Christopher Merrill


Christopher Merrill

Photo: Chris







for Patrick de Freitas


God, what a feeling! we declared

At the surfing championship, convinced the election

Had been rigged. We knew the minister of culture

Would never make it to the finals, never

Address the caterers setting up the tent. The dune

Buggy races would be postponed. And no one could explain

Why the beach was littered with spare parts

For the Air Force. Everyone had a story, especially the women

From Gibraltar, of encountering grizzly bears and families

Pocked by incest… Meantime the canyons were burning,

Couples lay on their roofs to watch the progress

Of the fire leaping from ridge to ridge,

Igniting whole stands of timber. Yes, it was a feeling

Vague as the spray the surfers kicked up with their boards.

Pilots and generals were hiding in the wings

Of theaters across the country, waiting

For the smoke to lift. The election results

Might be announced at any moment. And the waves?

The waves were bigger now: one carried a contestant

Miles down the beach, then left him churning in the water.




Day Lilies: Instructions and an Elegy

for Robert Jebb (1944-1990)


Plant them with shadows in mind, under a dying

Cottonwood, in a bed of bone meal and arrowheads.

Lather the soil with humus or Apache tears

—The drops of sleek obsidian culled from the creek

Below the slumbering volcano. Use the tools

—A spading fork, a trough—of the illiterate

Day laborer who studies numerology

And cannot count; like him, you must work in the dark.

Thus wake and bathe before sunrise on the Day of the Dead.

Gather supplies—a burlap sack, a bone-shaped loaf

Of bread, death’s-heads to hang from every door. Then wait.

At nightfall dig the flowers from a roadside ditch.

Hum no dirges while you divide the clumps; only

Waltzes will do. Pray for the pilgrims killed last Easter

Marching to a church built on sacred ground: the blessed

Dirt that lured them to that shrine, that might have healed

Their relatives’ infirmities—s limp, or fading

Vision, or infertility—may save your transplants

From the flash floods and droughts that score and scorch this canyon.

Cover the roots with charms against mule deer and dogs.

Then count, O count next June the short-lived blooms—the yellow

Swans preening in the sun, then disappearing at dusk;

The blaring lemon trumpets no one listens to;

The orange bells that ring now for the hummingbird

And not for you, my friend, who might have planted them.




Lines on the Winter Solstice


A day of creaks and croaking! Ice in the skylight,

Three ravens in the apple tree the migrants missed,

Lengths of seasoned aspen crackling in the stove

—So much has changed. The irises were never planted,

And squirrels ate the poppy seeds saved for the border.

Mice feed on the wires; rows of onions buckle under

Another foot of snow; next spring, the frozen garden

Hoses, unwound, will crack… A raven flaps away,

The branches shake, and a half-eaten apple plops

Into the kindling pile: if only you were here.






A garter snake’s head pressed to the pavement—

And yet the taper of its body burns:


A sentence fragment for an earnest beetle

Rippling the snake’s slick skin, like wind on water,


Conjugating fall-how milkweed spills

Into the air blown mustard seeds will season,


While a child flattens oak leaves in a book,

A woman stretches a black elastic band


Around a letter destined for the fire,

And in the tar a striped snake warms itself.




Ash Wednesday


A wire sparks in the live oak, scorching limbs

And leaves, igniting tufts of Spanish moss:


A hiss and sizzle overhead, a burning

In the spring air, smoke coiled then slithering

Along the street down to the dying river—


That’s where the workers up since midnight gather

Masks, beads, and litter from the last parade.


The penitents march off to church. A gardener

Spreads ashes over flower beds. I wait

To hear the turning latch, your voice at the door.


New Orleans




Should, Should Not

variation on a theme by Czeslaw Milosz


I should have pocketed the key left in the front door of the embassy and used it to discover the fate of the Lost Tribes, sneaking in one night to read the minutes from their last meeting.


I should have worn gloves to the Inauguration Ball, where I was criticized for my attire—my hair shirt and sandals, helmet and scabbard.


I should not have kissed the famous chef on both cheeks, praising him for the delicacy with which he fricasseed the entrails of my enemies, nor should I have ordered my father to dump the punch bowl over the archbishop’s head, prompting a mass conversion among movie stars and the media.


I should have insisted that the minister of sport amnesty the deserters fleeing to Istanbul, instead of allowing him to behead the soldiers who had boarded up the windows of my favorite brothel.


I should not have copied the cuckoo’s example, refusing to build my own house, tricking others into raising my offspring, Likewise I should not have forged the names of the dead at Waterloo in order to inherit their political beliefs and taste for carnage.


I should have called for an inquest into my behavior at the polo match, where a large swastika was burned into the grass near my opponents’ goal and no one claimed responsibility for the mysterious deaths of all the horses.


I should not have eavesdropped on the ex-president reciting old speeches to himself in the middle of the night; nor believed that anyone except his wife and bodyguards would heed his renewed calls for aerial bombardment of active volcanoes; nor imagined that his declaration of a permanent state of emergency in the relations between men and women was false.


I should have tuned the choir of orphans condemned to sing for their meals before turning them loose in the streets, removed from their reading lists all revolutionary tracts, and offered them instructions in etiquette.


I should not have sunk the garbage scow patrolling the Atlantic seaboard, nor saved the bandages and needles that washed up along the beach, nor exiled the hemophiliacs afraid of the sun and the sight of blood.


I should have sent out a press release detailing the fortunetelling feats of the Gypsies arriving from Transylvania to monitor our elections, then boiled the drinking water drawn from the Lethe before serving it to the heads of state celebrating the impending triumph of democracy.


I should not have tempted the missionaries along the Amazon to learn so many native languages instead of mastering their sailing skills, nor should I have let their superiors cut down every tree in the rain forest in lieu of passing on the hunting lore entrusted to them by their first hosts—the one-breasted women armed with bows and arrows.


I should have crossed my heart when we tired to patch the hole in the sky, shoveled salt over my shoulder at the sight of the fireball plummeting into the sea, made a wish before the solar wind blew out all the lights.


I should have checked the ferry schedule for the river Styx.


I should have asked Charon for permission to troll.


I should have thrown back what I caught.



© Christopher Merrill











Christopher Merrill has published six collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and books of translations; and five works of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars and Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain. His latest prose book, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, chronicles travels in Malaysia, China and Mongolia, and the Middle East. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages; his journalism appears widely; his honors include a Chevalier from the French government in the Order of Arts and Letters. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and in April 2012 President Obama appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities.



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