News from the Muse

Divine Comedies

by James Merrill
Atheneum, 137 pp., $8.95

Since he published his First Poems twenty-five years ago, James Merrill’s energies have been divided between successive books of increasingly brilliant lyric poems (the most recent, Braving the Elements, in 1972) and attempts in larger fictional forms—two plays (1955 and 1960) and two novels (1957 and 1965). The flashes and glimpses of “plot” in some of the lyrics—especially the longer poems—reminded Merrill’s readers that he wanted more than the usual proportion of dailiness and detail in his lyrics, while preserving a language far from the plainness of journalistic poetry, a language full of arabesques, fancifulness, play of wit, and oblique metaphor. And yet the novels were not the solution, as Merrill himself apparently sensed.

In his new collection, 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: the long poem, “The Book of Ephraim,” which takes up two-thirds of this volume, is described as “The Book of a Thousand and One Evenings.” In explaining how he came to write this novelistic poem, Merrill recapitulates his struggle with fiction:

I yearned for the kind of unsea- soned telling found
In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean
Over the centuries by mild old tongues,
Grandam to cub, serene, anony- mous.
Lacking that voice, the in its fashion brilliant
Nouveau roman (including one I wrote)
Struck me as an orphaned form.

He once more tried his hand at writing a novel, but it lost itself in “word-painting”:

The more I struggled to be plain, the more
Mannerism hobbled me. What for?
Since it had never truly fit, why wear
The shoe of prose?

His narrative forms in verse allow Merrill the waywardness, the distractions, the eddies of thought impossible both in legends and 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.”

Divine Comedies marks a departure in Merrill’s work. He has always been a poet of Eros, but in an unwritten novel, about “the incarnation and withdrawal of / A god,” “the forces joined / By Eros” come briefly together and then disperse:

Exeunt severally the forces joined
By Eros—Eros in whose mouth the least
Dull fact had shone of old, a wetted pebble.

And Merrill’s servant in Greece, whose name (Kleo) he had never seen written, turns out to be named not Cleopatra, as he had thought, but Clio; she is not the presiding surrogate for Eros but rather the incarnation of the Muse of history, Merrill’s new patroness:

“Kleo” we still assume is the royal feline
Who seduced Caesar, not the drab old muse
Who did. Yet in the end it’s Clio I compose
A face to kiss, who clings to me in…

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