A Scattering of Salts

by James Merrill
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1718

James Merrill died on February 6, 1995. A Scattering of Salts was the fifteenth and last in a series of collections of poems that began in 1951, when his First Poems was published. It brings to an end a career and body of work that became increasingly original with the passage of time.

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From the beginning, Merrill was recognized as a master of verse forms and a prodigious technician. He always seemed to be at home with the most demanding requirements of poetry. Even as a young man, Merrill wrote with an almost Augustan control and intricacy. When he was twenty-one—an undergraduate at Amherst—he was worried that his voice was “clogged/ By an upheaval of the intellect.” Instead of revolting against form, like the Beats in the mid-1950’s and other poets he described as “dishevelled,” he was able to use form—and a great variety of forms—for his own ends. In his hands, forms became new and capable of surprise. With some early exceptions, he did not use formal virtuosity for its own sake but as a vehicle in a deliberate search for meaning and exploration of experience.

One of the main themes in Merrill’s poetry is autobiography and his own past. He has been criticized for emphasizing autobiography and for self-absorption. The criticism has some merit, and the fact that he was the son of the financier Charles E. Merrill is probably not of outstanding interest. It is the other themes that provide the excitement of this book: love, the passage of time, memory, openness to contemporary experience—a trait amply demonstrated in many poems in A Scattering of Salts—and the ability to communicate with the dead.

In “Nine Lives,” for example, the narrator of the poem and his friend David Jones sit down at a Ouija board, and promptly receive a message from Bombay. In a brief explanation, Merrill writes:

I hate to say it, but the neophyte
Must take the full amazement of this news
(At least till he can purchase and peruse
A heavy volume called The Changing Light
At Sandover) on faith.

This “heavy” collection of poems, published in 1982 and reissued in 1992, can be easily consulted by a reader interested in learning more about Merrill’s ideas concerning the different forms taken by “spirit” and the return of souls. An acquaintance with The Changing Light at Sandover helps the reader to appreciate the poems in Merrill’s last collection, although it is not a prerequisite. “Nine Lives” deals with cats, humans, and the many lives they both have. Numerous other passages in the collection evoke Merrill’s ideas about spiritual communication, for example these lines about the inhabitants and “shades” of a volcanic island in the Pacific (“Volcanic Holiday”):

Crested like palms, like waves, they too subsist
On one idea—returning.
Generation after generation
The spirit grapples, tattered butterfly,
A flower in sexual costume.

Merrill has always been a poet of the conceit and the pun, and these are much in evidence in A Scattering of Salts. The conceit has an ancient lineage in English literature; it is not eccentric, as some have claimed, and it goes back not only to the metaphysicals but indeed to William Shakespeare, sometimes in and sometimes out of fashion. A Scattering of Salts is filled with Merrill’s trademark puns and conceits. In “The Great Emigration,” his bus in Scotland passes some grazing sheep: “Sheep or stones?/ As we whiz by/ A local rock group/ Begins to bleat.” In another poem (“The Ponchielli Complex”), nineteenth century entrepreneurs “tamed the wild/ Horses of steam, made fiction of the trees.” Here “fiction” has two senses, a play on a word characteristic of Merrill. “Fat Venetian street/ Singers driven to verismo’s brink/ Got their deserts”—that is, they aged. In “A Look Askance,” Merrill catches sight of his own poem as it emerges above the carriage of the electric typewriter:

see how their concrete poem

Keeps towering higher and higher. See also at dusk

Meaning’s quick lineman climb from floor to floor
Inlaying gloom with beads of hot red ore

That hiss in the ferry’s backwash.

A mirror that has been left outdoors reflects the approaching autumn: “Nature grows strong in you. Again last night/ Rustling forth in all her jewelry/ She faced the glacial croupier: Double or nothing!” (“Big Mirror Outdoors”).

These are not merely isolated puns or plays on words to catch the reader’s attention, but parts of a larger, rich matrix of analogies and correspondences that proves to be al- most endless. They form Merrill’s representation of the world, his version of mimesis.

These analogies and puns lead naturally to a vision of much larger units: The poem itself becomes a single, dramatized metaphor. The mirror left outdoors registers the globe’s four-season cycle, but an analogous cycle is represented by the life of the individual person. If this were only a self-regarding artifice or display of invention, it would be easily forgettable, but the landscape, the narrator, and all people face this same “glacial croupier.” On the psychological level it is a recurrent nightmare, “horrifying and harmless,” an occurrence lethal and ordinary at the same time, seen through a household mirror.

Another poem on the act of writing, “To the Reader,” begins:

Each day, hot off the press from Moon & Son,
“Knowing of your continued interest,”
Here’s a new book—well, actually the updated
Edition of their one all-time best seller—
To find last night’s place in, and forge ahead.
If certain scenes and situations (“work,”
As the jacket has it, “of a blazingly
Original voice”) make you look up from your page
But this is life, is truth, is me!—too many
Smack of self-plagiarism.

The meaning of this playful introductory passage is less elusive than it may seem. A “press”—small, commercial, and needing to advertise—writes of the daily round led by the sun and moon. The “one all-time best seller” is probably the present, and the acute interest that all people take in it. The “blazingly original voice” is each individual voice, original and unique, and universal.

The humor in this passage is typical of Merrill and reflects no strain. Merrill’s “work”—writing—is an everyday occurrence and is equivalent to the present; it is “life,” “truth,” and “me.” The humor is to be shared: It points away from isolation or preciosity and toward everyday encounters. “To the Reader” reflects the efforts of the small press known as “Moon & Son,” and Merrill’s style reflects the fabric of the everyday world.

Humor is central to Merrill’s work, and he asks the reader to enjoy it just as he enjoys jokes or stories. Helen Vendler has observed (in “Chronicles of Love and Loss,” The New York Review of Books, May 11, 1995) that Merrill is basically a comic poet, as were W. H. Auden and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Throughout his life, Merrill had a highly developed sense of comedy and play, and this “play” was both serious and not serious at the same time. Merrill played—often ironically—with the most serious themes; because they were everyday occurrences, it was fitting to treat them with the lightness and gracefulness of play.

Whole poems become metaphors in A Scattering of Salts; with Merrill, anything can be compared to anything or everything. No comparison is rejected for conventional or superficial reasons; Merrill’s comparisons often cause both surprise and recognition. “Volcanic Holiday,” which describes a real volcano, begins:

Our helicopter shaking like a fist
Hovers above the churning
Cauldron of red lead in what a passion!
None but the junior cherubim ask why.
We bank and bolt.

A series of seven seven-line stanzas builds up a concrete setting in the Pacific, a volcano with lava and underground magma. This leads to the history of the islands with their geology, flora, fauna, natives and tribal warfare, missionaries and tourists. As Merrill evokes the themes of instinct, expansion, and compulsion, the poem imperceptibly becomes an exploration of the nature of human sexuality (with the “obstacle course” of adolescence) and human love. After questioning the nature of words and emotion, the poem concludes:

Meanwhile let green-to-midnight shifts of sky
Fill sliding mirrors in our room
—No more eruptions, they entreat—
With Earth’s repose and Heaven’s masquerades.

Other poems chart similar long-distance comparisons, and these are among the most original features of this collection of poems, representing its most satisfying artistic achievement and delight. The lengthy and intricate operations of these forms cannot be illustrated by brief quotation; they are conducive to reading for pleasure as well as lengthy analysis and exegesis. The poem “Alabaster,” like “Volcanic Holiday,” compares a geological process to a human process, in this case aging. “Home Fires” is an extended meditation on the human house or home: the hearth, love, and domesticity. “Self Portrait in Tyvek (TM) Windbreaker” is perhaps the most amusing poem in the collection. It begins with a description of a parka that the narrator has bought that depicts a map of the world; through descriptions of amusing encounters with strangers, the poem becomes an exploration of the nature of the clothes and stores “catering to the collective unconscious/ Of our time and place.” One of the longest poems in the book, “Family Week at Oracle Ranch,” is set in a New Age rehabilitation center in “our brave new dried-out world”—Arizona. The poem turns into a series of hilarious encounters with social fads (“Pinned to your chest,/ A sign: Confront Me if I Take Control”) and examines patterns of change and changelessness. It is an excellent example of how satire in Merrill’s poetry can gradually build up into cosmology.

A Scattering of Salts contains poems that are formally dazzling, that make the reader burst into laughter, and that at the same time achieve a high level of meaning.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, March 15, 1995, p. 1303.

Library Journal. CXX, April 1, 1995, p. 98.

The New Leader. LXXVIII, June 5, 1995, p. 20.

The New Republic. CCXII, June 5, 1995, p. 38.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, May 11, 1995, p. 46.

The New York Times Book Review. C, March 26, 1995, p. 3.

Poetry. CLXVI, September, 1995, p. 354.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, February 27, 1995, p. 98.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXI, Autumn, 1995, p. SS137.

The Yale Review. LXXXIII, October, 1995, p. 144.

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