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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


"My first pilgrimage was undertaken in the shadow of the war in Bosnia, my last in the sunlit promise of the new millennium, before the war on terror darkened every sky. But what I learned on Mount Athos holds through the ages - through feast and famine, war and disease, love and loss. And if my course of travel on the peninsula and the literature of faith resembled the meandering of a river that eventually empties into the sea, I understand it now in a new light. "That ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within your soul," wrote St Issac of Syria. "Flee from sin, dive into yourself, an in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend." This was the ladder I did not know I was seeking until I had already begun to climb it."
- Christopher Merrill in 'Things of the Hidden God - Journey to the Holy Mountain'

Lots has been written about his work and about this book in particular, but this bit from The Spectator sums it up perfectly "A gem that shows off Merrill-the-poet's gorgeous writing, and Merrill-the-reporter's sharp eye-and introduces a new Merrill, the pilgrim."

Merrill has had the most fascinating journey. A journey, I definitely would have known little about, had a panel discussion not fallen through and taken the shape of this one on one.

In 'Things of the Hidden God' Merrill re-traces some of his steps. A benign tumour, a hospital bed, the release from which left him feeling like he'd "been granted a new life. Poems flooded over me. I was surrendering to the dictates of the language instead of attempting to control the process of discovery integral to creation, even as I learned that obeying formal imperatives could lead me into the uncharted waters of memory and desire."

Words leap from the pages, you feel the sounds, you imagine the colours, you see him journeying through the heart of a war, something he hadn't quite imagined when in 1991 he'd taken up an invitation from a Slovenian friend to join him on a hike across his homeland.

"Ours was to be a literary excursion through the mountains of Yugoslavia's northernmost republic: we would drink wine, listen to folk songs and stories, revel in the wild. I wanted to explore a place where literature is more than a decorative art. Nor did I foresee Yugoslavia's violent breakup, though perhaps a closer reading of the poetry and fiction of the South Slavs would have prepared me - and the world - for the coming horrors..... What blood, what loss, what poetry speaks through this pain? Ezra Pound called literature "news that stays news." Notwithstanding the inconsistencies, bewilderment, and occasional wrong-headedness of the writers and artists I met in my travels I found their experience and witness of challenging circumstances not only compelling but also current in a manner distinct from the reportage of the front-line journalists whose courage inspired me."

With that Merrill the poet, the reporter and the superb writer brings alive the Scenes From The Balkan Wars in 'Only The Nails Remain.' Yes, only a poet-journalist could accomplish this. Just as a poet-journalist is best placed to take on the serious business of literary awards and to direct the University of Iowa's celebrated International Writing Program.

In fact, Merrill was so in demand in Ubud that it was impossible to sit him down for a chat before the session. We barely managed a quick 10 minute session to discuss the flow and go through some of the order of the questions. There were writers, aspiring writers, poets - almost everyone wanting a little more than a minute of his time. And he was enormously patient. In the conversation, he spoke about the Creative Writing Programme, which takes in published authors and there have been several biggies there - Orhan Pamuk, Kazuo Ishiguro....and several creative episodes too - an assistant being bitten in the cheek by an author who needed to be brought under control. We'd see more of some writers creative abilities the very next day - who was to know.

In a little over an hour we'd traversed through the world of poetry, war, life, literature, writing and so much more. His has been a journey that most of us can only imagine, a journey that certainly isn't for the faint-hearted. One can only thank him enough for being our guide that hot afternoon at Indus.

Pictures on this post courtesy Temple Connolly.

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