Days of 1973: A Week in Athens (first published in Notre Dame Review, Summer/Fall 2012)
Copyright © 2013 by Judith Moffett
James Merrill and I met in the spring of 1967, when I was a 24-year-old graduate student in his poetry-writing course at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The effect of the encounter on me was explosive, both poetically and personally. Within six months my writing had taken a quantum leap forward—not because of anything we learned in the course, but because it introduced me to our teacher’s work, especially his National Book Award collection Nights and Days, in whose pages I saw, almost at once, both where I had been trying to go in my own poems without knowing it, and the first inklings of how to get there.
The personal impact was fully as powerful, but disturbing where the other had been illuminating. My attraction to him was intense, and tinted with eroticism, but so slightly and strangely that ten years would pass before I could admit there had ever been an erotic element to the feeling at all. To understand its larger meaning took much longer. Certainly I didn’t want to be linked to him in that way; but the intimacy I experienced through his poetry seemed to insist on a parallel personal intimacy of some sort, and I soon became obsessed with a need for him to be open with me about his sexuality.
Anyone who knew about such things could have recognized that Merrill was probably gay, but this was 1967, the Stonewall riots still two years in the future, and the closet for most gay men of his generation and class an assumed fact of coexistence. (His partner David Jackson, as will be seen, was an exception.) Nor did it help my purpose that at the time we met I was, as Merrill once expressed it, “a diamond . . . very much in the rough.” My family background was Kentuckian Fundamentalist working-class. Though I read obsessively, sang in choirs, and wrote verses from early childhood, I grew to adulthood in an atmosphere minimally enriched (as they say nowadays) by the arts. And minimally touched by worldly habits; smoking and drinking were not modeled at home for Baptist kids. After leaving the church at eighteen I did experiment halfheartedly with cigarettes, alcohol, and pot, but disliked how all of them made me feel. Young people of my derivation existed well outside the frame of reference of the privately educated, multilingual, urbane, sophisticated, and culture-steeped younger son of Charles Merrill, founder of the world-class brokerage firm. The single bridge connecting our two worlds was poetry in English generally, with a narrower focus on his poems and then, increasingly, on mine, for he was a generous and supportive mentor.
Six years after Madison things weren’t much different, and I was still obsessing.
I provide this background partly as context for my ferocious sibling rivalry with Stephen Yenser, which alas is fully on display in the following account. Stephen had met Merrill in that same writing course at Wisconsin, but afterwards our relationships with our teacher developed along very different lines. The two of them had hit it off at once, and Merrill soon welcomed my rival into the sort of easy intimacy I could only dream of. Stephen’s advantages began with his being a guy, straight but unprejudiced, whose lifestyle allowed him to fit seamlessly into Merrill’s expectations of normal social behavior. Though devoted to the poet and his work, he was not neurotic about him. Had Stephen not existed, my own position in our shared mentor’s life would have been no different; but had he not been a member of our class family, there would have been no one unavoidable sibling with whom to be rivalrous. The feeling was entirely on my side, and was not personal. Though we had barely known each other at Wisconsin, from the little I’d glimpsed of him across the office shared by the English Department’s TAs, I’d liked Stephen too. No, the problem was “only” my grinding jealousy of the affection Merrill felt for Stephen, just for being Stephen. Just for not needing anything he wasn’t happy to give, while my own neediness flung itself as hugely and disagreeably in his direction as the beam of a searchlight.
Daniel Hoffman’s is another name that recurs in these pages. Hoffman had been my professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had directed my dissertation; four years after the events described in this article he was to hire me back to teach American literature and creative writing there. In April 1973 he had invited Merrill to read at Penn, and during that visit made a remark to him about someone they both knew, who, Hoffman said, “doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” For some reason Merrill took offense. He repeated the remark to me at the time and mentioned it again in Athens. Now as then, the strength of his feeling bewilders me.
My first post-PhD job was at Behrend College in Erie, a four-year member of the Penn State Commonwealth Campus System. I was relieved to have any sort of job in a bad market, but Behrend served the public-school system of Erie, and my students were generally poorly prepared and hard to excite. I was just completing my second year of teaching there when the chance to do something different came along, and I seized it.
I kept a journal on my visit to Merrill in Athens. Many passages have been transcribed here from that record exactly as I wrote them down; I’ve resisted the temptation, sometimes severe, to photoshop certain passages and pass the result off as (almost) authentic. What happened, what I felt and wrote down, all of it angled from the perspective I brought to things at 31, is entirely flattering to none of us; but my goal was to see people clearly, as neither better nor worse than they “really” were. For all my tangled feelings, I wanted to see Jimmy steadily and see him whole, and for him to see me the same way.
In the spring of 1973 my application for a Fulbright Travel Grant to Sweden was approved. Efforts to obtain support for the planned critical study of Jimmy’s poetry and fiction had mostly flopped, but at the eleventh hour I learned that Penn State had given me a summer stipend to research it, and that the American Philosophical Society, a small foundation in Philadelphia, had chipped in something too. I applied at once for a year’s leave of absence from Behrend and began laying plans: I would spend the fall term in Stockholm, translating rhyming, metrical Swedish poetry into formal English poetry, and the following spring and summer in Denver, working on what I had begun to call the Jimmybook.
At the prospect of swapping the dreary grind of teaching in Erie for foreign travel, translation, and Merrill study—all things I fervently longed to be doing—the way forward flared with excitement. Among other things, the travel grant meant that I would be able to visit my poet in the scene where so much of his work had been set. A round-trip ticket to Greece from anywhere in the States would have been beyond my means, but there were plenty of cheap charter flights between Stockholm and Athens, with a week in a fleabag hotel thrown in. How an entire year’s leave was to be paid for I wasn’t sure. I had hopes of an Ingram Merrill Foundation Grant when my other funding ran dry, but if that didn’t work out I figured I’d manage somehow. I would have flipped burgers or swept floors to keep from going back to Behrend before that year was up.
At term’s end I moved my stuff into storage, gave up my apartment, and drove joyfully off to Ann Arbor for a summer of research. Jimmy wrote me there that his mother would be in Greece from September 25 to October 9 or 10, and that I might want to consider timing my trip to overlap with hers—she, after all, having influenced his character rather more than the other ancient sites I might wish to visit. I had tentatively suggested coming somewhat later in the fall; but I would have a better time, he said, if I came before the very end of October. After that it was likely to be rainy, whereas the weather in early October was always wonderful. Thus encouraged, I replied that I’d decided to “try to overlap with your mother after all. The point you make is so indisputable.”(1) By early July I was able to report “spending long days at the U. of M. library, xeroxing all the reviews and articles about your work which I expect not to be available when I get to Denver.”(2) I was also compiling a list of things to make a point of seeing while in Greece, and to that end had just reread The (Diblos) Notebook, and was about to start on the poetry. “One of the things to check out, and I’m noting especially the poems in which she appears and THE SERAGLIO, will be your mother.”
By summer’s end I was in Stockholm and had finalized my travel plans. I would arrive in Athens on October 7; Jimmy’s mother was not to leave until the 10th, so I would definitely meet her (he wrote), though perhaps not the horde of step-relations and their friends with whom she would be traveling. He described a spaghetti dinner he had cooked to celebrate the nameday of someone called Maria, a close friend who, he said, was dying of cancer. The reference, so significant in retrospect, meant little to me then; I don’t recall his speaking of Maria Mitsotáki in particular, and must have failed to connect the name with his poem “Words for Maria,” never one of my favorites. He’d been working hard, he said, and would have two new long narrative poems, prominently featuring the themes (masking and passion) that interested me most, to show me when I came.
The letter conveying all this begins with a lukewarm response to my review essay in The Hollins Critic about his work,(3) but otherwise strikes so many positive notes that the visit seemed likely to go well. On Sunday, October 7, I caught my charter from Stockholm to Athens, and a bus from the airport to a shabby hotel called the Hermes, and began the adventure.
The following account is based on or transcribed directly from journal entries made between October 8 and 22, 1973, either in Athens or in Stockholm immediately after my return.
SUNDAY, 7 OCTOBER 1973. There had scarcely been time to install myself in my room and cover my face with soap before the phone rang. Jimmy would meet me in the hotel lobby in half an hour. As far as I could tell from his voice on the phone, he seemed to be in a good mood. Still, when I went down I was relieved to see that David had come along too.
Both greeted me with double kisses and conducted me to a nearby sidewalk café on Syntagma [Constitution] Square in the center of the city; shabby the Hermes may have been, but its location for the purposes of tourism was ideal. Jimmy had brought me copies of the two new long poems, “Chimes for Yahya” and “Verse for Urania”—both featuring as promised my particular thematic interests of makeup and disguise—and also a book on Greece and a dictionary. In the course of our café chat I learned, to my momentary dismay, that Jimmy had given to his mother the copy of The Hollins Critic I had inscribed to him. (“She collects,” he explained.) In anticipation of meeting this personage the next day, we discussed what I would ask her in the interest of my book research, and also how I would ask it. Jimmy did indeed seem to feel pretty good. I observed that David deferred to him—correcting an impression formed during my first visit to Stonington—and felt again that, for me, being in The Poet’s presence was a lot easier when David was there as well.
MONDAY, 8 OCTOBER 1973. The plan was to meet Jimmy and his mother for lunch at the Hotel Grande Britaine, at the extreme other end from the Hermes in the rating spectrum of hotels in Athens. While waiting for it to be time to leave my room, I killed half an hour by jotting down some impressions of the previous day’s meeting. Also by babbling to my journal that “I wish I weren’t such a bloody nervous person. I hope I like Mrs. Plum(b?)(m?)er. I hope David comes to lunch. I do wish to God I could stop letting Jimmy totally determine by his moods how things go between us.” He, not his mother, was the focus of my nervousness; “I’m always much less nervous about Jimmy’s near & dear than I am about him.” I add, with a certain bravado, that “Even about him I’m much better than ever before. So I love him; so what?”
But David stayed home; there were only the three of us at lunch—which turned out all the same to be success of a quite bewildering sort. Mrs. Plummer either was genuinely taken with me (which seemed all but impossible), or, as Jimmy suggested, had decided to make a friend of me. From my journal:
"While we perched together on a chair in the lobby of the Grande Britaine—J having gone to fetch a forgotten bag—she told me how fresh I looked (the Greeks being so dirty), and also, 'You’re a very pretty girl! You have beautiful eyes!' At lunch, at the Snack Bar, she kept insisting I have some of those lovely red tomatoes, & also kept feeding Jimmy bites of melon; he submitted to this baby-bird bit with such patience & dutifulness that I was tickled out of countenance . . . he said later: 'I think she just wanted to establish a claim: "He’s mine!"' As we left the place she put her arm around me . . . then switched to grip J. & me each by an arm. I thought it all quite remarkable & mystifying that she should appear to like me so, because I’m definitely not her type—she emerged brighter than supposed but otherwise virtually predictable. He looks rather like her. Same nose, similar mouth. I seem to recall having to kiss her goodbye already after the lunch.
"During it J. set me up nicely to ask the question I had cleared with him the day before at the Syntagma café: 'Don’t you have some questions to ask this lady?' I replied that I had thought to wait & ask them later out of his hearing ('Do you want to be excused?' quipped savvy Mrs. P.) but she protested that others would be around later, & anyway 'We have no secrets.' So I asked how she felt about being written about, & her answer was nonplussing. She doesn’t seem offended by her portrait in The Seraglio, which means it must be a true one—of a person off-putting to the author & to me but not to her. She said she knew J. would never do anything to hurt her deliberately, so she didn’t know how she’d feel if she were someone else’s mother being written about. I had prefaced my question by saying I asked as a writer, not a critic, & one who wrote about her mother too. I told J. on Sunday that that would be my tactic & he said 'Yes, I think that’s the chord.' And in fact it was the true reason I asked.”
Mrs. Plummer did admit that she felt the portrait of her situation in the novel, the sharply reduced circumstances implicit in Vinnie’s remark that “There’s that little hot-plate in the pantry where I can cook rice or grits or an egg,” and so on,(4) was unfair to her late ex-husband, since Charles Merrill, Sr. had in fact provided for her handsomely in his will. She spoke of her grief when the marriage ended, of her human satisfaction when Charles eventually divorced the wife who had replaced her, and of Jimmy’s having sent The Seraglio in manuscript to his father for approval, which, she claimed, had been given (here Jimmy interjected that Charles had been able to read only about fifty pages of it before he died). Her stepdaughter Doris, Jimmy’s half-sister and the model for Francis’s sister Enid in The Seraglio, had always been like a real daughter to her, she said; I note in the journal that according to Mrs. Plummer Doris “is very sweet & kind, but does do the ‘little people’ bit I found so unbelievable, though she has five sons & no daughters & no twins.”(5) She liked her stepson Charles less well.
It was Mrs. Plummer’s choice to talk about The Seraglio. I had very much wanted to know her feelings about some of the poems, particularly “The Broken Home”; but my way of putting the question had left her free to discuss whatever she liked, and what she didn’t choose to mention, I didn’t ask about from a wish not to discomfit her.(6)
Also, her effusiveness threw me off balance. I did not for an instant believe that this beautifully turned-out person could possibly think me “a very pretty girl,” given my chopped-off hair and face devoid of cosmetics, and didn’t know how to deal with what I took for a kindly meant untruth. Perhaps she assumed the fuss she was making would please and flatter any young woman, not realizing (how could she?) that what this young woman most wanted from everyone, from her son above all, was to be seen for exactly who she was.
When lunch was over, Jimmy and I walked back to his house, which sat directly across from Lykabettos, the hill Kyria Cleo had climbed, face heavily painted, in “Days of 1964.” He was not a walk-taker ordinarily, he said, but didn’t mind walking when he had someplace particular to go. However he drew the line at tracing Cleo’s steps up Lykabettos, as I was keen to do. “After leaving his mother,” my journal records, "I said, 'Well, I guess the answer is to make her believe you do genuinely care, make her feel you’re truly an affectionate & attentive son. She does feel it. I think it’s all been very instructive.' His view was that she insisted on putting the best face on everything: 'Sometimes I don’t write [to her] for a month. One of her friends has a son who writes every day, but she informed her that I only write when I have something to say.'"
Our route took us through a small park, probably the National Garden, with a Japanese bridge and a pathetic little zoo featuring “pheasants wearing Voodoo masks” as the journal reports, a phrase that sounds more like Jimmy’s than mine. While sitting on a wall waiting for the royal guard to change,(7) the subject of money came up, and I asked had asked whether the Ingram Merrill Foundation had trustees or a committee to evaluate applications and dole out grants, meaning would an application be judged impartially, and allow one from me to avoid the taint of special pleading. He replied, no doubt correctly, “I think my lawyer would take a dim view of your using foundation money to write a book about me. I’d much rather just give you some money.” In 1973 the amount that could be given each year by one individual to another, without tax consequences for either party, was $3,000; he suggested $3,000 before January 1, 1974, and another $3,000 after. “I said I’d rather do it any other way & he said he quite saw that, & there we left it.”
On arriving at Athinaion Efivon 44, the house to which I had addressed so many letters, we found its other occupant in bed with a headache. I was shown the fresco David had recently painted on the wall of a first-floor room, a Greek beachscape with columns, very fresh and pretty. After I had admired it, Jimmy led the way up several steep flights of stairs to the roof terrace. He wrote his poems up there, in a tiny open shack-like structure once used as a laundry room. To a remarkable degree the house resembled its counterpart in Stonington, I thought, with its unassuming perpendicularity and flat terrace with potted plants atop the stack of rooms. Certainly in size and proportions it didn’t strike one as a rich man’s house, though property across the street from Lykabettos, one of the “sights” of central Athens, could not have been cheap.
On the walk we had begun a discussion of my Hollins Critic piece, a review essay on Braving the Elements, and we continued to discuss it up on the terrace. I must have still been explaining or defending the stance I had taken about a group of very hermetic poems in that volume, and the difficulty of his work in general. My journal records the gist of an argument he had rejected before, and would consistently reject over the years until I finally had the sense to stop making it:
"I’ve heard people say so many times [I told him]: it’s elegant, witty stuff but a steady diet of it would starve me. There’s nothing in it to live by. 'And they’re quite wrong,' I said. I don’t care about the people who don’t like poetry anyway, but for the ones who do, & don’t see how to read his, I can stand in the middle. The woods are full, I said, of reasonable people who aren’t Richard Howard or John Hollander, but who are sensitive all the same to poetry, & it’s them I’m after. 'I’ll take your word for it,' said J."
My deepest reason for wanting to write a book about Jimmy’s work was exactly this: to mediate between the poems I so loved and admired, and the many serious readers and writers of contemporary poetry, including friends and colleagues of mine, who couldn’t make sense of them, couldn’t get past surfaces they found too polished or opaque and didn’t see why they should try to. Jimmy, on record as being willing to forego a wider audience in favor of the “single silver carp” that would take him on his own terms, had no interest in cultivating such readers; his response here implies that he doubted whether they even existed.(8)
He then brought up a complaint of his own: that I had written about Truth and Beauty in the essay as if they were absolutes. I acknowledged his point about the latter at least, agreeing that one can’t simply say a line is beautiful without either adding “in my opinion” or applying aesthetic standards. But about Truth we continued to differ. “One aspect of Cleo[‘s poem, “Days of 1964”] worth mentioning,” I note in the journal, “is that her putting on a mask is a way of revealing something true about herself. J. seems to think it bears upon the ambiguous nature of truth; I think it bears on the ambiguous nature of masks.”
A propos of Beauty, though, “I asked J. how old he was when he wrote 'From the Cupola' & he said 35 or 6. I said it’s a good thing I don’t feel competitive”—I couldn’t remotely imagine catching up to that stunning performance in a mere four or five years—
"& he said, 'I wish you did. You’re a very good poet. You should get your first book out & be poet in residence somewhere.' Where were my poems? Why not get Ed [Lueders, teacher, friend, and charter member of the group described above] to send him a xerox of his xerox next month, & he’d give them to Richard Howard (who really likes to do that sort of thing) to place with somebody. The Braziller series is full up 3 years ahead but R.H. knows everybody & will think of something.” My comment to my journal: “I hope he’s right; it all seems unreal.”(9)
Then it was time for Jimmy to meditate. When he had finished, and before his mother turned up with the step-relatives I was going to meet after all, he sat in the music room in front of David’s pretty fresco and read a few of the formal translations I had brought along. I had chosen to focus on the work of the early twentieth-century Swedish lyricist Hjalmar Gullberg, an wonderful poet and a fine verse technician. These were my earliest efforts, later considerably revised, but Jimmy appeared to like what he saw. He recognized at once that the selections had been written in conscious imitation of Christian Morgenstern’s Palmström, something I was embarrassed to admit I hadn’t yet learned. Why not, he said, send a sample to Daryl Hine? Poetry used translations. My journal notes without comment that “He also said D.H. had turned down a series of poems by Steve(10) about the decline & fall of his first marriage, & I think also that The Mass. Review had taken them (‘I was very upset…’ he said).”
The gentle general’s daughter and son-in-law, Tom and Betty Plummer Potts, arrived with Jimmy’s mother soon after. (Betty I liked a lot, Tom not so much.) Mrs. Plummer, now “combed out” as she put it, presented me with a little bottle of perfume, confirming my guess that she must have formed a wildly inaccurate impression (or none at all; or maybe this was a hint?) in the course of our lunch together; but I appreciated her wish to make a gesture, however generic. The six of us—David had arisen from his bed of pain—went out for a dinner whose social details had blessedly blurred by the time I was setting down my recollections of the evening eight days later. By that time I recalled only the “gratitude I felt for being placed at J’s end [of the table] & not his mother’s; I was quite exhausted anyway by her.”
Driving me back to the Hermes afterwards, David said, “Well, she certainly took to you like a duck to water: ‘Look at those eyes!’ ‘Intelligence written all over her face!’” In fact they had all made much of me. Later Jimmy remarked that “She spoke of you very affectionately, about how open & genuine (?) you were. You made quite a hit.” It was all extremely puzzling, even unnerving. “The odd thing,” I wrote, “is that I wasn’t [open and genuine with Mrs. Plummer], though people have always said that sort of thing about me. Does the manner operate without the substance? Very odd.” Though I had of course hoped we would get along, I hadn’t wished or tried to “make a hit” with Jimmy’s mother, and was no happier with too much approval based on too little understanding than I had ever been with her son’s withholding of trust despite all my attempts to prove trustworthy. I even wondered whether she could have been trying to push me—a woman, any woman!—at him, i.e. extolling my virtues to a purpose of her own; it seemed to make as much sense as anything else did. Turning the mystery to my own purpose, I concluded that “the perfect ruse for me to use would be to visit Mrs. P. (as she really implored me to do) sometime when Jimmy does. I would then be the person most like himself in the group instead of the one least like him,” and he would be forced to turn to me in desperation.(11)
TUESDAY, 9 OCTOBER 1973. In the interest of seeing the charioteer of Delphi, about whom Jimmy had written an early poem, I had scheduled myself onto a bus tour. Alas, the trip was a disaster. Despite those confident assurances about the perfection of the weather in early October, the drive through spectacular mountain vistas took place under increasingly threatening skies, and we had no sooner disembarked from the bus than the heavens opened, drenching guide and tourists and aborting the tour. Not only had we come so far without actually visiting the oracle, we also discovered upon reboarding the bus that the heater wasn’t working, and sat shivering in our drenched clothes while cold air blew on us throughout the two-hour return trip.
A message, “Mr Jimmys has phone,” was waiting back at the Hermes. I called the house—it was 8:30 or so by this time—"& he said did I want to come over? Tony was coming, & we’d have some dinner. So about an hour later I plunged back into the rain. […] At dinner were: Tony [Parigori] the antique dealer, whose friend Maria is dying of cancer; Stepháni, a Greek boy with no English who looked bored to tears because people so rarely spoke Greek to him (I tried to pantomime sympathy but probably failed), J., David, me."
“All week long,” the journal notes at this point, “I was: the youngest of the literati, the only female apart from the relatives, almost the only straight, & the one least able to enter into the erudition of the hour. Quite a set of handicaps,” and I felt them all. I might have added: The only nonsmoking teetotaler, a bigger handicap than it might seem. The five of us crowded around a small table in the entryway of the house, there being, as I recall, no proper dining room. Tony and I didn’t really take to one another and the group was such a hodgepodge that I suppose it would have been surprising had the evening been very successful. Still, there was some very interesting byplay:
"David brought up the fact . . . that J’s mother had cautioned him to be discreet, & some other things, and wasn’t that (excuse me, Judy) terribly female of her? I rose to the occasion, but clearly not one of them had any idea what women’s lib is about, despite J’s & D’s having read The Female Eunuch. Jimmy had a better idea than most, probably thanks to me. He was the only one who seemed at all interested in discussing the subject & I suggested we change it. One cute aside of his: 'But we didn’t invite you here to insult the fair sex.' My reply: 'You didn’t invite me here to fight about it, either.' 'Why not? Go ahead.' But nobody else cared."
Once, when I had tried to speak a number of times and been repeatedly interrupted, Jimmy said, “Nobody will let Judy finish a sentence!” “Thank you!” I exclaimed, and he said “Well! Points for me!”
The “other things” David had referred to consisted of Mrs. Plummer’s horrified reaction to the bathroom wallpaper, a black-and-white pattern figured with what she had taken to be “all those men doing things.” David had pointed out to her that the figures doing things to each other were actually men and women; and when I asked later whether learning that had mollified her, he waved the question away: “Oh, Jimmy’s mother wants him to act like an insurance salesman.”
During dinner David also brought up Stephen Yenser, who had spent most of a summer in Athens a couple of years before, following the breakup of his first marriage. Mention of Stephen’s name, as always, put me on high alert; I must have struggled to adjust my expression to indicate only ordinary interest in a person we all knew. David spoke with concern of Stephen’s hard drinking during that difficult time, and thought he had had trouble handling the recreational drugs their friends used routinely. Jimmy took the subject up as well, describing “a night when Steve had actually been caught with a chair raised, ready to hit somebody he thought had, um, said something about our group.” (I could well imagine what the offending person had said, and took in that while David’s entire attitude assumed that I knew the score and was fine with it, Jimmy still refrained—as in the sentence above—from flatly calling a spade a spade.) The journal doggedly recounts that “On a night of a party including a Kennedy daughter, Kathy, Steve had been, consequent to his divorce, ‘desperate’ for a mate, & proceeded to drink himself into such a condition that of course the girl (whoever she was) would think Yuck! All of these antics were described by J. in a tone implying they were kind of funny & endearing.” I found them appalling and gloom-inducing, myself, and endured pangs of jealousy at Jimmy’s affectionate tolerance, and the intimacy the anecdotes implied.
Given decent weather, Jimmy proposed that on Friday he and I might visit Poros, the actual Greek island that had been the setting for The (Diblos) Notebook—an exciting prospect for me. We would go over on the ferry and return, more swiftly, on the modern hovercraft. I remember the working up of these plans because when David was calling about the schedule he referred to the boat as a “hoovercraft,” and I’d said, “Isn’t an actual hoovercraft one that rides on a cooshion of air?” and Jimmy, amused, had replied, “I think soo.” Points for me.
Driving me home to the Hermes later, David asked did I know who Tony was? Their oldest friend in Athens. Awkwardness kept me from asking him to clarify, but Tony’s situation confused me. He seemed part of the gay community but was also in a relationship with the terminally ill friend whom David called Black Maria, and whom he assured me I would like. “A really beautiful love affair, & of course she’s older . . .” Unaccountably, the possibility that Tony might swing both ways did not occur to me.
WEDNESDAY, 10 OCTOBER 1973. This must have been the day I went to the Acropolis; I know I hiked up the hill and took a guided tour of the Parthenon and Erectheum (and heard about the purloined Elgin Marbles, which I’d seen in the British Museum), though I made no record of the experience and kept not so much as a postcard, however many I must have bought and sent. At six or so I phoned the house, as instructed, and got David, who relayed the information that “Jimmy thought we’d eat in or out” and said he would swing by and pick me up. On the drive back he talked nonstop about what the journal calls “his miserable murder case,” though what he may have been referring to I now have no idea. Something must have come up after we’d spoken on the phone, because after delivering me back to the house he went out to dinner solo, leaving Jimmy and me alone together for the evening.
We ate in; I suppose Jimmy threw something together. Over dinner he too talked of David’s murder case, also declared that David “isn’t ambitious like you and I are.” I demurred, explaining that I was driven by a wish to be a member of a literary community, not by ambition in the sense he meant. “Maybe you’re not then,” Jimmy said, “but I was as soon as I found something I could do.” The topic reminded me of a matter I had wanted to remember to bring up: a phone call from the previous April, in which he had mentioned reading at Penn and staying with Dan and Liz Hoffman. On the wall of their guest room were several pictures, among them one of “a very young Dan and a very young John Hollander with their arms around each other,” another of Dan and Allen Ginsberg, and possibly several others. I guessed that the photos had probably been taken at Columbia, where Dan and John and Ginsberg had all been undergraduates together. Listening to him, I realized that when Jimmy came to read in Erie in a few weeks, and stayed with me, he would probably have a similarly bemused reaction to the analogous collection of photos hanging in my bedroom: pictures of me with Peter S. Beagle, with John Hollander (yes, me too), with two or three other poets and novelists—pictures of me with Jimmy had not existed until that visit in April. “Ye-e-es,” he said in what I describe as “a strong and carefully neutralized voice”; he had seen, and he had reacted.
"Well, I said, I don’t know why Dan does it, but I do it to remind myself that there is indeed a literary community out there. Working so isolated truly makes a difference to me—not in what I do but in how I feel about it. Jimmy took a high tone, said that wasn’t true of him, he often wondered why he & Mark Strand & Adrienne Rich etc. found themselves in the same N.Y. room just because they all have the same publisher."
I knew he had never experienced, and was making no effort to imagine, the degree of isolation from high culture that I had endured in Erie, and for that matter most of my early life, and tried to insist that “I’m not star-struck, that corny as [my wall of pictures] is it’s not that corny”—corny in that way, I meant. He was unconvinced: “If you still feel that at your age,” he said, “you probably won’t get over it,” adding that he had “learned things from Strato(12) that couldn’t have been learned elsewhere,” also that for the past twenty years “My love life has been more important to me than anything else.” This was the inverted snobbery I had noted in him before, and he was not about to budge.(13)
Almost certainly, that was the evening I was shown photos of Jimmy with Strato, complete with the extra kilos referred to in “Strato in Plaster” so probably taken in 1971. Broad-shouldered, tall, bulky, darkly mustached, Strato looked enormous, making Jimmy’s slight figure beside him seem frail and feminine. The contrast struck me so forcibly that I retain no impression of Strato’s face. Jimmy went looking for pictures taken earlier, before the extra kilos had been added, “but whatever he found, if anything, he came back empty-handed.”
I was gratified all the same that he had spoken of Strato so openly. But there were limits: After dinner he made me some tea (much too weak) and covered the pot with a green-tassled knitted cosy, with slits for the handle and spout. I’d never before seen a tea cosy with slits, and unwisely didn’t refrain from remarking, as he poured out, that the slit in front looked just like a fly, which it did remarkably resemble. Embarrassingly, this gambit evoked no response whatever, “& that’s how I found out Jimmy won’t play that kind of game with me.” Actually I expect he thought what I had said too obvious—or too gauche, more likely—for comment.
Over dinner or afterwards he fielded a new theory about why Mrs. Plummer had seemed to take to me so markedly. “My mother told me something when I was about 13 that sank like a stone. I was at my least appealing—fat, braces on my teeth—& I said that if she were my age I didnt think she’d like me very much. And she replied that that wasn’t true, because she had always befriended the least popular child in the class.” I was taken aback by this, and protested. Puzzling as her enthusiasm had been, impervious to my reality as she had appeared to be, she had at no point struck me as championing an underdog, nor had I felt or behaved like one in her company. There may have been some truth to his theory, I couldn’t really know; all the same it seemed pretty clear that the person who viewed me as the least appealing, least popular child in the class, the one in need of charitable befriending, was not his mother but the former fat kid with braces himself.(14)
David returned from his dinner with another splitting headache—“Here comes the sufferer,” said Jimmy—and went straight to bed, so the usual good-humored taxi service was not available that evening. David must have called ahead to say it wouldn’t be. Instead, the same taxi that delivered a Greek boy named, I believe, Vassíli to their doorstep at around 11:30 conveyed me back to the Hermes.
THURSDAY, 11 OCTOBER 1973. Jimmy met me in front of the Grande Britaine with the glad tidings that Spiro Agnew had resigned.15 At the National Historical Museum, our goal for that morning, we saw in a display case the deathbed of Lord Byron and his sword in a scabbard worn through at the tip. Jimmy seemed very touched by the sword, this evidently being his first sight of it, and quoted Byron’s lines: “For the sword outwears its sheath, / And the soul wears out the breast, / And the heart must pause to breathe, / And Love itself have rest.”(16) In front of another case I scored points by observing that the epaulettes on a uniform, thick metallic cloth with coil tentacles, looked just like trilobites. We saw wonderful frescoes of blue monkeys, one featuring an incredible dangling breast in profile that struck me so forcibly that I sketched it in my journal. Jimmy had said we wouldn’t keep together in the museum, but as things turned out we did. Afterwards we crossed the street to a gift shop, where he bought me a little owl (“Can I impress you with an owl?”) carved from alabaster—perching beside me as I type this—and for himself, or as a gift for someone, a little abstract head molded or carved from composition marble dust and set on a wooden block.
After lunch, Jimmy headed home and I went shopping. I bought a hand-woven throw rug in an odd shade of green that I thought might work with my few sticks of furniture presently in storage in Erie. I also tried to buy a Greek blouse, but abandoned that idea when the young shop attendant followed me into the dressing alcove uninvited to “help” and put his hand on my breast. A development perhaps foreshadowed by what I had seen in the museum that morning.
When I got back to my room with my Carpet Bought,(17) the phone was ringing. “Breathless?” said the familiar voice, and then: “News flashes. The celebrated Mr. Merwin is in town and would like to come by, so that means we really ought to take the hovercraft both ways if I’m to have a long evening.” Surprised and disappointed—I’d been looking forward to the ferry ride—I said, rather ungraciously, “Oh, very well.” “I know it’s a lot to ask,” said Jimmy dryly. And then: “If the hovercraft isn’t working—I’ve called, & they say it will go, but if it doesn’t—(little pause) I don’t think I’ll be able to go. I just don’t feel up to sitting on the boat for 2 1/2 hours each way, with a long evening ahead of me.” He added that I would be welcome to join them Friday evening “if that would thrill you.” “What if it wouldn’t? Can I come anyway?” “Then I’d say you were a very spoiled girl . . . and I should let it be known.”
“My quickest reaction,” the journal faithfully records, “was anger: having committed himself first to my trip, with no provocation from me, the celebrated Mr. Merwin could jolly well play second fiddle as to plans & arrangements.” That dangling modifier reveals how much I minded that we might not be going to Poros after all, and how upset I felt at being unceremoniously shoved aside because somebody more important had turned up. But then I took a nap, and when I woke up all my anger had turned to remorse. Jimmy had already done so much for me that week, and was still prepared to go through with the trip, provided the hovercraft was running, even though he no longer wanted to: I suddenly realized that the tone of voice I’d heard meant that, in view of this new development, he didn’t want to go. When this truth had struck home, "remorse battled with disappointment for a bit, then drove me to the phone. 'Jimmy,' I said into it, 'look—I don’t think [don’t ask him, tell him] you should try to squeeze everything in tomorrow. It’s too much, & you’ve done quite enough this week already.' Surprised silence, taken-abackness. 'No, I’m planning on it. I’m looking forward to it. How kind, how thoughtful of you. . . . No,' he began to pull himself together, 'the boat’s not tiring & if I sleep all right there shouldn’t be any problem. But I’m delighted to have your permission in case . . .' 'More than permission, encouragement,' I said firmly."
Jimmy had told me earlier that I would be on my own for the evening, he and David were going out with a friend; so I spent a pleasant two hours over dinner with a Swedish couple from the charter trip and turned in early, still not sure whether or not we would be leaving for Poros in the morning.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12, 1973. The beginning of my journal entry for this date, written in the Hermes between the excursion to Poros and the evening with the celebrated Mr. Merwin, borders on the ecstatic:
"Super-successful day. J. & I went this morning by 'hoovercraft' to Poros [(Diblos)] and saw Mina [(Dora)])(18), now an old woman nearly—or past?—80 with a truly wonderful face. The weather, after 3 damp, chilly, dismal days, was perfect, the village very picturesque, & the old woman terribly glad to see Jimmy. She even kissed me when we left ('May I kiss you?' she said, & I said 'Of course!' I don’t think anyone ever asked me [for permission] before). Afterwards—even before, to some extent—J. was relaxed & friendly; glad to have come back, I suppose, & glad I had provided an excuse. Anyway I’ve never seen him so unshadowed for me by the sense that he was patiently performing a duty.”
Then, in a gush of feeling: “I’d like to get down every word of this week, & will probably try for days to capture it in here.” From that moment’s perspective it all seemed to have gone so well that I had begun to fear I would screw up somehow and “mar the finish before the finish.” Stephen might be allowed to menace strangers drunkenly with chairs upraised in wrath, “but I will have to watch my step.”
Back in Stockholm I did indeed write down everything I could remember about the week, including the details of our magical day on the island. Evidently the plan all along had been to try to see Mina; that had been Jimmy’s main reason for choosing Poros as a destination, and of course it suited my research goals perfectly. “After that rainy week I remember the day as a brilliant wash of blue, sky & sea. J. & D. arrived in the car at 7:45, both in truly excellent form, & we were dropped off at the hovercraft pier even with time to spare. We rode in the center perforce, so as not to rock the boat, but actually the sea was as smooth as glass. The trip took an hour & 15 min. each way.” Jimmy pointed to signs saying “Exodos” over the exits and “Eureka!” in the “finds itself in motion” signs on the backs of the seats. I told him I had once written a poem rhyming sigma with stigma with enigma, and he said, “That does about exhaust the possibilities.”
He thought we might send Dan Hoffman a joint postcard, a nice idea, but repeated his testy anecdote about Dan’s speaking with approval of so-and-so who didn’t suffer fools gladly, “And of course I light up when I see a fool.” It seemed peculiar that he should so persist in this, yes, foolish gripe, which in Erie I had chalked up to depression but which now struck me as one more instance of inverted snobbery. I suggested that maybe they meant different things by “fool,” and said that what made me light up was the quality of sweetness in a person. As examples I cited a former boyfriend and a disastrous affair of the previous year. Jimmy said he wasn’t big on sweetness himself; I didn’t remember then, nor it seems did he, that in Stonington he had called Stephen “very sweet.” He described himself as shy, not a word I would have ever thought to apply to anyone so sociable; I wondered whether shyness and gayness alike might hide behind his various masks and disguises.
“We landed & proceeded straight to breakfast, since I’d had none but the apple J. gave me on the dock—a custard pastry for me, a honey-&-shredded wheat one for him, tea & milk he made a special trip for (‘It isn’t very good milk.’)” And then Jimmy made a really lovely gesture. From the depths of his shoulder bag he produced, hurriedly inscribed, and handed across the table to me a beautiful blank book with unlined white pages, bound in marbled vellum. The inscription, in red magic marker, reads: “Judy’s Diblos notebook / Poros / 12.x.73.” I was totally bowled over; it was just too perfect.
When we’d finished eating he asked a waiter to phone Mina’s house, "but the phone call was botched, so we simply went along, catching a picturesque [open] boat & skipper to ferry us. The house was splendid, but (Dora) had gone to town, leaving her daughter-in-law—Byron’s wife!—in charge with a great-grandson, Dimitri. So we walked back to town, a wonderful walk, Jimmy’s excitement mounting as he realized he was to see her again, though he didn’t say anything beyond 'Oh isn’t it pretty. Why does one spend all one’s time in Athens?' As the hovercraft pulled in, he [had] responded to my 'Are you excited?' with a very restrained nod. But he was, & so animated & so pleasant to be with. I think that walk was the best part of our week for togetherness. He ripped me off a bougainvillea blossom to press in my Diblos notebook.(19) I even got a rise from my story of meeting May Swenson last summer in Logan Canyon, [an occasion] blighted by the glowering presence of her friend. 'Zan,'(20) sparkled Jimmy. 'She probably thought you were competition.' He says she’s very nice, & that his mother (!)—at the NBA affair? the Bollingen?—& her friends all danced with Zan, like dancing with the prostitute. That was fun."
“Fun” doesn’t begin to do justice to what happened on that sun-drenched walk from Mina’s house back to the village. Jimmy was finally treating me as I had yearned to be treated almost as long as I’d known him: as someone he could be openly, easily gay in the presence of. The days in Athens, with his real life operating visibly all around us--Greek boys arriving in taxis at midnight, David’s impatience with Mrs. Plummer over the bathroom wallpaper—had created this possibility. Poros breathed it to life. And the change was permanent; never again would he firmly withhold from me the various aspects of that particular truth about himself.
He looked for Mina in the marketplace, but couldn’t find her, and finally hailed a taxi to take us to lunch somewhere. I remember the taxi ride, but not the meal or the venue, and the journal doesn’t mention them. The ride was memorable because during it Jimmy began to talk about Robert Morse, whom he called “the wittiest man I know.” Examples of the famous wit: Grace and Eleanor had insisted that drugs and drinking don’t mix; Robert: “Poppycock!” Isabel, for unimaginable reasons, had begun a little fugue of objections to Robert’s mouth; Robert (after letting her run on for a while): “Hundreds of satisfied users.” Robert to a quarrelsome son: “Don’t be a fathermocker.”(21)
At lunch I asked about boarding school, “& Jimmy said that the first 7 months were torture, & he’d begged his mother at Christmas not to send him back, but then he got to liking it. Freddy Buechner was there too at Lawrenceville, for one thing. The other kids had, he said, given him trouble because they thought he was a sissy, ‘and I guess I was,’ but then when he got to Amherst it was live & let live." From age 13 or so he had been sent to summer camp and loved it, finding that he could suddenly do things he’d never been able to do before, like play softball. I asked, wasn’t it hard on him, never seeing his mother? "I got used to it," he said. "And once that lesson’s learned (wryly) it’s learned for life." I told him the Greek organizations at Hanover had not made for a live-and-let-live climate there, and he said they were important at Amherst too. I had resisted my mother’s pressure to join a sorority; he had likewise refused to join a fraternity, explaining "that his father had been a Chi Psi & was terribly hurt when he wouldn’t join; that in fact he’d come across a letter from his father obviously written after receiving his refusal & saying you know it disappoints me very much but what I can’t understand is why you have to be so unpleasant about it. Jimmy leaned his brow in his hand in comic, but too genuine, remorse.” I suggested, and he agreed, that his age at the time, nineteen, along with his circumstances, explained the graceless, over-reactive behavior; but nothing neutralizes that sort of regret.
After lunch it was back to the pier and the hovercraft—but suddenly there was a little commotion: he and Mina had caught sight of one another. Earlier at the house, which we hadn’t been invited into—I think Jimmy just called up to (Byron’s) wife, who came to a window at his knock or ring—he had said to tell Mina, should we fail to find her, “‘how I long to enfold her in my arms,’ & that’s precisely what he did the minute he saw her. Another beautiful old woman, just our type. I tactfully wandered off to use up my color film.” He had said a little nervously, as we approached the house, “Let’s play it by ear about the book”—it appeared they had never discussed his having put the events of her life into a novel. On board the hovercraft again he mused, not nervously now but still vibrating from the encounter, “We didn’t mention the book, but I think I’ll send her a copy, what do you think?” I thought I was flattered to pieces to have my opinion sought on such a matter, but “said I’d sort of gathered leaving well enough alone would be best. He added he couldn’t believe she didn’t know about it, was nearly certain some relative must have read it & told her about it. Perhaps he will [send her a copy].”
Perhaps he did, though he never mentioned doing so to me. “But that led into a discussion of his novels, both of which (he pointed out) were written before ’65, & I wasn’t especially fond of the poems before N&D, the same vintage.” We had covered this ground before, but neither of us seemed to mind raking it over yet again. “I said but the novels’ people weren’t likeable nor the action (except the Sandy-Orson scene) moving, there’s that safety-margin between superior author & characters in the novels that absolutely doesn’t exist in the poems, where he puts it all on the line.” I liked the stories, especially the quasi-autobiographical Seraglio’s, and I liked the styles—just not for each other, a mismatch in my view of form and content.
At that point I remembered, and brought up, those paintings by Ribera and especially Poussin of the martyrdoms of various saints. (Of Poussin’s Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus my college textbook states, “it is an elegant, even a beautiful painting until one appreciates, with some sense of shock, that the scene is disgusting.”(22) Exquisite technique, subject martyrdom by disembowelment.) Surprised, Jimmy turned to look at me: “That’s a very good analogy.” Points for me. But then he thought a minute and asked how I thought the paintings should have been painted, and the truth was that I thought they shouldn’t have been—that the artists should have chosen other subjects—which wasn’t really where I wanted the discussion to come out. He mentioned that he had written The Seraglio in conscious imitation of Henry James; I may not then have known that it was James who famously insisted that the novelist must be allowed his subject, that a critic was entitled to object only to the treatment the subject had been given.
Sometime on the ride back to Athens “I gave Jimmy a whacking great kiss on the cheek closest to mine & said ‘Thanks, Jimmy, that was the best.’” It was the best—my best day in Athens, the best time I’d ever had with him, one of the best days of my life. “I’d never have gone if it hadn’t been for you,” he said. “One always needs an excuse.” Back at my hotel I made those brief excited notes about the day, which had cast a rosy retrospective glow over the whole visit—“Really, he’s been wonderful all this week; please God I don’t spoil things somehow!”—and concluded, “Tonight W.S. Merwin joins the group. I expect that to be nice.”
While teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in the eighties and early nineties I was to enjoy several awards dinners with Merwin, whom Dan Hoffman invited more than once to judge the Academy of American Poets Contests for the students at Penn. On those occasions Bill and I would gossip and reminisce and talk about conservation in Hawaii, and generally have a delightful time together. But in Athens in 1973, the future Poet Laureate made a bad impression. “Merwin is beautiful,” I wrote the next morning, “but I didn’t like him.”
The arrangement Friday evening was for Bill and me to meet up at the Hermes, where David would collect us both. We managed that without incident, but once in the car—Merwin in front, me in back—neither Bill nor David spoke a single word to me on the drive to Athinaion Efivon. Then David, suddenly aware of this, began to rave about how great I looked—embarrassing because so obviously an attempt to make up for having ignored me; there was nothing special about how I looked on that occasion. The note struck in the car carried through the evening. Merwin, I wrote in the Hermes the following morning, "established himself as the apex of a group of five (J., David, Bernie Weinbaum (23), me, himself) & Held Forth for what must have been well upwards of an hour on what he had been doing (living in a monastery on Athos). The others fed him nice questions, & so would I have done had I known anything about his Subject—at least for a while. Twenty minutes or so would have been reasonable, a good way to get him feeling cared about & so on. But he never once addressed an interested question to anybody else in the group."
I wasn’t that offended on my own account; “the subjects of conversation were very Greek & I simply didn’t have anything to contribute. But if Bernie hadn’t had at least something to add, he’d have been as left out as I was.” And if ignoring Bernie and me was perhaps understandable, Bill’s complete failure to ask Jimmy and David one single thing about themselves struck me as unpardonably rude.
It was no different when we went out to dinner. The seating arrangement put Jimmy at the head of the table, Bill on his right, David next to Bill, me on Jimmy’s left, and Bernie next to me and across from David; I made a sketch. Aided by this setup, the conversation immediately devolved into two groups: W.S. & Jimmy, & the other three of us. I tried to ask Merwin a question about his vegetarianism, the only subject fielded so far that I knew anything at all about, "but he wouldn’t answer—‘Right before a big dinner?’—& J didn’t want him to anyway (‘Thank you’) & that was the end of my efforts to talk with him. And everybody else’s, too. J. & he were tucked up together for the entire remainder of the evening. I finally moved to the foot of the table to get upwind of everybody’s cigarettes & hear David better, & that made the lines of demarcation even more obvious. No, I didn’t like him. He didn’t seem like a very nice person."
In the journal I wonder whether Bill’s terrible manners and motormouth behavior might proceed from insecurity, initially impossible to believe of someone both so successful and so beautiful, and recalled that when I had asked Jimmy what Merwin was like, “he didn’t say anything real, only ‘sociable’ & so on.”
Despite this the three lower-caste members of the dinner had a lively conversation among themselves. Talk was general and roamed widely, but I recorded only one topic touched on that evening. David and I were both Virgos, a fairly dismal sign to be born under, as Virgos are said to be picky and critical, methodical and exacting. I admitted gloomily to being a classic Virgo (David representing another aspect of the profile: we also derive great pleasure from being of service). But he surprised me by agreeing about me. “He doubts that I’m quick to admit I’m wrong, says that I’m very set in my ways, that it would be hard to change my mind about certain literary ideas.” This was all entirely good-humored and inoffensive, but it did make me suspect that Jimmy had been complaining to him, inter alia, about the Hollins Critic piece. It’s worth mentioning that David’s headache had come back, so savagely that it had forced a tear from his eye before we left the restaurant; he might not have gone on quite so long about this had he not felt unwell.
Afterwards I was driven back to the Hermes, David chauffeuring despite his pain, Bill in the other bucket seat, and Bernie, Jimmy, and I squashed in back together. At the hotel, as I started to heave myself up from the low back seat to get out, “J. also decided to kiss my cheek & ended up sticking his nose in my eye (can I take that Freudeanly? Alas, no.)” Not knowing what had caused the problem, and fearing the worst for my contact lens, I yipped, then deeply regretted the yip when I realized what had happened. A low-comedy ending to a long and complicated day.
SATURDAY, 13 OCTOBER 1973. The headaches that had plagued David all week may have been largely stress-induced,(24) but the going theory was that they were being caused by sinus polyps aggravated by a cold that had been hanging on for too long, and I spent Saturday afternoon making him a get-well card. One evening I’d told him, “You have the most satisfactory face.” He had brushed off the remark: “It’s a homely face.” Only, I replied, if he meant “homely” in the English sense of homelike, cozy, comfortable; and now I wrote three stanzas on this theme, to go inside the card. That I didn’t drink or smoke had been joked about that week a wearying number of times; I decided to appropriate the joke to my own ends. For the cover I used a Hotel Hermes brochure, which displayed a bust of the god in profile. On this I diagrammed a sinus cavity and a brain with lined lobes, very tiny. I had a lot of fun making the card, which later found its way into Jimmy’s Washington University Library archive. From a photocopy I reproduce the verses here:
David Jackson’s Terrible Cold
Athens, 13 October 1973
For D., whose “homely” (viz. ragrug-
And-kettle-steeping, all of that,
Hence hugely satisfying) mug
Confronts mad traffic soon and late
To fetch the guest importunate:
Though line by tragic line be writ
Upon his lobes with omen dire
[I.e. that where there’s SMOKE there’s fire,
And WINE’s not best for dousing it]
More flames than that one do their part
In the wide fireplace of his heart(h).*
O let not shade of evil POLYP
Torment him long, nor agile brain
Be long the pounded whelp of PAIN
From nape to eyeball under scalyp
Behind nice face! Unbearable!!
David, improve at once. Be well.
J.M. [female sign]
*[Should have been a 4th stanza between 2 & 3 but I ran out of time.]
The plan had been for Bill the Beautiful, whose hotel was very close to mine, to meet me at 7:15 at the Hermes; we would then take a taxi to the house. But he didn’t show up, so at ten to eight I called to double-check the arrangements. David said to come on, not to wait longer. Drenching rain the minute I stepped out the door of the hotel, the same sort of downpour that had afflicted the tour to Delphi. When I arrived at the house Jimmy came to meet me at the top of the stairs, “kissed me on one cheek & touched our cheeks together on the other, saying something like ‘You poor chick, out in this weather.’” His manner was very kind, in fact he was remarkably kind all evening. I requested tape and scissors with which to assemble David’s card; these were provided, and Jimmy was nice as could be about wondering what I was up to and what they were about to see. But when I presented the card to David, he seemed thrown, possibly pleased but certainly put on the spot; I got the impression that he thought he was expected to treat my feeble effort as a tour de force. (The next day he said, “Nobody writes poems to me.”) Jimmy thought the little female symbol following our shared initials was cute.
Bill finally turned up, very apologetic; he’d been out in search of cold medicine and assured us he didn’t ordinarily leave people waiting for half an hour in the rain. “The other member of the evening was Alan Ansen, friend of Auden & Chester Kallman, author of a diminishing sestina, freshly returned from Auden’s funeral. Jolly & immature, very fat, senatorial curls, full of baby ego, erudition, & entertainment.” Before leaving for dinner we all signed a postcard to Dan Hoffman, who was Poet Laureate(25) that year (Bill assured me that the card would arrive safely at the Library of Congress even if sent off without a ZIP code, as indeed it did), and Jimmy and David snapped a few pictures. David stayed home; the rest of us went down the street to a restaurant. Bill sat next to me (the journal notes that he seemed marginally less unaware of my existence than he had the night before). “Alan shouted, quoted, sang: he has a splendid deep voice. Afterwards, dinner having passing in eruditions from Bill & Alan, we went to [Alan’s] place for a nightcap (& Sprite), & he read his sestina. That was kind of fun. J. me & Bill lined up on one couch & A. on the other, declaiming.” I recall only one fragment of the sestina, a reference to “the street of Athenian ephebes”; later I learned that an ephebe is a young man, a youth. Athinaion Efivon, where Jimmy and Alan both lived, bore a name that Alan had cleverly turned to account.
By the end of the evening Bill had been making me uncomfortable for an hour or so by saying “stupid playful flirtatious things” that I described in the journal as “about as appropriate as [Mrs. Plummer’s] perfume & less sincere.” Not realizing how drunk he was, nor remembering that he had a cold and might be tired, I suggested walking back to our hotels. “He really wanted a taxi, I could tell, but the night air felt so good after so much smoke.” In the kitchen as we were about to leave, however, I did get an inkling of his condition from the way he was talking. “What is it about Alan?” was one thing he said, and another was “I really had a much better time tonight than I seemed to.” (Jimmy’s response, as recorded: “‘I know you did,’ there there.”) But I didn’t seriously question the wisdom of my preference until he stopped to address a cat in the street as “Small Person” and told it, “I’ve got a sing or two to thay to you.” Also he kept flirting, not a key I’d ever cared to play in and certainly not now.
But the walk was also illuminating. The minute we were out of the house, Bill began talking about "homosexuality in its subcultural senses, in other words what we’d been observing for [the past] 2 evenings. Much as the subject had been on my mind, the angles of vision were totally unlike. [Bill] was aware of mannerisms to the point of having to burst out about [them] as soon as we were alone. I just wanted in. Virtually the only personal remark he made to me the whole time we were together—10 or 12 hours—was that it was surprising I wasn’t put off by it all."
He was nice about Jimmy—“I don’t think he’s the bitchy type”—and found the stable domestic arrangement with David “remarkable.” What he’d meant about Alan, back in the kitchen, was that “he’s miserable because he’s old, fat, & gay. He didn’t strike me as miserable, but Bill was quite obsessed about it.” At one time, he admitted, the gay manner was all he could see in Jimmy, but eventually he’d gotten past that. Bill even claimed that “lots of his own friends are gay, but BOY did he want to make it plain that he likes women!” His girlfriend—there was a wife and a girlfriend, but no children—had actually suggested he have an affair with a man, but the few times he’d tried it, it hadn’t worked. “Try it with somebody you really care about sometime,” I suggested helpfully.
Then as we neared Syntagma, Bill “said he never drinks, so why not really do it right & get some kind of fancy booze he knew about, on principle, etc.,” and make a night of it. I admit that I considered this for about a second—good looks didn’t usually count for much with me, but Bill was gorgeous as a head by Praxiteles at that point in his life, and I did admire his poetry, for which he was already famous—“but hell. He was drunk, he’d soon be drunker, he had no personal interest in me at all, & it was 2 a.m.” Hetero credentials fully established, he didn’t press me. He did kiss me goodnight, then exclaim in dismay, “Oh! I may have given you my cold!” It was nice that I didn’t catch it, because his was the only direct hit of the week.
I look back on the whole experience and, like remorseful Jimmy on Poros, lean my brow in my hand. In 1973 my longing for acceptance by the gay community made me grossly insensitive to the clash of feelings within a straight man, almost any straight man, however enlightened, who had grown to maturity embedded in the cultural conditioning of his time. Bill’s tedious monologuing, flirting, heavy drinking, even his rudeness—especially the failure to express personal interest in his hosts—all make sense, considered in a context of intense anxiety. Jimmy may have understood better than I did that despite Bill’s anxiety—“insecurity” in a sense I had not considered—he had been trying his best to overcome a lifetime of conditioning. Then, I gave him no credit at all for that. I give him plenty now.
SUNDAY, 14 OCTOBER 1973. On this final morning I checked out of my room, then walked over to Athinaion Efivon. I took my camera along but unaccountably bought with me only one roll of twenty-exposure black-and-white film. Somehow the previous evening it had been arranged that I would drop by Alan’s house that morning. I don’t remember and didn’t record what I thought the point of this visit would be, but Alan assumed I was going to take pictures of him, and when Jimmy called to tell him I could come whenever he was ready, “said something about putting on his photographing outfit (which proved to be all white, & filthy) on the phone, or I wouldn’t even have taken the camera [over there]. Whew.” So I had to use up seven of my twenty shots on Alan, none of which came out very well; I didn’t have a flash, and his house was quite dark. Jimmy threw Alan’s house key down from the roof, but I must not have been able to make it work, since he had to come down anyway to help me find a bedroom window to get in by. Below the window he offered to make a stirrup with his hands to “boost me through,” an offer any intrepid former tomboy would have scorned; I thanked him but climbed in handily without help. Stirrup indeed.
The “shoot” was choreographed by Alan, who assumed I would also want his books and paintings to appear in the background—he seemed to have somehow formed the notion that I was a journalist doing a story about him. He had claimed the night before to be able to imitate Jimmy’s reading style, so, before making my escape via the same window, I asked him to read “Charles on Fire” and the ninth section of “In Nine Sleep Valley” (“Master of the ruined watercolor…”) in Jimmy’s voice, and he readily complied. But Alan’s voice quality was just too different. I privately judged the performance to be only so-so.
When I got back to number 44, “David was sitting in the hall in bare feet & robe, munching toast & with one of the 3 peaches I brought him prominently displayed for consumption. He was definitely better.” Jimmy and I left him there and went up to the terrace, where I posed and photographed him “in a chair, in his study, etc. I saved 2 shots for David & took them later, & we got 1 of Jimmy & me, which would be nice if it turns out.” [See beginning of article.] I had brought my lunch with me, my last Greek yogurt and honey; I had been living on the stuff between restaurant dinners.
The final hours of the visit passed in conversation I could recall only sketchily in Stockholm six days later, but some topics did stand out. Bill Merwin, for instance. “Not having been along on the walk, Jimmy was very nice about Bill, & seemed to shrug it off when I wasn’t quick to second him. He said Bill seemed very open, didn’t I think so?” That wasn’t the word I would have chosen, but Jimmy seemed not to hold his rude behavior against him at all. I remarked twice—in case it hadn’t registered the first time—that he’d been drunker than I’d realized the night before, a comment that was twice ignored; nobody asked, “What makes you say that?” I expect they considered the source and judged accordingly: more tedium from the WCTU. But “My biggest gripe against [Merwin],” I wrote in retrospect, “was his boring flirtations, some of which J. overheard but none of which he heard with the ear of the addressee, so of course they didn’t annoy him. He’s not one for causes.” I didn’t repeat a word of Bill’s speech about the mannerisms of the gay community, though Bill himself may have wondered later how wise he had been to express himself so freely to a person obviously affiliated in some way with Jimmy and David.
Over lunch David told an anecdote about Alan. The story was that Alan had picked up three sailors, brought them home, and was in the midst of an all-night orgy of drinking and carousing when a hysterical female neighbor knocked on the door. Which Alan answered “in the buff, with an erection X says” [this an aside to Jimmy] and ordered her away, later threw the police out, finally was warned that his residence permit was in danger of being revoked. “Scene seen by David coming back next night from a restaurant: hatchet-faced neighbor eating in lighted window, Alan’s window dark & his sad moon of a face looking out.” I thought this very funny, in a painful sort of way, and of course was truly delighted to be hearing it at all. Much as Jimmy had loosened up that week, he wouldn’t have dreamed of telling me a story like that one; David simply included me, and I was grateful. Jimmy did relax so far as to make a reference to a penis sheath, while telling some tale about Elizabeth Bishop, Aldous Huxley, and a Brazilian native, but “David seems so much less a gay snob,” I concluded back in Stockholm. In my longing for acceptance, alas, I was quite as insensitive to the context for Jimmy's defensive arrogance(26) as I'd been to the background of Merwin's anxiety.
A week spent in such company had vigorously rubbed in the extent to which I lacked the enormously broad familiarity with literature, art, and music evidently shared by all the rest. I despaired of attaining their level of erudition even with steady application over the entire rest of my lifetime, and thought a bit resentfully that I did actually know quite a lot about a number of subjects, but my areas of expertise lay outside high culture and were of no interest to the rest of the group. Jimmy said something about thinking the Hollanders must be the best parents in the world, introducing their young daughters Martha and Lizzie first to the easier operas, like The Magic Flute (the one opera I really loved, as Jimmy well knew; dismaying then to realize it was viewed as only “easy” by the truly discerning), then advancing to the more demanding ones. I asked David how he had come into possession of so much cultural lore; he shrugged and replied, “Hanging around Jimmy for twenty years.”
We looked at what I call, rather mysteriously, “some grisly cartoon books” (were they pornographic?) and listened to a recording of what must have The Rake’s Progress, music by Stravinsky, libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, and then to one of some pop songs David had written the words to, sung by a Greek who knew no English at all. Our final topic seems to have been kicked off by David’s announcing that he was going to get a facelift, because “People will say poor Jimmy, stuck with that old man.” I was on record as being a gerontophile of sorts, very fond of scanning the lines age carves into a face like Mina’s—or, indeed, like David’s, as per those occasional verses—and argued energetically against the facelift. At some point in this conversation Jimmy said a propos of something—actually said—that he wasn’t going to fall in love with an old woman or a young one either. Then, in the midst of the facelift exchange, someone named Donald [Ritchie?] arrived in a taxi, and David, who earlier had suggested driving me to the airport, said “If I were a gent I’d offer to take you back to the hotel, but I’m feeling too weak,” and I realized he didn’t want to leave just as Donald was arriving. I had declined the airport offer, but in view of it had assumed he would drive me back to the hotel, and had cut the time too close. So I had to kiss everybody quickly and leave in a rush. “No hug, and I expected none. David gave me a copy of his little book Pigeon Vole, which I read on the plane.”
Having gotten all this down, I took the leftover odds and ends and simply listed them:
“David said John Hollander is ‘a totally affectionate person.’
“Jimmy asked hadn’t I noticed how somebody else’s being nervous is steadying?
“He wore shirts open to mid-chest, pants (levis or ugly gray with white pinstripe), nice foot-shaped brown leather shoes.
“Lots of touching. Everybody touched me except Jimmy. Nice hand on David’s shoulder at Sun. breakfast, almost cheek to cheek in one of the pictures, & in another David’s arm’s around Jimmy. Bernie clutching J’s arm to laugh in the car. Jimmy massaging David’s hurting neck, driving back from the restaurant Friday night. I like all that so much, even shut out of it."
And finally a summary: “It’s plain to me that my biggest handicap in Jimmy’s society will be my gender, always. I don’t think Jimmy has any other young(ish), single female hangers-on between 25 & 35. Steve’s sister (-in-law?) Pam is the right age, but married. Maybe if I got married. . . . But Jimmy has this way of not quite taking one in that is more than anything else dreadfully snobbish. He’ll never give me any cues or clues to go by,” and David’s contrasting behavior had made this plainer than plain.
But I add what, in the end, mattered most: “All the same he was awfully kind.”
1 Judith Moffett to James Merrill, letter, June 16, 1973.
2 Judith Moffett to James Merrill, letter, July 9, 1973.
3 Judith Moffett, “Masked More and Less Than Ever: James Merrill’s Braving the Elements,” The Hollins Critic, X(June, 1973).
4 In James Merrill: Collected Novels and Plays, 2002, p. 34.
5 In the novel Enid frequently refers to children as “little people.”
6 Now I think: Why not have just asked What about the poems? and left it to her to decide whether to talk about one or two of her own choosing. It seems a unique opportunity lost to overscrupulousness, and I regret having let it slip away.
7 Despite the Colonels, this tourist attraction may have been too popular to discontinue.
8 The “silver carp” comment appears in “The Poet: Private,” an interview with David Kalstone published in Saturday Review, December 2, 1972, pp. 43-45. In effect I was struggling—and would go on struggling for years—to matchmake between parties who had no interest in being matched.
9 It was unreal. Richard eventually suggested only that I submit the manuscript to the Yale Series of Younger Poets contest. Dan Hoffman was the good angel who steered me to LSU and the eventual publication of my first collection, Keeping Time, in 1976.
10 I had known him as Steve at Wisconsin, and Steve is how I still thought of him in 1973, though Jimmy never called him anything but Stephen (and to Stephen, Jimmy was always James).
11 That visit never happened; but twenty years after Athens, in Sweden, something of a similar sort actually did.
12 The point being made here is that Strato Mouflouzélis, one of the great loves of Jimmy’s life and the subject of several of his most memorable love poems, was an uneducated Greek man of peasant stock, without intellectual or cultural attainments (or interests).
13 I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask how he squared this stance with the elitism of “that single silver carp.”
14 It strikes me only now that neither of us considered the possibility that she might have simply meant what she said. Jimmy, who earlier had seemed to take her enthusiasm at face value, had by this time changed his tack, and I of course had never believed her.
15 Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s Vice President, originator of the infamous phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism,” was a figure universally scorned by American liberals, but of interest in Athens because his ethnicity was Greek.
16 From the second stanza of the poem, “So, We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” by George Gordon, Lord Byron.
17 JM’s poem “A Carpet Not Bought” is in Nights and Days.
18 This is not the place to attempt a summary of the plot or devices of The (Diblos) Notebook. I’ll say only that Mina Diamantopoulous, 81 at the time of our meeting, is the model for the character called first (Dora) and then just Dora without parentheses, the narrator having abandoned the attempt to give his heroine a fictional name (though of course Dora is itself a fictional name; the fictionalizing is three layers deep). He describes at the very beginning of his story how a woman who lives in the largest house on the island sets off on foot in the direction of the town, telling her husband, Tasso, and her son, Byron that she’s going to the pharmacy; the walk she takes that day, in the first pages of the novel, is the very walk we were taking on October 12, 1973. When Jimmy had met her twenty years before, Kimon Friar was staying with her on Poros and she had fallen in love with him. A Different Person describes how Jimmy had soon imagined Mina and Kimon as “a benign revision of my own family romance: a father who read Yeats, a mother without prejudice—parents whose primary interests were cultural and whose mutual attraction, bewildering to a youngster, had burned off like fog in morning sunlight” (Collected Prose, p. 476).
19 This same dry brown scrap of flower has turned up in my folder of maps and brochures from the Athens trip.
20 R. R. Knudsen, nicknamed Zan, long-time partner and literary executor of poet May Swenson.
21 Robert Morse and his wife Isobel, along with Grace Stone,and her daughter Eleanor Perényi, were close friends of Jimmy’s and David’s in Stonington. All four appear fictionalized under other names in his poem “The Summer People,” and Robert, after his death, emerges as an important figure in Scripts for the Pageant.
22 John Ives Sewall, A History of Western Art (1961), p. 775.
23 Benjamin Ivry, in a article in The Jewish Daily Forward (February 13, 2009) entitled “Praising Sacred Places: Richard Howard’s Jewish Roots,” cites the following anecdote: “As Howard tells it, Auden and he were waiting backstage one evening before a 1960s poetry reading, when Auden asked about a now long-forgotten poet named Bernie Weinbaum, who habitually referred to Jews and gays with unflattering slang epithets. Howard explained that ‘since I’m both these things,’ he did not appreciate the rude words. Auden replied, beaming: ‘My dear, I never knew you were Jewish!’” Robert Creeley’s foreword to Robert Creeley: An Inventory, 1945-1970, by Mary Novik (UC Press E-Books Collection, 1982-2004), mentions that “Willy Gaddis, Jake Bean, Bernie Weinbaum, and Bill Lieberman also had myself and Gordon Rollins elected to the Harvard Advocate, but our subsequent conduct caused the university to expunge all record of that fact.” What Bernie was doing in Athens just then, and in Jimmy’s house to meet Merwin, I don’t know. He certainly used no unflattering slang to refer to gays and Jews that evening; indeed, I assumed that he was “both these things” himself, and found him ever so much more agreeable than the guest of honor.
24 A letter dated November 30,1973 and postmarked Stonington (Connecticut, their home base in the States) reports that David’s headaches had all but ceased to plague him as soon as Jimmy boarded the plane. The letter reports analogous responses in Jimmy himself. Committed to one another as they were, by this point in the relationship each was finding it difficult to spend much time in the other’s company.
25 At that time the position was called Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, a mouthful of a title.
26 Insensitive, that is, to the feelings of gay men who had grown to maturity in a society where straight men despised them, and which had acculturated them to despise themselves. A context for Jimmy’s inverted snobbery existed that at that time was invisible to me.