“Domino” consists of three sestets, each following a strict rhyme scheme (abcacb). The title of the poem presents not only the ostensible subject of the poem—Domino sugar—but also hints at other esoteric levels of meaning. In addition to representing a trade name, the title can be read as domino—the dative possessive case of the Latin dominus, meaning “lord, master,” or “clergyman”—or as the name of the black game pieces marked with white dots. With this rich title, James Merrill signals the economic and theological concerns that he will explore in the poem.
On a more transparent level, the poem begins with the sugar speaking smugly of its privileged role at the table of the elite. Assuming the cool, haughty tone of its epicurean consumer, the sugar boasts that its “Delicious, white” grains are “refined” into “crystal rudiments” of a perfection that keeps them “From wholly melting in the tea.”
Despite the sugar’s aloofness, in the second sestet the poet reminds the reader that sugarcane is grown in a distant world in which suffering prevails: “Often a child’s lament/ Filled the infested hut.” The plantation owner’s guilty return to check on her neglected workers (“Doña Pilar flew back for Lent/—Had she been inhumane?”) does not soften the poem’s harsh contrast between the worlds of the first and second stanzas.
In the third stanza, the sugar’s wry voice returns to express its disdain for “History’s health freak,” who “appraises” society’s “mess” or mealtime habits and “begs/ That such as we be given up.” “The drainer of the cup,” the sugar archly predicts, will “miss those sparkling dregs” when he is left with only the “Outpouring bitterness” of unsweetened tea.
This simple surface treatment of Domino sugar, however, masks Merrill’s subtle treatment of at least three other subjects in “Domino”: a Marxist challenge to the exploitation of workers, a presentation of the sacraments of the church (specifically, the Eucharist and penance), and a theological dispute over the renunciation of everything associated with the body.