James Merrill


Lost in Translation


A card table in the library stands ready

To receive the puzzle which keeps never coming.

Daylight shines in or lamplight down

Upon the tense oasis of green felt.

Full of unfulfillment, life goes on,

Mirage arisen from time’s trickling sands

Or fallen piecemeal into place:

German lesson, picnic, see-saw, walk

With the collie who “did everything but talk”—

Sour windfalls of the orchard back of us.

A summer without parents is the puzzle,

Or should be. But the boy, day after day,

Writes in his Line-a-Day No puzzle.


He’s in love, at least. His French Mademoiselle,

In real life a widow since Verdun,

Is stout, plain, carrot-haired, devout.

She prays for him, as does a curé in Alsace,

Sews costumes for his marionettes,

Helps him to keep behind the scene

Whose sidelit goosegirl, speaking with his voice,

Plays Guinevere as well as Gunmoll Jean.

Or else at bedtime in his tight embrace

Tells him her own French hopes, her German fears,

Her—but what more is there to tell?

Having known grief and hardship, Mademoiselle

Knows little more. Her languages. Her place.

Noon coffee. Mail. The watch that also waited

Pinned to her heart, poor gold, throws up its hands—

No puzzle! Steaming bitterness

Her sugars draw pops back into his mouth, translated:

“Patience, chéri. Geduld, mein Schatz.”

(Thus, reading Valéry the other evening

And seeming to recall a Rilke version of “Palme,”

That sunlit paradigm whereby the tree

Taps a sweet wellspring of authority,

The hour came back. Patience dans l’azur.

Geduld im. . . Himmelblau? Mademoiselle.)


Out of the blue, as promised, of a New York

Puzzle-rental shop the puzzle comes—

A superior one, containing a thousand hand-sawn,

Sandal-scented pieces. Many take

Shapes known already—the craftsman’s repertoire

Nice in its limitation—from other puzzles:

Witch on broomstick, ostrich, hourglass,

Even (surely not just in retrospect)

An inchling, innocently branching palm.

These can be put aside, made stories of

While Mademoiselle spreads out the rest face-up,

Herself excited as a child; or questioned

Like incoherent faces in a crowd,

Each with its scrap of highly colored

Evidence the Law must piece together.

Sky-blue ostrich? Likely story.

Mauve of the witch’s cloak white, severed fingers

Pluck? Detain her. The plot thickens

As all at once two pieces interlock.


Mademoiselle does borders— (Not so fast.

A London dusk, December last.

Chatter silenced in the library

This grown man reenters, wearing grey.

A medium. All except him have seen

Panel slid back, recess explored,

An object at once unique and common

Displayed, planted in a plain tole

Casket the subject now considers

Through shut eyes, saying in effect:

“Even as voices reach me vaguely

A dry saw-shriek drowns them out,

Some loud machinery— a lumber mill?

Far uphill in the fir forest

Trees tower, tense with shock,

Groaning and cracking as they crash groundward.

But hidden here is a freak fragment

Of a pattern complex in appearance only.

What it seems to show is superficial

Next to that long-term lamination

Of hazard and craft, the karma that has

Made it matter in the first place.

Plywood. Piece of a puzzle.” Applause

Acknowledged by an opening of lids

Upon the thing itself. A sudden dread—

But to go back. All this lay years ahead.)


Mademoiselle does borders. Straight-edge pieces

Align themselves with earth or sky

In twos and threes, naive cosmogonists

Whose views clash. Nomad inlanders meanwhile

Begin to cluster where the totem

Of a certain vibrant egg-yolk yellow

Or pelt of what emerging animal

Acts on the straggler like a trumpet call

To form a more soph”isticated unit.

By suppertime two ragged wooden clouds

Have formed. In one, a Sheik with beard

And flashing sword hilt (he is all but finished)

Steps forward on a tiger skin. A piece

Snaps shut, and fangs gnash out at us!

In the second cloud—they gaze from cloud to cloud

With marked if undecipherable feeling—

Most of a dark-eyed woman veiled in mauve

Is being helped down from her camel (kneeling)

By a small backward-looking slave or page-boy

(Her son, thinks Mademoiselle mistakenly)

Whose feet have not been found. But lucky finds

In the last minutes before bed

Anchor both factions to the scene’s limits

And, by so doing, orient

Them eye to eye across the green abyss.

The yellow promises, oh bliss,

To be in time a sumptuous tent.


Puzzle begun I write in the day’s space,

Then, while she bathes, peek at Mademoiselle’s

Page to the curé: “. . . cette innocente mère,

Ce pauvre enfant, que deviendront-ils?”

Her azure script is curlicued like pieces

Of the puzzle she will be telling him about.

(Fearful incuriosity of childhood!

“Tu as l’accent allemande” said Dominique.

Indeed. Mademoiselle was only French by marriage.

Child of an English mother, a remote

Descendant of the great explorer Speke,

And Prussian father. No one knew. I heard it

Long afterwards from her nephew, a UN

Interpreter. His matter-of-fact account

Touched old strings. My poor Mademoiselle,

With 1939 about to shake

This world where “each was the enemy, each the friend”

To its foundations, kept, though signed in blood,

Her peace a shameful secret to the end.)

“Schlaf wohl, chéri.” Her kiss. Her thumb

Crossing my brow against the dreams to come.


This World that shifts like sand, its unforeseen

Consolidations and elate routine,

Whose Potentate had lacked a retinue?

Lo! it assembles on the shrinking Green.


Gunmetal-skinned or pale, all plumes and scars,

Of Vassalage the noblest avatars—

The very coffee-bearer in his vair

Vest is a swart Highness, next to ours.


Kef easing Boredom, and iced syrups, thirst,

In guessed-at glooms old wives who know the worst

Outsweat that virile fiction of the New:

“Insh’Allah, he will tire—” “—or kill her first!”


(Hardly a proper subject for the Home,

Work of—dear Richard, I shall let you comb

Archives and learned journals for his name—

A minor lion attending on Gérôme.)


While, thick as Thebes whose presently complete

Gates close behind them, Houri and Afreet

Both claim the Page. He wonders whom to serve,

And what his duties are, and where his feet,


And if we’ll find, as some before us did,

That piece of Distance deep in which lies hid

Your tiny apex sugary with sun,

Eternal Triangle, Great Pyramid!


Then Sky alone is left, a hundred blue

Fragments in revolution, with no clue

To where a Niche will open. Quite a task,

Putting together Heaven, yet we do.


It’s done. Here under the table all along

Were those missing feet. It’s done.


The dog’s tail thumping. Mademoiselle sketching

Costumes for a coming harem drama

To star the goosegirl. All too soon the swift

Dismantling. Lifted by two corners,

The puzzle hung together—and did not.

Irresistibly a populace

Unstitched of its attachments, rattled down.

Power went to pieces as the witch

Slithered easily from Virtue’s gown.

The blue held out for time, but crumbled, too.

The city had long fallen, and the tent,

A separating sauce mousseline,

Been swept away. Remained the green

On which the grown-ups gambled. A green dusk.

First lightning bugs. Last glow of west

Green in the false eyes of (coincidence)

Our mangy tiger safe on his bared hearth.


Before the puzzle was boxed and readdressed

To the puzzle shop in the mid-Sixties,

Something tells me that one piece contrived

To stay in the boy’s pocket. How do I know?

I know because so many later puzzles

Had missing pieces—Maggie Teyte’s high notes

Gone at the war’s end, end of the vogue for collies,

A house torn down; and hadn’t Mademoiselle

Kept back her pitiful bit of truth as well?

I’ve spent the last days, furthermore,

Ransacking Athens for that translation of “Palme.”

Neither the Goethehaus nor the National Library

Seems able to unearth it. Yet I can’t

Just be imagining. I’ve seen it. Know

How much of the sun-ripe original

Felicity Rilke made himself forego

(Who loved French words—verger, mûr, parfumer)

In order to render its underlying sense.

Know already in that tongue of his

What Pains, what monolithic Truths

Shadow stanza to stanza’s symmetrical

Rhyme-rutted pavement. Know that ground plan left

Sublime and barren, where the warm Romance

Stone by stone faded, cooled; the fluted nouns

Made taller, lonelier than life

By leaf-carved capitals in the afterglow.

The owlet umlaut peeps and hoots

Above the open vowel. And after rain

A deep reverberation fills with stars.


Lost, is it, buried? One more missing piece?


But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation

And every bit of us is lost in it

(Or found—I wander through the ruin of S

Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness)

And in that loss a self-effacing tree,

Color of context, imperceptibly

Rustling with its angel, turns the waste

To shade and fiber, milk and memory.


Admittedly I err by undertaking
This in its present form. The baldest prose
Reportage was called for, that would reach
The widest public in the shortest time.
Time, it had transpired, was of the essence.
Time, the very attar of the Rose,
Was running out. We, though, were ancient foes,
I and the deadline. Also my subject matter
Gave me pause--so intimate, so novel,
Best after all to do it as a novel?
Looking about me, I found characters
Human and otherwise (if the distinction
Meant anything in fiction). Saw my way
To a plot, or as much of one as still allowed
For surprise and pleasure in its working-out.
Knew my setting; and had, from the start, a theme
Whose steady light shone back, it seemed, from every
Least detail exposed to it. I came
To see it as an old, exalted one:
The incarnation and withdrawal of
A god. That last phrase is Northrop Frye's.
I had stylistic hopes moreover. Fed
Up so long and variously by
Our age's fancy narrative concoctions
I yearned for the kind of unseasoned telling found
In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean
Over the centuries by mild old tongues,
Grandam to cub, serene, anonymous.
Lacking that voice, the in its fashion brilliant
Nouveau roman (even the one I wrote)
Struck me as an orphaned form, whose followers,
Suckled by Woolf not Mann, had stories told them
In childhood, if at all, by adults whom
They could not love or honor. So my narrative
Wanted to be limpid, unfragmented;
My characters, conventional stock figures
Afflicted to a minimal degree
With personality and past experience--
A witch, a hermit, innocent young lovers,
The kinds of being we recall from Grimm,
Jung, Verdi, and the commedia dell' arte.
That such a project was beyond me merely
Incited further futile stabs at it.
We prop a mirror in the facing chair.
Erect and gleaming, silver-hearted guest,
We saw each other in it. He saw us.
(Any reflecting surface worked for him.
Noons, D and I might row to a sandbar
Far enough from town for swimming naked
Then pacing the glass treadmill hardly wet
That healed itself perpetually of us--
Unobserved, unheard we thought, until
The night he praised our bodies and our wit,
Our blushes in a twinkling overcome.)

p>And still, at sea or night, we had a sense
Of sunrise, golden oil poured upon water,
Soothing its heave, letting the sleeper sense
What inborn, amniotic homing sense
Was ferrying him—now through the dream-fire
In which (it has been felt) each human sense
Burns, now through ship's radar's cool sixth sense,
Or mere unerring starlight—to an island.
Here we were. The twins of Sea and Land,
Up and about for hours—hues, cries, scents—
Had placed at eye level a single light
Croissant: the harbor glazed with warm pink light.

Fire-wisps were weaving a string bag of light
For sea stones. Their astounding color sense!
Porphyry, alabaster, chrysolite
Translucences that go dead in daylight
Asked only the quick dip in holy water
For the saint of cell on cell to come alight—
Illuminated crystals thinking light,
Refracting it, the gray prismatic fire
Or yellow-gray of sea's dilute sapphire...
Wavelengths daily deeply score the leit-
Motifs of Loom and Wheel upon this land.
To those who listen, it's the Promised Land.

A little spin today? Dirt roads inland
Jounce and revolve in a nerve-jangling light,
Doing the ancient dances of the land
Where, gnarled as olive trees that shag the land
With silver, old men—their two-bladed sense
Of spendthrift poverty, the very land
Being, if not loaf, tomb—superbly land
Upright on the downbeat. We who water
The local wine, which "drinks itself" like water,
Clap for more, cry out to be this island
Licked all over by a white, salt fire,
Be noon's pulsing ember raked by fire,

Know nothing now, but Earth, Air, Water, Fire!
For once out of the frying pan to land
Within their timeless, everlasting fire!
Blood's least red monocle, O magnifier
Of the great Eye that sees by its own light
More pictures in "the world's enchanted fire"
Than come and go in any shrewd crossfire
Upon the page, of syllable and sense,
We want unwilled excursions and ascents,
Crave the upward-rippling rungs of fire,
The outward-rippling rings (enough!) of water...
(Now some details—how else will this hold water?)

Our room's three flights above the whitewashed water-
front where Pythagoras was born. A fire
Escape of sky-blue iron leads down to water.
Yachts creak on mirror berths, and over water
Voices from Sweden or Somalialand
Tell how this or that one crossed the water
To Ephesus, came back with toilet water
And a two kilo box of Turkish delight
—Trifles. Yet they shine with such pure light
In memory, even they, that the eyes water.
As with the setting sun, or innocence,
Do things that fade especially make sense?

Samos. We keep trying to make sense
Of what we can. Not souls of the first water—
Although we've put on airs, and taken fire—
We shall be dust of quite another land
Before the seeds here planted come to light.

"The Changing Light at Sandover"

As when the scribe of some ornate
Bismillah ("in the name of Allah") sees
No doctrine bolder than calligraphy's.

Whose backward reader, left to write, will note
"Ism (world of names, empty phenomena)
Within the broadly tendered palm of ba.

(Initial meaning, here, God B knows what)
Placed beneath which a diacritical dot
Closes its fist on that, and there we are!

My characters, this motley alphabet.
Engagingly evade the cul-de-sac
Of the Whole Point, dimensionless and black,

While, deep in bulging notebooks, drawn by it,
I skim lost heavens for that inky star.

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