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Sunday, February 25, 2018
HomeHealthCeteraOn Andrew Merton’s Poem “coming out of a depression”

On Andrew Merton’s Poem “coming out of a depression”

Joy Jacobson is the CHMP’s poet-in-residence.

book_cover-2101This week Andrew Merton’s first book of poems, Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs, is being released from Accents Publishing. Merton may not be typical of a debut poet: he is an accomplished journalist and chairs the Department of English at the University of New Hampshire, where I was his student 30 years ago. I got in touch with him again when the founder of UNH’s journalism department, Don Murray, died in 2006. Murray and Merton had a strong influence on my writing life at that time, and now that I teach writing I’m grateful to recall what they taught me.

With this new book of poems Merton is instructing me in another way. As poet Charles Simic writes in a foreword, Merton’s “chief subject may be described as our human comedy mixed with tragedy.” A good example is this poem (reprinted with the author’s permission):

coming out of a depression


gravel in a chicken’s gut

flies buzzing feebly against a screen


morels at the foot of a dead apple tree

shadow of a hawk, receding

whisper of snakes on stone

the sun that powers the heart of a flea

a history of oceans
written on the underside of clouds

in a worn wicker basket
abandoned by a stream,
galaxies blooming

We might see this poem as a topographic map, demonstrating in relief the hills and valleys of a particular psychic landscape. Or maybe, more aptly, it’s a travelogue of the byways leading out of Hell. Regardless, we have little choice but to trust our guide.

We start in a season of bad weather. A single word, sleet, acts as both noun and verb of its own endless sentence. This is a place of ineffectual flies and of many birds, caged or scavenging or predatory. One life form here, the morels, are saprotrophic, feeding on dead things, and I imagine the apple tree to be reaching for the memory of the forbidden fruit it once bore. Thou shalt not eat of it, God warned, and I wouldn’t dare. In this place I wouldn’t even gather the morels for consumption. It’s an environment that reduces its raptor to shadow and retreat.

Those first six lines seem to me to be in whispered conversation with some other famous literary depressives: Yahweh, Poe’s raven, Keats’s narrator “half in love with easeful Death” from “Ode to a Nightingale.” But in Merton’s seventh line a movement evidenced only by the swish of snakeskin on stone changes the view. It’s a sound I can see. I’m reminded of a friend’s sumi ink-stick drawings; one in particular depicts a gray road winding through gray-black trees. A simple, colorless elegance.

Now with the eighth line a real and measurable power asserts itself. It may be no more significant than the electroconductivity taking place in the heart of a flea, but a life can revolve around that sun. And it does, here. A couplet emerges, and in it a pairing of water and language—a natural history written in clouds that must fall inevitably down.

A rain of words: a poet’s dream of redemption.

Merton’s final tercet calls forth a basket, left behind and emptied, apparently, of its cargo—the infant Moses, perhaps? And why not? The poem has recovered itself enough to form a stanza, a complex interplay of lines and images. It’s a free-verse universe but it’s ordered. Even during a clinical depression, involuntary body processes like heart rhythm and respiration are kept up. You’ve survived it again, the poem says. You walked through sleet and ate gizzards, and your powers of observation were never lost to you. Take a peek inside the basket, the poem invites. Go on: you’ll be stunned all over again to discover galaxies so numerous they can’t be counted. But they can be contained in the worn wicker of your mind.

You can watch Andrew Merton’s recent poetry reading at UNH, a video in three parts, by clicking here. And you can order the book from Accents Publishing.

Latest comments

  • How fortunate you were to have Merton and Murray as teachers. Did they collaborate? Or is poetry too much of a solo, personal endeavor?

  • joyjacobson

    Thanks, Diana. Merton and Murray actually were my journalism teachers. They were both longtime journalists who turned to poetry later in their careers. It’s intriguing to me to think about the many uses of language as a medium for communication. Both of them show how vital the writing life can be.

  • Thanks for sharing your insights into this poem – it IS like a map, isn’t it! I wouldn’t have thought of that.

    That 8th line – “the sun that powers the heart of a flea” – just astonishes me. Somehow it calls up both the awful desolation of depression (we are but mere fleas) and the promise of emergence, perhaps, since the sun powers everything. I love it.

  • joyjacobson

    Sylvia, thanks for your perceptive reading of that line. It was perhaps the image that resisted me the most on my first few readings — a sun? in a flea? But it has stayed with me as well. Your word “promise” says it so well.

  • As ever, I am immediately stumped by the poem. The lines are phrases, sometimes single words, that together mean nothing!… until I get to the final line, “galaxies blooming.” Uh-oh, something happened that I wasn’t aware of. How did those galaxies get into a basket that I can SEE melting away as the seasons pass by. The sleet, the morels, they are all as familiar to me as my front yard. Or are they? Saprotrophic? Then I realize that my poet-vision is as small as a flea. Who ever considered the electroconductivity of a flea heart, or how the progression from depression to redemption and hope is portrayed here as elegantly, evocatively and fully as a Sumi ink-stick drawing?
    Please tell Mr. Merton, “Wonder-full!” for me. And thank you, Joy.

  • joyjacobson

    TS, I appreciate your close reading of my close reading. From the tiniest impulse to the most vast — this little poem encompasses a lot, doesn’t it? The spaces between lines seem like synapses to me, and like intergalactic space. Thanks for writing.