What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

James Merrill's “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker”

James Merrill (Photo by Jill Krementz)

Great poets can make poetry out of the damnedest things. Prime example: James Merrill’s “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker.” I first read it when it appeared in the February 24, 1992, New Yorker. I remember it for the white windbreaker imprinted with a world map delightfully described in the first stanza:

The windbreaker is white with a world map.
DuPont contributed the seeming-frail,
Unrippable stuff first used for Priority Mail.
Weightless as shores reflected in deep water,
The countries are violet, orange, yellow, green;
Names of the principal towns and rivers, black.
A zipper’s hiss, and the Atlantic Ocean closes
Over my blood-red T-shirt from the Gap.

But, as Stephen Burt points out in his marvelous new book, The Poem Is You, Merrill’s poem contains two windbreakers – a white one and a black one. The black one briefly materializes in the second-last stanza (“It’s my windbreaker / In black, with starry longitudes, Archer, Goat”). Burt comments,

Merrill learned in 1986 that he had HIV, for which in the early 1990s there were no effective treatments; “Self-Portrait” has also been read as his plan for his funeral, a self-elegy complete with choice of coffin. As Helen Vendler explains, by the penultimate stanzas Merrill has decided that the original windbreaker, “white with a world map,” cannot be his shroud: the “black celestial twin of his jacket,” however, strikes him as a “garment for death not only appropriate but beautiful.”

The reference is to Helen Vendler’s “Self-Portraits While Dying: James Merrill and A Scattering of Salts” (Last Looks, Last Books, 2010), a brilliant study of Merrill’s dying self-portraits, in which “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker” is described as an “organic living portrait, the poet’s last walk wearing his absurd and surreal Tyvek shroud.”

Merrill’s world-map-imprinted white Tyvek windbreaker may be absurd and surreal, but I like it. I suspect Merrill secretly did, too. After all, as Burt points out, he wore it. And wearing it is what inspired this beautifully flowing, chiming poem. 


  1. Delightful posting on a brilliant man. See also Edward Mendelson's essay in the current issue of The New York Review, on Langdon Hammer's new biography. He writes to a startlingly similar conclusion.

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback. I saw the Mendelson piece at That’s where the Krementz portrait came from. I look forward to reading it when the paper version arrives.