Notes from a Journey : 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 books of translations; and five works of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars and Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain. His latest prose book, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, chronicles travels in Malaysia, China and Mongolia, and the Middle East. His writings have been translated into twenty-five 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 over forty 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.


Hong Kong

Lichens, liverworts, and mosses yellow the outcroppings in the haze rising from the city founded in a swirl of red incense—what continuities!

The sailing junk heaped with goods from the Mainland spun round and round in the wake of a container ship from Panama, while the authorities devised an apology for removing the net designed to keep sharks out of the swimming cove reserved for foreigners.

Word by word, phrase by phrase, the unimaginable took shape, and still the translator with the cracked tooth betrayed no sign of pain.

Nor could we find the temple of the sea goddess to whom the squatters, mariners, and fishermen had long since ceased to pray.

These omens from Victoria Peak: a black kite circling above the boy pouting on the stone steps below the summit; the woman on her knees who fashions birds out of palm leaves, counting the ghost people running past; the bamboo flowering in old age…

The aerial roots of the India rubber trees thicken on the hillside, propping up the houses sold by departing civil servants to the administrators of the new regime.

How the masked passengers on the subway averted their eyes when the doors opened on a schoolgirl holding an empty birdcage.

Launched to appease the spirits of those who died at sea, the paper boats carried gold and silver, lighted candles and incense, the dream of empire.

In the running script of the plum tree fanatic; in the white blossoms of ink he gathered from observation and imagination; in the wing beats of the bird alighting on the branch drawn on the screen, in the last room of the museum—in every brush stroke he hid a vow to the Four Scholarly Merits, which cannot be translated.

While the scrolls, characters, and red seals of the stamps revealed to the solitary visitor at the exhibit of calligraphy only the limits of his insight and imagination.

Thence to Macau, where the pilgrims’ coins accumulate in the basin of the sea turtles, a woman on a cell phone in the Portuguese book store summons a foreign muse to the ruins of the cathedral, and a helicopter lifts off from the roof of the casino.

A horse’s skull, a funerary stele, a shaman’s thunder stone: coordinates for the poet who took his soundings from the desert and the sea, wind and rain, birds and snow—markings on the charts of the vast interior in which we will wander until the end of time…


Of smoke, and shacks raveling under palm trees, and a religious procession at the break of day—two masked men dancing in the dust, shrouded in smoke, singing.

Of a rickshaw emerging from the fog to deliver nobody to the Maidan, where a team of detectives could not determine if a crime had been committed.

Of goats grazing in the half-dismantled stalls, between a pile of bamboo poles and post holes dug for the pavilion to be pulled down by nightfall, under the gaze of the herders in bare feet awaiting a delegation of writers who would not appear.

As if a wedding had been called off at the last moment—the hastily arranged marriage of word and reader, with thousands of rose petals lining the path to the altar.

As if the hangman had replaced the priest for a ceremony conducted in secret, the ones wronged in this affair being unable to imagine a worse outcome.

The court’s decision was final, and if the judgment was deemed exceedingly harsh no one objected in the letters to the editor signed, Yours, etc…

To have one’s fate decided in another language: the deaf child wheezing on the see-saw.

Accusations and recriminations at the peace conference set in motion a train of decisions, the consequences of which would not become apparent for some time.

Lights blinked by the statue of a hermit martyred in the cause of freedom. Some terms of the treaty remained opaque. The negotiators prayed for its ratification.

When no scribes came to the reception, the waiters took turns singing to a famous beauty vacationing in the city.

Of a shirtless man squatting under a faucet by the ditch, brushing his teeth with his finger, and a crow picking at a dead rat…

Of goats herded toward the slaughterhouse, weaving in and out of traffic, all the drivers obeying the bumper stickers on the trucks: Use Your Horn!


Offerings everywhere: in the baskets woven of palm fronds and laid on the tile sidewalk, beside the sleeping dogs; in four saplings tied together into a shrine, above the bamboo footbridge; in the grass hut by the river, where the topless woman washing clothes at first light looked up, and smiled at the traveler.

It was the ceremony to mark the full moon of the fourth month, smoke rose from sticks of incense burning by the open sewer, the procession wound through the streets of the town, like a long white snake.

When the musicians stripped down to their underwear and joined the dancers performing for the nobility assembled in the courtyard of the palace, the military went on alert.

The editor bitten by a monkey resolved to change his life—in vain; the sour fragrance of the snakeskin fruit—salak­—curls around the breakfast table.

The theme of the festival was the seen and the unseen (sekala niskala), and the traveler knew that he would see little—not the woodcarver’s design hidden from everyone but his family, not the water lily opening for only the hour after daybreak, and not the

The cleaning lady rearranged the books in the poet’s study by color, and now he couldn’t find the sacred text he needed.

If Wordsworth didn’t realize that he had crossed the Alps—the fog was thick, the path uncertain—until he was already on the other side, then who can say what can be seen and what remains invisible in the Spice Islands?

After the diplomat’s passionate defense of free speech, the translator left the hall, and so the question-and-answer session had to be canceled.

The heron dressed up as a priest to trick the fish into believing the pond was drying up, so they accepted his offer to take them to the hereafter.

The photographer’s T-shirt read: Tourists get half off. For locals we take it all off!

When the regime issued new orders for the press, the mourning dove perched on the roof of the boarded-up bungalow stopped cooing.

Palms, and rice fields, and coffee in the morning. Ah, the lotus opening!


Herds of sheep and yaks on the Tibetan grasslands, and golden fields of rapeseed, and busloads of Chinese tourists taking photographs of yurts, all recorded in the notebooks of the poets come from afar to celebrate what a government official called an otherwise obscure cultural backwater now thrust onto the world stage of poetry.

Like this, a poet said, spreading her arms before the monastery as though to embrace the 100,000 Buddhas housed there. But when she began to film the drummer at the entrance to one temple he scooped up the coins and bills at his feet and threw them at her.

Walk with your right shoulder toward the wall, like a planet orbiting the sun, said the monk, and let the smoke of burning yak butter guide your steps away from the evil one.

The golden prayer wheel spun above the Yellow River, the rushing water turning the turbines under the crescent moon, as poets read in languages that no one knew.

Poetry facilitates breathing, said the mayor of the country’s second most polluted city.

The former tank commander from Vietnam thanked his hosts for aiding in two national liberation struggles; praised the festival as the embodiment of Tu Fu’s dream of a house with hundreds of rooms; said the work of poets is to make the world safer—i.e., more reliable.

Killing American soldiers, he told a visiting American, was easy.

Nobody clapped for the feting of the Syrian poet aligned with the murderous regime. And when the Native American poet accepted his Golden Tibetan Antelope the orchestra played the score from The Magnificent Seven—the theme used in Marlboro commercials.

Floatplanes circling Qinghai Lake, and policemen closing in on a poet who wandered too close to the fence from which hung bright pennants imprinted with Tibetan sutras.

The women seated on a pair of missiles aimed at a slab of marble from which the inscription had been chiseled swung their legs in tandem, studying the map engraved in stone.

Beyond the statues of Beowulf, Genghis Khan, and Siegfried, the size of which a German poet said would have pleased Goebbels, was the wall on which all the poets signed their names.

Say hello to the foreigner, the father told his children, prompting the policemen to interrogate the poet, who dreamed of naked carp and catching sight of God.


The jasmine was in bloom when Ibn Battuta presided over cases in sharia court, according to the scribe who kept a secret ledger of his neighbors’ petitions and the judgments rendered.

Accounts are not extant of what the traveler thought of administering justice to the islanders who welcomed him into their lives.

The princes sent to Xi’an as royal hostages were not returned until they were too old to take up arms, by which time their brothers and their descendants had scattered around the world.

No one claimed the bronze coins discovered under the cowries heaped by the mango tree, so they were buried with the carcass of the whale shark that washed ashore.

The water rose while they feasted on sea turtle eggs, danced around the bonfire on the beach, and recited the names of those who died in the last deluge.

Mother old, mother break, said the weaver who collected grass mats and ceramic bowls, carved sayings of the Prophet into doors, and drew up a calendar for the next three thousand years.

The Russian bride jumped into the pool in her wedding dress, the staff clapped, the guest from Central Asia read off the results of the referendum in the Crimea.

More countries joined the search for the missing plane, which had inexplicably disappeared from the radar and flown for hours through the night.

The fruit bats circling the cemetery were bigger than the black bird perched in the breadfruit tree.

Who lifts these dumbbells fashioned out of coffee cans and plastic bottles?

A water tank, bins of drying almonds, and the hulk of a freighter built of scrap iron salvaged from a dreadnought in the Black Sea Fleet.

Or else a conch shell in a coral wall, which spurred a memory of the horn summoning everyone to the lagoon to net a school of fish…

Campaign, campaign, said the women gathered under the banner informing the incumbent about the new lay of the land: Thass you are expired now. Sorry.



An interview with Christopher Merrill – Sacredness of what we do…

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