as you can
between the strata of percale
dark geometric green/black/red
and in the heat of our four feet
frantically storm the badger’s “hole” –
one of the many in your head.
What’s going on here - instinct? art?
The cave, by all your faith undeepened,
is worried wide awake, a lover’s heart.

You have some funny genes. Your grandfather
is known as One-Take Toby. There he stands
in the latest Life: on his hind legs, tongue-happy,
spangled tutu, Hedda Hopper hat.
Noticing your interest in our closets,
we exchange the eyes-to-heaven look of parents.
We want you to grow up to be All Dog,
the way they wanted me All Boy. My mother at least
seems reconciled. Last week when your “other Daddy”
manhandled you, planted kisses on your belly,
she laughed, “If there’s a life after this one
I wouldn’t mind coming back as Peter’s next dog.”

Alpha males? That’s what your other
Daddy and I must practice being –
to which end we wrestle Your Feistiness
onto his back (lucky you’re still a puppy).
The hand of the cradling arm clasps your hind feet,
my right hand lightly steadying your jaw.
Now a mesmeric “gaze of dominance”
initiates convulsions. Whimperings.
Two or three mortifying yawns.
Eyes rolling like an oracle’s, Ego fades
into the submissive trance …
There! You learn quickly. It took me decades.

Housebroken (almost) and streetwise
– if wise is the word for those ecstatic
genital explorations, that intent
snuffling-up of germs four gleaming hypodermic
angels guard you from – you are rehearsing
in microcosm years I hardly remember,
being three hundred times your twelve weeks old.
You’re gaining on me steadily, but still:
each time a new dog thrills you, the excitement –
(What is that in your mouth – a frozen turd?
And what’s that flutter in your nerves – a bird!)
Yes, yes, it comes back. With a difference.

Daddies also have their differences,
smelt out by you in the first hour; by us
only this tenth year faced as terminal.
So parting lies ahead – oh, not this month
with snow whipping and howling round the block,
but “in the season of flowers” (La Bohème).
And you? You’ll go with him. He'll go
to his recuperation, I to mine;
not that a simple “Heal!” is all it takes.
When (if) I go to visit, there you’ll be,
our Inner Dog, in perfect loyalty
… to whom? Is this how it was meant to be?

(Next summer, when the visit comes to pass,
Surprise: the neighbor’s big fat iron-gray mammy
at tether’s end. Like one of my formative loves,
she yearns to take that white child on her lap
and teach him the songs of slavery …. Then, the cat:
both of you at it – bark, hiss, chase – all day
like Hepburn and Tracy in a 40s movie
or scenes from the love going on above your head
ever since you can remember. Well. Time to plant
what but a bed of cosmos by the fence,
then lick your master’s hands goodbye – just kidding –
and leave you in them. Meanwhile – ) Winter still:

three gelid souls in the city. P at a runthrough,
me tired by errands. Heading back to bed,
I pass you open-eyed deep in your bed
on the toy-littered pantry floor,
jaw propped upon a ledge of faux sheepskin …
I lay myself down deep and open-eyed
lonely upon the ramparts of goosedown –
doing what? Experiencing Repose.
Each in the same position, the same mood.
Cold, shutter-filtered sun. A lassitude
learned belatedly, perhaps from you.
Nothing to think of or look forward to.

Timelessness passing. Man and his best friend.

James Merrill (1926–1995) was one of the foremost American poets of the later twentieth century. He published eleven volumes of poems, in addition to the trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover. He also wrote plays, novels, and a memoir.
Originally published:
April 1, 1994


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