Christopher Merrill – A Minor House

P Christopher Merrill LE P&W Vol 1 2019

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Poem by Christopher Merrill

Christopher Merrill has published six 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, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, and Self-Portrait with Dogwood. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages; his journalism appears widely; his honors include a Chevalier from the French government in the Order of Arts and Letters. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and in April 2012 President Obama appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities. His website is:

A Minor House

The great structure has become a minor house.
—Wallace Stevens

The furnishings? Ice from Antarctica,
Older than algae, which contains the whole
Of history in a bubble of air
Trapped on the final morning of Creation.

An arrowhead, from North America,
Lodged in the petrifying groin of a hunter
Cut down along a river disappearing
Into a cave no one will ever find.

And adders from North Africa. And guides
For all the soldiers taken prisoner
And blinded on the Continent. And names
Lifted from a South Asian orphanage.


The neutral colors of a minor house
(Grey sky, a path in winter, the roiling sea)
Suited the princess and the melancholy
Priest chanting in the last unfinished room,

Blessing her new petition to the king
To open the park, and stock the aquarium
With angelfish (Leopards and Veils and Golds),
And brighten up her sessions with her tutor,

Lugubrious Alphonse, who spoke to her
Only in Latin or Old French. For who
Could guess what his intentions really were?
No doubt another royal scandal loomed.


The death of God led to the resurrection
Of spiteful gods and martyrs in white linen
Recording prayers and summons for the faithful
Before they blew themselves up in the market.

Recite a verse from the Quran, or die
These orders for the hostages inside
A restaurant in the diplomatic quarter
Were followed to the letter by the men

In balaclavas who did not survive
The shootout with the soldiers from abroad—
Whose presence in the country magnified
The grievances of young and old alike.


They sang in minor keys of love and loss,
Detailing all the ways in which their dreams
Dissolved in the harsh light of day. Farewell,
They whispered to the churches dynamited

To satisfy the shadow caliphate
Located near a river in the desert,
Which nomads had controlled since the beginning
Of history, according to the records

Compiled by a German geologist
Assigned to look for oil and natural gas.
And if they had regrets about the mayhem
Caused in their name? They did not sing of that.


A French adventurer hid in a cave
Above the Dead Sea, plotting his revenge
On the nomads sleeping in the tents arranged
In a half moon around the muddy shore.

They had betrayed him to the authorities
After his latest unsuccessful attempt
To find the first oasis—the origin
Of life and death, he promised them; also

Riches and an explanation for the story,
Essential to their faith and identity,
That incantations could dry up the river
Separating them from Paradise.


Shall we redecorate the living room
With the orangutan insignia
Devised by special forces in Sumatra
And marketed throughout the Middle East?

And shall we turn the hall into a shrine
To the explorers of the Amazon
Who failed to document the languages,
Beliefs, and customs of the tribes they encountered?

The kitchen cannot be the centerpiece
Of a containment strategy designed
To slow the rise of both our friends and foes.
Use the mud room, the cellar, or the garage.


Alphonse’s silence charmed the royal guard,
Who was investigating the priest’s role
In fencing off the park, exiling the princess,
And cracking the glass in the aquarium,

While the king issued hourly decrees:
Better to poison minds than air or water!
Prepare the royal fleet to sail through ice!
Restore the gallows and the guillotine!

The tutor understood that martial law
Would rule until the princess could return.
Hard to imagine for the architects
Of this new order, in their minor house.

© Christopher Merrill