DECEMBER 4, 2017
SOME BOOK REVIEWERS like to start with a head fake, a hook about a different author than the one being written about, and then veer back to the book at hand. But Christopher Merrill is too important a figure, and his new memoir, Self-Portrait with Dogwood, is too rich a subject for that approach. A few months ago, during a Q-and-A session in front of a small crowd in Laguna, a woman who came with her daughter asked Christopher Merrill what it was like to be in Iraq now. The poet laureate of Laguna, Kate Buckley, had organized the reading on the fly after hearing he would be in town and so, in an audience of 12 people, all white, the Iraqi mother asking the question stood out. Merrill said that he’d just gotten back. That he spent his last day in Baghdad going to a museum, cruising through a bookstore, sipping tea in a tea shop. In the evening he was riding back to the compound in an unarmored vehicle with a mayor from Iowa, the director of the UNESCO City of Literature, and the driver. They were commenting to each other about how normal and enjoyable their day had been. And then their car shook and swerved. A large explosion (an IED? a missile?) was erupting in the rearview mirror.
A favorite poem of Christopher Merrill’s — which I also love — is Czesław Miłosz’s “Gift.” The speaker is in the moment, happy, as we all are happiest, when we accept, briefly, our lot in life. The poem resonates more when you consider that Miłosz lived through the horrors of World War II:
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.
The writing here is simple, clear. It has gardening in it and war. Physical labor and the physical world offset a speaker who clearly is a thinker. The poem is in the key of praise — the speaker sees both the day and this life as a “Gift” and regards the mistakes he may have made without regret: “To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.” But the poem is also itself a gift — a gift to readers.
While there are plenty of painful moments in Christopher Merrill’s Self-Portrait with Dogwood, this book too is a gift to readers and, as the author turned 60 this year, a “thank you” note, in the key of praise, both for “his walk in the sun” (as he has put it) and for the dogwood tree. Although Merrill doesn’t mention Miłosz’s poem in Dogwood, the poem has all the elements of his memoir: war, gardening, a physical life balancing out a life of thought, and, overall, wonder and faith in nature. Of course, Merrill’s new book deviates from Miłosz’s poem in that it reflects on a lifetime, rather than on a single moment. Still, Self-Portrait is the smallest of Merrill’s books, if not in terms of length, then in terms of font and physical size. It fits in the palm of my hand, and like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is meant to be carried with you. Stuff in your back pocket, the size suggests, and use it as a literary guidebook, if not a psalter. In the chapter titled “Questions of Belief,” Merrill quotes the Psalmist’s assertion that a faithful man “shall be like a tree planted by rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season whose leaf shall not wither.” Self-Portrait with Dogwood is one of those leaves. Why, I found myself asking, am I so much more drawn to this, his fifth book of prose, than to his previous prose works?
I attributed my difficulty in reading Merrill’s prose after The Grass of Another Country to ADHD — mine, not his. In a recent Q-and-A about his book Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder made the comment that the better a poem or a book is, the more you can space out while reading it. I wondered if that was my issue, or was Merrill’s prose simply too dense for me. I used to joke that, reading his work, I felt like the speaker in Gerald Stern’s poem “I Remember Galileo”: “I saw the mind was a squirrel caught crossing / route 80 between the wheels of a giant truck.”
On my drive home after the reading in Laguna, I was thinking about a passage in The Tree of the Doves, Merrill’s last book, in which he recounts his introduction to Ezra Pound. He discovered the Modernist master as a young man, after moving to Berkeley with two goals: “to keep my girlfriend’s wayward heart from straying and to become a poet.” Merrill enrolled in a class on modern American poetry that began with Pound’s Cathay and ended with The Cantos. While reading this account, I was deeply tuned in — in a way I hadn’t been while reading the earlier pages. I wondered where I tuned out so I retraced my steps. Four pages before he was climbing the “Staircase to Heaven” — a network of ladders, really — at the Dunes of the Singing Sands near Dunhuang, China, and I was gleefully sliding down the dunes with him. In the pages between the dunes and Pound, he goes into the history of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor and the creator of the “Ghosts Under the Land,” an underground terracotta life-sized army, replete with horses. He discusses Shi Huang’s tyrannical rule and his suppression of Confucian scholars, analyzes styles of leadership, and mentions Nixon, Borges, Mao, Genghis Khan, the Red Guard, his tour guide Mr. Nui, the Great Wall, the Cultural Revolution, Winston Churchill, and more. His choice of quotes — for example, “How can one be humane without knowledge” (Confucius) — are rich, and walking on the beach during this recent surge of Santa Anas I found myself chanting, “the courageous are not threatened by their inheritance.” It’s a feat to have pulled so many things together in a readable way. But it’s a lot to get through, with or without small children, even if you don’t have a “mind like a squirrel.”
Dogwoods blossom in Workbook, Merrill’s first book of poems: “After the dogwoods blossomed / In your Indian song, / your words / Became rain clouds scattered high / Above a Sioux plain somewhere / in South Dakota.” But in Self-Portrait with Dogwood those seedlings planted and grown throughout his life’s work come to flower, and to serve as an organizing principle for a lifetime of memories. They are also a means by which to explore the history of the species, climate change, and Merrill’s love of nature, as well as a means to keep his personal narrative from becoming solipsistic, one beautiful dogwood in a history and forest of dogwoods. His previous books of prose were combinations of travel diary and research, and reading them I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the wealth of information and the constant motion. Reflection allows Merrill to slow down; the reader gets to linger in his poetic imagery and wit.
The ecological and the personal form an interplay in Self-Portrait. Merrill might begin a short chapter with, say, a discussion of William Bartram, “the first notable American-born naturalist” who described the dogwood, and then move into personal history. The chapter titled “Eye of the Hurricane” begins with a fine example of such interplay:
“After all, I don’t know why I am always asking for private, individual, selfish miracles,” wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “when every year there are miracles like white dogwood.” This was what I felt, more or less, lying beside a dark-haired woman at daybreak, under a blossoming dogwood at the university.
Merrill then effortlessly directs this chapter into a discussion of the novelist John Fowles, on whom he was taking an independent study course, exploring the ways in which Fowles presents “time as not a linear process but a circular construct, in which the present contains both the past and the future […] just as a tree contains in its leaves and branches the memory of its seeding and the promise of its inevitable decline and fall.” A page after this quote he asserts, “The key to my writing, I learned that year, was also to be found in my relationship to nature.” On the final page, he details an absolutely gorgeous memory of flying a kite with his father: the kite “plummets into the dunes,” an “eerie silence growing around [them]” in the eye of a hurricane, and a “ray of sunlight funneling through the clouds dazzles” him. The next paragraph begins, “When our house was swept out to sea.”
These themes of solitude and violence, of the ways in which Merrill was born or drawn into them, recur throughout the book. One of the most beautiful chapters is “A Route of Evanescence.” It details Merrill’s friendship with my old professor and friend, Agha Shahid Ali — a literary friendship I’ve admired and envied for decades. Shahid is the main dogwood in this chapter, which is light on research and quotes but full of gorgeous, lyrical, and succinct writing. But even this beauty ends tragically, with Shahid’s death from brain cancer in 2001.
Like nature itself, Merrill’s life, from a young age, has been punctuated by pure calm and extreme violence. These rhythms find their haunting, captivating expression in this slim, distilled book — a handheld key to Merrill’s unique vision, and to the wonders of nature. It is the gift I’ve been waiting for.