Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1618
James Merrill, whose craft has frequently been noted, does not disappoint his readers in The Inner Room. In this book he uses a number of quatrains with an abba rhyme; his skill somehow reminds one of a lapidary’s, with each word set as if it were a jewel. In the sequence “For a Bestiary,” the first poem, “Carp,” provides an excellent example. He begins with a clichéd action, feeding bread to the fish, which leads him to the literary cliché of “bread on the waters.” This is quickly transformed into “literary crusts,” a “half fiction” for the shiny fish in the water. Then he asks:
Banked in its grate of reeds—An underwater fire,How lit?—might prove desireItself the fast that feeds.
The poem ends with the writer imagining the fish frozen in the pond in winter and a skater gliding on the ice above them, writing “(Ah, loop and curlicue/ Of letters we once knew)/ Here sleep the appetites.” The images are brilliant, the pattern of six syllables per line (with seven in the first three lines of the second stanza) are perfectly suited to the subject, and the subject is explored in a manner as sleek and smooth as the fish themselves.
The four long poems in the volume include “Morning Glory” and “A Room at the Heart of Things” in the first section and “Walks in Rome” and “Losing the Marbles” in the fifth and final one. Merrill, word-enchanted, plays with the various meanings of words and their parts in a number of his poems, but “Losing the Marbles” may be among his best examples of wordplay. He begins with the Elgin Marbles and ancient Greece and ends with the effects of light on children’s marbles, which he has loosed between the slats of a deck where the light transforms them into works of art also. His technique is formidable; the third section is a condensation of section 5, using only a few of the words, or parts of the words that are also themselves words, the whole making not only sense but lyrical poetry as well.
Merrill uses a number of different poetic forms with ease. “Dead Center” is a villanelle; “Parnassians” is an Italian sonnet; several poems, including one of the bits in “Eight Bits” and “Processional,” the final poem in the book, contain anagrams; “David’s Watercolor” is written in Sapphic stanzas; and “Hindu Illumination” uses rimas dissolutas. Other aspects of his technique are equally dazzling. His rhymes are inobtrusive and innovative: planetarium/drum; interlaced/ waste; shot/apricot. He often uses slant rhyme, and when he does not use rhyme directly, he usually sets up a careful repetition of assonance and consonance. For example, in “Cornwall” the first stanza uses eight e sounds. The second stanza is dominated by four u sounds, and the third stanza has seven o sounds. The fourth stanza utilizes a combination of the previous sounds, three e’s and four o’s, in addition to two a’s and three i’s. The fifth stanza relies primarily on the e sounds—eight of them—and the following stanza contains four o sounds (three of them in key words) and four e sounds (all of them in key words). This dextrous use of sounds adds greatly to the musicality of his verse.
Although these poetic devices serve him well in this book and in his other books, Merrill is not content with the forms he has already mastered. In this volume he experiments with the prose poem. “Prose for Departure” marks both a departure from old forms to new and Merrill’s departure to another country and another culture (Japan). Merrill’s signature is firmly upon these works; interspersed in the prose, but most often at the end, is a rhymed haiku, delicate and subtle—but not weak. The form is appropriate for the geographical place and doubly appropriate in that Merrill’s work echoes Basho’s travel journals. “Afternoons at the Noh” and the final poem, “In the Shop” are perhaps the best in this section, although the ending of “Strategies” is artfully accomplished, blending landscape, myth, and the poet:If every trip is an incarnation in miniature, let this be the one in which to arrange myself like flowers. Aim at composure like the target a Zen archer sees through shut eyes. Close my borders to foreign devils. Take for model a cone of snow with fire in its bowels.
Some critics see Merrill’s mythological poem “The Book of Ephraim,” written after he had read William Butler Yeats’s A Vision (1925), as his major accomplishment. A Vision, however, is generally used as a source to explain Yeats’s other work rather than a central work in itself. That may very well be the fate of “The Book of Ephraim” as well. Merrill, living in the cynical last half of the twentieth century, could not write a straightforward myth, so throughout this long poem, which was first published in Divine Comedies (1976) and later with its sequel, Mirabell: Books of Number (1978), and the final book of the trilogy, Scripts for the Pageant (1980), as well as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), is replete with undercutting irony and wit. These long poems bear close study for the illumination they shed on previous poems and especially on later ones. Although Merrill’s irony and wit do not always sit easily on myth’s shoulders, these are important works, and their importance becomes even more apparent with the appearance in this volume of his one-act verse play “The Image Maker.”
The three works in The Changing Light at Sandover explored, among other subjects, the nature of God and modern man’s lack of religious faith. These two major themes are treated again in this play, but on a more simple and profound level.
The chief character in this play is a santero, a saint-carver in a Caribbean village. This carver (clearly allied to Aristotle’s “maker” as well as to the Christian concept of God) practices Santeria, a Latin American religion that combines concepts of Yoruba lore from West African religions, brought to the New World by slaves, with the Catholicism their masters imposed on them. The other characters are the carver’s mother (whose voice is heard offstage but whom the audience never sees), the santero’s niece, and the effigies in the workshop, which come to life when the carver goes on an errand for his sick and demanding mother. Merrill, who has always been fascinated by opposites within similarities, found the santos of this religion especially appealing because of their doubleness. He had learned about voodoo from his friend Maya Deren (a dancer and the founder of the Creative Film Foundation) that these figures, although outwardly Christian saints, also represented an orisha, a pagan deity which combines a natural force and a human concern. The santero has the power to create these puppets and to shape their saint’s features and costumes, but inside they belong to the Yoruba god, who is chaotic and incorrigible. In the play the santero is called away from his hut by the voice of the damaged Saint Barbara, who is imitating the mother’s voice. While he is gone, the santos come to life, and their wild and evil selves prevail. Francisco kills the pet dove, and the power of Chango, the evil god, working through Barbara, ignites a wall calendar, thus destroying all the holy days. When the santero returns, he proceeds to clean up the remnants of the fire, throws out the dead bird, and then appeases Chango with cigar smoke and a ceremony. After all this is finished, he begins again on the repair of Barbara.
The doubleness of the puppets is equaled by the doubleness and sometimes tripleness of every other character in the play. The old mother is herself, naturally, but also complaining humankind, as well as the epitome of selfishness. The young niece is innocence and superstition. The santero is carver and poet (and God). When the santo Miguel, in his evil self, claims that
I am the generator.By reason’s lamp or fever’s flickering rayI make the Image Maker.Whatever god is magnified by men,I, I stare through their glass untilHe does my will!
This passage continues the concept from “The Book of Ephraim” that humans are naturally god-making creatures. Most likely the santero is also a manifestation of Merrill himself. Although the santero works in a medium different from Merrill’s, there are obvious correspondences. In the beginning of the play the santero, describing his method, says that “it’s never easy!”—that he must carefully select his materials and make his plans, but he never knows exactly how the finished product will turn out:
At last the figure is begun.And never mind how wellI know my saint, I’m in for a surpriseOr two before I’m done—A crafty smile, a new, hard-pressedLook in the eyes . . .
Thus, the artist is also a discoverer. One of the things that the artist discovers along the way is that the product shapes the maker as much as the maker shapes it, a truism that Merrill has acknowledged, saying of his poetry, “It created me.”
Merrill, who has won numerous prizes, including two National Book awards, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, and the Pulitzer Prize, has written another prize-winning book, regardless of whether any prize is ever awarded it. The reader will award the prize—for mastery of technique that is complex and formidable, and for the even greater character and discipline that it takes to dismiss technique in order to write simply and clearly about a profound subject.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14
Booklist. LXXXV, October 1, 1988, p. 214.
Library Journal. CXIII, November 15, 1988, p. 75.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, October 21, 1988, p. 52.