James Merrill the Pearl

One of the most important American poets of the twentieth century, James Merrill, is the subject of this summer’s online feature by Herman Asarnow. He elaborates on his admiration for Merrill’s lyrical poem “Pearl,” which appeared in 1995′s A Scattering of Salts. Asarnow’s unpacking of Merrill’s poem also ushers in Poetry Northwest’s newest issue, “Enthusiasms.” Look for it on newsstands and in bookstores this summer.
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Well, I admit
A small boy’s eyes grew rounder and lips moister
To find it invisibly chained, at home in the hollow
Of his mother’s throat: the real, deepwater thing.
Far from the mind at six to plumb
X-raywise those glimmering lamplit
Asymmetries to self-immolating mite
Or angry grain of sand
Not yet proverbial.  Yet his would be the hand
Mottled with survival–
She having slipped (how? when?) past reach–
That one day grasped it.  Sign of what
But wisdom’s trophy.  Time to mediate,
Skin upon skin, so cunningly they accrete,
The input.  For its early mote
Of grit
Reborn as orient moon to gloat
In verdict over the shucked, outsmarted meat….
One layer, so to speak, of calcium carbonate
That formed in me is the last shot
–I took the seminar I teach
In loss to a revival–
Of Sasha Guitry’s classic Perles de la Couronne.
The hero has tracked down
His prize.  He’s holding forth, that summer night,
At the ship’s rail, all suavity and wit,
Gem swaying like a pendulum
From his fing—oops!  To soft bubble-blurred harpstring
Arpeggios regaining depths (man the camera, follow)
Where an unconscious world, my yawning oyster,
Shuts on it.
–James Merrill, from A Scattering of Salts, 1995
James Merrill’s “Pearl”
Reader, banish your fear of the feeling you get when you don’t know at first glance what a poem is saying.  Tighten your self-esteem’s seatbelts and ride with me in a high revving poem—beautiful of form and function—that fires twelve cylinders of poetic...