Nights and Days of 2007: Autumn

For James Merrill and with thanks to the Stonington Village
Improvement Association


1.

Stonington harbor: now a pulsating roofside
Shingled in mirrors, now paparazzi flashes,
Or a shimmying rhinestone dress so alluring
One forgets what lies beyond this brightness.
Inscrutable portents of another early September:
A “loonie” is now more stable than the dollar;
In a German spa town miles of SS secrets
Still elude public scrutiny—now sixty plus years.

(How long it takes to unfurl one scroll of History.)
Walls glistening like sliced peaches in late daylight
Turn four billowy white curtains orange-pink,
A prank of bed-sheet apparitions, at the table
Where our late host JM entertained spirits
Via a Ouija board, and we now take our seats.

2.

A fratboy would-be sideshow freak who dangles
A black salamander down his throat dares us
To swim a lake. Halfway, I see my grave: my arms
Rubbery and useless, my feet disoriented fish.
My friend Jason, the stronger swimmer, talks me
Onto my back describing the patterns of clouds.
His calming voice keeping me in tow blindly
As we gradually span the vast sparkling surface.

Some bonds don’t easily break. He writes: from Papua
New Guinea; atop Mt. Fuji; of a girlfriend in Honolulu
Who becomes his wife by Anchorage. Then nothing.
Then I find this Internet headline: “Hawaiian artist
And writer-husband die in Alaska.” Lucy—
In a Coast Guard chopper. Divers never find Jason.

3.

That night I drizzle four amber tears of rum
On the gum-line of a willowware cup
Making sure to spread the spirit lubricant
Thoroughly along the cracked bone-white cranium
Before setting it mouth down on a Ouija board
Whose ghost-galleon absinthe-glow rides the dark.
Our first disembodied parlor guest arrives:
My lost college friend, Jason Greer.

Neither asks who stopped corresponding.
First, the letters come in rapid fire.
Then the teacup chills. Needles of hypothermia
As if Jason’s drowning—but to us this time.
I rub my hands together to warm them then clasp
The cup harder before calling it a night.

4.

In the nights and days to come, Jason describes:
(1.) A love beyond our understanding;
How like the morning news he “wakes to it.”
(2.) A novel, undone – “thinly disguised
Autobiography” he’s still unsure how to finish;
Then he asks for news of the living.
I wonder if he knows? His parents named
An artist foundation for Lucy and him.

I start to say this when the fist-sized crystal amulet
Hanging by a black string flashes a four-leaf clover
Of brightness that spins disco prismatic light
Till the string snaps, the amulet crashes down,
Leaving the milk glass in six uneven pie slices,
New cracks in all we know silence the willowware.

5.

Maybe some things aren’t meant to span the space
Between the dead and living. Days pass in which
The six uneven cream pie slices in the milk glass
Seem an underworld entrance closed for repairs.
No word from Jason, and a dark static now pervades
The House from within: our new party animal
Downstairs neighbors won’t give us any rest;
We contemplate cutting short our time here

When we sense a new tremor stirring in the willowware.
It’s Halloween night—and “on the line” is JM.
Even in death, the legendary host wants to help us.
He proposes “an intervention”—a benign haunting
Of our oblivious housemates. “Just a talking to,” he says.
In his presence even the shadows seem to wink.

6.

All Saints’. A silence in the floorboards
Sprouts a tree whose invisibly thickening roots
Spread and stretch to fill what had been noise
With something like a cat purring at our ears.
No use explaining. We simply spread
More rum along the willowware. Say Thanks.
Our next spirit guide arrives: Stefan Celichówski
Nineteen when Poland capitulates to the Nazis.

Five days later, he escapes a prison for officers
To join “a guerrilla unit of the Underground Army.
The candle flickers. Now the room seems more like
A cavernous mineshaft that runs between two worlds.
Our hearts are racing now as he leads us along
Like resistance fighters through the sewers of Warsaw.

7.

The night I first heard Stefan’s name, he died.
September. My first Sunday in Stonington.
Our new friends promised to introduce us
Not knowing that earlier that day he passed away.
The candles make strange shadows of the willowware;
Another wading pool opens in the cracked milk glass.
Our conversation with Stefan hinges on an idea,
The Old Testament notion—that to kill a man

Is to kill an entire generation. And from the Talmud:
“To save one life is as if one saved the entire world.”
April ’45. Days to the Liberation. Stefan
Leads four men through heavily patrolled SS lines
To tell General Patton, and Patton only, of a battalion,
Poland’s last “ready to fight”: 1000 STRONGK.

8.

November rains, then robin eggshell sky.
The last orange monarch of the season glides by
The sun-blistered rooftop chair where I write.
Last night, only the tapers wavered. Our fingers
Settled on the willowware then skated blindly
On the glow-in-the-dark board, echo-locating
A message spelled-out by, if not with, our hands.
My generation was devoured by History.

That window of a decade between the wars.
Poland’s first sovereignty in a century and a half.
Think of a boy listening to opera in Warsaw.
The aria hides somewhere the boy can’t go.
The aria escapes the ruins of crematoria.
The aria conjures the lost boy now in you.

9.

“What happens in Merrill’s House? Anything weird?”
Friends ask. “Not really,” I say. Which is mostly true.
Though the paranormal manifests in small things
Misplaced, too easily ascribed to forgetfulness,
Or highbrow pranks: the almost imperceptible
Bach sonatas emanating mysteriously some nights
From the lonely, untuned concert Steinway upstairs.
But on the anniversary of 9-11, our first week here,

I froze on footage of The Twin Towers falling again.
How to explain the next sensation? Of a delicate
Arm-like wreathe being laid around my shoulders?
Fine as the motes of old skin tumbling in sunlight,
The blizzard of the past lit up in rooms like shooting stars
Swirling constellations. All of which we are.

10.

Last week, the final signatories (France and Greece)
Signed the treaty thereby opening the archives
At Bad Arolsen, Germany to the public.
May we live long enough to learn what we can stomach
Of the dark secrets of last century long buried
In that German spa town and what they may tell us
Of our own time. First snows of mid-December.
Winds pounding the windows of our borrowed sanctuary.

Two weeks—all we have left in Stonington.
Our work here, such as it is, will soon be done.
What we take with us, in part, is what we leave
Behind, what we imbue any space we really inhabit
And fill with our anxious hope. Uncertainty.
Beginning with the love that brought us here.

Rick Hilles

(Reprinted by permission of The Hudson Review -- Winter, 2010)

 

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