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.
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...
(The entire section is 1718 words.)