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Merrill Stein: Wallace Stevens Scholar
Excerpted from a longer work
On September 7, 1923, Alfred A. Knopf published Wallace Stevens’s first book, Harmonium, just at the point of the great poet’s departure on a cruise to Havana with his wife Elsa—the first extended trip in their then fourteen years of marriage. He is forty-three years old. He was forty-three years old.
Merrill was forty-three years old. If it was his own monograph he wrote, he could say, Merrill is forty-three years old, but it would go in the bio. Maybe not. Authors didn’t usually reveal their ages. He thought these things as he continued his work, his reason for being—a straightforward explication of Stevens with profound parts about the poetry, but a study grounded in the facts of the poet’s life. He’d just reread the complete, though really “selected,” letters for the second time and had enough grist to cast a new tale and fill it with the blustery thoughts he’d been accruing for four decades.
A fire truck blasted its way through the one-way street he lived on. Because it was the tail end of street cleaning, the driver of the FDNY truck had to go a little ballistic at the puzzle of ill-fitting cars sprinkled about. For fifteen minutes, the loudest of all possible horns bellowed, ululating like a caged dragon not used to the cage, not used to not getting its way. It must have been Mrs. Finnegan’s car. She couldn’t hear, but even if she could, she wouldn’t move it—not even if the NYPD put a gun to her head. She knew the former Mayor and even had some incriminating evidence on him—enough to scare a city—and because her nephew had obtained the rank of deputy editor at the Times, she was much more of a threat. Eventually, the putt-putt of a beeping reverse signal could be heard. She had won out, again. His parents never said a bad word about Mrs. Finnegan, though. They stressed diplomacy, especially in the case of neighbors.
He continued his sortilege. It was the introduction, so he could take it easy. Or was this the preface? Originally it had been Chapter One. Examining the detail in “A Lot of People Bathing in a Stream.” The line: Good-fortuna of the grotesque, patroon. Patroon—a-ha. Another of his delicious variations, this on an old Dutch word. Stevens liked to swim, so a scholar had said—a rather useless detail. Merrill didn’t like to swim—did that mean he didn’t like the poem? His book had to be ready for the committee at the University of Caledonia Press in three months. He had the outline, he had the main ideas, but he didn’t have text, no actual sentences aside from the few he’d just written. Nine-thirty in the morning it was. Monday morning—the worst point of a writer’s week.
An hour of dawdling. Then the main door to the apartment opened and closed swiftly. Wasn’t she supposed to be with Marilyn until lunchtime? Nobody can perform a colonoscopy that fast. The voice said the voice’s son’s name.
Don’t break my streak, he murmured. Don’t, don’t.
The voice continued, I need to talk to you.
Mom, I’m in the zone.
She opened his door. Just let me ask you—where are those free passes for the MoMA?
I don’t have them.
But I gave them to you.
I gave them back.
Well, I don’t have them and I want to take Marilyn there after her colonoscopy.
Why would someone want to go to the MoMA after a colonoscopy, wouldn’t they want to go home and sit on a couch and eat?
The Monet ends Wednesday.
It’s not Monet, it’s Manet.
Ends Wednesday. So where are the passes?
That’s a question only you have the answer to.
So, I just walk in to bother you because at my age I’ve turned into a fooler, a trickster?
He turned from his writing desk. Mom, we have two levels of language going on. I’m giving you exacting answers. I gave the passes back to you a few weeks ago. You left Marilyn at the doctor’s? What if something happened?
Oh, please. Why did you give the passes back to me?
Because I wouldn’t be using them.
But that woman Helen set you up with…and it took her a lot of gall … she went out of her way … she took the bus across town to impress—
I didn’t ask her to do that.
But Helen is so wonderful.
Merrill shook out his left wrist. Which Helen?
Which Helen? Helen was setting me up with a woman called Helen. Named Helen also. Same. Similar. Fully the same.
His mother’s jaw locked. Well, they’re both wonderful, my God. What’s wrong with Helen?
The Helen for me became sick. She’s on antibiotics or something.
She waved at him. Oh, stop. Merrill. That’s her playing. You have to break through that. It’s a test.
She doesn’t want to meet when she’s sick. First impressions.
My God, Merrill, you can’t fall for that. Helen told me Helen wanted to go to the MoMA with you.
We can go to the MoMA anytime.
No, you don’t wait on-line with tourists on Friday afternoon. Like you’re, like you’re cattle. Behind those barricades. I know you. Not wanting to spend money.
It’s fun to go on Fridays. All the interesting people.
You don’t like people. You like quiet, you like parks with no people, airports with no people.
Hey, I’m a people person.
Like hell you are, Merrill. Didn’t you see that Helen’s picture? The smile. Recently divorced and smiling. That’s a good sign—a positive sign. Thirty-six and she likes older men.
It is you, but not for long. You have to get up. You have to strike.
Mom, you’re talking like an infomercial.
I’m talking like your mother. You need romance. Not that Wallace Stevens and his ice cream poem every three seconds.
“The Emperor of Ice Cream.”
Emperor whatever. It’s just weird.
Maybe Helen will think I’m too weird, then.
The one who’ll be the mother of my children.
The one who will have my dinner waiting for me when I come home.
Stop—you’re always home. You’ll cook for her. Read that cookbook I bought you. Now, where are the passes?
Merrill set his pen down. You know why I like talking to you?
Because we have zero communication. It’s Sisyphean. We might as well be costumed and on stage.
We’re always on stage.
HE WORKED FOR another hour, fretting a semicolon, before thinking the em dash better suited. Going to check Stevens’s correspondence with poet Allen Tate led him to Tate’s critical pieces on Stevens and he glossed them for nuggets, but the gloss turned into deep reading and Tate lead him to R. P. Blackmur, the premiere New Critic, and Blackmur’s infamous “Examples of Wallace Stevens,” a piece no scholar would ever not know: “Another way of contrasting Mr. Stevens’ kind of condensation with those of Eliot and Pound will emerge if we remember Mr. Stevens’ intentional ambiguity.” Why italicize “intentional”? Isn’t the fact that he chose the word “intentional” enough to make it stand out, dare say even be intentional? These were the types of questions the committee would not have interest in. They wouldn’t have read Blackmur and wouldn’t care anymore, but still, they’d have to think his modern study competed against criticism some eighty years old, and at least have an epee poised to parry.
He stood up and puttered about in circles, trying to regenerate. Something seemed to strain about in his belly. He looked down at it, hidden by fabric depicting a black and blue pattern of stripes, something woven in Venezuela—a gift from one of his mother’s very well-off friends. Could the pain be connected to his stomach? Hard-boiled eggs always went down easily. When he had internal troubles they seemed to center on his inability to void or they had to do with his neck—an imaginary closing of the esophagus, an I-can’t-breathe sensation like his collar was too tight, something brought on by a fear of falling or being pushed into a subway well. Fuck you then, subway; he had advances on his inheritance. It’s just stress, Shawn told him, when Merrill wouldn’t admit to the subway’s churn for him. But what stress? He didn’t have to do something he didn’t like to do, or to pay rent because he didn’t have any rent—he carried the ignominy of living with his parents, a burning sludge he had to pussyfoot around every day in his mind and certainly many others’. His friends didn’t live with mommy and daddy, most people twenty years younger than him didn’t, but he remained in his own unique boat. To tell or not to tell? Remember that woman from Columbia? So, your mom told me you live at home with her? She said that? She did. I see. Now what? Now what, what? Now where do we go? Well, he said, you’re still with me to get the explanation. Are you kidding me? You teach art history at Columbia, don’t have anything better to do than eat Ethiopian and get an explanation? he said. I trusted your mom and thought her issue would be most promising. You trusted my mom because my father saved your father’s life. That’s a weird way of looking at it. Are you attracted to me? Physically, I mean. I mean, I’m balding, but I know that’s been in style. I can’t answer—I need the facts. You intellectualize beauty? Your mom said you liked Wallace Stevens. That I liked him? My dear, I don’t just like Wallace Stevens. I’m not a zoo animal who prefers the feed bag.
So, he could be sensitive about it. Yet, he didn’t hide it on his internet profile. Just a note: I do live with my parents. It is certainly a cost-cutting measure in these desperate times, but it’s also about my belief in the ancient wisdom of the old tribes, where a son stayed close to the homestead, at work on his family’s metaphoric escutcheon, even if the lineage isn’t to be forwarded anytime soon. He’d lived alone for some years. A decade in Harlem—don’t ask. Going to NYU, fighting with faculty about how they should teach classes. He never called them out in public. It was always one on one—Excuse me, I just had a question about the last session. Merrill looked at the unfinished manuscript. Maybe he should become a librarian? But he saw what librarians had to do besides look at their Fuckface accounts and play video games. Just a week or two ago, a man went to the help desk at Lincoln Center’s Performing Arts Library, where they only had books tied to the arts, and asked if they had books on furnaces. Then another requested a gun or at least a large knife to hurt someone who skipped the line for the computer.
From his desk drawer he took his nail clippers, a gift from his father. The father who never missed a day at the hospital, although the board had encouraged him to retire. He stayed on in an advisory role he extended back to full-time because, as he confessed to his son one night, Nobody knows what the hell they’re doing. But he’d clipped his finger and toe nails yesterday. Shouldn’t he keep his pen and notebook ready? It wasn’t even noon. His mid-afternoon walk might be the best thing, but what would he do at three o’clock when he didn’t feel inspired to exude lyric opinions? He couldn’t take two walks; he didn’t care for the throngs in Central Park that much. Trees and birds were nice, but people jogging with music blasting from their phones, or walking with them, head down, and bumping into him—save it.
On his desk, sitting in a corner, was his computer. He’d turned off the internet, except for reference sites, through a disabling program, until 4:30 pm—the end of his work day. It was 11:37. And for what, except for you, do I feel love? Did he speak to his computer or the woman inside it—the only part of the person he could access because she was still an email-only friend.?Something heavy sagged from his mid-section and then instantly dropped away, like his second chakra had absorbed and then passed a hunk of happiness or an imaginary BM. He moved his wrist back and forth watching the creases become ridges of pink skin before flattening when he retroflexed the hand.
He’d been through breaking down the nearly irreversible internet shut-off system before, just a month prior. This time he seemed to know how to get it started, but because they were always improving or obfuscating, they made it harder for Merrill to regain access each time. First, he had to call the company’s phone bank, then answer a series of security questions and take a short mandatory survey. Then they routed him to a branch office in Escondido for a brief interview about the reasons why he, Mr. Stein, wanted to override a requirement he’d painstakingly instituted only on January 1, and because this was the second time he’d asked to override, the interview portion became more chagrined, more challenging. This time, a woman with an Indian accent spoke with him: Mr. Stein, before we go through with this request, we want to make sure that we are helping you, our customer, to fully get 100% satisfaction. Because of your past history, I’ll just ask, are you sure you want to do this?
Yes, of course I am. I’m of sound mind.
Of course, Mr. Stein. The issue is—what I’m getting at—it’s like this—I can put through your request, we will override for today so you will have access early, but in the future, there will be consequences. And I mean the immediate future—instant future.
What do you mean? Why?
A deterrent against this happening. A penalty. A raising of rates.
But effective. You now pay 69.95 a month for the service. Unfortunately, you will be going to 105.95 when I override you to get you back on the information superhighway before 4:30.
No one calls it that anymore. Wait, what—you said one-hundred?
Are you human? This isn’t in my contract.
It actually is—there is a clause about system overrides. We’re also going to need to send a serviceman to your house—
But this is bullshit. It’s all remote. I don’t need a serviceman. And pay that fucking fee, too?
It’s a one-time fee.
This is the only time I’m doing it. Of course it’s one-time. What were you? A used car salesman-person?
The technician has to manually override your Apple. This is the new safeguard. It looks like we’ll have a serviceman in your area around six tonight. That fee will be 49.95.
Well, golly. You know the internet turns on at 4:30.
Yes, so it seems. You might want to wait this one out.
The dating site was different from all others. That’s why everyone wanted to be on it. That’s why it was so good. You could only login from your own IP address—one device per customer—and they wouldn’t let any numbers or emails pass until something substantial had been built, a minimum of three weeks. And it cost money per minute to use the system. He had to see what Olive might have said. For forty minutes he tried to think of a way around it and even found a small screwdriver before he saw there was no way to open his computer. Shawn was at work and Florence, the film critic, was in a screening for a new subaltern movie about the New York Yankees fighting terrorists, but Florence seemed to be mad at him, or at least mad at something he represented. He hadn’t seen her in a week, which could be construed as abnormal because he told her things he didn’t tell Shawn, like the I-can’t-breathe thing—she was the closest person to him. He didn’t want it to always be secretive, but it was, for the moment.
On the way to the park, he stopped at the used bookstore to see if Guy Davenport’s Ezra Pound book had shown up. There weren’t many copies in the world. The on-line retailers didn’t have it and even the Columbia and NYU libraries had reported their copies lost or stolen. He might have to resort to the Library of Congress.
The bookstore owner had just changed the music from avant-garde classical to avant-garde jazz. The caddy fellow with a sloping salt and pepper Vandyke turned from the counter, brusquely opening his newspaper. Merrill lowered his shoulder to obscure his profile as he passed the front desk, which held an old-fashioned cash register, a small confederate flag turned upside down, a bust of Bach, and a framed photo of George Orwell with a five-inch latitudinal cobweb, shading the steely unsmiling face. There had been more than one incident over the years, but the last had been the worst. He’d overhead the owner arguing lightly with someone about Ezra Pound and then the proud man wiped his slavishly looked after beard, massaging it with two fingers as pincers, and stated emphatically how Susan Sontag had personally told him Pound was shit and his reputation would soon go into the toilet. Merrill asked him if he’d ever read Personae, let alone The Cantos, but the owner ignored this. So Merrill said, I’m Jewish and I can vouch for Pound. His work, I mean. Don’t give me that, the owner rebutted. Who cares if you’re Jewish? My wife is Jewish. Do you want to go back to wearing a star on your sleeve?
Merrill looked at the other man, who seemed to bow out, then back to the owner. There’s a great line of Henry James’s that fits you like a wonder condom. Maybe you’ve read it because you’ve spent your life in a bookstore? It goes thusly: He is the same old sausage, fizzing and sputtering in his own grease.
They had a first edition of The Palm at the End of the Mind, though it was scuffed with underlining on nearly ten pages. $40. A travesty. He peered down the way to see if the owner faced out or away and waited until it seemed the latter, but just as Merrill passed the register, the owner turned and frowned, ruffling his newspaper.
The flowers of spring: tulips, snow drops and daffodils had poked themselves out of the murky sufficiently soaked earth and he walked along the bridle path into the Great Lawn, passing an onslaught of strollers, including one whose seated boy tried to whack Merrill’s leg with a plastic hammer. The winds of April sent seeds and pollen across the grasses and into the air and he rubbed his eyes before cracking his pillbox filled with various medications. The hot dog vendor sold small bottles of water for six dollars. Who sets these prices? Merrill said, grudgingly handing over a ten. The Arabic man smiled and went to redistributing the dogs on the roller grill.
His regular bench had been taken by a man who shouted into his phone, It’s fuckin’—what? It’s fuckin’—shit. Fuckin’ shame. I know. Don’t tell me, I know. Merrill crossed east over the oval, where the midday sun lit up a stand of old oaks, and found another bench. He worked his tongue over his teeth to remove the pasty sensation of the three Benadryls. Then he sneezed.
Two young women in neon jogging suits walked by and one bent over to tie her shoe. They spoke of their boyfriends or husbands, actually one had one and the other had the other. The husband had committed himself to going golfing the weekend they were to drive to Cape Cod to see her parents. All he says are two words to me. Two words by way of excuse: It’s Pebble Beach. Omg. It’s Pebble Beach. Is that three?
They laughed and walked on. Merrill adjusted his sunglasses that fit over his real glasses. He hoped the woman from his dating site didn’t talk like that. She couldn’t, could she? Could someone who graduated Yale really speak in such a shrill tone? He hoped for someone not expectatory, but that wasn’t even a word—and he coughed. In any case, it meant, by way of its root and his head: hectoring, smug, calling onto the carpet, everything done to them being an injustice, an inconvenience (The gall of someone or something to do what I don’t want them to do!), everything a disappointment to their kingdom. Man-childs or woman-childs walking around with driver’s licenses, healthy bank accounts, and other vague powers. In another ten years these types would rule the country. And if that was true, with all other advantages holding, it meant people from Yale could be expectatory, maybe more so.
They’d been corresponding for a few months. Apparently, Olive had become exhausted by her simple life in Boston and wouldn’t continue to “see” people, only write like the women she looked up to, the great correspondents of years past: Madame de Sévigné, Dickinson, Colette, Woolf. This is my letter to the world, who never wrote to me, she prefaced last week’s missive to him, quoting her cherished Emily, whose museum she visited every year at just this time. He wondered if Olive looked like Dickinson, full of librarian features: intense and irresolute face, bullish eyes, a wardrobe rich in ersatz fashions, a part in her hair. Olive hardly mentioned her physical body and, for a painful two seconds he imagined a very witty quadriplegic with the scent of sweet pee, but he shook out of that dastardly fear, no doubt concocted by his fumbling neurotica, his dark side—where the moon didn’t shine, where even the moon didn’t exist, where euthanasia and genocide were to be expected and never admonished. Ugh. A private woman, wasn’t Olive? She kept a storehouse of thoughts shored up against the world. She had levels, depth (onion layers, he called them) redolent of some grand design; a woman paragoning description, hatched millennia prior, when surf and turf translated into sea world showmanship and people had to catch their own food. Quietly, he continued to build her in his own fantasy, something that could be quite distant from the actual physical manifestation: imagining how the wind clipped her hair, how she ate sushi, and how she might be as photogenic as a ghoul. No, books made people beautiful.
And what about academia? Professors were getting suspended or fired every day for mouthing off on the internet or their phones. He couldn’t picture her fitting that mold. Not only did she never script the hackneyed, I like to curl up with a good book line, she sometimes admitted her reading habits were haphazard, indulging in embarrassing page-turners to escape the grueling academic poseurs of the last century. Those details were fuzzy, and finally, unimportant. He needed to smell her, to find her twisting in liminal space, touching the same table he touched, speaking of something at the same moment, rallying the conversational ball, so it kept morphing in mid-air before it met the far person’s metered mind.
He looked west to the Dakota and the sky beyond. “The Blue Buildings in the Summer Air.” He tilted. Go hunt for honey in his hair. Merrill crossed his legs, satisfied but unable to accept the satisfaction his mind offered for three seconds by that line. It fled and he went back to worrying for three minutes. The frightening game would not let up, until Tex Message, as he called the phenomenon of all texts to him, came to the rescue. He checked and it had come from Florence: They’ve hit a home run with a terrorist’s head. He knew a second one, the punchline, would soon follow and then the phone tolled: Where did I read the government just struck a distribution deal?
His sister—the sister he never had.
He walked south to the Belvedere Castle and the Delacorte Theater—Shakespeare in the Park, where some early preparations for the season began. A black saxophone player had set up at the base of the steps leading to the old castle—what castle could ever be called new? His sunglasses reflected the mostly tourists (mostly German), who laid dollar bills into his velvet hat. Merrill stopped and listened to the tune reminiscent of the hey-day of jazz—’55? ’58? But what did he know? A plaintive jingle, de Profundis, a moribund love song, strange in its filaments, though suggesting hope. A blubbering melody Merrill mainly heard, but it told of true experience. How a relationship had been forged through the pull of music.
A woman would see the man playing and she’d be taken by what he could make, what came from himself, but only came to focus outside of himself in something communicably manifest. He could be broke, but his soul was rich and she knew, with no family left—maybe a sister across the country—only a man’s soul could take care of her. He slept wherever he could, but he had lived so hard, gleaning from the thousands he’d talked to in his journeys. She wanted streetsmarts, she wanted a life much less ordinary. They were the most unlikely couple until they started talking and they found out they made each other laugh—an essential in seduction. Then weeks of ecstasy. He’d lucked into a housesit and they could be together most of the day until he’d go practice and she would walk to the beach and read or write letters. Performance at night. Always different, something new. Could she tell this wouldn’t always go on? The money would run out, the time would pass away, maybe even the romance would be the first to go. Most everything she told herself turned into the opposite, and soon it did, without any acknowledgement that he could feel this to be the truth. His decision to play the unattached, the unwilling anti-hero, who seems to hang upon the fringes, had come from the era of the jazz he played. Deep down, he couldn’t realize his conscience would always exonerate his culpability. She is this beautiful, fragile flower that he will ultimately stomp. Like his forebears, he leaves her before she is ready to be let go of, certainly before he is. Never say goodbye, so the only images remaining are the good ones, but regret overlays it all.
The man took a winding way to end, the notes afraid to stop, but they did. Merrill clapped on instinct but he was the only one. Four other people nearby had been videoing the musician, but they stopped and sulked away.
Later, at 4:31, Merrill opened his inbox to find a message from Olive saying she would be coming to New York next week and would he like to meet her. He couldn’t believe his luck and chalked it up to waiting out the internetless day. Patience, the virtue that enables dreams to come true. Happily, he ate his mother’s cod and even joked about the Manet exhibition with her.
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Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories, were both published by Splice. Zerogram Press released a new and expanded version of See What I See this year. He also edits the journal: Socrates on the Beach. Visit greggerke.com and follow @Greg-Gerke/Socrates on the Beach.
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