James Merrill’s “Country Music”

Country Music

Catbirds have inherited the valley
With its nine graves and its burned-down distillery

Deep in Wedgwood black-on-yellow
Nowhere cracked, of bearded oak and willow.

Walls were rotogravure, roof was tin
Ridged like the frets of a mandolin.

The sheriff missed that brown glass demijohn.
Some nights it fills with genuine

No proof moonshine from before you were born.
This here was Sally Jay’s toy horn.

A sound of galloping — Yes. No.
Just peaches shook from the bough

In the next valley.  Care to taste one, friend?
A doorway yawns.  A willow weeps.  The end.

Originally published in Shenandoah, Merrill’s “Country Music” is reminiscent of “Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens, as well as other brisk, terse, tongue-in-cheek poems that aim, with a glancing blow, to capture something of the frayed bucolics of rural image and idiom.  With its unpopulated landscape marked by artifacts and an almost ghostly invitation at the end, Merrill’s poem might more appropriately be entitled “Folk Music,” as it refuses all the allure of the contemporary Nashvile-based achey-breaky Budweiser commercialism.  What he offers instead are remnants of both elegance and misdeed, evidence of death and a deft gesture toward pathetic fallacy (the willow that “weeps”).  And the end, which may have closed the door on the subject for Merrill, who would go much further in ghostly directions with his later work, but it hardly threw the bolt, as poems by James Dickey, David Bottoms and Ron Rash attest.

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.