In [Divine Comedies], where most of the poems have a narrative emphasis, Merrill succeeds in expressing his sensibility in a style deliberately invoking Scheherazade's tireless skein of talk…. His narrative forms in verse allow Merrill the waywardness, the distractions, the eddies of thought impossible in legends or in the spare nouveau roman, and enable the creation of both the long tale and of a new sort of lyric, triumphantly present here in two faultless poems, sure to be anthologized, "Lost in Translation" and "Yannina." (p. 211)
It is centrally a hymn to history and a meditation on memory—personal history and personal memory, which are, for this poet at least, the muse's materials. The host receives his visible and invisible guests, convinced that Heaven—the invisible sphere—is "the surround of the living," that the poet's paradise is nothing other than all those beings whom he has known and has imagined. (p. 213)
These "facets of the universal gem" shine throughout "The Book of Ephraim," which aims at being a poem of a thousand and one reflecting surfaces. The irregularities and accidents of life are summed up in the fiction of reincarnation which animates the book's theology: people pass in and out of life as the bodies in which their spirits are incarnated die of heart attacks, in fires, or by less violent means; spirits get placed in unsuitable bodies; and in the crowded world of the afterlife a constant influx of souls makes for an agitated scene. (p. 214)
Merrill's lines, in their exquisite tones, are often painful to read. Though they keep their beautiful poise on the brink of sense and feeling, and aim here at the autumnal, or the ironic, they keep echoes, undimmed, of the past: Merrill is not yet, and I think will never be, a poet free of sensuality, love, and youth, actual or remembered….
"The Book of Ephraim," for the most part, refuses the postures thought appropriate to age—stoicism, resignation, disbelief, patience, or cynicism. The mild conviviality of Merrill's unearthly symposium is boyish in its welcome to...
(The entire section is 876 words.)