Saturday, May 24, 2008

Poem of the Day

The Black Swan

by James Merrill

Black on flat water past the jonquil lawns
        Riding, the black swan draws
A private chaos warbling in its wake,
Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
         Nearer to that green lake
      Where every paradox means wonder.

Though the black swan’s arched neck is like
         A question-mark on the lake,
The swan outlaws all possible questioning:
A thing in itself, like love, like submarine
Disaster, or the first sound when we wake;
         And the swan-song it sings
      Is the huge silence of the swan.

Illusion: the black swan knows how to break
         Through expectation, beak
Aimed now at its own breast, now at its image,
And move across our lives, if the lake is life,
And by the gentlest turning of its neck
         Transform, in time, time’s damage;
      To less than a black plume, time’s grief.

Enchanter: the black swan has learned to enter
         Sorrow’s lost secret center
Where like a maypole separate tragedies
Are wound about a tower of ribbons, and where
The central hollowness is that pure winter
         That does not change but is
      Always brilliant ice and air.

Always the black swan moves on the lake; always
         The blond child stands to gaze
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always. The child upon
The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
         Forever to cry aloud
      In anguish: I love the black swan.

James Merrill's father was the Merrill of Merrill Lynch, and so this gay scion had a good chunk of capitalism's booty to fund a life of sophisticated pleasure and poetic endeavor. "The Black Swan," perhaps Merrill's first great poem, was privately published by his Amherst professor (and lover) in 1946.

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