Pulitzer-prize-winning poet James Merrill was raised in a highly privileged setting (his father was a co-founder of Merrill Lynch), which should be kept in mind when reading his “Self-Portrait in Tyvekâ„¢ Windbreaker,” a meditation on the effects of dressing down. Here’s an excerpt, but Izzy encourages you to read the whole thing:
The windbreaker is white with a world map.
DuPont contributed the seeming-frail,
Unrippable stuff first used for Priority Mail.
Weightless as shoes 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.
I found it in one of those vaguely imbecile
Emporia catering to the collective unconscious
Of our time and place. This one featured crystals,
Cassettes of whalesong and rain-forest whistles,
Barometers, herbal cosmetics, pillows like puffins,
Recycled notebooks, mechanized lucite coffins
For sapphire waves that creast, break, and recede,
As they presumably do in nature still.
Sweat-panted and Reeboked, I wear it to the gym.
My terry-cloth headband is green as laurel.
A yellow plastic Walkman at my hip
Sends shiny yellow tendrils to either ear.
Americans, blithe as the last straw,
Shrug off accountability by dressing
Younger than their kidsâ€”jeans, ski-pants, sneakers,
A baseball cap, a happy-face T-shirt . . .
Like first-graders we “love” our mother Earth,
Know she’s been sick, and mean to care for her
When we grown up. Seeing my windbreaker,
People hail me with nostalgic awe.
“Great jacket!” strangers on streetcorners impart.
The Albanian doorman pats it: “Where you buy?”
Over his ear-splitting drill a hunky guy
Yells, “Hey, you’ll always know where you are, right?”
“Ever the fashionable cosmopolite,”
Beams Ray. And “VoilÃ mon pays”â€”the carrot-haired
Girl in the bakery, touching with her finger
The little orange France above my heart.
Everyman, c’est moi, the whole world’s pal!
The pity is how soon such feelings sour.
As I leave the gym a smiling-as-if-I-should-know-her
Teenagerâ€”oh but I mean, she’s wearing “our”
Windbreaker, and assumes . . . Yet I return her wave
Like an accomplice. For while all humans aren’t
Countable as equals, we must behave
As if they were, or the spirit dies (Pascal).