Merrill's Last Letters

Writing to the end

James Merrill
James Merrill in a kitchen
James Merrill at Stephen Yenser’s home in Los Angeles, 1982. Courtesy Stephen Yenser.

In the last four years of his life, James Merrill was sick with AIDS, and suffering increasingly. He had become alienated from his longtime partner, David Jackson, who was in Key West, and showing signs of dementia. Merrill’s lover, Peter Hooten, struggled with addiction and emotional instability, for which he was treated in clinics in Arizona and New York. He and Merrill lived apart for a period, but they reunited in 1994, by which point Hooten had become an indispensable caregiver.

Despite this trying situation, Merrill was composing poems and keeping up his lively correspondence with old friends—the writer and minister Frederick Buechner, the printer and diarist Claude Fredericks—while building new friendships with the psychiatrist Peter Moore, the novelist Allan Gurganus, the artist Dorothea Tanning, and Torren Blair, a high-­school senior and Merrill’s neighbor in Stonington, Connecticut, who was contemplating a literary future. Merrill loved to write letters. Stitching together gossip, musical appreciation, anecdote, advice, description, reminiscence, and canny self-­assessment, he makes everything interesting by virtue of his word choice, quick figures, clear and complex tones: his distinctive sensibility.

Praise is the last note his letters strike. Four days before his sudden death in February 1995, writing to André Aciman in appreciation of his memoir Out of Egypt, Merrill surmises that Alexandria was his “‘real’ home.” The ancient city, with its colorfully variegated culture, epitomized a “whole world,” comprising “the trivial & the tragic, interwoven as in Chekov, and underscored as in opera.”
—langdon hammer and stephen yenser, editors

to peter moorE

25 November/6 December 1991
[Stonington, CT]

Dear Peter,

Your letter awaited my arrival—prompt flights, smooth connections—yesterday just after dark, from Tucson. DJ was at the airport, as usual too thinly dressed for the little cold snap we’re enjoying, and perhaps a bit too thin in any case. (The fridge is empty except for some bacon and junk food.) I spent an hour or two fussing about and unpacking, then, over dinner at a place we like, began trying to tell him about Sierra Tucson. Two hours later he made the unsolicited observation that I seemed changed. I think so too, and (if you don’t mind being a sounding board) thought I might strum out some of these new tunes—both because you dance so well to them and I need to set my thoughts in order for the inevitable Poem.

It’s Pop Psychotherapy. Now that nobody can afford that handmade underwear from Vienna, along comes Benetton to let it all hang out in. Groups in circles, friendly but utterly non-­directive counselors, who say “That’s OK, you don’t have to share if you don’t feel like it.” No caffeine or desserts on the menu. The patients live in dorms named for the local cacti. I had friends to stay with in Tucson, 25 mile drive each way, but worth it, because it was an emotional week and, after Pittsburgh, I’d broken into tears in a hotel room once too often.

After visiting hours on Sunday a ban on communication (word or glance) with your patient goes into effect. Rather like The Magic Flute. The exception is the highly ritualized hour in the afternoon group at which you give your patient a list of grievances, or vice versa; or tell each other your “boundaries” or what you love about each other. At those times you are looking deeply into each other’s eyes while the counselors voyeuristically study your faces for telltale signs of Anger, Fear, Shame, Guilt, Sadness, Hurt, or Loneliness.

Those seven words are, by and large, what we are given to work with. Like the child’s first watercolor box. (You may also say “happy” or “glad” but then you wouldn’t be in that particular room if that’s what you were feeling!)

Dear Peter,

That was all ten, no, twelve days ago; I had thought to give it to you blow-­by-­blow but—not that I have better things to do—other things than letters are taking precedence. Suffice it to say that the week was a “success,” culminating in P’s getting a 9-­hour pass, during which we went to the famous Desert Museum, stood in a cage full of humming-­birds, looked into the eyes of the Mountain Lion (perhaps the most beautiful face made by God), and had a lovely dinner tete-­a-­tete, feeling quite rededicated to each other. There had been one moment I wanted you to know about. Peter “acted up” in the afternoon group one day, and stormed out of the room. The blank-­faced counselor said, “When Peter behaves like this, I feel afraid,” and everyone else felt afraid, too. I especially did, thinking, “Oh dear, he’s resisting the therapy, and if this doesn’t work, what hope have we?”—and drove back to Tucson in a Brown Study. The next day, entering that same room, I was surprised by a new Peter, popping out from behind a door, wearing a black eyeshade and a sign on his sweater; CONFRONT ME IF I TRY TO CONTROL. The eyeshade, which he had been wearing all day, had been imposed by his morning group, to teach him dependence on others. I was really tickled by the efficacy of such light, symbolic devices. Anyhow, he is now in—are you ready?—a Trappist monastery outside of Atlanta. They’ve taken him for a whole month—it turns out the Abbot is gay, and must have found P’s forthright letter of application irresistible—which means that he and I can meet in NYC on Jan 4th and start getting to know each other again.

Part of that reeducation is going to be painful. We’ve idealized each other so! And I’m going to have to learn in some detail about a lot of compulsive sexual behavior which will remind me of how I lived at his age—and I will both hate and envy him for it. But I have been busily revising my own life in the light of co-­dependency, reading books about male incest survivors (P’s central problem, as he sees it, is his dreadful older sister who made a kind of bedizened sexual doll of him, and even tried, when he was 18, to get him into bed with her and her husband), and trying on, like an unbecoming jacket, the possibility that I too have been twisted, more than I realize, by early experience. One morning a lecturer put on a cassette of New Age music and regressed us. We walked through a tunnel in the light at whose end we’d all be under 12. Tears began streaming down my face. There’s your house, go in, smell the smells, it’s supper time—and I was standing by the bare mirror table in Palm Beach, and nobody else was there, mother and father (whose last year together this was) mere shadows at either end of the room. The tears only stopped at the elderly mouth of the tunnel. So I guess I’m ready to spend a season or two “in recovery” myself, not just to keep P. company.

I’d best ring off—the day’s phone calls have begun. But your welcoming letter was better than a dozen hugs, and I hope to have another one early in 1992, with a snapshot of you and a 36-­year old Jeffrey grinning by this year’s tree.

Love always,

to allan gurganus

21 February 1993
New York, NY

Dear Heart—

I was searching for a book yesterday and lo! there on the shelf sat my Pleïade Tolstoy (Souvenirs et Recits) with “Le Bonheur Conjugal.” I imagine the little volume simpering, with burning ears, as we talked about it. Equally strange, from its pages fluttered the enclosed, which I must have typed out at least 20 years ago. It’s a stanza from “Beppo,” [by Byron] + I have long imagined that the last 4 lines described a person I might grow to resemble. Reading them now I hear a dry little voice deep inside: Dream on!

My nephew took me to an all-­Chopin recital by the prodigy Yevgeny Kissen [sic]. Tall, a bit gangling, a cloud of dark hair, face like a waterlily, and hands like a whole ballet company. You’ve never seen such pas de deux, such pliés and leaps, + descants. (I’d better look up those terms; isn’t ballon what they call the ability to “leap and pause” as Nijinsky put it?) Everyone cheering + swooning—And to think that the outside world simply will not believe that one has never attended a rock concert.

It’s Sunday. Snow, etc. I’m about to spend an hour with Peter (visitor’s day). He has another week, after which—? Every time he phones it’s a different person from the last. But when I return, Tolstoy will be waiting.

Thank you for our evening. You are one in ten million (don’t ask me how I know: I know) and on that note I go out into the Great Flakiness.

Yours ever,

Then he was faithful too, as well as amorous;
So that no sort of female could complain,
Although they’re now and then a little clamorous,
He never put the pretty souls in pain;
His heart was one of those which most enamour us,
Wax to receive and marble to retain:
He was a lover of the good old school,
Who still become more constant as they cool.

to peter moore

28 February 1993
New York, NY

Dear Peter,

[...] This last month has been wonderful—all by myself in New York, neither in DJ’s fire nor PH’s frying pan. The former is safely glued to his TV set in Key West, the latter (following, alas, a Major Relapse) emerges from rehab tomorrow. I very much hope that we can amicably live apart, if only as a trial, for six months. All my friends are “horrified” by what I’ve been “put through,” which of course is largely nonsense. I recently read the following sentence and think it is true: “Suffering warms the coldness of life.” Without that suffering, I mean, I would have turned into an old wrinkled nut and never written those recent poems you are good enough to praise. As far as our health goes, things seem to be holding their own. We’re not taking any of the antiviral drugs; so toxic, says our nutritionist. Instead the latter has started me on a kind of peroxide therapy (1% food grade peroxide to 99% pure water, aloe vera, etc.). The fascinating point—upheld by many European doctors—­­is that cancer and viral cells need very little oxygen, indeed are killed by high levels of oxygen in the blood. Not unlike the effect of Interferon, only harmless. You probably know about it; what do you think?

Just before P. went round the bend we got a puppy—a little self-­willed Jack Russell named Cosmo. (He is too much for me to handle alone, and has been boarding where he was born, surrounded by sisters and cousins and aunts. Awful to miss any stage in his puppyhood.) He is highly pedigree’d—nothing but the best for the young master: his grandfather is a highly-­paid transvestite known in art-­directing circles as One-­Take Toby, always happiest in his spangled tutu and silly hat. We noticed Cosmo’s immediate interest in our closets and despaired of his growing up to be All Dog…You will have seen that a poem is coming out of the foregoing. Its epigraph will be from Howard Moss: “People who love animals once loved people.”

I’m glad the new hip’s a success. So many friends who’ve had it done in the last year or so are dancing in the streets. I’ve begun to feel envious twinges, especially after walking 30 blocks, so maybe I’ll be joining the club. I also rather envy you that 39 year old patient with a wiry body. Not that he’d ever look at me: I saw myself undressed in the mirror 2 weeks ago and thought it was Larry Rivers’ mother-­in-­law. So no more sweets for a while. Now for my lovely Aveeno oatmeal bath. Love to you and Jeffrey as ever—


to allan gurganus

1 March 1993
New York, NY

Dear Heart,

Shirley Temple’s favorite poems? What a treasure! So young in 1936, and so well-­read withal. A remark of Mr Tate’s [Allen Tate’s] comes to mind: he and a young teacher are crossing a campus after a less than satisfactory interview with the Dean.

The young man (breaking a silence): The Dean’s favorite poet is Emily Dickinson.

Mr Tate: The Dean hasn’t read enough to have a favorite poet.

.…You should also know that David Jackson gave Shirley Temple her first kiss. Or says he did. At a dance for Hollywood youngsters, some of whom he went to school with. Her arms were so short, said the kisser-­and-­teller, they barely reached round his neck.

And this leads to a reference by Daryl Hine, decades ago, through clenched teeth, to his “deformity”. What deformity? cried Virgil and Anne. Oh don’t pretend you don’t know, said Daryl sulkily; I mean the ludicrous shortness of my arms.—But they weren’t short, his friends protested; rather they were (if not nobly) elegantly proportioned. Where did so bizarre a notion come from?—Daryl: Hmpf. Why then do the cuffs of every shirt I buy come down to my fingertips?…And thus he learned, better late than never, what the other measurement on the label inside his collars meant.

Two days later—a new month. Peter walked in this morning, sprung from Smithers, with his dreadful doormat beard, but mild and bent on being a good boy. To him “work” means showbiz or things literary—jobs that more often than not entail after-­hours receptions with waiters and drinks and irresistible people all on their drug of choice. So the parting word of advice from his counselor was: “Oh, Peter, get a job in a hardware store for a year.” It suddenly makes him seem potentially mysterious and attractive all over again, getting his “bearings” in that world of no-­longer-­metaphorical nuts and screws and what not. There must be courses in how to handle a sales slip. I’m still nipping up to Stonington on Thursday, staying about ten days. I’ll phone you from there.

I finished “Le Bonheur Conjugal”—whew. Very close to home; but so is everything T. wrote. Oldest story in the world, of course. How did Adam and Eve feel about each other after the first weeks? The beauty of this young Tolstoy is how his world keeps recovering its sweetness, and it’s a great boon of a verity after those rancid ones he’s just led us through. I’m a bit distratto—overlook it, please—and take this letter merely as an occasion to fill out your set of postcard silhouettes.

With love always—

to david jackson

16 January 1994
[Key West, FL]


I hate to write so formally, but when we talk it’s in one ear & out the other [Merrill was in the same house with Jackson].

My feeling is that you have become a very selfish + inconsiderate person. There’s, for one thing, the ongoing TV noise which, combined with your refusal to use earphones, makes life hell for anyone within earshot. Ray [Izbicki, Merrill’s downstairs neighbor in Stonington] has talked seriously of moving. If he does, it’s over: I close up the house and move to NYC. You can go wherever you feel at home.

Then last night at Sandy’s [J. D. McClatchy’s]—after the fiasco of going from store to store for cigarettes—you were asked not to smoke at table: it irritated Hubert (who is dying) [Hubert Sorin, Edmund White’s lover, who had AIDS]. You sat next to H, and surprise!—dessert wasn’t even over when you lit up. Hubert quietly moved to the sofa in the first room. Within 5 minutes you moved in, sat down next to him, and lit a cigarette.

So all that matters—right?—is your gratification. I doubt that I have the strength to live under the same roof with you ever again.


to frederick buechner

May 28, 1994
New York, NY

Dearest Freddy,

Such a joy to see you, sit with you at Hulot’s, talk, etc. There are at least a dozen things I wanted to say, but they slipped my “mind” or there wasn’t time. Thank you for Annie D[illard]’s book, which is quite extraordinary, the first time around (there’ll be another). Much of it seems to be written by her cat—lucid, implacable, utterly strange. Mostly she seems to be speaking as a member of another species, on better terms with light and water, insects and islands, than with her fellow humans. I felt her terrible eyes on me as I read. This gave off—except in her really supreme moments, like the burning moth, the face of the child, and how both of these fuse into Christ at the close—a faint air of…self-­congratulation? Where one might have welcomed humility. But then, it is hard to be both humble and capable of writing that well. We aren’t all Chinese sages.

I can see that the months or years ahead are going to be a dream of Trial & Error. The hemoglobin count has just fallen impressively, due (we think) to the AZT I’ve been taking. This drug is now thought far less of than at first, I’m glad to add my voice to its detractors. So I’m off it now and giving myself a daily shot of Epogen, which is so expensive I might as well develop a cocaine habit and get it all over with ($800 a week). But it presumably stimulates the bone marrow to produce new cells—little do they know what awaits them—and raises the spirits wonderfully. Thus I can hardly get up a flight of stairs, but my mind tap-­dances up and down them throughout the day, and very little upsets or frightens me.

I can’t recall if I spoke to you about Peter during these last months. I might easily, without him, [have] slipped through the cracks, life had grown so bleak. But with his love and his astounding caregiving talent, here I am to tell the tale. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such love before, and I see it as a kind of miracle. Lord knows, he has his troubles, which often show in loud scenes, etc. These, however, pass within hours, and incidentally remind me of love as an emotion, a fire at the heart of life. This side of Peter—who when he’s uneasy talks too much, blurts things out—has turned many of my friends slightly but perceptibly against him; this dismays me (though I see why) all the more because he has so few friends of his own. For better or worse I seem to be his life, his fate if you will. Nothing much has helped, neither AA or psychotherapy—until the Church came along (first that Cistercian monastery outside of Atlanta, now a funny little Episcopalian affair in Lyme Rock CT, whose rector is a Virginian named Mitzi Noble) and caught his imagination. As an actor he throws himself into genuflecting, kissing the chalice he mustn’t drink from; but I see it, with fingers crossed, as the role of a lifetime and only hope he will play it through to the end. The one thing, Old Friend, that does upset and frighten me is what will become of him should I die first, as would seem wholly probable irrespective of health. He’ll be well enough taken care of, but that’s not what I mean. I don’t ask you to take him under your wing or even make a friend of him. Just now and then to let him know he’s in your prayers and that you will always bless him for the sweetness and vividness he brought to (already!) these past ten years. Now my old eyes are wet. Time for Epogen! (All this, I trust, very much entre nous.)

I’m counting on a triplet to Vermont, but first I may have to go to my world-­class dentist in Atlanta. Decay under two crowns? It sounds like a pre-­WWI central European principality. Enough. We’ll not lose touch. Love always to you and Judy.


to claude fredericks

6 August 1994
[Stonington, CT]

Dearest Claude—

Here is the new book [A Scattering of Salts, in galleys]. I think you’ll have seen some—perhaps many—of these already; but who knows?

We had such a pleasant & happy time in Pawlet. You give yourself so easily, so fully—perhaps that’s what “being a Buddhist” means, but I suspect it’s really just “being you.” Anyhow, we lapped it up like cream, a crème bavarois.

Oh and we realized, in the car, that we’d left behind a white facecloth stiff with calamine lotion. This was a cloth we’d brought with us (one of those you sent a year or so ago), not one of the House Facecloths which of course we’d not have left so grossly stained.

Now I’m off to have an oxygenating I.V. drip. It takes about 90 minutes, with a needle in a wrist vein. But I seem to be in better shape than the others in the dr’s office. We’ll talk when I return from La Mamma—much love meanwhile & again bless you for your kindness to Peter & Cosmo &


to torren blair

19 September 1994
New York, NY

Dear Torren,

Here I am in New York, with nothing to do but switch on my “Kundry” (name of the soulless leman in Parsifal who knows only to serve & seduce & obey) [Merrill referred to his desktop computer as Wagner’s demonic Kundry]. I’d been cudgeling my wits in the car this afternoon for some way to amuse you while I’m gone—and then it came to me: I would ask you a favor! (That usually does the trick—knowing that someone thinks well enough of us to impose.) But here is what I had in mind:

Everyone I might have asked in the past is presently either in Europe or (my elderly cleaning lady’s case) laid up with a cracked rib; so that I need YOU to look in twice a week and water the plants. You’ll find a set of keys by making a hairpin turn to the left when you reach my floor; thence following a hip-­high bookcase to its end. You are now in almost total darkness, but by feeling an inch or so down the narrow further end of the case you must come upon a nail from which the fake Oreo cookie of a keyring depends. One of those keys turns the lock built into my doorknob.[…]

Once inside the apartment, you’ll see the plants. The succulents, “living stones” or lithops (“stone eyes”) as a botanist would call them, need only a scant teaspoon. Be more generous toward the hanging fern and the upstairs orange tree. But they’ll all be grateful for your attention. My chiropractor was telling me how well plants have been found to respond to Mozart—“and only Mozart,” he stressed. Perhaps; but I can picture (can’t you?) a relatively unsophisticated young thing benefiting from even Telemann.

Now that you have done your first of several good deeds (through 12 October when Ray returns) I hope you will “hang out” for a while each time, if you have time—drink in the view, make a cup of tea, take a beer from one of the bottom drawers of the fridge; look at the books upstairs or in my awful mess of a study. Feel at home there; I should like that. You might even, from the apartment, telephone this number in town; I’ll be here until 2 October: (212) 988 8953. And when I get back it will be your turn to ask a favor.

Meanwhile I’m grateful for yesterday’s talk. Take very good care of yourself. Yours,


*P.S. Will you call me James? Or if that is too precipitous, “JM”? That is how I mostly think of myself.…

to dorothea tanning

26 November 1994
New York, NY

Dear Dorothea,

I would dread writing you this letter if I didn’t hope to be doing a kindness to both myself and to you, for you will now have time to find a replacement. I cannot do the preface. Let me beg your indulgence by giving you a few reasons. First and foremost this kind of piece is simply not my métier. For seven years I wrote prefaces of one thousand words each for the talented young poets I had picked as judge of the Yale Younger Poets Series. These were people whose work I admired, in whose powers I had faith, about whom as fellow poets I should have had a great deal to say—and yet it was all I could do to come up with that annual piece of…something more than fluency. A dark cloud lay over me for sometimes as long as three months until the manuscript had been selected and the preface written. I thought it might have been different to write about you but on returning from Europe a month ago and finding that for one reason or another what I had written was unsuitable the same cloud took shape and I have been lying under it with my face turned to the wall.

I wish I were one of those Protean artists whose daily life is a sparkling fountain of variety and trouvailles—like you, my dear. But the mortifying truth is that if I write five poems in the course of a year I consider that year well spent. I cannot work without as much time to myself as possible, time not only to “create” but to give to the process of revision which to me is the vital and truly stimulating part of my labors. I need that time more and more and at the risk of giving rise to puzzlement or hurt feelings find myself less and less able to take on anything like a commission, even for a dear and valued friend whose work I love; I mean you.[…]

With love always from your abject but adoring

to torren blair

14/16 January 1995
Tucson, AZ

Dear Torren,

Thank you for your phonecall. The letter is bound to come today. (It did!—see below.)

Such a pity when people phase out the idea of apprenticeship. It happens most among writers, the line of reasoning being “Well, I’ve been using language ever since I was 18 months old, and am never without things to say. Surely that entitles me to write some of it down and call it a poem?” Or you go no further than to imitate a friend’s work, like those spiders in the dome of Hagia Sophia, and take that for sufficient training. Painters do the same thing, but they still go to museums. (Don’t they?) Music can be written imitatively—pop music mostly—though it helps to know some theory, what a chord is, how chords progress, how harmony works, etc. Listen, by the way, attentively several times to the closing movement of the Mozart K 271, in which the almost manic rondo encapsulates a sad & exquisite minuet. But to resume: words are fair game for the whole world.[…]

(FLASH) Yes—a Red-­Letter Day! Mailed Wednesday, here Saturday.[…] Thanks for explaining CD Rom. A letter came not a word of which I understood. Internet? modems? I instinctively shrink from those terms—like Cosmo the other day from our young yoga teacher’s eerie imitation of the noise a rattlesnake makes.[…]

You ask me to enlarge upon “pushing meaning into acts of nature.” I don’t claim the phrase as mine. But perhaps the subject would be the pros & cons of letting an image out of nature—skylark or volcano or witty remark—speak for itself. Not automatically needing to nudge your reader: this stands for Ecstasy or Anger or the godgiven Play of Mind.

The point, I believe, is to feel your feelings in the presence of something in the “outside world”—a tree, a portrait, the hood of a car, an article about a new scientific discovery—which will reflect your heightened state of mind back to you. You will not have to say “I”. This will become 2nd nature, if you wish it to. [In the margin: You may already know this. Trust the knowledge.]

One of your present advantages is a relative immaturity that gives you time to focus on your craft. Of course ideas & metaphors will come your way, but the chances are that they will be sources of embarrassment even a few years hence. What will not embarrass you is the fulfilling of formal problems, whether set by older models or contrived by yourself. Am I urging you to write sestinas, villanelles, sonnets? I am. Because to have done so implies a level of skill you may one day go far beyond, but which meanwhile will not turn to ashes in your mouth like This Season’s Deep Thought. Live 40 more years and you’ll find those TSDTs resurfacing, encrusted with rare submarine textures for your own personal use. So there’s no hurry, at least where Content is involved. Now’s the time to surrender to the Craft. At your age you can learn quickly & lastingly. Learn the full expressiveness of your medium, the forms, the meters, the joys of syntax direct and devious. If a friend or teacher should read this page and say “What utter shit!” remember that he has my sympathy, not my envy. Of course you deplore Ginsberg, as I do those arid acres in Pound’s Cantos (or in my own Mirabell for that matter). Yet I remain glad that modernism “happened” and “animal movements” like the Beats brought fresh air, offered new approaches. Best of all made a disturbance behind which we could get on with our own work without having to enroll in a School, or (in WCWilliams’ horrible phrase [Merrill mixes up Williams and Ezra Pound here]) breaking the back of the pentameter…

Tell me if I’m putting things not plainly enough—or too plainly. That’s one reason I need my pupil’s letters: to find a tone that reaches him with reasonable dispatch. This is such a delight for me—to be writing “real” letters, that is, to someone who’ll read them with responding delight. (Where to start your reading list? Anywhere. Reality, says A R Ammons, is abob with centers.)

Auden’s rationale for formal “constraints”—which ideally set free more than they constrain—was that your conscious mind would be so occupied with finding a rhyme or an amphibrach (look it up) that your subconscious filled enough of the gap to supply things you could never have come up with on your own. Consider in this light any quatrain from WHA’s “The Fall of Rome” [Merrill slightly misquotes the poem]:

Fantastic grow the evening gowns.
As agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-­defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

or (again from memory):

Caesar’s double bed is warm
But an unimportant clerk
Writes I do not like my work
On a pink official form.

(How much prose would it take to make the connections in those 4 lines.) A plausible exercise: translate this poem into our late 20th century Workshop Idiom—unrhymed, unmetered, “natural word order,” lines measured, if at all, by their length, and so forth. How much will you lose? how much gain? Is it even do-­able in the first place?


From FLASH to C*R*A*S*H, so to speak. Yesterday on the road to Bisbee, pretty town once famous for its copper mines, a woman in a powder-­blue van pulled slowly and unwisely onto the 2-­lane highway. For half a second her horrified eyes met P’s horrified eyes. No choice but to swerve to the right, skid on gravel provided by a thoughtful State, and plow into the red car behind the van. It broke their axle, squashed our engine whose budding holocaust the radiator’s gush promptly discouraged. Now arrived: police, tow-­truck, ambulance into which the two women from the red car disappeared, taped to their stretchers like mummies (both suffering from whiplash)—well, as you said of your exam, I shall leave the rest to your imagination. We, at least, weren’t hurt, beyond the sprained finger with which I mean to show Arizona drivers what I think of them. Cosmo set a high standard for Cool, giving his version to each of the officers in turn, frowning over “reports.” Only hours later came the shock, and we had to stop on the road & hold hands. I assure you this isn’t the kind of thing Peter & I are known for doing. I mean the collision.

Of course all the returns aren’t in. But that’s it for today.


TIP: Sign letters in your own hand, not the WP keyboard.

to torren blair

17–20 January
1995 Tucson, AZ

Dear Torren,

[…] This letter adds nothing to your burden of future reading. Yet the other day’s near-­fatal episode leaves me with a sense that it is vital—to me, to us both—that I tell you whatever I can while I’m still around. My impulse is to write to you for an hour or two every day. I fight the impulse, remembering the law of diminishing returns. The cistern needs time to fill.

Today, snow—the first, they say, in seven years—and as much of a blizzard as this mild climate can muster. Big flakes, field of Queen Anne’s Lace. Last night: big stars, clouds tinted by the urban gempool to the south. The clouds are exactly the color of the white patches on our harlequin koi—a white ever so faintly suffused by blood and gold. At intervals, into the upturned face drop the soft, soft pinpricks of dew. Seeing my high-­&-­dry human silhouette the fish have clustered to be fed, and Cosmo barking like mad falls into their pond.

Have you ever tried haiku? It’s not a form we can properly use in English, but that doesn’t stem the tide. Richard Howard, speaking as a poetry editor, said that reading 500 haiku a month was like being nibbled to death by goldfish. Be that as it may, the lesson they teach is small but valuable. With only 17 syllables you are forced to consider what’s essential. For instance (while Peter drives I like to sit with pen poised above a notebook), here speaks a giant saguaro cactus:

Hail daybreak. Summon
From the deep wound in my side
This Gilded Flicker.

This after some 20 variants. The form (three lines—5/7/5) needs specificity or it slides away. Thus I had to jettison the too-­familiar “idea” of Pain Becoming Song, and baldly name the resident woodpecker, leaving the rest for a reader at home with overtones. “Gilded,” without saying so, shows the bird answering to dawn, while its full name might describe the 3-­line poem. (Another still unresolved problem: the articles. Should it be a deep wound & the flicker—as if there were no wound without a bird in it—or a flicker, making its emergence more of a surprise—and so on into an infinite gloaming of revision…) The subject needn’t be Nature. After massage & yoga out here, an all-­but-­chronic condition that’s kept me popping Advil for the last 4 months uttered this (regional) sigh of relief:

Upper-­back “hot points”—
Last week a searing gunfight,
Today a ghost town.

—the setting, you see, even in something so tiny, miming back to you what you feel.[…]

See the attached poem [“Koi”]. This can be the result when you let yourself go in a letter. It requires an indulgent reader, like you—like me as well. “Having something to say” needn’t account for all the motive for & rewards of Correspondence.[…]


to andré aciman

1 February 1995
Tucson, AZ

Dear André Aciman,

I can only begin to tell you how touched and delighted I am by Out of Egypt. Thanks to Christian Ayoub’s friendship and his two little books, to the kitchen-­Italian libretti of Bernard de Zogheb, to the anecdotes of my irreplaceable Tony Parigory in Athens (where I lived for a number of years), and not to mention Cavafy, Alexandria has permanently colored my days. To find it now in your pages, all rosy and clear-­eyed from the tonic of your telling, is the greatest imaginable gift. That whole world of the trivial & the tragic, interwoven as in Chekhov, and underscored as in opera, is for me the very best life has to offer, and as close to a “real” home as I’ve ever come. No reflection on my parents, that the Stork delivered me to West Eleventh Street instead of the Corniche. But here I am. What do you do with so much blue, once you’ve seen it? (Terrible things await us before the book ends. Meanwhile, just a long sigh of relief…)

Well, I could spin this all out at greater length—you can’t be averse to praise. Most of all, though, I want to go back to the beginning and read it through a second time.

James Merrill

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:
May 19, 2021


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