Jun 29, 2022

“b o d y” by James Merrill

Joan Biddle

The poem “b o d y” by James Merrill is a self-contained, well-paced poem with two stanzas of five lines each. Compared to some of Merrill’s work, the poem is shorter, more serious, more intense, and gets more quickly to the heart of the matter. The author is reaching the end of his struggle with AIDS, and he laments the failings of the body.

The speaker invites us to look closely at the word “b o d y.” He reflects that when one looks at a word for too long (kind of like when one says a word over and over) it becomes nonsense, something other than what it is. Maybe the same for the body itself. 

Merrill transforms the letter “o” in body into a player on a stage, and the reader can see the o, kohl-rimmed, face painted, bright under the stage lights. The o “plots its course” through the sky, kind of like the love that “paced upon the mountains overhead” in Yeats, kind of like a meteor or a shooting star. The o is bright, done up, and ready to perform, as always in this life. The o is compared to a moon, which waxes full, then fades completely. It glows.

The letters “b” and “d” become beginnings and ends, and the reader can guess what they stand for. The “y,” tailed at the end of the word, becomes a pesky question, “why?” Why does the body fail in the ways that it does? Why death? The y knocks at the stage door and remains unanswered, because there is no answer, because the body is too tired to answer, or maybe because the o is still busy performing. 

“Ask …  by what light you learn these lines.” Now that the body fades, the speaker learns his lines by another light. There is always a light shining, the ghost light that’s kept on in the theater at the end of the night so that no one will fall off the stage. There is always someone awake, someone with a light on. There’s a light outside of us that sustains us and keeps us going when we can’t on our own. 

The poem is guided by a set rhythm and rhyme scheme, keeping in line with Merrill’s very formal verse. But this poem, to me, is different in that it’s more raw, stark, clearly lit.

“b o d y” follows a sweet, simple, subtle movement, entering and leaving as swiftly as it came. When life becomes colorless, fearful, empty, it is also beautiful like a body under silver milky moonlight. 

The poem “b o d y” appears in James Merrill’s A Scattering of Salts, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1995.

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