Reviews Of Merrill's Recent Works

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David Lehman (review date 12 September 1993)

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SOURCE: "Another Past Recaptured," in Book World—The Washington Post, September 12, 1993, p. 4.

[Lehman is an American critic, poet, and educator whose works include James Merrill: Essays in Criticism (1983), for which he served as editor and a contributor, and Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991). In the following review of A Different Person: A Memoir, he lauds Merrill's prose style and his insights into love and passion.]

Elegant, graceful, puckish, lithe, James Merrill has steadily put his sonnets and intricate stanzas at the service of poignant autobiographical themes and expansive narrative ends. With rare candor and rarer tact James Merrill has explored the broken home of his upper-class childhood, the romance of art and myth and dreams and travel, his aestheticism, his homosexuality and the whole rich gamut of experiences available to a man who was always spared the financial angst that plagues most poets.

The great surprise in Merrill's career came about as a result of his infatuation with the Ouija board. A thousand and one nights spent conjuring up spirits familiar and strange led him to construct an epic poem. Comprising three books and an epilogue, and running over 17,000 lines, The Changing Light at Sandover (1983) presents a vision of the afterlife—an apocalyptic dream of startling intensity—with a structure derived from Dante's Divine Comedy and with similarly cosmic ambitions, but with all the insouciance of a reveler at a mad hatter's tea party.

A year ago Merrill's publisher reissued Sandover along with an enlarged edition of his Selected Poems (this fall both have been brought out in paperback). Rereading the former, one is struck anew by how marvelously Merrill manages to mix lofty and low elements, proving that a poem of the highest seriousness may cheerfully make do with the stage machinery of sci-fi novels, operatic high-tech phantasmagoria, and genteel spiritualism of the sort that Noel Coward sent up in Blithe Spirit.

Merrill's latest offering is a book of prose—his best book of prose to date. (He is also the author of several novels and a miscellany of critical pieces and short stories.) A Different Person is a highly unusual and compelling example of a genre that has been flourishing of late, the personal memoir. Beautifully written, with insights into love and passion that place the poet in the company of Benjamin Constant and Stendhal, the book tells the story of the two-and-a-half years Merrill spent in Europe as a young man in his twenties. But it is not a mere impressionistic record; Merrill uses the European sojourn as an organizing convenience, a narrative center. His true aim here, as in his poems, is to know himself—to come to terms with his experiences, self-critically but with a vast capacity for puzzlement and wonder—and, in the process, to chart out the growth of a poet's mind.

The young poet had studied at Amherst, had taught at Bard and was floundering about, full of anxieties and sensibility, when he sailed to Europe in 1950 in search of his Jamesian destiny. He knew he would eventually come back, and that when he did he would be a different person—changed by his love affairs in Paris, his psychoanalysis in Rome, his deepening passion for the opera, his difficult relations with his formidable father, the founder of the giant brokerage firm that bears his name, and dowager mother. The son is terribly unsure of himself on page one, afraid of being alone, a good candidate for the writer's block that will indeed afflict him in Europe; by the book's conclusion, we have come in contact with the person who will write the poems.

In Sandover, Merrill alternated between upper and lower case type, using the former to record the sayings of his heavenly informants; typography reinforced the book's vision of an angelic hierarchy. Here, too, the typesetting makes a real difference. In A Different Person Merrill alternates between roman and italic type to distinguish time past from time present, the time of the action from the time of composition. The story of the European sojourn is told in roman—suitably, since the eternal city is a prime locale—with italic type reserved for the chapter-ending passages in which the poet comments from the vantage point of 40 years on.

Merrill's title yields multiple meanings. Every young man, studied by himself with 60 winters on his head, is a different person in the sense of L.P. Hartley's immortal line: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." But Merrill was always conscious of his difference from others—and from parental expectation. "From the age of nineteen I've been made to feel … my difference from the rest of the world, a difference laudable and literary at noon, shocking and sexual at midnight," he writes. His mother strongly disapproved of his homosexuality, and some of the most moving pages in this book are devoted to the poet's continuing dialogues with her, some actual, some imaginary.

Merrill, whose affinity for Proust has often been noted, is a philosopher of love in the French tradition. He gives us, for example, "that curious but widespread law whereby people instinctively withhold what you want from them." In an extraordinary passage he wonders about his father's habit of maintaining warm relations with ex-spouses—his unwillingness to break with past amours. Recognizing the same tendency in himself, the poet suddenly feels "the pain my father must have caused his latest love by never quite relinquishing the bygone ones."

Merrill's prose style is nacreous, with some of the finest pearls concealed in subordinate phrases and incidental figures of speech. His writing is full of inspired plays on words ("the Spanish steps uplifted their descender") and ingenious similes ("His manners were natural, even humble, like the hut of forest boughs that shelters a great wizard"). Inveterate lover of opera that he is, Merrill regularly breaks the recitative of his life to launch an aria of reflection or heightened emotion.

An acquaintance of the poet, an Italian count, has arranged a visit to Sansepolcro, where Merrill sets eyes on Piero della Francesca's magnificent "Resurrection." The painting triggers off a passage in which the vocation of the artist and the mission of Jesus Christ are brilliantly compared and contrasted: "Deep down I feared that Jesus and I, both, had reached our zenith as children and that I would be hard put to avoid a terminal phase shot through, like his, by showmanship and self-promotion.

"Weren't those, however, among the traits I saw Jesus as sharing with the artists I most admired? Like Baudelaire he had a weakness for loose women. Like Mallarme he enthralled and mystified his disciples; like Oscar Wilde, courted ruin at the height of his fame. Like Proust he had dipped, with miraculous consequences, a cookie into a restorative cup."

For admirers of Merrill's poetry A Different Person will be indispensable. In a fascinating aside, he attributes the difficulty of his early work to "the need to conceal my feelings, and their objects"; the pronoun you recommended itself to him because it was "genderless as a figleaf," thus concealing the writer's homosexuality.

Merrill has always relied on rituals and parlor games to generate the stuff of poetry. In A Different Person he gives us the directions for a "game of Murder": "Each player draws a slip of paper from a bowl and examines it secretly. All the slips are blank but for two—one marked with a black dot for the Murderer, the other with an X for the Cross-Examiner. In darkness the players wander from room to room." The murderer hopes to escape undetected when he deals "a gently stylized blow to the heart" of his chosen victim. Then the questioning begins.

It was Merrill's luck to receive the slip of paper with the big black dot on it when he played the game of Murder in Rome. Merrill's description of that party reminds us of the surprising affinities that the artistic eye may discern between the rules of the game and those of a literary composition—and between a love affair and a crime of the heart.

W. S. Merwin (review date 26 March 1995)

SOURCE: "The End of More than a Book," in The New York Times Book Review, March 26, 1995, p. 3.

[Merwin is an esteemed American poet, playwright, essayist, memoirist, and translator. In the following review of A Scattering of Salts, he assesses Merrill's body of work and writes that this final collection of poems "seemed to be telling me that the extraordinary cumulative wealth of this corpus was arriving at a final form."]

There may exist somewhere a cache of juvenilia by James Merrill, early verses, precocious but clumsy, scarcely formed, patently imitative, perhaps even pretentious. But it is hard to believe. First because Merrill, disciple of perfection that he was, might well have destroyed any such crudities unless he had been tempted to save them as relatively simple memorabilia, for we see his (and our) ambivalent attitudes toward childhood and childish things surfacing again and again through his poems: the venerable resolution to "let go / Of the dead dog, the lost toy" conflicts with the continuing seductiveness and lightplay of what is forever lost and still pulsing in the present. But in fact it is difficult to imagine Merrill ever writing anything raw, inept, infelicitous. His poetry seems to have begun always with something already pertinent and realized, because that was the way he was.

The page proofs of this latest collection of his poems, A Scattering of Salts, suggested such a conclusion repeatedly. It was not only the varied brilliance of the individual pieces. Taken together, the retrospective quality of them—a recurring allusion to a body of work that was part of the past, a note of summation and, in every sense, of setting—gave the volume an implication of finality that I kept refusing to take literally. It led me back to earlier poems of his, decade by decade, to all of his published poetry from the late 1940's on. The new book seemed to be telling me that the extraordinary cumulative wealth of this corpus was arriving at a final form; the image that recurs throughout his work, but flashes with piercing insistence in these late poems, is that of crystallization. While I was reading them and trying to persuade myself that what all this amounted to was merely a timely apprehension of mortality, word came of his sudden death. Heart.

Viewed from afterward, the immediate cause of death seems to have been prefigured in the poems, however skeptical one may be, or may try to be, about such notions. Tropes and asides all through this new book seem to be pointing to something of the sort, nowhere more directly than in the final poem, which opens:

       O heart green acre   sown with salt
       by the departing    occupier
       lay down your gallant     spears of wheat
       Salt of the earth.

Though he wrote poems after this manuscript was finished, and indeed was writing in bed in the hospital during the last few days of his life, these lines clearly address the end of something more than a book.

And his death, announcing completion in any case, at once puts the sequence of his writings into a new, sharp focus. A light goes out, another goes on, and suddenly we are looking at stills, in series. It is, as we knew, a large and dazzling achievement, and for all its variety and extent a remarkably coherent body of work. From the first poems that Merrill published in Poetry and The Kenyon Review at the end of the 40's, until those he was writing during the last year of his life, the tone, the charge and tension of the language, the formal turns and their manners of disclosure, are distinctively his. But during that period of almost half a century he used those qualities to project and articulate a constantly growing, unpredictable range of character, mood, subject, genre and experience.

To say he wrote with unfailing style would be like pointing out that his poems are in English, but to ponder even for a moment the role of deliberation in that style is to encounter the abiding mysteries of his personality and his art. The extremes, the poles, the contradictions that they fuse are far apart in ordinary life. His writing is verbally dense and formal and at the same time a current of white-water rapids, the utterance of a taut freedom. He spoke of loving to be carried away by language—his own language; of course, as it came to him. His poetry is compounded of immense personal reserve, dramatic transformation and startling autobiographical candor, in proportions and mixes that doubtless will excite scholarly speculation and disagreement for a long time to come. The mind that it represents to us is swift, decisive, in no way naïve, in command of a vast treasury of literary, linguistic, musical, visual, social, geographical and erotic education and experience, a profound respecter of conventions yet endlessly impatient with limitations.

It is almost 25 years since he first invited us to take seriously—whatever that may mean—a private pantheon whose dramatic revelations were set before us, in his account, through the medium of a teacup on a Ouija board under the fingers of Merrill himself and a very few intimates: a work within his work, first coalescing in the luminous, eerie, powerful alphabet of "The Book of Ephraim," the series of poems that then evolved into The Changing Light at Sandover, whose subject is nothing less than cosmic existence and the play of love within it in this world and, the voices suggest, before and after it. "Nine Lives," one of the poems in A Scattering of Salts, is a small encore to that enormous light show, and its introductory verses say some definite things about Merrill's own conception, or at least his late view, of the enterprise.

To begin with, he places it in the lineage of "the ancient comic theater." These poems are parts, roles, the words of performances and performers, among whom he himself figures, thrilled, as he says, "to find oneself again on stage, / In character, at this untender age." And here, as in the main cycle this poem alludes to, the characters, his own included, appear or simply speak out of what Prospero calls a deep "backward and abysm" of unmeasured and unspeaking darkness.

The stage itself, and the voices of theatrical personae, had fascinated him for years, perhaps since he fell in love with opera while he was still a child—something that he describes in this book—and he wrote plays, in a translucent masque-like mode, from the 50's on.

The prologue to "Nine Lives" invites the reader to attend it too as a piece of intimate theater—which may help to satisfy those who continue to worry about how they are supposed to take the Ouija-board pronouncements. Though how one is supposed to take them, in fact, is the kind of question that comedy, and theatrical presentation as a whole, raise and leave in the air. "Nine Lives" is another farewell: to a stage, a house in Athens, a history, an appetite, a mode, even to a subconscious. It is the breaking of a wand, ending the revels:

       To all, sweet dreams. The teacup-stirring eddy
       Is spent. We've dropped our masks, renewed our vows
       To Letters, to the lives that letters house,
       Houses they shutter, streets they shade. Already
       Empty and dark, this street is. Dusty boughs
       Sleep in a pool of vigilance so bright
       An old tom skirts it. The world's his tonight.

Writing for a cast of voices also, and by no means incidentally, displayed another of Merrill's gifts, his mastery of rhyme. In theatrical speech and in the whole spectrum of his poetry it seems natural, a realization of the empirical sureness of his ear, of the liveliness and apparent ease of his voice and peace, of all their high comedy.

He is the obvious immediate heir of W. H. Auden, who is an orbiting character in the Sandover cycle, an avuncular if somewhat irascible benefactor. Merrill's other immediate forebears are less evident. There was Elizabeth Bishop, whom he revered as friend and poet; in this book, "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia" is an elegy not only for her but for what she comes to signify, a world that is departing:

              Out from such melting backdrops
       It is the rare conifer stands whole, one sharp
       Uniquely tufted spoke of a dark snow crystal
       Not breathed upon, as yet, by our exhaust.
       Part of a scene that with its views and warblers,
       And at its own grave pace, but in your footsteps
       —Never more imminent the brink, more sheer—
       Is making up its mind to disappear.

And before Bishop, perhaps her own mentor, Marianne Moore, whose "No Swan So Fine" may be refracted behind one of Merrill's first published poems, "The Black Swan," in which:

            The blond child on
      The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
      Now in bliss, now in doubt.
      His lips move: I love the black swan.

Before them I think of the poems of Byron, and of Pope, whom Merrill loved, as ancestors of his poems. But he was never derivative, never to be mistaken for another. He wrote of change from within it, watching the crystal turn, remembering it as it passed. His opus is work of utter integrity, and he was able to suspend within it wit, frivolity, apparent frivolity, irony, grief, a vast gatherum of the minutiae of existence including drag, the G.N.P. and the paper substitute Tyvek, without loss of style. Like every authentic voice of such substance and distinction, he calls into question all the words he suggests that might designate him, and he resettles them as he goes on taking his own place.

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