Christopher Merrill







The Tower



Brick by brick, syllable by syllable, the tower rose into the desert sky, inspiring the ruler who had commissioned the design, provoking the men who wished to build a temple for another god, and widening the fault line that lay between the mountain and the sea.


Glazed blue, with gold and silver worked into the foundation, flowers and trees planted in the terraces, and a stairway ascending story by story to a sanctuary lit by an oil lamp, the tower swayed above the shifting earth, and the people cowered in the doorways.


In the raising of mud walls around the city, in the chanting of the priest blessing the burnt offerings in the market, in the spattering of fat and gristle dripping from the spit into the fire, in the dispersal of gifts inspired by a vision of a warship vouchsafed to a shepherd, in the fissures and flames appearing on the horizon, in the shadow of the palm tree in which a courtier secreted a prophecy, in the words that no one dared to speak…


Nevertheless we refused to believe that we would be scattered to the ends of the earth, unable to understand one another, and so we didn’t notice the dirt clogging the drainage pipes, the water seeping into the base of the tower, the eroding bricks.


Nor did we imagine that the falling tower would trigger a war between the generations, which would rage on until the end of time.


As if a dispute between a tax collector and a vintner could serve as an emblem for an age defined by its architecture of terror—lights flashing at all hours of the day and night, prisons constructed out of the ruins of the palaces destroyed in the siege, indecipherable marks on the wall separating this world from the next…


In the confusion of tongues, in the mixing of colors on the palette of a painter whose eyes had clouded over, in the fan-shaped leaves peeling off of a palm about to be taken by the flooding river, in the footsteps of the reconnaissance mission lost in a sandstorm, in the rumors swirling in the marketplace of an assassination and a coup, in the deliberations of the jury sequestered for the penalty phase of the trial, in the corners of the cave in which an anchorite was forging a more perfect union with God—in every gesture loomed the shadow of the tower built by men unable to interpret their own dreams.


Meanwhile the fortune teller’s luck at the roulette table ran out before we realized that we could no longer depend on her to guide us through the desert, and so we circled the oasis for more than a week, unaware that salvation was near at hand.



In mating season, in an arroyo between an apple orchard and a mesa, two diamondbacks faced off in the night, rising from the ground to loop around each other in a double helix.


Under the sign of a female serpent coiled on the cooling sand, in the sights of two men come to the desert to witness this ritual.


The snake handler bet the cameraman that she would leave before the fight was over, and soon he was pocketing a silver dollar.


The wind died on the mesa, the half-moon rose through the junipers, the apple blossoms whitened the air rigged for rattling.


And these signs shall follow them that believe, the snake handler said to the cameraman: exorcisms, healings, the gift of tongues.


While they recorded the dance for hours until one serpent, pinned to the earth, slipped out from under the other and slithered off to find a new mate.


Who in late summer would bear her young, fanged and full of venom, and then abandon them on a rock ledge, under the sharpened gaze of a red-tailed hawk.


Because we all fall short of the glory of God, said the snake handler, because we have no faith in what we cannot see, because we pray for mercy



The artist’s decision to hide traces of a human presence, in the shadow of the arcade, then led him to fill the tower with portraits of the condemned.


Their crime? Gazing for too long into a canyon in which two rivers merged, carrying silt, barges of grain, and a new theology to the nomads singing in the delta.


A doctrine of compassion, which spread across the wetlands and barrier islands only to be washed away in a surge of water from the storm variously described as a form of divine retribution, an occasion for change, and a justification for war.


By the statue of a warrior on a stallion poised to review his troops, his shadow opening a crevice in the parade ground, we called for the release of the report on the security of the pilgrims preparing to enter the holy city.


A report the courtiers had refused to clear, for reasons that remained obscure to everyone outside the sovereign’s dwindling circle of advisors.


Hence our confusion when the pilgrims stampeded on the bridge linking the old city to the new—they crushed the halt and lame, they jumped into the rushing water, they cried out to God in every language—and hence our inability to tally the casualties.


Thus when the prisoners were blindfolded and lined up against the wall, we knew that we couldn’t save anyone, and so we fell back upon the prayer that had sustained us during our exodus: Lord, have mercy…


A petition for the artist to incorporate into the upper reaches of his tower, which with each brushstroke reddened against the blue eye of the heavens.



When the maiden locked in the tower lets down her hair at night for the prince to climb, we learn that one route to the invisible is hidden in the voice of the beloved—a song that for the pilgrim becomes a ladder to the divine.


That he is blinded by desire and then condemned to wander in the forest for years before he hears her voice again is part of the design integral to revelation.


Likewise the kiss that restores his sight, his name, and his claim to the kingdom.


Which in another age he might pray to discover within himself.


Then he would change his name, discard his possessions, and settle in a cave far from his family, friends, and the affairs of state to seek the face of God.


How to be in the world, not of the world: this was what inspired the prince to take a walk late one autumn afternoon without his retinue.


And if he heard an answer in the song of the thrush, which he followed into the darkening woods until he came to a tower, where a woman brushing her long blond hair by the window was singing a hymn that he did not recognize, he never let on to anyone.


But every night he returned to the tower not so much to hold her in his arms as to listen to her sing, for in the silence between one note and another, before she let down her hair for him, he heard an angelic order of music, pure praise, which calmed his heart.



Surrounded by his family, the courtier-cum-adventurer scribbling in the tower, alternating between verses and a history of the world, pleaded for silence.


Ah, to complete his meditation on the consequences of another war in Macedonia…


An essay on intrigue and the vagaries of fate by a survivor of more plots, betrayals, and reversals of fortune than he could count.


His quirks and contradictions—he tried to empty the prisons and settle the convicts in the New World; he had Catholic priests hanged, drawn, and quartered; he shared a prostitute with his son; he searched for El Dorado and discovered a basket of tools; he renamed his ship Destiny before embarking on the voyage that spelled his doom—dissolved in the air thick with the sweet smoke of tobacco brought back from the Americas.


Which he also enjoyed as he prepared for his final journey, dressing in black—in a satin doublet, embroidered waistcoat, taffeta breaches, velvet cloak, and night cap.


Comforted, perhaps, by the knowledge that he had justified his name.


This is sharp Medicine, he said on the scaffold, examining the axe, but it is a Physician for all Diseases. Then he laid his head on the block and, refusing a blindfold, signaled to the headsman, who hesitated.


Strike, man, strike! he cried. His words went everywhere.



The lookout writing her first novel in a rickety wooden tower, in a wilderness of lupines and lodgepole pines, didn’t notice the fire until it was too late.


For the page over which she labored was as blank as the sky beyond her makeshift table, the taped music blocked out the crackling of pine pitch in the fire approaching from the ridge behind her, and the smoke on the wind was just another irritant to ignore.


She was afraid that she had used up her own experiences, having failed to transform them into a fiction that suited her sense of design, and the prospect of inventing a destiny for a character that she no longer recognized left her paralyzed.


Write what you know, her teacher had preached, though he seemed to know nothing at all, at least insofar as she was concerned.


Notwithstanding their long walks around the lake, the first-editions he gave her from his collection, the furnished apartment he found for her in his neighborhood.


Hence her decision to take a summer job in the mountains, where the drought was in its seventh year, dry lightning was general, and she was wallowing in her imagination.


In the realm of possibility, that is, awaiting a spark to kindle from the materials at hand—a table, a chair, the ordinary emotions of a woman entering adulthood—a burning vision of her walk in the sun commensurate with her desire.


Just as the lodgepole pinecone, sealed with pitch, cannot open to release its seeds without the heat of a forest fire, so the apprentice writes: Once upon a time…



Bees in the milkweed, and a dead crow nestled in the leaves piled in the street.


Who is lifted up, demanded the evangelist, waving a sheaf of papers at his congregation, and who is not?


On the seventh hole, which lay on a sunlit rise above the stream, she used a putter to poke the copperhead coiled around the flag, and the air shimmered in her son’s eyes.


The emperor advised his subjects to be watchful—an order they interpreted in a narrow sense, taking up positions at their picture windows, while a brass band rehearsed in the tower and warships sailed into the harbor.


No need to count the cobblestones again: one insurrection follows another, like the letters of the alphabet, as the lights go out in the words that led us here.


Not my fault, said the orderly, refusing to give a cup of water to the old woman choking in her wheelchair.


Nor did we realize the extent of our losses until after the cargo plane loaded with medical supplies had taken off.


And once the new statutes were in place we ordered men and women with no connection to the tragedy to testify against their children, rendered judgments no one understood, and then fled into the mountains before the winds picked up again.



On the opening day of hunting season, a mallard lay face down in the sand at the river’s edge, with its wings spread and eyes open, between the remains of a camp fire and a box turtle, which had died on its way to the water, with its legs and head outstretched.


What is it? What is it? The birdcall was faithful to the spirit of the original—an inexact translation that attracted mallards curious to hear a new song in the trees.


Which may explain why the poet said that literal translation is not translation—i.e. of any interest to readers who have ears to hear.


For the difference between an unfledged line and one that soars is at once an orientation, a matter of technique, and a function of belief: a dispensation toward flight.


Thus the man in the duck blind, for whom fidelity had variable meanings and who had an edition of the Psalms in his breast pocket, refused to distinguish between life and letters.


He knew why his birdcall diverted mallards from their flight paths, and in his zeal to feed his family and impress his friends he exceeded his daily limit.


Blaming necessity for his decision to leave the dead behind.


What is lost in translation, said the poet, and what is found—that is: what endures beyond language, if not the migratory spirit that sends mallards south in autumn?












Christopher Merrill has published six collections of poetry, including Brilliant Water, and Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; translations of Aleš Debeljak’s Anxious Moments and The City and the Child; several edited volumes, among them, The Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature and From the Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon; and five books of nonfiction, The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer, The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, and The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War.

His work has been translated into twenty-five languages, his journalism appears in many publications, and his awards include a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government. He has held the William H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, and now directs the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, he has conducted cultural diplomacy missions in over thirty countries for the U.S. State Department, and in April 2012 President Obama appointed Merrill to the National Council on the Humanities.

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