Poems by Christopher Merrill
Ma salaam, said the martial arts instructor, as if to himself. The shadows lengthened over the heads of his rambunctious students, the mingled odor of sweat and hot tea filled the air, and from the storeroom came the hissing of a king cobra, which had escaped from the zoo. The instructor’s terrycloth chafed; his students couldn’t wait for class to end. Behind his back they said he had a black belt in cooking rice. Maybe he did. And maybe he could recite the names of all the capitals in the world. But the basic equation of force and counterforce governing his life had not changed, even if the tradition of physical and spiritual practices in the service of self-defense, designed to preserve the cultural heritage of his ancestors, had devolved into a way for the wealthy offspring of local officials to challenge his authority. Meanwhile the zookeeper’s frantic search for the snake led him into the alley behind the school, where he paused to calculate how much antivenom the hospital might have on hand. The prospect of catching a cobra terrified him; when he opened the door, listening for its tell-tale growl, he recalled the day long ago, when his fiancée had wakened from a nap to find one coiled on the floor; she bolted out of their flat, never to return. The martial arts instructor promised to name names, if the police closed down his school.
Auld Lang Syne
Estranged from his family, the broker sat with a beggar at the edge of the cliff, debating the merits of the proposed changes to the tax code and the likelihood of the king accepting the resignation of his general council. He stirred the embers of the fire, determined to keep it burning until daybreak, when he would have to decide whether to return home or hurl himself into the abyss. How to undo what cannot be undone, redeem the unredeemable? The first incision he made in the cemetery, on the last day of the mourning period for his mother, hurt less than he had expected, which led him to delay breaking off the love affair that was undermining his position at the firm until it was too late. What had his father told him last New Year’s Eve? Beggars can’t be choosers. His ignorance of his fiduciary responsibilities had astounded the general council. Ground Zero would assume new coordinates for both of them by the time the sun rose over the mountains.
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