“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 third story is the myth of the Garden of Eden. The house’s garden, with its one tree made leafless by the explosion, becomes the primal garden. The woman escaping was heard to exclaim the name “Adam” as she was running away, so the poem suggests that lack of communication, leading to an explosion, is the proper mythical explanation for all humankind’s ills. When one can no longer communicate with others, one resorts to violence of some kind, whether civil, domestic, or religious. Further, the poem suggests that the division is incurable and that therefore these explosions are inevitable.
The poem seems to be grow from the two lines at the exact center of the poem printed in capital letters:
NIX ON PEACE BID PROPHET STONEDFIVE FEARED DEAD IN BOMBED DWELLING.
The opening line points out that there is no peace, blaming it on President Richard Nixon. The prophet seems to be the revolutionaries, who listed smoking marijuana as part of their sins against society. The five dead in the dwelling are also Merrill’s family. The boy on his birthday apparently rattled off some poems to his family which were “duds”—they were ignored by his family members.
The poem is written in a series of tercets emphasizing the triple nature of the theme, and the style is gnomic; it takes the concept of functional ambiguity to its extremes, all the while resembling the notes of a mad newspaper reporter on a fast-breaking story. Each word seems to try, by the use of pun and multiple meaning, to apply to all three stories, making the puzzling out of the poem difficult in the extreme.
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