By J.S. Porter
“A poet spends his life in repeated projects, over and over again attempting to build or to dream the world in which he lives.” — The Geography of Logaire.
Poems. All his life poems. Well-made, half-made, badly made. Bits and pieces, snapshots and shards. All songs—satirical, parodic, spoofing, elegiac, lyrical, Zenny, Beat-like, prosaic—singed with a very human breath. Thomas Merton gathers words into poems and converts spirit into flesh.
A poet has the right to sing, even if off key, even if out of tune. And sometimes those half-sung, half-breath songs hopscotch into a more human chord than hymns to form and finesse. Sometimes the rough-hewn stones seem more stone-like than polished gems, and poems as common as daisies, as comforting as robins, seem more thirsted for than Olympian oracles.
I think poetry must
I think it must
Stay open all night
In beautiful cellars
He does have some good ones: “An Elegy for Ernest Hemingway,” “For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, l943,” “Love Winter When the Plant Says Nothing,” “Night-Flowering Cactus,” “Song for Nobody.” But it’s not until his creative adaptation of Chuang Tzu that Merton finds his full-throated ease in someone else’s song: The Way of Chuang Tzu and the way of Thomas Merton, a magnificent palimpsest, a forgetting of the self and a finding it in another.
Even so, even allowing for this happy marriage between an old sage and a new suitor, Merton’s best poetry frequently slums in his prose. Hear again that unforgettable first sentence of The Seven Storey Mountain: “On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.”
The sentence has the checked energy, the zigzag movement of a Hemingway line cast like a fly on the water, thrown out and pulled back; it quivers between the stateliness and mock-grandeur associated with a line from Swift; and it leaves the most important revelation to the end in the manner of Milton. (These three writers, by the way, Merton had just been reading or teaching at Saint Bonaventure University before taking up the pen for his first full-scale autobiography.)
In Chuang Tzu, the master of the marginal—of letters, journals and meditations—jigs and reels at his poetic best when not trying to be poetic. Thomas Merton and the Chinese sage put it this way: “When the archer is shooting for nothing/He has all his skill.”
Dreams. Dreams of women all his life. “I dreamt I was sitting with a very young Jewish girl of fourteen or fifteen, and that she suddenly manifested a very deep and pure affection for me and embraced me so that I was moved to the depths of my soul. I learned that her name was ‘Proverb,’ which I thought very simple and beautiful…I spoke to her of her name, and she did not seem to be proud of it, because it seemed that the other girls mocked her for it. But I told her it was a very beautiful name…” All this Merton tells Boris Pasternak. Years later he dreams of another girl, or the same girl. “Last night I had a haunting dream of a Chinese princess which stayed with me all day. (‘Proverb’ again.) …She comes to me in various mysterious ways in my dreams. This time she was with her ‘brothers,’ and I felt overwhelmingly the freshness, the youth, the wonder, the truth of her… Yet I deeply felt the sense of her understanding, knowing and loving me, in my depths…”
Sometimes Merton lived at zero, and dreamt his way out.
Memories. His American Quaker mother was strict. In his mind, aloof. And yet she recorded everything about him. Mother his first biographer; the biography called Tom’s Book. At age two he had 16 teeth, was 34 inches tall, weighed 30 pounds, and had a vocabulary of 160 words, many of which were bird names. Mother’s narcissism engendered his? The word “color” he associated with his father, an abstract painter from New Zealand. Jenkins and Merton were Welsh names. Mother died when he was six. She wrote him a letter that she was dying of cancer. She chose not to tell him in person. He felt broken and rejected. When his father formed a close friendship with another woman, and spent his time painting and travelling and cavorting with the woman, he felt rejected again. He didn’t see much of his younger brother.
Mothers. White mothers, black mothers. What does it mean to dream of a “black mother”? “And there she was. Her face was ugly and severe, yet a great warmth came from her to me and we embraced in love. I felt deep gratitude…Then we danced a little together, I and my black mother.”
Lost and found. Merton knew about loss. He knew about orphanhood. By his late teens he had lost his mother, his father, his brother, his grandparents. He lost a woman during the war years by whom he had a child. So he “lost” a child and a mother of a child too. Later he lost M, the nurse with whom he fell in love in a Louisville hospital. He lost a country (France), though not its language; he lost a career (teaching English). He found a friend— Robert Lax—and kept him. Merton always kept his friends. He hung onto them by the only means he could: by letter. Letters were his cable to the world. He found a religion: Catholicism. He found a vocation: Cistercian monasticism. He found a task: to undergo changes and transformations and to write about himself in a state of change and transformation in such a way that the reader wonders if he is part of the transformation too. The Merton magic is that in transforming himself he transforms you.
Jean Leclercq: “We are now discovering that there was not one Merton, but several successive or simultaneous ones…”
Orphanhood. The orphan chooses an orphan form: autobiography. His life’s work, one of the longest on-going autobiographies in the century, primarily in journal form. Who is he? He’s a magazine editor ( Monk’s Pond), a poet and a friend to poets, a photographer, a calligrapher, a drawer, a writer, a teacher, a sayer of prayers, a presider over of Mass, a wood-chopper, a bourbon-drinker, a cheese-eater, a monk, a hermit, a translator. He translates the monastery to the world and the world to the monastery; he translates silence into words and words into silence; he translates from the Latin, from the Greek, from the Persian, even from the Chinese (with the help of his friend John Wu); he translates Pessoa, Vallejo, Char, Cardenal, Cuadra—great poets of the century.
Names. Names. The Portuguese poet Pessoa had four. Kierkegaard had seven or eight. Swift had dozens. Masks. Disguises. Extensions. Multiple identities. Merton had scores of pseudonyms he used in corresponding with his friends, from Wang and Homer to Joey the Chocolate King and Frisco Jack.
His name in Chinese means “Silent Lamp.” In Persian he’s “simurgh,” “the King of the soaring birds.” In the I Ching he’s the wanderer, fire over mountain.
His day. He reveals it to a Sufi scholar, Abdul Aziz. The passage needs to be quoted at length:
I go to bed about 7:30 at night and rise about 2:30 in the morning. On rising I say part of the canonical Office consisting of psalms, lessons, etc. Then I take an hour and a quarter for meditation.
I follow this with some Bible reading and then make some tea or coffee and have breakfast if it is not a fast day. Breakfast consists of bread and tea or coffee, with perhaps a piece of fruit or some honey. With breakfast I begin reading and continue reading and studying until sunrise…At sunrise I say another Office of psalms, etc., then begin my manual work, which includes sweeping, cleaning, cutting wood…If I have time then I may write a few letters, usually short…After this I go down to the monastery to say Mass…After Mass I take one cooked meal in the monastery. Then I return immediately to the hermitage usually without seeing or speaking to anyone…
On returning to the hermitage I do some light reading, and then say another Office about one o’clock. This is followed by another hour or more of meditation. Then I work at my writing.
Usually I do not have more than an hour and a half or two hours at most for this, each day. Following that, it being now late afternoon (about four) I say another Office of psalms, and prepare for myself a light supper. I keep down to a minimum of cooking, usually only tea or soup, and make a sandwich of some sort. Thus I have only a minimum of dishes to wash.
After supper I have another hour or more of meditation, after which I go to bed.
One of his prose-poem tracts he entitles “Day of A Stranger.” A stranger unto himself.
His day: controlled and wild, regimented and free, ritualistic, ceremonial. Of chant and silence, of cheese and fire, of prayer and wakefulness made. Awake in the night, defying the dark. The seasons passing rhythmically from one to another, beyond the Order’s hand.
For all his rambunctiousness and his changeability, he remained disciplined and obedient to his calling.
His journey, exterior. “From Prades to Bermuda to St. Antonin to Oakham to London to Cambridge to Rome to New York to Columbia to Corpus Christi to St. Bonaventure to the Cistercian Abbey of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani.” The sands of geography shift, so he can learn to know “[The] mercy which has created [him]…” and “the Christ of the burnt men.” His journey, interior. “It’s a matter of growth, of deepening, and an ever growing surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.” A surrender to mercy.
Key words. Words you open by; words you’re opened by. Merton’s key words: fire (he dies “a General Electric death,” recurrent fire imagery in the poetry, one of his loveliest prose tracts “Fire Watch”); mountains (he’s born under the shadow of a mountain, Kanchenjunga his last great mountain seen); desert, where the silence and solitude come from; seeds (of contemplation and speculation); and mercy (the open-heart, the hidden pulse of the universe giving and receiving, creating and destroying). These are his master metaphors, his lifewords, hovering over him like night stars. And the one guiding North Star: mercy. “The plants hold themselves up on stems which have a single consistency, that of mercy, or rather great mercy…In the formlessness of night and silence a word then pronounces itself: Mercy.”
The poem to Kerouac, Alice Notley’s “Jack Would Speak through the Imperfect Medium of Alice,” fits Merton too.
Every me I was & wrote
were only & all (gently)
That one perfect word
The one perfect word —mercy. In Fire Watch, July 4, l952, he repeats the word three times: “Mercy within mercy within mercy.”
Mercy for his guilt, for his feeling lucky, for living when others died. Mercy for things done and undone, things said and unsaid. Mercy for being difficult and being troubled, mercy for a good life…
Merton the word man: words from newspapers, from ads, from scholarly journals, from esoteric Buddhist texts. The man made of words. Merton the bookman. He hauls bags of books with him to Asia, and pays overweight charges for the privilege of excess. A reader of books, a writer of books. His vow of conversation is a sacred vow in his silent order. Merton the noisiest, most raucous Trappist in the history of Christendom. Over 60 books, journals still pouring out. Over 4,000 letters. Over 250 essays. Hundreds of poems, numbering over l,000 pages.
How to become a Catholic? Read Blake, Joyce, Traherne, Hopkins. Merton did. Have a literary conversion. Simone Weil did. She was converted by George Herbert. How to become a Zen Buddhist? Meditate. Laugh a lot. Merton as Zen Beat poet, creator of anti-worlds: anti-poems, anti-letters, anti-novels.
Shrunk by a shrink. Dr. Zilboorg diagnoses him “verbological.” An incessant babbler. He wants to take him off words the way a detox counsellor wants to take a man off booze. Says he could only be alone in New York City, only quiet in Grand Central Station with a sign above his begging bowl and blanket, “Hermit lives here.”
Once Joan Baez dropped in, and he danced a little jig for her. Drank a little bourbon. He hooted and spun like a dervish at the thought she might take him to see his student-nurse S.
Every life a quarry from which you only extract a few stones. A life is what you live and fail to live, what you dream about, what surrounds you. Tone a matter of geography as much as psychology. A physical positioning side-wagoned to a mental attitude. Where are you when you’re speaking? Are you above me, below me, beside me? Merton walks alongside you, talking as he walks.
Everybody’s a character from Shakespeare. Merton’s Hamlet. Self-confessions, self-chidings, self-pep talks, self-flagellations. self-inspirations. Soliloquies to himself, asides to others. Sometimes Merton is Hamlet crossed with Holden Caulfield. He can see through phoniness.
A frugal death: 1 Timex watch, in the estimation of the Bangkok police, worth ten dollars. The other items — 1 pair dark glasses in tortoise frames, 2 pairs bifocal eyeglasses in plastic frames, 2 Cistercian leather bound breviaries, 1 Rosary (broken), 1 small icon on wood of Virgin and Child—all judged to be nil in material value.
Form. He wrestles with form all his life. By l968, the year of his death, he’d found it. “Forget form, and it suddenly appears, ringed and reverberating with its own light…Well, then: stop seeking. Let it all happen. Let it come and go. What? Everything: ie., nothing.” Clarice Lispector would understand these lines.
His long book-length poems at the end of his life—Cables to the Ace and The Geography of Lograire—find their form; it just takes awhile to enter into their spirit, and see the macro-order over the mini-chaos of individual lines and stanzas. These are poems you wait for, a poetics you wade into slowly.
The last poems. For these, “this wide-angle mosaic of poems and dreams,” the less understanding the better. He’s working on The Book of Strange. These last books of poetry make strange, strange in content, strange in tone:
Come go green slow dark maps green late home
Should long beach death night ever come
And welcome to dark father-mother land
Simple white wall house square rock hill
Green there low water hill rock square
White home in dark bituminous con-
crete ways to plain of fates ways
Fathers hill and green maps memory plain
In holy green Wales there is never staying
Who’s speaking? A Dickinsonian question. Why is he speaking this way? A joining mind, Merton’s, a mind jumping and connecting, a mind “leaping like dolphins,” a mind that can solder rain and a rhinoceros.
These last poems are odd cables. Strange geographies, histories, biographies, autobiographies, anthropologies, poetries, mythologies, Ghost Dances and Cargo Cults served up in a Joycean mishmash, with diamonds in the slag.
Comes Christ through the garden
Speaking to the sacred trees
Their branches bear his light
Merton had begun to remake himself again in these cables. Singing a new song. And for a new song you need a new self. He succeeds in making himself new again, fresh again, strange to himself again.
But birds fly uncorrected across burnt lands
The surest home is pointless:
We learn by the cables of orioles.
Thoughts driven into form, trailored to a beat, scattered and regathered, careening off again into new orbits, bouncy and sad, a laugh and a tear clip-clopping through it all.
By The Asian Journal, no privileging, all human. Merton in that last spontaneous scribble has found his form, everything coming at you at once with the same weight and dignity, prose on the run, poetry on the spot. He’s working in the quick. The journal consists of poems and photographs, lists and impressions, commentaries and predictions; he weaves loose on the loom.
The ambivalence of writing. He tries to give up writing when he first enters the monastery. He bunkers down, narrows himself, tries to disappear. He soon tires of that. Then he broadens and reaches out and embraces everything. “Some conclusions: Literature, contemplative solitude, Latin America, Asia, Zen, Islam etc., all these things come together in my life. It would be madness for me to attempt to create a monastic life for myself by excluding all these.”
Photographs. Not an inconsiderable photographer himself. See “Cloister Niche”—with its apparition like a third person—“White Chair,” “Stone Wall,” “Cleft Rock,” “Birds,” “Mt. Kanchenjunga,” “Tibetan Child,” all Shaker-simple, all in The Geography of Holiness.
John Howard Griffin took some good photographs of him, so did Jim Forrest, and so did Ralph Eugene Meatyard, deliberately blurred, out of focus, catching the movement in the stillness. Merton surrounded by books. Merton reading and writing. Merton with bongo drums. Merton hamming it up outside a barn. Merton surrounded by poet-friends. Merton taking photographs of the photographer. Merton sitting: alone, quiet, still, in the dark. And beneath one photograph, Meatyard’s simple description: “Early winter l967, meal—cheese, bread, wine, talk 3 hours.” Mercifully simple. Simple mercy.
- A version of this article, under the heading “Silent Lamp: The Lives of Thomas Merton” appeared in Brick, Number 55, Fall, 1996