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POETRY: Graffito by James Merrill

Called the Miraculous Mandarin in the New York Review of Books by fellow poet Charles Simic, James Merrill was very good company.  I knew him in Greece and I was last charmed by him in Key West, Florida.  He won the Pulitzer Prize and was considered by many the leading American poet of his generation.  He died in 1995.

Graffito 

Deep in weeds, on a smooth chunk of stone
Fallen from the cornice of the church
(Originally a temple to Fortuna),
Appears this forearm neatly drawn in black,
Wearing, lest we misunderstand,
Like a tattoo the cross-within-a-circle
Of the majority-Christian Democrat.

Arms and the Man.  This arm ends in a hand
Which grasps a neatly, elegantly drawn
Cock-erect and spurting tiny stars-
And balls. One sports...a swastika?
Yes, and its twin, if you please, a hammer-and-sickle!
The tiny stars, seen close, are stars of David.
Now what are we supposed to make of that?

Wink from Lorenzo, pout from Mrs. Pratt.
Hold on, I want to photograph this latest
Fountain of Rome, whose twinkling gist
Gusts my way from an age when isms were largely
Come-ons for the priapic satirist,
And any young guy with a pencil felt
He held the fate of nations in his fist.  

Extract from 164 East 72nd Street

These city apartment windows-my grandmother's once-
Must be replaced come Fall at great expense.
Pre-war sun shone through them on many a Saturday
Lunch unconsumed while frantic adolescence
Wheedled an old lady into hat and lipstick,
Into her mink, the taxi, the packed lobby,
Into our seats.  Whereupon gold curtains parted
on Lakmé's silvery, not yet broken-hearted

Version of things as they were.  But what remains
Exactly as it was except those panes?
Today's memo from the Tenant's Committee deplores
Even the ongoing deterioration
Of the widows in our building. Well. On the bright side,
Heating costs and street noise will be cut.
Sirens at present like intergalactic gay
Bars in full full swing whoop past us night and day.

Sometimes, shocked wide awake, I've tried to reckon
How many lives-fifty, a hundred thousand?-
Are being shortened by that din of crosstown
Ruby flares, wherever blinds don't quite...
And shortened by how much?  Ten minutes each?
Reaching the Emergency Room alive, the victim
Would still have to live years, just to repair
The sonic fallout of a single scare.  

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