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The Cistern

Christopher Merrill

Note: The following piece was commissioned by Writers’ Centre Norwich. Each year, WCN gathers up to forty writers and translators from around the globe in Norwich for the Worlds festival. Writers talk to each other about the art and craft of writing, spend time in each other’s company and join readers at public events. In 2011, Worlds focused on the notion of ‘Influence’, with commissioned provocations from Alfred Birnbaum, Maureen Freely, Natsuki Ikezawa, Gwyneth Lewis, Joyelle McSweeney, Christopher Merrill and CK Williams. A number of writers were commissioned to produce a literary response of their choice to the four day gathering.

Water leaking from a cistern sealed off after the war seeps through a crack in the foundation of a house that no one wants to buy, streaking the cement between the sofa and a set of china packed in a cardboard box—a wedding gift left unopened these many years.

From the crown of a white oak a nighthawk scans the back yard for voles and rabbits. No. It’s a crow taking wing from a tree riddled with blight.

I wish to book a question here, said the moderator of the symposium on the imagination, and as the silence deepened in the room I realized that I had nothing—nothing—to say.

Don’t talk, the conductor bellowed to the student orchestra. Concentrate. The horns stared at a laptop set up in a trombone case: Germany was leading England in the Round of 16.

When an equalizing goal was called back, the musicians laid down their instruments and rose to their feet, as if to walk out of the rehearsal, until the conductor commanded them to sit.

How to educate the imagination? The last thing she did each day in her studio was paint over her completed assignment, preparing the canvas for the next one, mastering her technique, pledging her allegiance to the act of one brush stroke following another.

While the novelist said the well would run dry for him when he was halfway through a book, and there were days when he would lie in bed smoking and reading, waiting for the water to rise.


You’re going to Worlds, she said over the telephone. Enjoy.

So I flew from Chicago to London, arriving early one morning, and took a train from Liverpool to Norwich. It was the summer solstice, the green fields rolled on and on, I dozed off reading a history of the English Civil War. And when I woke nothing had changed, or so it seemed, except for the theme of the symposium: influence.

China, Libya, Russia, Greece, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the West Bank, Nepal, Afghanistan, Chile, the Philippines—these were places that I visited on cultural diplomacy missions between one session of Worlds and the next.

Seeking to expand the American sphere of influence, as it were—though I preferred to describe it as sharing the fruits of my reflections on the nature of creativity.

Cosmologists describe spheres of influence—the gravitational pull exerted by a star, informing the orbit of planets, moons, and comets—and I am trying to discern what forces are shaping my walk in the sun, the course of which seems more mysterious to me than ever.

On my last night in Tripoli, for instance, I attended a wedding ceremony to which the bride was not invited. The imam said prayers, the groom signed the marriage contract, a feast was served. And when I checked out of my hotel the next morning I was not surprised to discover that a pair of security officers would follow me all the way to the airport.

I had not noticed them before, though they or others must have been there from the beginning of my mission—which may explain why my meeting with the minister of culture was canceled at the last minute. What did they know that I refused to see?


The life of discovery: thus Brewster Ghiselin defined the process by which artists, scientists, and writers use their imagination to map new worlds, within and without.

Desperate to draw such maps, I went to his home on Princeton Avenue, in Salt Lake City, to seek his advice—that is, to show him my poems.

I hoped he would reveal to me the secret of inspiration, which I imagined could be passed on to any willing apprentice—that is, to anyone possessing sufficient willpower.

Utter folly: the source of poetry lies deeper than anyone knows—deeper even than desire, whose currents are as difficult to track as those of the will.

The literary world had forgotten him, and yet as he sorted through his correspondence, gathered materials for new work, and sketched out for me a vision of the creative process, illustrating points with drafts of his poems, some of which had taken him decades to complete, he betrayed no sign of bitterness: a crucial lesson of my apprenticeship.

Patiently he read my poems, bound his tomato vines and stored begonias for the winter, recalled an expedition to the desert to catch rattlesnakes. He spoke precisely, never repeating himself, rolling each syllable on his tongue, as if to sound the depths of its music.

After his death I searched through his papers to find an aphorism, which he had tossed off one afternoon as I typed out for him entries from his journal: The medium is the crystal into which the artist gazes. What he saw.

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