107 Water Street, Stonington, CT
One day I entered this room and wasn’t afraid of ghosts. It was after a friend phoned, spoke in a register that calmed me. But tonight, opening the yellow door with its gold metal sun, there’s a knitting-up in me. As if a spider lives in my throat, wove a web inside my chest. Inner bodice of silk he runs up, pulls. On a pound-for-pound basis spider silk is stronger than steel. Remember that Ivy said the scarlet room always felt occupied.
Switch on the table lamp, round the corner. Scarlet room to my left, darkness ahead. Fingers tremble to switch on the large lamp before the ceiling-high thickly gilded mirror. I’m nervous and I’d run back out, but I want the Timetables of History, left on the table upstairs. Breathe, say a little prayer. If there are ghosts I think it best, as with bears, not to take them by surprise.
I haven’t been in here for a few days and, if there are ghosts, they may have forgotten I’m familiar. A neighbor. Somehow I feel safer next door, as if ghosts can’t walk through doors. Still, I don’t feel them in the apartment across the hall, or even much on the fourth floor or deck. As if ghosts haunt only one place.
I’d arrived at 107 Water Street in the heavy snow of January. Writer-in-residence in the house of James Merrill, a leading and much lauded American poet. The son of investment banker, Charles E. Merrill, co-founder of the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm, James Merrill had been rich his whole life. He created the Ingram Merrill Foundation to support writers and painters. His will named writer after writer to whom he bequeathed money. And on his death in 1995, he gave this house to the town of Stonington, to do with as they wished. The Stonington Village Improvement Association created a writer-in-residence program. Kept everything in the apartment as Merrill had left it, and the first writer arrived later that same year.
The house, a late-Victorian, is where Merrill and his partner, the writer David Jackson, lived for 40 years. He and David contacted spirits at the round, milk glass table in the scarlet-pink room in the Merrill apartment. Here, he wrote the 17,000-line epic, The Changing Light at Sandover, from séances with the Ouija board. He transcribed these sessions with otherworldly spirits, creating a 560-page trilogy of poems. Merrill called the spirits to this room for decades.
The Merrill apartment is at the top of a steep, narrow staircase, on the third floor. I sleep and cook in David Jackson’s apartment, across the hall. Merrill’s barber has a shop on the ground floor, and there are two residential apartments on the second. Merrill and Jackson added the fourth floor, an open room of sun with black and white checkerboard floor, windows on all sides, and a deck with 180-degree views. I love reading up here on the hard turquoise couch in the sun. A large painting of Merrill, Jackson, and four friends—titled The Surly Temple—to my left. In the painting, Merrill sits on a curved couch much like the one where I recline to read. On the orange coffee table, books I’ve pulled from Merrill’s shelves: his memoir, A Different Person, The Lost Museum (artworks lost or ruined), and there’s The Timetables of History. To my right, a concrete chiminea, like a miniature spaceship. His grand piano under the eaves behind me.
A sliding glass door opens onto Stonington Harbor to the right, Rhode Island’s Little Narragansett Bay to the left. Straight ahead is Long Island Sound, Fisher’s Island, Montauk. The geography reminds me of Provincetown, which I’ve just left. A narrow land surrounded on three sides by water. Stonington a 170-acre peninsula at the far eastern edge of Long Island Sound. When I’d arrived, parking on the snowy street in front of Merrill’s deep sapphire front door, it was Merrill’s barber who greeted me.You’re the poet.
When I enter the Merrill apartment, it feels like another world. The sitting room not visible at first, blocked by the massive gilt Venetian pier glass that barely clears the ceiling. To the left, on a whiteboard in the kitchen, are Merrill’s instructions to guests from 20 years ago. Straight ahead and left again is Merrill’s bedroom with an electric green wooden floor. Rounding the mirror, a kind of glass throne, his sitting room is wallpapered blue with bats and clouds. Ouija room to the left, Merrill’s study and library hidden behind the sliding bookcases to my right. A telephone room and floor-to-ceiling record collection divides the sitting room and secret study. Just before the bookcases is a staircase, leading up to the black-and-white checkerboard of the fourth floor.
Of course it’s not James Merrill who scares me—he was so generous. If he is here, I can’t imagine he’d mind me. Doing much the same as him: reading, writing things down, watching water out the window. Listening to a truck go by. From the beginning, I felt James Merrill’s benevolence, and was intensely grateful for the space he’d made for me. For the depth of kindness that allows a man to give a house to a town. When I read his words, “I let the light change also me,” I’d thought, yes, I want that too.
No, it’s the dead dead who worry me, those who never lived in this house alive, but were called afterwards. How do the spirits know not to come back? Even when Merrill thought he was done, the spirits had disagreed. Ordered him to write two more volumes. They had minds of their own. Once, on a walk in the mountains, I’d seen a bear on the wooded road. I knew I couldn’t reason with the bear. Plead. We didn’t share a language. But what about ghosts? Can we talk?
Matthew Zapruder, who lived here one winter, wrote a poem (and book), Come on You Ghosts in which he mentions this place:
of the great ornate wooden frame
holding the mirror the dead
saw us in whenever
we walked past).
Sometimes the writers-in-residence come in twos: Cate with her baby, Sandra with her husband. They slept in here, in James Merrill’s bed. And Matthew, in his poem, mentions an “us,” a “we.” So he had company too. Having another person here would make things feel more normal. But I’m here for months on end, snowed-in, just me and the ghosts. I’m glad, but jittery.
But on that one day, my friend’s voice on the phone had calmed me. He’d reminded me of my real dead. I thought of my son who had died of leukemia as a baby, 14 months old, in a Boston hospital. Who I would do anything to find. I was reminded of my own death. How if I came to haunt a room, my loneliness, already strung in every cell, would be without even those cells. How after my grandfather had died, he’d come to me and cried, had to lean down so far to rest his head on my shoulder. Crying for my grandmother who he couldn’t find.
How without this body which I do love, I might be made of solitude with no hope of even a cashier’s hand in mine to give me change. No hand. I wouldn’t want the living to be afraid of me. We’re all so close, little line of here and gone. Matthew says it too: “how we will someday / (right now!) be together.” A matter of time which now seems to move so fast I barely see the ones I love and surely would do all I could to find them.
If you cannot release your
self into a quick blaze
then how can you let go
of all your despair?
—Farid ud-Din Attar, translated by Sholeh Wolpé
Dark blue water rushing out to sea so fast I can feel it. Snow on the opposite shore. Here a dock, snow, a house across the street, brick chimney in my window. At the first event to welcome me, a tall man who’d lived in England said, Your hair is a poem! He had one in mind, sent it to me, Yeats’ “For Anne Gregory:”
I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
Everyone solicitous in this small seaside village, the Borough they call it.
For four months, I have the house on Water Street where Merrill invited spirits in the scarlet round room. He was called one of the “strangest and most unnerving poets.” All his important papers are no longer in the house. They’re at Washington University’s Library in St. Louis and Yale’s Beinecke Library. In the Merrill Apartment, I find a bunch of cancelled checks in a desk drawer. Photos in a cabinet. Box of flowers so dried they’re almost dust. One drawer stuck. Knife the stuck drawer open, wanting something secret. It’s full of books.
I love Merrill’s study hidden behind the sliding bookcase. On his desk beside me is the Attar of Nishapur’s The Conference of the Birds, a Persian fable of birds who travel seven valleys to see in a lake that God is the world. The birds had been seeking Simurgh, a mythical flying creature, to be their leader. But, “in the reflection of each other’s faces these thirty birds …did not know if they were still themselves or if they had become the Simurgh.”
In the bathroom, on the bottom shelf of a dark brown wood cabinet is a tall glass. Cherry red candle inside. Label reads: “The Most Powerful Hand” and a palm is raised with a cloud balanced on the fingertips on which four men and a baby (or another very small man) stand in robes with haloed heads. Wax slightly cracked, but I can’t tell if the candle has ever been lit. Maybe just used to prop the shelf above.
In the telephone room, the floor to ceiling bookcases are filled with record albums, mostly classical. I’ve been listening to music on headphones for so many years, not wanting to disturb anyone, to keep the music close and private, I’ve forgotten how it feels when music fills a room.
Above the records, is a sculpture of two human feet in different colors, buff and tan, unattached beside an old bronze box decorated with leaves or green bats. Or the feet are small mountains. I take Dvořák’s Stabat Mater out of the paper sleeve, play it. Speakers crackle static, music from the past. Walk through the sitting room where there had once been a leak in the ceiling. It dripped onto one flying bat on the blue wallpaper, clouds his aqua eyes.
Into the scarlet room, the gateau room, and for the first time, I sit at the Ouija board table. I want to do what scares me. James Merrill and David Jackson contacted spirits at this table, which slides a little, whoa, under my laptop. A white round tabletop on top of another round white tabletop on top of a round wood tabletop on top of another. I type on four tabletops. A kind of insulation?
The room bright with sun coming in from the harbor, setting in an hour or so. Windows hung with crystals, and one from the chandelier. They are the width of three fingers. But heavy, you could knock someone out. One of the four windows doesn’t have a crystal hung from the pane. That crystal lies on the sill. That window has a stained glass yellow-green bird. Above the bird’s head: “Dum spectas fugio” which I hope is not a kind of spirit calling tool. It translates: “While you watch I fly.”
Even the word “occult” makes me anxious. Since I was a kid, I’ve been afraid if I let my guard down, something—diabolical, paranormal—will swoop in. Afraid I won’t be strong enough to protect myself. Looking down, I see that around the round table, just beyond my chair (and the other three), another circle surrounds us. The circle, made as everything within it, is lighter colored wood, gold within and without. Throughout the rest of the house, the floor is dark. What made the circle of the table light? As if the sun had shown just here for many years? No skylight, just the palatial dome, ceiling for a king and queen. Versailles cake. Conch-like swirls and wreaths and crests and leaves, adornment within adornment, within each row all identical.
In the center of the table, a bird or dragon, old gold, with silver circles all over. Like nail heads. Nose or beak broken, and more damage between the eyes, a hole slightly to the right exposing rust inside. Elaborate tail or feathers—like lace made of gold. Not lace. Fire. The bird is made of fire. Its feet wooden or clay. I don’t want to touch it.
Stabat Mater is a large-scale choral work. The text a 13th-century Latin poem. Rhymed terzines. Dvořák was “too realistic… to allow his sacred works to become abstract, mystical, set apart from life in this world and from his own life and feelings.” The Stabat Mater poem describes Mary’s anguish standing at the cross. All three of Dvořák’s children died, and it was five months after the first child’s death that Dvořák started writing this piece. He returned to it after the deaths of his other two children.
Beside the record player, there are ten messages on James Merrill’s phone. The light blinks. It gets darker. I never stay past dark in the Merrill apartment. I’ve always returned to David Jackson’s, until now. Light in the window across the street, on the slung telephone wire, on snow on the roof. Chimney bottom metallic gold with the sun leaving, sky edge yellow-white.
A nearly life-size, terracotta woman bows her head behind me, white mask over her hand held to her breast. She’s barefoot, delicate. Swirls in the hem of her robe. On a pedestal, she wears a tiara. There’s a kind of whiteness splashed on her earth-colored body. Even in her eyes, the elbow I held to feel what she is made of, as if escorting her somewhere. Her elbow has a deeper white wound, uneven.
The first movement has a long, orchestral introduction, instruments cry out. I turn on Merrill’s purple lamp with fluted flower opening, gold edged. I can stay a little longer. For a few moments, all I hear is static, and then a man starts to sing.
A small insect, nearly invisible, flies by. I hope it is not a spirit. All windows closed. It’s 28 degrees. How did it get in? More snow on the way. The heat under the Ouija board makes a low, quick gong. Change the record to the other side, hear the calm hope. It helps to have a chorus. Light so dim, for a moment I can’t tell if I’m trying to read German or English liner notes. It’s German. So many languages I don’t know. In the alto solo, a voice is flying. Snow shovel scrape outside. One voice but she is like birds.
Oh! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
“Convergence” is torn in my red dictionary, the act of coming together. Every day I flip the pages in mine, or in James Merrill’s deep blue dictionary open on a wooden stand by his study window. Place my finger on a word. See what it is. This morning I woke early in Jackson’s apartment with the sun coming in through bamboo shades on one window. Sheer white cloth on the other in my bedroom. Walk to the kitchen in old fur-lined slippers, slippers I wore when snow fell on the deck, and I wanted snow on my hair, face. To be snowed on. Pour water from a jug into a turquoise coffee cup, set it on my nightstand. Let the bed hold me like a night sky I don’t fall through.
Voices from the three-hour dinner the night before with Lynn, the residency director, her husband, and a few of their friends. We ate salt cod, once a plank of fish that kept people alive in winter. We had it for the difficult novelty. It required a 48-hour soak in a gallon of milk that had to be thrown out.
I leave the house. Walk by the harbor, on the dark dirt path by the dock, until the concrete begins. No one around. Just windows of big empty waterfront houses on my left—clapboard and shingle—dock and harbor to my right. I’d walk down the sliding bridge to the dock, but the air’s so cold, I could die in the water if anything gave way. If I slipped. Climb steps to the wall overlooking the water, stone barrier. Pass the new condos under construction, half-covered with a white tarp, hammering inside. Still no one.
Walk to the Point, turn right. Pass the old, shut maritime homes. Near the closed stone lighthouse, closer to the tip of the peninsula, water on all sides. Then, I see the white seal. She’s on a big stone on the right side of the peninsula, small, young. Toddler size. If it were warm, I could climb down the boulders into the water, swim over. Though of course I wouldn’t, am worried even my looking may make the seal nervous. Dark eyes conscious of me watching. I’ve never seen a white seal. Sea navy in the cold, but the sun’s warm, consistent. No clouds. A couple in a car. And a thin, older man on a bike behind me. She’s been there all day, he says. Since 10 a.m. I nod. You think she’d be hungry, get in the water.
Tide’s already come in. We both turn our faces to look at the seal.
I’ll freeze if I stay any longer, the thin man says. Bikes away.
A photographer is far down on the rocks crouched over, concentrating. Forehead dry white with light ragged lines, like concrete just applied, raked with a nail. Eyes too gray to see inside. I stand on a slab above him. He’s been there all day, a stranger beside me says. He’s late 50s, early 60s. Brown coat.
Could he be sick? I ask.
You see them here sometimes, he says. A man from Stonington discovered Antarctica, and they used to go there to club seals. Bring the furs back to sell. I’m looking into the dark pools of the seal’s eyes as she keeps looking around, watchful, nervous almost.
What is she scared of? I ask.
Sharks maybe, but we don’t have many here.
Is she afraid of us?
Who would be scared of you? the man says, laughs. There used to be whales here too.
The seal is a blond white, stretched out. Petroleum killed the whaling industry, he tells me. But Stonington wasn’t really a whaling town. They made ships here.
Whale oil was used for lamps, he says. It gave a white light. Expensive, so only the rich used it. He tells me that most people used beef fat, but it gave a yellow light, smoky. I nod. My hands are very cold. Hair pulled back in a ponytail, ears red. But then kerosene was invented, and you could just pour that, he says. I imagine a flask of yellow oil. Everyone else has left. I try to walk away from the man, but he keeps talking. I head toward a boulder smooth as a slate sidewalk to walk away on, toward the peninsula, and then away from here, him. Back home.
But the man cuts me off, sticks out his hand. We’ve met before? Your hands are so cold. He laughs. Here, take my gloves. Tries to hand me a thick, brown work glove.
No, no, I have pockets. Jam my hands in. He asks where I live.
So cold a tear falls from his eye. His nose runs. I’ll have to walk you back, he says. The implication that he’s keeping me safe. When a car comes toward us, he says, You need to move onto the sidewalk. I like your body whole, not in pieces. I ignore this, look out at the water through trees, aware that I need to keep my eye on him. Like the seal. We’re barely up the street when he turns into a walkway, toward a house on our right. He says, Hey, C’mon, come in here. C’mon. Walks to the blue doorway and looks for the key.
I stand unmoving on the sidewalk. Rooted. Go inside a house with him? No, I say. I have to work. His face goes blank, as if erased. Was this some kind of fantasy? Pick up a lone woman in a parka, and win her with tales of whale oil and kerosene?
When I refuse, we walk a bit more toward my place. Well here you are, he says. Something is over now. We shake hands again.
In the 18th century, Stonington got rich on the sealing trade. You’re safe, the man had said to the white seal. He looks sad, he’d said, but seals always look like that. Later I read that if a seal looks you in the eyes, to back away. People can seem like predators, cause stress. The seal had looked over her shoulder, over and over, in a jerky motion as if startled. She stayed on the rock all day, just changed direction. As we’d walked away, she flipped her body up and down on the stone to face into Narragansett Bay. Toward sea.
Someone who cared about me once suggested I watch a movie in which seals became people, shapeshifted. There was a little boy who disappeared, was gone. And then he appears again on an island. In a boat that is a cradle.
I’m the mother of a boy who died long ago, disappeared. I’ve been looking everywhere. I’ll need the supernatural to find him. Sometimes I think I don’t know how to live. Moving place to place. No plan. But that’s not true. The plan has always been to write. I worry that in places where no one knows me—everywhere now—I can’t keep myself safe. But I can. When the stranger tried to get me to enter that door, my feet were stone. My body strong in ways I could not imagine. As when my son was put into my arms when I was weak, bleeding, dizzy. Afraid I’d fall, drop him. But once I held him, I was solid. His touch glued me together. On the sidewalk today, some strength rose from my feet up. I felt not boundary-less, not like fog, but grounded in my body.
What is the bird on Water Street whose song sounds like a construction worker’s whistle cut short? I think it’s a red bird, I saw one for a moment at the top of a tree, like an ornament. What is the tree that looks like palms held in a prayer of branches? It’s near the miniscule marsh, beside the old high school in the Second Empire style. Some days, the only voices I hear are birds. The red bird could be a Northern Cardinal. The leafless prayer tree, a Paper Birch. Or Yellow Atlantic White Cedar, Striped Maple, Pin Cherry, Quaking Aspen, Eastern Hop Hornbeam, Pin Oak—they all look like hands to me.
My neighbors are going to sleep soon. I hear their muffled voices in bed beneath my floor, even over the music. They keep talking back and forth, words unclear but each falls back into a hollow, funnels of sound. It makes me want to open the door, go out into the night where none are below me. So many houses have a plaque with the name of a man who taught dance or practiced law, captained a boat. Prominent Ship-builder. All of this so long ago, 300 years. I imagine there would be someone among them I could talk to about the whistle and the trees.
A girl tried to ride the elevator out of the Jackson apartment but it got stuck. The elevator at the end of the apartment’s long center room. A desk in front of it now. The girl’s parents were poets, living in the Merrill apartment. The girl, their daughter, lived in the Jackson apartment, my apartment next door. Before that night, she’d left undetected. Where to go in the dark? Just the harbor of sleeping birds. Even the tide quiet here. The elevator is in the wall behind my desk, a bronze plaque surrounds the yellowed button. It seems you could still press it and go somewhere, but no, I’ve tried. Maybe she just wanted not to be kept inside.
I’m trying to remember what it was like to dance even with people living below. It’s been so long since I closed my eyes and fell into someone’s voice as if it were the ocean or a bed. Danced until my arms ached, until I had to catch my breath, sweating in a room with every light off. Skin close to burning. Saturn is beating a moon to death before it can rise into the sky, or maybe it’s another being born. Hard to tell yet what’s appearing or disappearing.
Winter has moved off
somewhere, writing its journals
—Larry Levis, “Rhododendrons”
Snow heavy again last night, roofs outside my windows white. In Jackson’s apartment, I fill the borrowed silver kettle, light the blue flame. Saucer of roses with a tiny drop of blood underneath, turquoise mug. Listen for the boiling like someone arriving. Bergamot from oranges doesn’t taste like anything orange, so bitter I barely let it steep. I want to see flowers again, the way they rest against each other, awake or slumbering, as if this life will never end.
In one of Merrill’s books of photographs, east of Nairobi, the Tree of Life appears to be the only shade for miles. 36,000 elephants once lived here. Animal tracks spin out from the acacia in orange, like landing strips, or striations converging on the iris, little crypts. Thick paprika circling the tree which from the air looks like a broccoli sprig.
In Jackson’s yellow sitting room, on TV, is a man who came back from war and found everyone he knew had been killed. He carved each missing person from wood, the shoemaker, the flames. His room’s white walls lined with shelves that hold the people of his town. Someone translates for him—so many languages I don’t know. He brought the dead back as best he could.
I hardly speak to anyone lately, snowbound in the house. But when I leave the Jackson apartment, cross the hall to Merrill’s, unlock the door, step in, I feel like I’m visiting him. Especially in his hidden study behind the bookcase, reading on his red blanketed daybed. His writing desk in the far corner. A small oak stand-up desk near the doorway has a top that lifts completely like my desk in elementary school. Six small drawers empty except for the paper clipped cancelled checks. The drawers fit back in so squarely, it reminds me of a church in Ireland made entirely of stones that fit one on top of another. The hollow below holds many envelopes with this address at Water Street, waiting to be sent. His bank statement, a 20 cent postcard stamp, along with several dozen postcards.
All these postcards he’ll never send: Here is Georges de La Tour in Merrill’s desk (Jimmy is what they call him): candle, and Christ sleeping sitting in a chair, bent at the shoulders, neck. Head almost perpendicular to flame, brow lined tight. Struggling or pained even in sleep, mouth slightly open. Robe fallen off one shoulder, arms crossed one on top of the other. I want to lift one arm, give my shoulder without waking, help him to bed. Wrap the robe over his chest. I forgot how young Christ was.
Maybe Jimmy sent these postcards to me, for now. Another time, for whoever opens this desktop next.
Here, Joseph Cornell sits in a corner room of a house in Flushing, 1969, with a book held upside down beside his face: The Bestiary. His head leans forward, eyes toward the planked floor, dark bruise under his right eye. Storage system of shelves and bags in the foreground—records and tissue paper, No Smoking bumper sticker on the narrow door. A mirror behind his chair shows the back of his head. There are too many flowers on the wall. I want to open the door but it seems too skinny for walking in and out. Perhaps it is a closet. I want to turn, find the door.
Each night the seabirds fly in, always saying the same thing. It sounds like Wake up. I first see them at dusk. In the hidden study, I stand at the window. Hundreds nearly cover the long dock, still more arriving. No idea so many gathered here. A bird hotel. After dark, they quiet, sleep unafraid in the harbor. Each body like a boat.
Kelle Groom is the author of a memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, as well as four poetry collections, most recently Five Kingdoms, and the forthcoming Spill.
Photos by author.