Four years after the publication of Ashbery’s A Wave, James Merrill published The Inner Room (Knopf, 1988), containing a sequence of fourteen haibun entitled “Prose of Departure.” Merrill’s haibun are a meditation on travel, illness, and Japan as metaphor. By the time he began writing this sequence, Merrill had learned that he was infected with HIV (or ARC, “AIDS-related complex”, as it was then called), and many of his loved ones were succumbing to the effects of the virus, or already dead.  This knowledge, in combination with a planned trip to Japan, inspired a haibun sequence bound up in the themes that inspired Bashō himself: solitary journey and the quest for internal peace.
“Prose of Departure” opens with Merrill considering his friend Paul’s HIV treatment, which he is receiving at “the Clinic,” “Famous and vast and complex as an ocean liner.” At the clinic, Merrill describes Paul’s “voyage” among the elderly, those prepared for “their final honeymoon”—but Paul is too young, too unprepared, and so is Merrill. In the first haibun, “Imagining It.” Merrill mobilizes what will be the driving metaphor of the sequence: his journey to Japan as his final voyage, and the culture and people of Japan as symbolizing ill health and infirmity.