The year I was born, when I was less than two weeks old, celebrated poet James Merrill published his poem, “A Tenancy” in Poetry. It would appear the next year in his collection, Water Street, which drew its name from the house Merrill shared with his partner, David Jackson in Stonington, CT. He owned the property at 107 Water Street from 1955 until his death in 1995, when he gave it to the Stonington Village Improvement Association (SVIA). The SVIA had the vision to create a writer-in-residence program. They kept everything in the apartment as Merrill had left it, and the first writer arrived later that same year.
In the heavy snow of last January, I arrived at 107 Water Street in my salt-eaten green jeep for a four-month residency. James Merrill’s Queen Anne/Colonial Revival house was built in 1901. Turreted like a castle. Dark sapphire front door. Merrill’s barber, Doug Radinocci, whose shop is on the ground floor of the building, was the first person to warmly greet me: You’re the poet.I hauled my suitcases and books and printer up narrow staircases to the third floor where two apartments, James Merrill’s and David Jackson’s would be mine to live and work in until late May. A tenancy. The program’s director, Lynn Callahan, had left tulips in a clear vase and a welcome note on the long dining room table in the Jackson Apartment. In my yellow bedroom, Mary McCarthy had spent her honeymoon. It must have been her fourth husband, James West, a diplomat, she married in 1961. She was 49. The year I was born. The year of Merrill’s “A Tenancy.”
At the head of the stairs, around the corner from the Jackson apartment, is the yellow door with a gold metal sun that opens to Merrill’s apartment. A kitchen with what appear to be Merrill’s instructions to guests on a whiteboard. His awards framed on the wall. Bedroom with an electric green wooden floor. Sitting room with a massive gilt mirror that barely clears the ceiling. Blue wallpaper of bats and clouds. A portrait of Merrill's sister that someone slashed, slice still visible though repaired. Eames chair too fragile to sit in. Oriental rug. A stained glass window. Scarlet pink walls inside the tower room where Merrill and Jackson conducted séances with the Ouiji board, here at this milk glass table. The transcriptions of those sessions led to Merrill’s 17,000 line epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover.
Between the telephone room, which also houses Merrill’s phonograph and music library, and his hidden study, which disappears behind a sliding bookcase, is a steep staircase to the fourth floor. It’s an open room of sun with a black and white checkerboard floor, windows on all sides, and a sliding glass door that opens on a deck with a view of three states that meet out there in the water: Stonington Harbor to the right, Rhode Island’s Little Narragansett Bay to the left. Straight ahead, if I could see that far, is Long Island Sound, Fisher’s Island, Montauk.
The end of Stonington Borough is called The Point, but the whole thing really is, just a quarter-mile wide, a mile long, at the far eastern edge of Long Island Sound. Protected in a harbor, but still an arrowhead of land jutting out with water on three sides.
Snow on top of snow. The sky white, like a screen. Looking out the window of the hidden study, I had an eerie feeling the world had turned into a blank movie while I wasn’t looking. Dark blue water rushes out to sea so fast I can feel the tow. Snow on the opposite shore. A small seaside town, the Borough they call it. I love Merrill's library, the rows of thin spines that signal poetry collections. Bookcases line the Jackson apartment too.
When Merrill published his poem, “A Tenancy,” he was 35 years old.
“I did not even feel the time expire.
I feel it though, today, in this new room,
Mine, with my things and thoughts, a view
Of housetops, treetops, the walls bare.
A changing light is deepening, is changing
To a gilt ballroom chair a chair
Bound to break under someone before long.”
I read the poem in Merrill’s own copy of Water Street in the sitting room on Water Street, stained glass behind me. In front of what I’ve nicknamed the Mirror of Versailles, which reflects the entire room, there’s a photo of Merrill ("Jimmy" to his friends) sitting before the mirror, leaning forward as if listening. The poem ends:
“And then, not asking why they come,
Invite the visitors to sit.
If I am a host at last
It is of little more than my own past.
May others be at home in it.”
While I’m in residence, I’ll write poems, as well as prose on the subject of fear and living with uncertainty. I’ll write about fear in the scarlet Ouija tower room where Merrill and Jackson contacted spirits for twenty years. In the room that a previous writer-in-residence said, always felt occupied. Merrill’s use of the Ouija board as a method to access the subconscious made sense to me. I admired it.
It scared me too, alone in the house, in the dead of a very long winter. The room often bright with sun coming in from the harbor. Windows hung with crystals, and one from the chandelier. They are each the size of a baby’s fist. The one window without a hanging crystal has a stained glass yellow-green bird and above its head: “Dum spectas fugio” which I hoped was not a kind of spirit calling tool. It translates: “While you watch I fly.”
But I felt James Merrill’s benevolence, and was intensely grateful for the space he’d made for me. For the kind of generosity that allows a man to give a house to a town. When I read his words, “I let the light change also me,” I thought, yes, I want that too. I spent many days bundled up and walking through snow along the harbor to the Point, through the Borough, to the old Velvet Mill, on the paths of Barn Island.
One of the first books I opened in the Jackson apartment was James Galvin’s Elements (Copper Canyon, 1988). There is a wall of books between the bedroom and the kitchen. And though I was desperate for coffee every morning, the poetry collections would stop me. I read Galvin’s poem, “It Just So Happens”: “You said the only cure /For anxiety was fear./Now solitude undoes loneliness / Like a ribbon from your hair.” I’d keep those lines with me, along with Merrill’s, through the winter.
In one of the issues of Poetry stacked under the red blanketed daybed in the secret study, I found that one of e.e. cummings last poems (or at least one of last poems submitted, to Poetry, two months before he died unexpectedly) has a kiss in it. When the editor wrote to thank him for the poem, he sent back a postcard and wrote in red and blue ink, Thank you. When the poem was published, e.e. cummings was already gone.
In Merrill’s house, I had a strong sense of the continuous life of the poet. When I’d had my second book of poems accepted for publication, and was wondering what new poems I would write, what a third book could possibly be, Mark Strand gave me his copy of The Continuous Life. He said, I thought you should have it. I understood that I’d find the poems by writing them. By reading the work of other poets. In James Merrill’s house, that continuum seemed a kind of tenancy, all of these voices present, and I was one.