Song Cycle

Song Cycle with Laura Kolbe

Laura Kolbe author photo

In this monthly series, poets, writers, and musicians trace the long relationship between poetry and music, exploring how individual composers and musicians have transformed poems into musical works.

How do we know that we’re alive? In James Merrill’s posthumously published poem “The Instilling,” that -ing gerund suggests that we’re never quite sure: that we’re always still in process. Merrill’s poem suggests a body instilled, infused, with light, which enters via the head and seeps down the neck and thorax until it sets the heart afire, tripping the electric “deep sparkle” that makes this most important of muscles go – and whose electromagnetic medical tracings are (not by accident, in Merrill’s opinion), very much like language, an ongoing cursive that narrates the blood’s soft percussion in a lifelong, near-endless sentence.

The poem is, on the one hand, wandering and gentle. This is the human body fed by light, plant-like and quiet. Composer Daron Hagen arranged a suite of “Merrill Songs” in 1995 for “high voice and piano,” originally with countertenor Charles Maxwell, though subsequent recordings have been sung by female sopranos. Susan Crowder’s voice in this recording is elastic, plumbing – sending little rhizomes here and there as though mapping out in tendrils where the sun might be, where water and mineral can be found. Knowing that Merrill died not long after writing “The Instilling,” from complications of AIDS, I’m moved that his idea of the “stilled” body is nevertheless so fertile, so verdant. There are “redwood-tendoned glades” inside of us, he writes, and “sometimes there’s fog.”

On the other hand, Hagen amplifies the anger and the pugilism latent in the poem, too. Light reaches our brain via the optic nerve, but Merrill calls this everyday invasion a “trepanning,” as though illumination was a burr hole through the skull. (Which is certainly how it can feel when illness or medication side-effect makes the eyes painfully sensitive to light.) I imagine the generative possibilities of “instilling” life gone backwards and awry, as though Athena, grown too big and clumsy, were trying to leap back into the cracked head of Zeus. Though “fog” and “script” certainly don’t rhyme on the page, Hagen makes them musically “rhyme” by having both monosyllabic words get drawn out into trisyllables of melody – as though all the hard work of inscribing poetry were no more than a bumbling confusion, a kind of pesky mist.

Hagen’s score and Crowder’s phrasing do one more thing I love: they move Merrill’s line-breaks to different places, so that it sounds as though the words “EKG” and “between” are the penultimate end-rhymes of the poem. They make it sound, therefore, as though the last line of the poem were not “The dreamless gulf between two shoulder blades” (Merrill’s real ending) but rather one lonely phrase: “To shoulder blades.” To “shoulder blades” – Merrill adored puns – would mean to hoist up weapons, or in Hamlet’s famed words, “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.” I feel sure, now that Hagen’s score has isolated this little phrase for my ear, that Merrill meant this dark, winking joke: that language makes and unmakes us, that it is life-force and death-drive at once.

The Instilling
by James Merrill

All day from high within the skull –
Dome of a Pantheon, trepanned – light shines
Into the body. Down that stair

Sometimes there’s fog: opaque red droplets check
The beam. Sometimes tall redwood-tendoned glades
Come and go, whose dwellers came and went.
Now darting feverishly anywhere,
Manic duncecap its danseuse eludes,

Now slowed by grief, white-lipped,
Grasping the newel bone of its descent,

This light can even be invisible

Till a deep sparkle, regular as script,
As wavelets of an EKG, defines
The dreamless gulf between two shoulder blades.

"The Instilling" from Collected Poems by James Merrill, copyright © 2001 by the Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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