Mercury Dressing: Poems

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9780307270658: Mercury Dressing: Poems

Since the publication of Hazmat, a book about the life of the body—short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize—J. D. McClatchy’s poetry has increasingly taken up the life of the soul. Now in verse as quicksilver as it is authoritative, he returns to themes he has touched on before, but from a new or unusual perspective—focusing on the frame rather than the picture, the tear rather than the sorrow.

The title poem captures the nervous energy and aloneness surrounding the figure of Mercury, while the stunning long poem “Sorrow in 1944” tells the tale of the grown child of Madame Butterfly. McClatchy’s impulse is to tell the story after the story, the minor opera in the shadows of a great one that nonetheless tells its own tale of the heart, bearing its own measure of tragedy and hope.

With its emotional range, maturity, and formal elegance, Mercury Dressing is the finest work to date from one of our most significant poets.

Mercury Dressing
To steal a glance and, anxious, see
Him slipping into transparency—
The feathered helmet already in place,
Its shadow fallen across his face
(His hooded sex its counterpart)—
Unsteadies the routines of the heart.
If I reach out and touch his wing,
What harm, what help might he then bring?
But suddenly he disappears,
As so much else has down the years . . .
Until I feel him deep inside
The emptiness, preoccupied.
His nerve electrifies the air.
His message is his being there.

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About the Author:

J. D. McClatchy is the author of five earlier books of poems and three collections of prose. He has served as the editor of many books, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, and has written thirteen opera libretti that have been performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, and elsewhere. McClatchy teaches at Yale University and is the editor of The Yale Review. He lives in New York City and Stonington, Connecticut.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

MERCURY DRESSINGTo steal a glance and, anxious, seeHim slipping into transparency—The feathered helmet already in place,Its shadow fallen across his face(His hooded sex its counterpart)—Unsteadies the routines of the heart.If I reach out and touch his wing,What harm, what help might he then bring?But suddenly he disappears,As so much else has down the years...Until I feel him deep insideThe emptiness, preoccupied.His nerve electrifies the air.His message is his being there.THE FRAMEFussily ornate and merely decorative,Wreaths of fruited branchlets and fluttering ribbonsEchoing the scrolled plasterworkOn moldings around the mirroredParlors where a patronCould straighten his collar,Reliefs embellished with glass beadsTo mimic his beloved’s brooch,Rosettes cast in pairs and affixed with foil and wax,Then coated with gesso and gilded to seem carved,Or cross-hatched textures scratched onto the surfacesOf curling leaves and hammered for the fine mattingOf metal with tiny pocked points,The crinkled foil of gold pressed downOnto the moistened boleFor a burnished veneerThat aligns the soft candlelightOn the apostle’s face with whatShines more severely from the Savior’s fingertip,Is not the sort of frame I prefer to encloseWhat I should figure on as an allegoryOf someone’s sense of what he puts between himselfAnd the world. I prefer the frameWhose entablature seems to shieldWhat it displays, withholdWhat has been given itTo help explain the mysteriesOf the child sent to redeem us.From architrave to plinth, balusters upholdingWhat the crested lunette oversees, the rigidVocabulary of antiquity admitsNo distractions, nothing to lead the eye awayFrom the perfected cityscapeAnd room, where a sad pale womanUnder a stone cherubThe color of the cloudsHolds something that she knows will die.A friend sits beside her, peelingAn apple. In the distance, three men on horsebackLook up at her window, the darkness in a frame.A V I E W O F T H E S E AThe argument had smoldered for a week, Long enough for the fine points of fire,Banked from the start against self- righteousness,To have blurred in the pale ash of recrimination.I couldn’t tell which wound would be the deeper—To stay on, behind the slammed door,Forcing you to listen to me talk about itWith others, or to leave you altogether.What caused the argument—another crumpledPiece of paper with a phone number on it—Felt at last as lost as all the brightBeginnings, years back. And then . . .And thenYou were standing at the sink with your back to meAnd must have sensed me there behind you, watching.Suddenly you turned around and I saw in your eyesWhat all along had been the reason I loved youAnd had come to this moment when I would be forcedTo choose but could not because of what I had seen,As when the master of the tea ceremony,Determined to embody his ideal,Had constructed a room of such simplicityThat only a decade of deliberating its anglesAnd details was in the end required of him,A wooden floor so delicately joinedThat birds still seemed to sing in its branches,Three salmon- dyed silken cushionsOn which the painted quince petals trembled,A pilled iron kettle disguised as a sea urchin,Each cup the echo of cloud on wave,And on the long low wall, a swirling muralOf warlords and misty philosophers,The Ten Most Famous Men in the World,Floating at its center the gold- leafed emperor . . .Who, rumors having reached the court,Was invited to come approve the great design,But when he saw himself as merely oneOf ten, declared that because the master’sInsult was exceeded only by his skillHe would be allowed to take his own lifeAnd have a month to plan the suicide.The master bowed, the emperor withdrew.At the month’s end, two aged monksReceived the same letter from their old friend,The master, who had now built his final teahouse—An improvisation, a thing of boards and clothOn the mountain in the province of their childhood—Inviting them for one last cup together.The monks too wanted nothing more,The sadness of losing their friend to his ancestorsEased by the ordinariness of his request.But they were feeble and could not make the climb.Again the master wrote, begging themTo visit—he was determined to die the very dayThey came and in their company, and besides,He reminded them, from the mountain they would haveA view of the sea, its round immensityThe soul’s own, they could never elsewhere command.The two monks paused. Their duty to a friendWas one thing, but to have at last a view of the sea,A wish since each had been a boy bentOver pictures of its moonswept midnight blue. . . .So they agreed and undertook the difficult journey,Sheer rock, sharp sun, shallow breaths untilThey reached the top. The master was waiting for them,The idea of leaving life already in his looks,A resignation half solemn, half smiling.He led them past a sapling plum he notedWould lean in the wind a hundred years hence.A small ridge still blocked the sea, but the masterReassured them it would be theirs, a memoryTo return with like no other, and soon, soon.They came to his simple house, a single room,But surrounded by stunted pines and thick hedgesThey could not see beyond. Patience was urged.Inside, they were welcomed with the usual silences,With traditional bows and ritual embraces.At the far end of the room, the two cups of waterOn the floor, the master explained, were for themTo purify their mouths with before the tea was served.They were next told to lie on their bellies and inchTowards the cups, ensuring a proper humiliation.The monks protested—they had come to see their friendThrough to the end, to see his soul released,Poured like water into water—and where, after all,Was the unmatched view he had promised them?They would, he countered, all have what they wishedIf they yielded as they must to this ceremony.The master waited. The monks slowly, painfullyGot to their knees, then to the straw mat,Their arms outspread as they had been instructed,And like limbless beggars made their way acrossThe floor, their eyes closed in shame, untilThey reached the cups. With their lips they tippedThe rims back so the water ran over their tongues.Now, the master whispered, now look up.They opened their eyes. They raised their heads a little.And when they did, they saw a small oblongCut into the wall, and beyond that anotherCut through the hedge, and beyond that was whatThey had waited for all their lives, a sightSo sublimely composed—three distant islandsDarkly shimmering on boundlessness—That in the end they saw themselves there,In their discomfort, in a small opening,In a long- planned accidental moment,In their rapture and their loss, in a view of the sea.

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