The Black Swan by James Merrill
Black on flat water past the jonquil lawns
Riding, the black swan draws
A private chaos warbling in its wake,
Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
Nearer to that green lake
Where every paradox means wonder.
Though the black swans arched neck is like
A question-mark on the lake,
The swan outlaws all possible questioning:
A thing in itself, like love, like submarine
Disaster, or the first sound when we wake;
And the swan-song it sings
Is the huge silence of the swan.
Illusion: the black swan knows how to break
Through expectation, beak
Aimed now at its own breast, now at its image,
And move across our lives, if the lake is life,
And by the gentlest turning of its neck
Transform, in time, times damage;
To less than a black plume, times grief.
Enchanter: the black swan has learned to enter
Sorrows lost secret center
Where like a maypole separate tragedies
Are wound about a tower of ribbons, and where
The central hollowness is that pure winter
That does not change but is
Always brilliant ice and air.
Always the black swan moves on the lake; always
The blond child stands to gaze
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always. The child upon
The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
Forever to cry aloud
In anguish: I love the black swan, the black swan.
I was initially drawn to Merrill’s unique voice and style, which led me to sift through his other works. “Black Swan” was his first published piece and is also now considered a literary rarity due to its small circulation. The “Black Swan Theory” established by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is best briefly described as “an event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict”. While there is obvious evidence to this reference in the poem (i.e. “illusion: the black swan knows how to break through expectation” and the paradoxical nature of the black swan that is emphasized), I would like to focus this blog post on the comparison of Merrill’s poem to the recent film, Black Swan.
Brief synopsis for those who haven’t seen the film: Nina, a corp ballerina is given the role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, called to then embody the innocence of the white swan and also her evil and seductive counterpart, the black swan. Through this character transformation and stress/pressure, Nina is consumed by role and descends into a mental breakdown. Throughout the movie, Nina is haunted by images of her “black swan self” or her imagined rival, Lily, which aligns with the repetition of the “always” that appears four times in the final two stanzas of Merrill’s poem. Drawing similarities across this media bridge, I could see the child in the poem representing Nina. The child starts out with “white ideas of swans” or innocent conceptions of the swan (typically seen as white).
Further on, the child becomes captivated by this black swan “the enchanter, the paradox” just as Nina is wrapped up in her quest to “become the black swan” in ballet. The final lines state that the child will forever “cry aloud/in anguish: I love the black swan, the black swan.” Similarly, Nina’s final line in the movie is “Perfect. I was perfect…” The fascination with the black swan has drawn in both the child and Nina to the point of obsession. However, dissimilarly, the child is forever thwarted in attempts to be near to the black swan as it “pivots and rides out to the opposite side,” while Nina achieves the “perfection” of the black swan. To continue this conversation, I would simply love to know if you all see similar parallels between these two representations or am I stretching this analogy too far? Do you think it is the notoriously ominous connotation of the black swan figure that creates these connections or are more intentional similarities at work here? Also if you are interested, there is a reading of this poem by Merrill on YouTube and it’s quite hauntingly cool.