Playing with Fire

Late Settings

by James Merrill
Atheneum, 87 pp., $6.95 (paper)

James Merrill
James Merrill; drawing by David Levine

A handsome book with a quietly ominous title, James Merrill’s Late Settings arrives two and a half years after the simultaneous publication of The Changing Light at Sandover, his epic excursion into, among other things, the occult, and From the First Nine: Poems 1946–1976. The new title—unlike the two preceding, with their suggestions of variation and continuance—strikes a terminal note appropriate to final volumes; judged purely by its title, Late Settings might be set beside Auden’s last book of verse (Thank You, Fog), or Sissman’s (Hello, Darkness), or Roethke’s (The Far Field). And the book’s brief opening poem, “Grass,” offers a meditation on mortality in which the poet predicts only “ten more years—fifteen?” for himself. The “grass” of the poem is the stuff of lawns as well as the stuff of (drug) dreams, and the poem hovers between the burying earth and a heavenascendant smoke. “Grass” is immediately followed by the longer “Clearing the Title,” which vacillates as well, its thoughts of a new life in the Florida Keys tempered by reflections on old age and death.

The reader familiar with Merrill’s work may not know quite what to make of these dark broodings. While his verse has always had its grave underpinnings, his apparently inexhaustible wordplay continues, year by year, to look very much like boyish exuberance (a youthfulness corroborated by dust jacket photographs). Merrill has always written wonderfully of youth, whether pre-pubescent (as in the earlier “Days of 1935”) or adolescent (as in the present volume’s “Days of 1941 and ’44”), and it comes as something of a surprise, then, to realize that he will turn sixty next year. An occasional grave deliberation on aging is perhaps only to be expected.

By the close of the book’s first section (there are three), the poet’s musings on his own demise have broadened to encompass international terrorism and nuclear holocaust. The world has literally ended. But Late Settings proves less forbidding than its first section would suggest. There are a great many overcast skies and rumblings of thunder in these pages (the book’s title refers primarily to sunsets rather than to place or jewelry settings), but as a good reader-turned-meteorologist might have forecast, one is in for lots of sun and a cleansing breeziness before the last poem unfolds.

The sun certainly washes through “Santo,” which tells an endearing tale of how the guiding saint of a Hispanic household is brought vigorously back to life:

Francisco on his shelf,
Wreathed in dusty wax
Roses, for weeks and weeks
Hadn’t been himself—

Making no day come true
By answering a prayer,
Just dully standing there…
What did our Grandma do?

She painted his beard black
And rinsed the roses clean,
Then hid his rags in half
A new red satin cloak,

Renaming him Martín.
Next week the baby spoke,
Juan sent…

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