In the first winter of the war, a military monitor arranged for me to interview the Yugoslav Army general who had orchestrated the siege of Dubrovnik; when Croatian authorities barred me from crossing the border into Montenegro, I took a bus from that medieval city to Split, caught a flight to Zagreb, and boarded a train to Budapest, intending to travel to Belgrade and Podgorica, where the general was stationed. This added nearly 1,700 kilometers to my itinerary. Not far from the Hungarian border, I developed an acute pain in my ankle, around the scar from the surgical removal of a ganglion cyst some years before, and so decided to seek treatment in Budapest. I could walk and run, but sleep evaded me in my rented room until I draped my leg over the side of the bed. In the morning, the elderly landlady ordered me to drink a shot of cognac before I left to search, in vain, for a doctor—our daily ritual until I departed for Serbia. The pain vanished as mysteriously as it arose, and by the time I met the general, more than a week later than planned, in the officer’s club at his base, I was prepared for anything—except the monotony of the typewritten answers to the questions I had faxed him in advance, which he insisted on reading aloud. His translators and orderlies seemed to relish my discomfort in the face of his patent falsehoods, and while I knew it could be dangerous to interrupt him—I was, after all, a freelance journalist—I asked him why he had allowed his troops to commit so many atrocities. Nothing rattled him. Nor did he reply. But I was becoming more adept at ferreting out the truth from the dark arts of propaganda. A waiter arrived to serve us slivovitz. Živeli, I said when we clinked glasses. Long life.
You would have had to have been there to see with what gusto we threw ourselves into our adolescence. Teen boys in the Puritan Fifties, we formed a stag party each New Year’s Eve. The ultimate plan was to crash a coed party just before midnight in the hope that some pretty girl might kiss us. First, we shaped a pyramid of bottles of booze and laid in a multitude of cookies and chips as well as ill-advised sausages. Roger showed up with his cornet case, shaking it to show how he had snuck the liquor out of his house. I always brought bourbon. We hung streamers. Then we took a photo of the booze pyramid before embarking on a sea of drink and acting as silly as good friends can be in adolescence. Indeed, it was The Night of Our Adolescence by which all successive juvenile behavior in the new year was to be judged. This night, someone had rigged fireworks to my Plymouth, so that when I tried to sneak out a little early to find a kiss that might not be available after midnight, a quick burst of fireworks gave me away. Then on we went, arriving at the party where our booze-strengthened nerve and good timing would surely win us the unending passion of, say, three seconds. I went to the kitchen for one last bracer, bypassing other forms of alcohol to swill some scotch, after which I threw up. I have never been able to take a taste of scotch since. No kisses. How is taste made? From taste buds on the tongue, of which a fussy eater is now known to have more? From expectation? From associations with a hope of romance? The song that filled the airwaves was, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Me, I was throwing up. Years later, I always brought ouzo to parties. Turn a seemingly empty ouzo bottle upside down, and you can usually get three more drops. I drank ouzo in Tangier, slivovitz in Serbia, Guinness every day in Ireland, and Victoria Bitter in Sydney. I have a taste for other lands and a diffidence toward New Year’s Eve.
My first taste of ouzo came on the day my grandmother and I finished packing her belongings for her move to a condominium. She was a Christian Scientist afflicted with tic douloureux, and she liked to listen to taped lectures about the mind’s healing properties, with clothespins affixed to her fingers to distract her from what one doctor called* an exquisitely agonizing facial pain syndrome*; when she left for church that morning, I hiked through the neighbor’s dairy farm and adjoining woods to Ledell’s Pond, where in my last year of high school I had skated every morning before class, and followed a dirt road to a wooded hillside on another neighbor’s property—the halfway point in a six-mile loop I knew like the back of my hand. Uphill I walked until I met an old family friend, Pony Wood, who was clearing brush. He pointed at a No Trespassing sign posted on a tree, demanding to know my name—which he did not recognize. When I told him I was staying at my grandmother’s house, which he had visited regularly over many decades, he professed not to know who she was. Had he lost his mind? I wondered when he ordered me to leave his land. I headed for Tempe Wick Road, where I failed to hitch a ride home; by the time I returned, my grandmother was not only riddled with anxiety but in great pain. On the kitchen table she set out a bottle of ouzo, which she had brought back from a trip to Greece, and insisted we drink to a future rich in travel to foreign lands—which at that time was impossible for me to imagine. Yet one day I found myself sipping ouzo with a monk on the Holy Mountain of Athos, in northern Greece, where in the fourteenth century these anise-flavored spirits were first distilled. If the monk believed I had no business being there, he kept that to himself, and on my departure for the mainland he gave me an icon of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, the patron saint of sailors, merchants, children, prostitutes, pawnbrokers, students, and repentant thieves.
The south shore of Long Island afforded woods with enough space between trees that one could build a flimsy fort. The Pine Barrens were a ways down the highway, so we conjured a thicker arboreal life in uncut backyards and sea-life at decrepit docks. Plenty of beaches but few woods where the Island, as it forked east toward Montauk and Orient Points, was increasingly too porous for roots. A drive upstate to thicker woods was an event. Are we not versions of one another? Your six-mile walking loop is my biking to the Coast Guard Station. Your ice-skating before class is my handball off the windowless brick wall of the school building. It is true that location is destiny. Think famine and flood, war and peace, malaria and Ebola. Then give a nod to the smaller influences: woods or water, sunstroke or frostbite. We are the sum of too much ever to be delineated. “…a future rich in travel to foreign lands” meant The Big Apple and, someday, Florida. Your sipping ouzo with a monk at a holy site is my drinking hot chocolate late at night with the Dean who has taken me, in my role as newspaper editor to the site of a faculty suicide. Your mastery of gardening is my occasional work on a duck farm. In Port Townsend, our cross-street neighbor Lou cut down any tree that tried his yard. He didn’t want the crows, the leaves, or the effect of storms off the cliff at road’s end, whereas we let stand large trees that overtook our personal water view with dense foliage. Could “higgledy-piggledy” be a true characterization of a life, and Popeye’s the last word: “I yam what I yam”?
Like you, I did not speak as a toddler until a complete sentence formed on my tongue. My Daddy has gone to work, I said one morning just before my second birthday, relieving my mother of her fear that my silence signaled a debilitating mental condition, in the same way that in my infancy a military doctor’s decision to snip the band of tissue connecting my tongue to the floor of my mouth absolved her of blame for the malnourishment I suffered in my first months of life before anyone figured out that I was getting no milk from breastfeeding. If we are versions of one another, then perhaps our early silence was a form of waiting for syntax—which is what poets in every language share between writing one poem and the next. When my older daughter, Hannah, was little, she pronounced Pinocchio in a sing-song fashion, No . . . no, eliding the syllables she could not wrap her tongue around—which led me to conclude that rhythm is essential not only to the acquisition of language and the arts of poetry, music, and dance, but to everything we care about. Hannah loved Pinocchio, and I loved how her face lit up when she said, No . . . no—a rhyming compound, in linguistic terms, or reduplication, like higgledy-piggledy or hocus-pocus. Any sound can spark memory or imagination, and as we wait for the votes to be counted in what the pundits are calling the most important election of our lifetime, I savor the sound and taste of certain words: Montauk, Orient Point, Erie Lackawanna—the train that took me to Hoboken, and then the world.
Sept. 9, 1969. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller says the Long Island Railroad will be the best commuter line in the nation by Oct. 7 or “I won’t be around.” The L.I.R.R. is facing a revolt, riders refusing to pay for the filthy cars of locked windows in which they start and end their workdays in Manhattan. Rockefeller shuts down the line, the cars get washed, and the line is declared the best in the country. A little white lie that rockets through town after town, strap hangers filling the aisles going west to work in the city, those early boarders heading east trying to hog a seat for their shopping. Before the railroad shuttered station after station the length of the island, the lilt of the conductor as he called out the stations ahead was the best part of the ride. The snap of his ticket puncher felt like a confirmation of one’s place in the world. The hiss from underneath as one descended on arrival had the effect of a wide broom cleaning up behind you. Driving parallel to the train, one could sometimes blow the horn to elicit a whistle from the engineer. The caboose, off-limits to passengers, was thought to be a homey room where conductors could steady their legs. Nothing aerodynamic about it, the engine labored to punch holes in inertia before it lumbered forward on the trip to cruising speed. It was a world of distinctive rhythms. Choo-choo, chug and chuff. The squeal on the curves erased for a moment the rhythm of the wheels. In politics, too, it’s a rhythm if it lets you breathe, it’s a drone if it stops up your ears.
Christopher Merrill has published seven collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and translations; and six books of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars; The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War; and Self-Portrait with Dogwood. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa since 2000, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries. (updated 12/2021)
Marvin Bell (1937–2020) was the author of more than twenty books of poetry, including Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems; Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000; Mars Being Red; and collaborations with poets, artists, and photographers, among them, After the Fact: Scripts & Postscripts, the first volume of a trilogy of prose poems written with Christopher Merrill. Excerpts from that trilogy’s final volume, Here & Now, are published here for the first time. Bell taught for forty years in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was Iowa’s first poet laureate.