The Ponchielli Complex

James Merrill


Husbands, by my time, dozed beneath the gilt.
The Golden Age was ending, that began
With ominous panache. It was the man
Back then who, lighthouse-monocle aflash,
From the deep, twilit loge, willed Malibran
To go insane and ripplingly expire.

He or the likes of him had tamed the wild
Horses of steam, made· fiction of the trees.
Soon cables would floor Ocean, factories
Sweat dusk at noon, dehydrating the child
Lighter and bleaker than a lump of coal.
Already Nature, footlit in the guise
Of a wronged maiden (did he realize?)
Expressed what this was doing to the soul.

A woman who had spent her youth at scales
Until hers glinted undertook the role.
Given her life—alone and badly paid—
She needed a protector. That old score
Had ups and downs aplenty, which she played
Also to the hilt. His noisy shirt.
His wife. His friends who treated her like dirt.

Each latest outburst caused increasingly
Fine sunsets round the world. Just so, the sweet
Unsullied heroines of her first decade
Were changing. Now consumptive milliners,
Demi-mondaines and fat Venetian street
Singers driven to verismo’s brink
Got their deserts. I poured a triple drink

And wrote: The end. No more roulades. But then
Our high seas quieted and the sun shone.
What would acting on that mood have meant?
Strangling the lamia whose decibels
Were slowly turning the proscenium
Muses to plaster? Or bankrupting him,
Yearly stouter and more somnolent,
Who backed whatever war-horse she starred in?

Neither. It would have meant once and for all
Extinguishing the footlights across which
Their glances met: desire, intelligence,
Asperity, ennui …—Per carità!
Not with her clutch-and-stagger scene beginning,
That brings the house down and him backstage grinning.

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:
October 1, 1986


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