Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

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Merrill develops the Marxist theme of the conflict between laboring class and owners throughout “Domino.” Merrill introduces the privileged consumer/plantation owner in the poem’s first two lines: “Delicious, white, refined/ Is all that I was raised to be.” These members of the elite are rational (with “crystal rudiments of mind”) and detached (never “wholly melting,” “however stirred”).

The second stanza presents the mass of black sugarcane workers who support the few white owners (like the black background on the domino pieces). Doña Pilar, who visits the exploited laborers living in “infested” huts, represents the owner class (“Doña” comes from the same Latin source as domino—dominus, meaning “lord or master”) and brings with her all of the meanings associated with “Pilar” (flagellation for the workers, public penance for herself, and additional plundering). In the final sestet, “History’s health freak,” presumably Marx, after “appraising” the “mess” of class exploitation, recommends that “such as we be given up” or overthrown. The owner/consumer concludes that the world will miss “those sparkling dregs.” This final oxymoron makes Merrill’s central point: To a Marxist, what sparkles most with accumulated products and refinement is “the most undesirable part” of the economic system.

Another reading of “Domino” reveals Merrill’s treatment of the theme of the church’s sacraments of the Eucharist and penance. The Eucharist wafer—“Delicious, white, refined”—speaks in the opening stanza. The phrase “all that I was raised to be” suggests the resurrection of the body of Christ and the unleavened state of the wafer. The wafer maintains a distinct role in the sacrament from the wine or “tea”: “Still keep—however stirred—/ From wholly melting in the tea.”

The second stanza focuses on the sacrament of penance. Amid the suffering of the laborers, Doña Pilar brings with her name a platform for penance and the “pillar of flagellation” (as reminder of Christ’s suffering) to help her atone for her past inhumanity. The final stanza begins with an appraisal of the “mess” or Mass and ends with a reference to draining the Eucharist cup. In the final stanza, “History’s health freak” (Christ, perhaps) calls for penance—“Outpouring bitterness” accompanied by certain things being “given up.”

Finally, in “Domino,” Merrill explores a subject closely related to the theme of sacraments—the clerical debate over the worthiness of the body. The title of the poem itself suggests the order of Dominicans. The Dominicans, in their challenge to the heretic Albigensians, insisted upon the sanctity of matter and of the ordinary people. The reminder that even Christ appeared in corporeal form is presented in the first stanza: A true “feeling for the word” keeps Christ’s body (“Delicious, white” and “raised”) from “wholly melting into the tea” (t-shaped cross). The second stanza reminds the reader that ordinary people demand the ministering that Saint Dominic prescribed and also that Christ had a human birth: “Often a child’s lament/ Filled the infested hut.”

In the final stanza, the heretics (“History’s health freak”) examine the Mass and demand that the church give up “such as we”—that is, both the common people of the second stanza and the Eucharist wafer that is transubstantiated into the Body of Christ. For the Dominicans, “the drainer of the cup”—a member of a church without the wafer as part of its Eucharist and without attention to the poor—would “miss those sparkling dregs.” “Dregs” means both “most undesirable part” (the commoners or “reprobates”) and “last remaining part or vestiges” (the body that is left after the departure of the spirit). Once again, the concluding oxymoron points to the tensions in the poem: What seems the “dregs” to the heretics is “sparkling” and sacred to the Dominican friars.