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O Sing the Marbles: Typos, Losing, and the Portable Cultural Histories of James Merrill
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O Sing the Marbles:
Typos, Losing, and the Portable Cultural Histories of James Merrill

A culture also collapses if its words are interchangeable. We all know militaristic euphemisms for destruction. "Taking out" someone is not quite the same thing as "take-out" Chinese food—but if we can accept a language that says "taking out" does not mean death or annihilation, if we accept that as a conventional public metaphor, something happens to morality and to the ethic contained in the word as well.

Derek Walcott, "Interview with Bill Moyers"

—IF U CN RD THSu cn gt a gd jb w hi pa!So thinks a sign in the subway.Think twice when letters disappearInto Commodity's black hole—No turning back from that career.This counterspell may save your soul.

James Merrill, Collected Poems

Where else in the eight-hundred-fifty-plus pages of the Collected Poems of James Merrill would there be a typo but in that epic poem of misplaced episodes, "Losing the Marbles"?!

Morning spent looking for my calendar—Ten whole months mislaid, name and address,A groaning board swept clean . . .And what were we taking about at lunch? AnotherMarble gone . . . .

(Collected Poems 572)1 [End Page 119]

The line, published years earlier in The Inner Room (1988), should read: "And what were we talking about at lunch?" It seems that when the diners met again years later, their lunch plans had been changed. Rather than talking, conversing, sharing, they would now be possessing, in effect "having" words. The typo, which jumps out like a bad pun on a Christmas card—"no el, no el"—ironically literalizes the exchange of words that had originally been the diners' objective. But, as we soon learn in section two of "Losing the Marbles," this is a poem that will always be "exchanging the wrong words." Between the intended "talking" and the unintended "taking" lies the difference between conversation and violence, between what is expected of meaningful language and what is known of social behavior. Merrill's poem is about loss, but it is also about recovery. Just as the older mind can lose itself at lunch, so can a poet lose a poem, or a nation its cultural history. For what it's worth, Merrill holds out hope that the mind and the poet and the country can eventually heal, finding in the nooks of memory or the floorboards of the study or the spaces abroad that lost marble again. For a poem that is all about losing, the typo cannot help but name itself as "taking," and, in turn, it gets us talking about culture, modernity, and those loud and timely trains of thought that run overhead.

Merrill's poetic laboratory, which itself scrutinizes of the microbes of language, becomes an excellent space for exploring the typo as a mode of critical study and as a form of rhetoric—that which exploits the relationship between language use and social influence. Merrill, more than almost any other, is interested in the meaningful accident, which is neither a formal property of language nor a historical occurrence but both at once. He writes,

Two winters ago in Key West, we were talking at dinner about memory lapses, a topic increasingly relevant to everyone present. John Brinnin quoted Lady Diana Duff Cooper, who stayed young and beautiful for nearly ninety years. It seems that whenever a fact or a name slipped her mind, she would shrug and say cheerfully, 'Oh well—another marble gone!' In a flash the image of the Acropolis in Athens appeared on my inner screen, and with it the history of Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century, removing and carrying off to London most of the Parthenon sculptures.

(Collected Prose 144-45)2 [End Page 120]

The poet senses in the idiom that lost memories could be given a materiality, as though they could be preserved in a pouch or museum, as though they could be found and taken by someone else. Relating the capacities of personal memory to the politics of national memory is no accident, but it draws upon an accidentalness in a cultural code, where "losing one...