Poetry

Days of 1941 and ‘44

James Merrill
A page from one of James Merrill's manuscripts
Detail from a draft of Days of 1941 and ‘44. James Merrill Papers, Julian Edison Department of Special Collections, Washington University Libraries.

for David Mixsell

The nightmare shower room. My tormentor leers
In mock lust—surely?—at my crotch.
The towel I reach for held just out of reach,
I gaze back petrified, past speech, past tears.

Or Saturday night war games. Shy of the whole
Student body, and my own, I’ve hid
In the furnace room. His warning stokes my head:
This time, Toots, it’s your pants up the flagpole!

And why, four-letter-man, descend
To pick on me, in those days less than nothing,
A shaky X on panic’s bottom line?

Imagine meeting now, here at the end—
You sheep-eyed, stripped of your wolf’s clothing—
And seeing which came true, your life or mine.


At Silver Springs, that Easter break,
I’d noted “heavenly colors and swell fish”
—Mismarriage of maternal gush
To regular-guy. By evening: “Bellyache.”

I was fifteen? Dear god. Page after page,
Fury and rapture, smudge and curlicue,
One ugly duckling waddled through
The awkward age.

A month of sundaes, gym excuses, play
(“I got the part!!”) and “long walk with S.J.”
Locate the diarist away at school

Right after the divorce. Would brat-
ishness that ripe for ridicule
Ever be resorbed like baby fat?


“A lord of Life, a prince of Prose”—
Alliterations courtesy of Wilde.
Another year, with such as these to wield,
I won the Fourth Form Essay Prize.

In vain old Mr Raymond’s sky-blue stare
Paled with revulsion when I spoke to him
About my final paper. “Jim,”
He quavered, “don’t, don’t write on Baudelaire.

But viewed from deep in my initial
Aesthetic phase, brought like a lukewarm bath to
Fizzy life by those mauve salts,

Paradises (and if artificial
So much the better) promised more than Matthew
Arnold. Faith rose dripping from the false.


My dear—yes, let that stand: you were my first
True hate. You whispering, the sadist’s glee.
You lounging, buried in my diary—
Each phrase a fuse. I wanted you to burst.

Your cubicle across from mine was bleak
As when school opened. Oh. you didn’t need
Cushions, posters, cotton for nosebleed,
A mother caught by flash in Red Cross chic.

Or did you? Three more years and you would die,
For lack of them perhaps, in France, at war.
Word reached me one hot twilight. It was raining.

Clay spattering the barracks. I
Fell back onto my bunk, parched for decor,
With Swanns Way. Basic training …


I’d have my France at war’s end. Over highballs
Back home, would show that certain of us were up
To the museums and cafés of Europe—
Those peeling labels!

Rich boy you called me. True, there’d be no turning
Back from the mixed blessings of a first-rate
Education exquisitely offset
By an inbred contempt for learning.

And true, when money traveled, talent stayed
Deep in the trunk, assuming it got packed.
Mine was a harmless figment? If you like.

Remember, though, how untrained eyes subtract
From the coin-glint of a summer glade
The adder coiled to strike.


The nothing you’d become took on a weight
No style I knew could lighten. The latrine
Mirrors that night observed what once had been
Your mortal enemy disintegrate

To multiabsent and bone-tired hoplite
Tamed more than told apart by his dog-tags.
Up the flagpole with those rank fatigues
Bunched round his boots! Another night

Beneath unsimulated fire he’d crawl
With full pack, rifle, helmeted, weak-kneed,
And peeking upward see the tracers scrawl

Their letter of atonement, then the flare
Quote its entire red minefield from midair—
Between whose lines it has been life to read.

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:
July 1, 1984

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