- 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It omits Merrill’s trilogy of book-length poems, The Changing Light at Sandover, as well as a number of uncollected or unpublished poems.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:
The splinters rainbowing ruin on the floor
Cut structures in the air,
Mark off, like eyes or compasses, a face
Of mathematic fixity, spotlight
Within whose circumscription we may set
All solitudes of love, room for love’s face,
Love’s projects green with leaves,
Love’s monuments like tombstones on our lives.
‘The Broken Bowl’ typifies the meretricious humourlessness of Merrill’s early poetry. The later work has none of this menacing generality, and the paralysing cast of the grand style is gone. Surprisingly, the transformation was arduous and very slow. The poems grow steadily more compelling, more animate, but it takes twenty years and four more volumes before Braving the Elements (1972) matches depth of subject matter with expressive power.
Part of the change is stylistic. He loosened up his diction, rhythm and syntax so that they more nearly approximated the patterns of colloquial speech, and dropped much of the distancing impersonal grammar. He revised the language of the early poems reprinted in From the First Nine (1982); what he sought was increased immediacy. In ‘Medusa’, for example, he altered ‘It was our lives somehow without our living’ to ‘Our lives, yes, but emptied of our living’ (this edition gives only the original versions).
Nonetheless, the power of Merrill’s later verse cannot be ascribed primarily to a change in rhetorical style. His mature poetry gives the impression that a specific person, leading the same circumscribed life as everyone else, is speaking from within his bounds, exposing his vulnerability in both his own and the reader’s eyes. The mode of representing the lyric ‘I’ has undergone a shift. There are some specific changes: there are more anecdotal or narrative poems, and more apparently autobiographical details (sometimes made up). These changes make (some of) his poems more accessible and ostensibly more frank: he now writes plainly about being gay. But these may not be profound differences. The radical problem for Merrill was the trickiness of self-representation. In the early part of his career, he simply froze before the lyric ‘I’. What enabled him, later on, to use it freely and with assurance?
Like every other major 20th-century poet, Merrill is contending with the aesthetic authority of Romanticism, and its techniques of urgent self-description. He once said that the use of the first-person present indicative in poetry was too ‘hot’. No doubt he swerved to avoid the kind of personal pathos that comes too easily, but he came to want some measure of directness, and sought to combine it with what would seem to be its opposite: multivalence, reflectiveness, quiet. This is not an easy combination; it is no wonder the work took him so long. Though he remained sparing in his use of the personal pronoun, he still faced the problem of deploying the first-person perspective in a way that seems cogent without being excessively self-involved or self-pitying, too monolithic, too confident or coherent. His solution was to make the divisions of consciousness his subject, especially the division between the ‘I’ as a site of lived experience and the ‘I’ that takes a more comprehensive view, seeing the first self from outside, as it were, and recognising its provisionality and (as in ‘b o d y’) its pending obsolescence. Many forceful moments in his poetry evoke the fraught coexistence of these perspectives.
Merrill is split, in the writing of a poem, between a suffering and an observing self. With pointed deliberateness, he takes himself as an object, which he then considers with some detachment, and some sympathy. He regards himself with a sad, cool horror, as a representative of the common fate. In ‘The Ring Cycle’, which combines a vision of ecological apocalypse with a description of attending a performance of Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera, he examines his place in the public world with macabre humour:
Young love, moon-flooded hut, and the act ends.
House lights. The matron on my left exclaims.
We gasp and kiss. Our mothers were best friends.
Now, old as mothers, here we sit. Too weird.
That man across the aisle, with lambswool beard,
Was once my classmate, or a year behind me.
Alone, in black, in front of him, Maxine . . .
It’s like the Our Town cemetery scene!
The allusive opportunism of the speaker, and his fragile bemusement, create a distinction between the self overwhelmed by the current of experience and the self that recognises its own subjection.
At the end of ‘Cosmo’, named for the puppy he and his lover acquire while their relationship is dissolving, Merrill pictures himself in an unguarded, unflattering moment of regression:
Heading back to bed,
I pass you open-eyed deep in your bed
on the toy-littered pantry floor,
jaw propped upon a ledge of faux
sheepskin . . .
I lay myself down deep and open-eyed
lonely upon the ramparts of goosedown –
doing what? Experiencing Repose.
Each in the same position, the same mood.
Cold, shutter-filtered sun. A lassitude
learned from you by me? By me from you?
Nothing to think of or look forward to.
Merrill is drawn to evocation of that suspended state in which the subject simply waits – inactive though shot through with affect. Apprehension entails a recognition of passivity: the theme of subjection persists – in fact, his treatment of his own helplessness becomes ever more intense – but his susceptibility to the pressure of larger forces draws our attention to them. He still has a taste for generalisation, but he pairs it with the expression of what Blake called ‘Living, self-moving, mourning, lamenting, & howling incessantly’. His worldliness does not obscure this undercurrent: in his first-person poems, Merrill is often both expressive and severe.
At the end of ‘Bronze’, he describes a young friend visiting him on his rooftop deck in Stonington, Connecticut and leaning casually against a bronze head of Merrill, modelled from life when he was six:
Here Augie, seeing me absent,
Ambled up to rest
Tanned forearms easily
On my unruffled hair.
A tilted beer, a streak
Staining bluegreen my cheek –
Bless him, he couldn’t care
Less for the Work of Art!
The stubborn child-face pressed,
Lips parted, to the heart
Under his torn T-shirt
Telling the world Clean Air
Or Else, was help and hurt
As much as I could bear.
The deliberate confusions of the first-person pronouns and adjectives (‘me absent’ but ‘my unruffled hair’) are evidence of a perplexing sort of self-division. Merrill’s portrait-head, from childhood, becomes a figure for himself as a mere creature in the world, subject to time, to be taken for an object, encountered and seen and soothed (or not), by others. Seeing Augie with this head he sees himself as a pathetic object: that is as much ‘help and hurt’ as he can bear.
This self-objectifying, and the challenge to the ego it entails, falls in with Merrill’s major theme, ‘self and the eclipse thereof’ (‘A Room at the Heart of Things’). The ‘eclipse’ of the self takes several related forms: transmutation over time, the erosion specific to maturity, the division of consciousness, and death. To this list too belongs the subtlest form of ‘eclipse’, the relinquishment of aggrandising self-perception, as depicted in ‘Bronze’: the resignation of oneself to the world, as merely one thing among others. He became expert at representing this complex state. In particular, he chose to overlay, or bifurcate, the present subject with a projection of its disappearance. This became his strategy for dissolving the lyric ego, while at the same time invoking it. His reflections in glass make a palimpsest of the future and the present: they show him as the phantom he is soon to be. His image in the tank of the Key West Aquarium ‘declares me – well, almost – not of this world, transparently a ghost/Into whom still the bright shaft glides.’
Merrill superimposes different temporalities, and with them, levels of consciousness and varieties of feeling. In the lovely poem ‘Grass’, the lit end of a cigarette becomes, for the smoker, a token of his transient life:
The river irises
Draw themselves in.
Enough to have seen
Their day. The arras
Also of evening drawn,
We light up between
Earth and Venus
On the courthouse lawn,
Kept by this cheerful
Inch of green
And ten more years – fifteen? –
This projection of the poet’s death approaches epitaph. One of Merrill’s last poems, in which he anticipates his death from Aids, is still more immediately a self-elegy. (This edition makes the poem available to the general public for the first time.) In ‘Christmas Tree’ (see below), he again represents himself, literally, as a thing in the world – now one subject to intense, painfully well-meaning attention – but a paradoxical sort of thing that can recognise itself as such, and embrace its role and its limited capacity. With the meditative quality of his formal experiments, Merrill has made ‘Christmas Tree’ a shape poem, and has dotted it with puns of an equivocal kind: BUD, BEA and IV, for instance, play on the bud, bee and ivy of the forest. These felicities of language and form are meant to seem ‘weird’ and inappropriate: they reflect insoluble disjunctions. The point is not only to demonstrate the subjection of the subject to the laws of its existence, but also to contrast the subject’s elaborate inner experience with the blank force of these laws.
The severest poems on this topic are those that concern himself. He wrote other kinds of poem of course, and as befits a poet attempting to navigate around the egoism of the lyric, he came to write social poems, which convincingly portray other people and his affection for them. He sometimes hints at their own subjection to the wider world, though generally with a lighter touch than in the poems about himself. The exceptions, naturally, are the elegies. Perhaps the most austere depiction of the eclipse of self appears in ‘Farewell Performance’, where he describes scattering the ashes of his friend David Kalstone:
Now, in the furnace parched to
ten or twelve light handfuls, a mortal gravel
sifted through fingers,
coarse yet greyly glimmering sublimate of
palace days, Strauss, Sidney, the lover’s plaintive
‘Can’t we be just be friends?’ which your breakfast phone call
clothed in amusement,
This is what we paddled a neighbour’s dinghy
out to scatter – Peter who grasped the buoy,
I who held the box underwater, freeing
all it contained. Past
sunny, fluent surroundings that gruel of selfhood
taking manlike shape for one last jeté on
ghostly – wait, ah! – point into darkness vanished.
The ‘eclipse’ of the self takes its ultimate, material form here, as all the colours, history, wit and expansive enthusiasm of a unique personality are resolved into a ‘greyly glimmering sublimate’. The sapphic form is unusual, the tone is mild, the language sometimes playful (‘paddled’, ‘jeté’); all of this offers a foil to the underlying brutality (‘that gruel of selfhood/taking manlike shape’). The ‘I’ in this poem has become not merely the masked recorder, but the possessor of an appalled awareness of the law, as it takes himself and others, casually, for its object. The voice does not side with the law’s impassivity, but the knowledge that it is impassive becomes one of the layers in the observing consciousness.
The missing link in this volume between Merrill’s early professionalism and late lyricism is the Sandover trilogy, an autobiography in verse published in parts between 1976 and 1982; writing it must have helped him perfect his mode of self-representation. It required many years’ labour for him to discover how to make something moving of his own story, as if there were in his talents and inclinations some particular resistance to the task, so that it imposed itself on him as his particular task. The first-person perspective harried and attracted him. But he could only adopt it by evolving a technique subtle enough to portray an ‘I’ that is self-consciously divided, imperilled and displaced.
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.