Facing the Remains
by Tom Merrill
"Some say it's best to live before you die,
And silent choirs of angels all know why."
reviewed by Michael R. Burch
Facing the Remains, a book of poems by Tom Merrill, is now
available from Exot Books, a
New York City publisher of attractive, high-quality chapbooks.
While I am usually suspicious of blurbs, I think the three below are accurate and
well-deserved, so I will provide them, then add a few brief thoughts of my own.
"Tom's is a very distinct voice, one of the most individual I have ever
encountered: resigned to life's limits in a bittersweet way, and thus all the
more prone to rapture in those moments when those limits are transcended and (in
his own carefully measured words) 'manna tips the scales' ...
This chapbook was really a labor of love.
I cannot recommend it highly enough."—R. Nemo Hill,
Facing the Remains
"Tom Merrill’s poetry is hard to classify. It is personal without being
self-absorbed, individual without being weird and formal without being
formalised. This is the work of someone who respects the traditions of his craft
but never lets them stand in the way of its possibilities. It is poetry without
pretension, rooted in life and spanning a wide range of subjects; here are
immediate reactions and considered observations to engage the head and, lying in
wait among them to trap the heart, pieces of honest and exquisite love poetry."—Ann
"Don't let Tom Merrill's formal verse and elegant diction fool you: the man's a
subversive, and a danger to party morale. I have notified the proper
authorities, who will be monitoring his poetry closely from now on. However
appealing one may find his unique voice and grim humor, however moved one may be
by the sorrow and humanity of his poems, he cannot be allowed to undermine all
we have worked for. This disturbing tendency of his to sympathize with the wrong
sort of people, against the forces of law and order, conformity, and sobriety,
must be suppressed."—Rose Kelleher
I think Rose Kelleher is obviously correct: Tom Merrill is a dangerously
sub-verse-ive poet, if I may be allowed the small pun. And as Ann Drysdale
pointed out, he can also beguile the heart with honest, exquisite love poetry.
Like Nemo Hill, I cannot recommend the book highly enough.
I would like to add to the ideas expressed above my opinion that Merrill is
a rare poet in his ability to convey emotion and meaning simultaneously.
poems below, from Facing the Remains, should help give readers a sense
of the poet's range.
Why keep your senses grounded here,
Or let them have you sharp and clear
Who wakened you to numbered days
To yoke you to their futile ways?
While tickings winch you nearer toward
Your execution and reward,
Why not imbibe—or pick your trip,
Let them ram home the standard script
As you, absorbing what you like
Risk transport on a one-way flight;
Let our grand architects complain,
Who pull their mighty weight in vain,
Only to end as they began,
Fragile freight of a circling hand
That flicks the feeble out and in
And each back to his origin.
"A Demurral" is pure subversive Merrill, as he seems to suggest that
man's "numbered days," being yoked to futility, entitle him to live and die as
he pleases, the gods and their religious minions be damned. While Mark Twain probably remains
America's most humorous critic of puritanical Christianity, Merrill may be its
darkest and most haunting denier. He can "summon the abyss" like no other
contemporary poet I know.
Her ears pricked up so much, Madame
LaBouche, decrying all disturbance
Insisted sounds around be less
City-like and more suburban.
One bistro gave Madame no rest
Until it was at last subdued,
And vexed by yakky cabbies next,
She finally got their stand removed.
Yet still, some night-owl might abort
The dreamshift of LaBouche's week,
And pop her prized unconsciousness
By passing with a piercing shriek,
Or other nuisances emerge—
But when, for my part, out a window
I spot Madame surveying things,
Hard eye a-gleam, arms set akimbo
All poised to nail some passerby
With shrill bursts from her magic flute—
I see the sole noisemaker I
Have lately dreamed of going mute.
"Madame LaBouche" is one of my favorite Merrills. I believe he's captured her noisy,
bossy, bothersome, hypocritical kind in a way that most free-minded readers
can readily appreciate.
Working For Peace
It's not unlike a pressure valve: with a bit
of manipulation, some of the pent-up
element is released.
I'm reminded of this
because just a moment ago
I spent a few minutes adjusting it.
I never really notice
how much of the stuff is sprung, so to speak,
but it's done
till further adjustment suggests itself.
Probably not tonight.
For a modicum of manual labor,
you can get back a seismically sizable burst
(complete with an attendant shudder)
and can feel, if you got your money's worth,
relieved of sufficient supercharge
to limply gravitate toward sleep.
That's half the point of the exercise—
a purpose, for me, it shares with reading
a novel or poetry,
or studying a foreign tongue.
The other half? . . . to pull the mind free
of a restless distraction, an urge for action
disrupting its idle drift. Those then
are the foremost reasons I often resolve
to rise to the occasion, try my
hand at the shooting-range, so to speak—
and why I, fairly frequently,
grab my trusty pistol and,
with a will, start to polish my gun.
It never lasts too long, the time
between when the trip begins and the final
bang, but it's still
a nice enough way to depressurize
the head-space of the mind,
as well as pretty solid proof, I'd say
that working for peace
can sometimes be fun.
It every now and then can seem
as if you lived in a pressure cooker,
the way the steam
starts kicking at the lid, announcing
it's soon about to blow and now's
the time to lift the top and lose some heat.
But be entirely assured,
the intervals between
your valve adjustments may grow longer . . .
volcanoes sleep, after all,
no one's upsurge is getting any stronger,
and sadly enough
your element's likely to grow more inert.
But, for anyone oddly like me,
who continues to find it a useful technique,
you might want to keep on hand a special shirt
. . . to catch any spillage or spurt.
It's an interesting irony that "Working for Peace" has
been borrowed by at least three anti-war websites.
But then couples get married to the stalker lyrics of Sting's "Every Breath
You Take." In any case, it's a fine poem, if perhaps at times misunderstood ...
Time in Eternity
When you were as an angel in my arms,
Had laid your bare head just below my chin,
Your length pressed up to mine, entrusting charms
My whole youth's starward longing could not win;
With still the murmur of your love in me,
Miracle-tones of all my lifelong hope,
I wished that there might start eternity
And seal forever that sweet envelope;
And as it did, my thoughts are now for you
As every star is blotted by the sun,
And so the sun itself
Has perished too,
And with it, every dream of mine
"Time in Eternity" is a wonderfully evocative love poem. Few modern poets could
match it, even if they had Merrill's talent, due to their inhibitions against honest
human emotion. Fortunately for us, Merrill is a heretic who refuses to follow
the lemming-like poetic herds over the cliff into the abyss of mindless and
The eye is turned inward these days,
away from the gloom in the glass,
the window's vacancy,
the desolate picture left in the wake
of the latest revanchist crusade
to restore a compliant past.
Facing the remains, an imposed deprivation,
saddled with a heftier load of time,
one begins to make adjustments,
resorts to creating distractions
like this very problem I'm solving now,
whose unyielding grip on the mind
won't be shaken until it's fully resolved.
The social regime of rural religion
leaves one in a doctor's waiting room
and makes absorption in such problems
useful in diverting
consciousness from the creeping clock.
So the eye is turned inward these days,
turned inward because it has to be,
though a few staunch rebels
still lingering out there like sitting ducks
ensure that even now
ironically embellishing seats of wisdom
with inspired masterstrokes relieves,
a little at least, one's awareness the doctor
is seeing countless other patients first,
like that always too-busy god for which they wait.
"Leitmotif" tells us a lot about the poet and the world he inhabits: an
endlessly strange place that remains trapped in the Dark Ages of revanchist
crusades and imposed deprivations. But at least we can be consoled that Merrill
remains one of a few staunch rebels ...