“18 West 11th Street” seems to have been inspired by a newspaper report: Certain anti-Vietnam War protesters had a house blow up around them while they were trying to make bombs. The only survivor was a young woman named Cathy Wilkerson, seen running from the building naked and covered with blood.
The poem is one of Merrill’s most difficult—at least partially because it tries to tell three stories at once. The first is the story of the bombing: The five revolutionaries are fed up with society and its warmongering leaders. They have given up trying to use words to get their message across and are now resorting to bombs, a means of “incommunication.” Instead of bombing “The Establishment,” however, they end up bombing themselves, leaving only the unfortunate woman, fleeing naked and wounded into the night.
The second story turns on a marvelous coincidence: 18 West 11th Street was Merrill’s childhood home. The story is of little Jimmy coming down with a cold on his birthday. The story is not clear, but the mood is one of disappointment: No one seems to care except the maid. The Merrills had three children, making the total official population of the house five. The story also makes much use of fires, mirrors, furniture, a “parterre” or garden, and a clock on the mantel. There are references to a mysterious woman who seems to be a double object of affection, and the story hangs heavy with the lack of communication.
(The entire section is 524 words.)