The Inner Room

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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...

(The entire section is 1618 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Booklist. LXXXV, October 1, 1988, p. 214.

Library Journal. CXIII, November 15, 1988, p. 75.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, October 21, 1988, p. 52.