Making sense of the past, present, and future is an ambitious task, but this is precisely what is being attempted in James Merrill’s Divine Comedies. One feels, reading this important collection of poems, that one is at the circus, in a front row seat, watching a daring juggler. One is breathless as time and time again the juggler perfectly executes a toss of wooden bowling pins. Occasionally, however, a pin flies from the perfect circle and clunks a viewer on the head. There are dangers involved in taking a front row seat. Merrill plucks memories from behind, wishes from in front, and slings them willy-nilly to the sky, where they catch glints of sunlight and clouds alike.
The standard themes crop up in Divine Comedies: appearance and reality, the lightning speed of time, the function of imagination, justification of the past, guilt, love’s delicate balance, the poet’s role, and the bogeyman, Death. But Merrill, who never took pains to align himself with any special group or movement, is decidedly going his own way poetically. It is a disconcerting, surprising kind of book, one which will disarm and confuse the reader and ultimately force him to take the old themes on Merrill’s terms. This poet does not take second billing.
Divine Comedies, which contains nine shorter poems on a variety of subjects, is dominated by Part II, The Book of Ephraim. In all the poems, however, there is a steady reliance on the highly personal, intimate details of the poet’s own life. It might be called an autobiography, an explanation of Merrill to Merrill. Unlike the confessional poet, however, Merrill does not resort to breast-beating. Instead, he wears cleverness like armor and cozies up to wit, thereby keeping the lump in his throat from spilling over into tears. The poem “Lost in Translation” uses the metaphor of a puzzle to objectify the experience of a young, sensitive boy and his relationship with the Mademoiselle who “does borders” and whom the poet loves for “Crossing my brow against the dreams to come.” Finally the puzzle is completed, but it must be torn apart to be placed again in the box and “readdressed / To the puzzle shop in the mid-Sixties.” The boy knows how soon the careful arrangement of life disintegrates:
The puzzle hung together—and did not.Irresistibly a populaceUnstitched of its attachments, rattled down.Power went to pieces as the witchSlithered easily from Virtue’s gown.The blue held out for time, but crumbled, too.The city had long fallen . . .
In a world where things so quickly fall apart, the poet must continue to search for ways of making sense of chaos and transience.
In “McKane’s Falls” the poet observes that time is a “Handful of gold dust,” that “Moments of truth are moments only. . . .” It seems, however, that by dipping into his past, remembering old friends, historical figures, his father, and his goddaughter, he can trick himself into believing that the moment holds. Yet in “The Will” the poet picks up the puzzle metaphor again and, with it, the certainty that things slip away. He says, “In growing puzzlement I’ve felt things losing / Their grip on me. What’s done is done, dreamlike. . . .” What the poet needs is some unifying presence, and he finds it in the creation of Ephraim, who first appears in “The Will” and graciously stays for an entire book.
Ephraim functions as prophet, interpreter, disperser of wisdom, old curmudgeon, companion, shrink, inspiration, and moralist. With a Ouija board and a “blue-and-white cup from the Five & Ten” the poet records “The Book of a Thousand and One Evenings Spent / With David Jackson ... In touch with Ephraim Our Familiar Spirit.” Ephraim is a friendly, teasing, jocular spirit who demands “HA HA YR SOULS,” advises them to pursue their educations, to take of “sensual pleasure” only if they are not afraid of losing it. The poet,...
(The entire section is 1719 words.)