Thursday, October 16, 2014

Alibi for Two - Augustus Merrill (Parallel Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Alibi for Two.  Augustus Merrill.  Parallel Press.  University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.  Madison, Wisconsin.  2014.

The poems in Augustus Merrill's Alibi for Two are diptychs.  Or at least that's what they would be called if they were paintings.  Masterful painting at that.

I asked our intern to find the appropriate literary term for this form, a poem in two parts with a prose introduction, but she left the office for lunch yesterday and hasn't been heard from since.

Merrill is a retired English professor and I think, after reading these fine, fine poems, I would have enjoyed listening to what he had to say about almost anything.  I'm certainly game for more of these poems.

Perhaps these poems could be filed in the "call and response" tag - but ultimately it doesn't matter.   Each of the poems in this collection starts with a short prose section or introduction and ends with a brief poetic retort, summation, response.

The effect is startling.

The Crossing Guard

They moved to town for the sake of the baby. It was just too hard
living out like that. She was immediately relieved. The grocery store,
the Laundromat, the city parks. It took him the remainder of his life
to make the adjustment. As a very old man his greatest pleasure was
to look out his narrow window at the young crossing guards directing
traffic by the elementary school in the middle of the afternoon. If
civilization were like this, he thought, he never would have gone to live
in the woods.

Not a decade behind them

The young crossing guards stand duty at the stop.

Already they have assumed the serious and sober robes of responsibility.

In neon safety vests they arrive early at their stations

Dwarfed by the nine foot signs.

With miniature mirrored signs of their own they stop traffic.

On the world's windswept open streets.

Obediently the traffic halts

As the guards conduct their small charges to safety.

No one, not even the most hardened criminal

Would disobey their small upraised hand.

Whatever the future brings, into this scene

Such authority and obedience will never be theirs again.

The power and satisfaction given over to them as children

Will soon be replaced by defiance and disappointment at every turn.

Before accelerating again

We stop to admire the young guards and to admire ourselves

Doing what we are supposed to do.


Stylistically Merrill's intelligent poems read like a familiar, but Today's book of poetry has never seen quite this sort of poem work quite this effectively.

To go back to the diptych metaphor; Merrill has found the recipe to create the perfect union between the two halves of these poems.

Merrill has mastered pace and tension so that many of these poems read and sound and taste like folklore we had forgotten.

Leave Your Bow Man Alone

They had been married and divorced three times, and now they were
trying to go down a little, rocky, northern river together. He screamed
for her to paddle on the right. She paddled on the right. He screamed
for her to paddle on the left. She paddled on the left. All the while
she didn't say a word. Her thoughts flowed with the current as light
and easily as a leaf. Three times is enough, she thought, three times is 

Leave your bow man alone;

You are lucky to have him there,

And if he is a she, leave her alone too--

She has had enough of your bad advice already.

Choose which side is dear

Then change like the changing of the year

Without premeditation, plan, or word.

Leave your bow man alone.

Steer when you are tired,

Moving forward as you never would have done alone.

If you must command,

Command yourself to the passing world

Remembering that you are heavy

And that she is light

And that the two of your are only being led along

Because the water has forgiven you both.

Leave your bow man alone.

Go to the shore in silence and tenderly touch the limbs

That have brought you home at last

Where there is no water

And no need for forgiveness.


Augustus Merrill uses dry humour with much the same delicacy as a painter using the dry-brush technique.

Wait, that's the ticket!, diptych's, dry-brush technique -- this guy is a painter.  And what lovely paintings.

I Sit With You

It was not a good place to quarrel. In a city or in a town there would
be restraint, but there was no restraint there and the lake did not help.
When it began to freeze their differences were magnified. The water
creaked and groaned as though it were in its death throes. It pinged
without mercy through the fragile house and the fragile marriage.
When there was no more to say, a cruel silence would set in. Sometimes
it would last almost until the lake thawed in spring.

No wind over the eighty-eight acre face of Lake Nothing,

No moon in the leaf stained water.

The pike who has hunted the ducklings

All summer in the shallows

Is hunted himself now

By the pressures of the winter thermocline.

The otters in their den,

The city people in their city,

The loons flown south,

I sit with you, my silent wife,

Until the wind stirs and the ice forms

Between us and the lake.


Augustus Merrill's poetry has the confidence of the experienced and the humility of man who knows too much.  This chapbook of very human poetry remind us at Today's book of poetry that some of the very best things come in small packages.

Lee Merrill, his hunting dog, Belle, and his grandson, Bastiaan.

Augustus Lee Merrill is retired from a thirty-year career as professor of English literature at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. He has been involved in the conservation issues of the Lake Superior region as a member of the boards of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute and Voyageurs National Park. His writing has appeared in College English, Poetry Now, The Wisconsin Academy Review, and Gray's Sporting Journal. Merrill lives with his wife Melinda in Washburn, Wisconsin.


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