- Collected Poems by James Merrill, edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser
Knopf, 736 pp, £35.75, February 2001, ISBN 0 375 41139 9
This Collected Poems is not a ‘Complete Poetry’. It omits Merrill’s trilogy of book-length poems, The Changing Light at Sandover, as well as a number of uncollected or unpublished poems. The notes are minimal. Merrill died in 1995: the editors of this volume, who are also his literary executors, apparently decided to publish a reader’s edition in short order. I hope it will be followed in time by a genuinely complete, multi-volume edition of the poems, with annotations. Meanwhile, this collection provides ample evidence of his power.
One of Merrill’s mature lyrics, ‘b o d y’, reads in its entirety:
Look closely at the letters. Can you see,
entering (stage right), then floating full,
then heading off – so soon –
how like a little kohl-rimmed moon
o plots her course from b to d
as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door?
Looked at too long, words fail,
phase out. Ask, now that body shines
no longer, by what light you learn these lines and what the b and d stood for.
The poem looks closely at the letters in the word ‘body’, and sees in their configuration an emblem of that body’s trajectory from b(irth) to d(eath), or rather the trajectory of the little o, the embodied subject or soul, which ‘plots its course’ towards extinction just because it is embodied. It crosses the night sky like the moon; or else, like an actor, it crosses the stage, moving in an irrevocable pattern from origin to end. And yet it does not experience itself as mechanical. The o is the ‘I’, as its likening to ‘a little kohl-rimmed moon’ (a mascara-lined eye) punningly suggests, and the way in which the ‘I’ experiences its course is always novel. It must remain bewildered, as the puzzle of why – y – it exists goes unsolved. At the end, the poem turns directly to the evocation of this bewilderment, instructing ‘you’ (who is first Merrill himself, and then the reader) to mark the baffling anomaly of your own subjectivity, a paradoxical o or zero, a mark of annihilation, which stands for a nothing that is something, and a something that is nothing.
This is a late poem; it is retrospective, patently a poem of old age, when ‘body’ no longer shines. Merrill’s virtuosity is often described as defensive, or as offering ‘consolation’ or ‘balance’ or some form of countering order and affirmation. Yet here he uses virtuosity to dramatise its own airiness, in the good and the bad sense. Wit makes a puzzle of the word ‘body’, and solves it, but the enigma of subjectivity persists. In the various dualities it invokes, but particularly in the tension it creates between wit and feeling, the poem recalls the fundamental antithesis between the laws and the experience of experience. Ultimately, it sides with feeling.
Merrill’s poetry is commonly admired for its formal ingenuity. But the ingenuity was there from the beginning; what marks his development is the evolution of what we usually call ‘voice’, the compelling representation of an inner life and its drama. There is no persuasive voice in the early poems, only a grand, epigrammatic impersonality and an empty first person. The lyrics of First Poems (1951) strive for high and solemn sentiment, and seem to say that the little ‘I’ (or ‘we’) who describes large forces or laws is also subject to them. This tactic of self-subsuming has worked for other writers, but in the hands of the young Merrill, in ‘The Broken Bowl’ for example, it produces verse that is impacted and evasive:
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Brought down at last
From the cold sighing mountain
Where I and the others
Had been fed, looked after, kept still,
Meant, I knew – of course I knew –
That it would be only a matter of weeks,
That there was nothing more to do.
Warmly they took me in, made much of me,
The point from the start was to keep my spirits up.
I could assent to that. For honestly,
It did help to be wound in jewels, to send
Their colours flashing forth from vents in the deep
Fragrant sables that cloaked me head to foot.
Over me they wove a spell of shining –
Purple and silver chains, eavesdripping tinsel
Amulets, milagros: software of silver,
A heart, a little girl, a Model T,
Two staring eyes. The angels, trumpets, BUD and BEA
(The children’s names) in clownlike capitals,
Somewhere a music box whose tiny song
Played and replayed I ended before long
By loving. And in shadow behind me, a primitive IV
To keep the show going. Yes, yes, what lay ahead
Was clear: the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals
Ploughed back into the Earth for lives to come –
No doubt a blessing, a harvest, but one that doesn’t bear,
Now or ever, dwelling upon. To have grown so thin.
Needles and bone. The little boy’s hands meeting
About my spine. The mother’s voice: Holding up wonderfully!
No dread. No bitterness. The end beginning. Today’s
Dusk room aglow
For the last time
Faces love lit,
Still to be so poised, so
Receptive. Still to recall, to praise.