Lost in Translation

by James Merrill

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Themes

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Artistic Creation

Merrill suggests that the poet "translates" experience into the form and content of poetry. This process is not perfect, since the final work of art is never an exact translation of the original source material. He focuses much of "Lost in Translation" on this complex process. The poem begins with two contrasting images: the library, a place of study, and the card table, a place of play for the boy and the adults who gamble on it. This juxtaposition suggests that the work of a poet, which the speaker often refers to as he thinks about Rilke's translation of Valéry, necessitates both study and play. The poet must study the works of other poets, their forms and content, as he plays with words to discover a new artistic creation that will more closely express the poet's experience.

When the speaker studies Valéry's "Palme," he focuses on "That sunlit paradigm whereby the tree / Taps a sweet wellspring of authority." The tree in the poem becomes a paradigm that he can use to express himself through his own poem. When he thinks of the tree in "Palme," a characterization of the slow growth of the palm tree, it triggers his memory of the time he waited for the puzzle to arrive and Mademoiselle tried to calm his "steaming bitterness" with words of comfort: "Patience, chéri. Geduld, mein Schatz." The patient growth of the tree, "Patience dans l'azure," finds a correlation in Mademoiselle's words.

Many of the pieces of the puzzle, which becomes a metaphor for the boy's situation, "take / Shapes known already—the craftsman's repertoire." He finds one shaped like a palm, like the one in the poem that recalls Mademoiselle's comfort words. Yet the boy makes his own interpretation of the pictures in the puzzle, one that more closely correlates with his experience. He refuses ultimately, though, to identify himself with the boy in the puzzle when he insists that Mademoiselle is wrong when she decides that the page-boy is the woman's son, suggesting the difficulties inherent in artistic representation.

Power of Art

Merrill notes the power of art when the speaker's reading of "Palme" triggers a childhood memory. He invests the puzzle with a similar power when the pieces appear to arrange themselves as Mademoiselle and the boy withdraw into the background. The pieces "align themselves with earth or sky" and become "naïve cosmogonists / Whose views clash" or "nomad inlanders" who "Begin to cluster . . . /. . . on the straggler . . . / To form a more sophisticated unit." The figures in the picture come alive and gaze at each other across clouds.

The closing lines suggest the power of art to help us cope with loss. As the speaker thinks of a ruined past relationship, the loss becomes "a self-effacing tree," like the palm in the poem and in the puzzle, turning "the waste" into "shade and fiber, milk and memory."

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