• Email
  • Print

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 tears.
What she has thought about us all God knows.

If the divinity of youth was Eros, the divinity of middle age is Clio; if the metaphor for being thirty was embrace, the metaphor for being fifty is companionship; and if the presence in the mind was once love, it is now death.

Quickened by the thought of death, which so resists the rational intelligence, the imaginations of poets react and react and react, pressing back (to use Stevens’s phrase) with all the inventions, illusions, conjectures, wiles, seductions, and protests of which they are capable. Nothing so compels poets to complication: and if what they conjure up to talk to them from the dark is a voice recognizably their own but bearing a different name, they (and their readers) are peculiarly consoled by the reflected Word. So Milton found his own best voice speaking back at him under the names of Phoebus Apollo and St. Peter; so Dante fell into colloquy with his elder self, Virgil; so Yeats invented his “mysterious instructors” who dictated to him and his wife his elaborate system of history and the afterlife; and so James Merrill, in his divine comedies, communicates with an affable familiar ghost named Ephraim, first evoked at the Ouija board in Stonington twenty years ago, and a frequent visitor since.

In his 1970 volume The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (literally Switzerland, but since Merrill’s friend Hans Lodeizen had died there, also metaphorically the country of the dead), Merrill published his first Ouija poem, in which a candid, if ineptly expressed, stanza offers the motive for listening to “voices from the other world”:

   Once looked at lit
By the cold reflections of the dead
Risen extinct but irresistible,
Our lives have never seemed more full, more real,
Nor the full moon more quick to chill.

These lines give at least some notion of the origins of “The Book of Ephraim.” It is a poem in twenty-six sections, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, from A to Z, exhausting the twenty-six capital letters of the Ouija board. And yet, for all its ninety pages, the Book is not finished, scarcely even begun, its dramatic personae—living, dead, and invented—hardly glimpsed, and only partially listed, its tale of an unfinished novel still untold, its gaily inventive theology linking this world to the otherworld barely delineated.

Merrill casually and mockingly praises his own “net of loose talk tightening to verse” through his surrogates among the dead. Ephraim (“a Greek Jew born AD 8 at Xanthos”), who communicates of course in the caps of the Ouija board, tells Merrill,

   …POPE SAYS THAT WHILE BITS
STILL WANT POLISHING THE WHOLES A RITZ
BIG AS A DIAMOND.

Instead of Virgilian solemnity, this guide to the otherworld uses social chitchat:

U ARE SO QUICK MES CHERS I FEEL WE HAVE
SKIPPING THE DULL CLASS- ROOM DONE IT ALL
AT THE SALON LEVEL.

For rationalists reading the poem, Merrill includes a good deal of self-protective irony, even incorporating in the tale a visit to his ex-shrink, who proclaims the evocation of Ephraim and the other Ouija “guests” from the other world a folie à deux between Merrill and his friend David Jackson. But once the “machinery”—not here the sylphs and nymphs of The Rape of the Lock but rather the ghosts of dead friends and other revenants—is accepted as a mode of imagination, what then can be said of the import of this strange poem?

It is centrally a hymn to history and a meditation on memory—personal history and personal memory, which are, for this poet at least, the muse’s materials. The host receives his visible and invisible guests, convinced that Heaven—the invisible sphere—is “the surround of the living,” that the poet’s paradise is nothing other than all those beings whom he has known and has imagined. Through Ephraim,

We, all we knew, dreamed, felt and had forgotten,
Flesh made word, became…a set of
Quasi-grammatical constructions…. Hadn’t—from books, from living—
The profusion dawned on us, of “languages”
Any one of which, to who could read it,
Lit up the system it conceived?—bird-flight,
Hallucinogen, chorale and horo- scope:
Each its own world, hypnotic, many-sided
Facet of the universal gem.

These “facets of the universal gem” shine throughout “The Book of Ephraim,” which aims at being a poem of a thousand and one reflecting surfaces. The irregularities and accidents of life are summed up in the fiction of reincarnation which animates the book’s theology: people pop in and out of life as the bodies in which their spirits are incarnated die of heart attacks, in fires, or by less violent means; spirits get put in unsuitable bodies; and in the crowded world of the afterlife a constant influx of souls makes for an agitated scene. Merrill’s father, dead and between lives, gets through on the board:

   Then CEM gets through,
High-spirited, incredulous—he’d tried
The Board without success when Nana died.
Are we in India? Some goddam fool
Hindoo is sending him to Sunday School.
He loved his wives, his other children, me;
Looks forward to his next life.

The next life of Charles Merrill, announces Ephraim, is in Kew:

YR FATHER JM he goes on (we’re back
In the hotel room) WAS BORN YESTERDAY
To a greengrocer: name, address in Kew
Spelt out.

This social comedy between other-world and this world is one tone of “The Book of Ephraim”: another is reminiscence of a simpler ego:

Götterdämmerung. From a long ago
Matinee—the flooded Rhine, Val- halla
In flames, my thirteenth birthday—one spark floating
Through the darkened house had come to rest
Upon a mind so pitifully green
As only now, years later, to ignite….
The heartstrings’ leitmotif out- soared the fire.

Still another tone juxtaposes the eternal confrontation of youth and age, Eros and entropy, Prometheus and the eroding Parthenon:

Leave to the sonneteer eternal youth.
His views revised, an older man would say
He was “content to live it all again.”
Let this year’s girl meanwhile resume her pose,

The failing sun its hellbent azimuth.
Let stolen thunder dwindle out to sea.
Dusk eat into the marble-pleated gown.

Merrill’s company of the dead comes in late exchange for the abandoned dream of the immortal couple, echoed through the book in Wagnerian terms, in Tristan’s “höchste Lust,” and in Brünnhilde’s choice of love over Valhalla: “Nie Liebe liesse ich nie, mir nähmen nie sie die Liebe.” These sublimities remain, icons unattainable but not disallowed, at the edges of this deliberately social and tempered poetry. Wanting consuming passions, Merrill says, he has found only refining ones.

Merrill’s lines, in their exquisite tones, are often painful to read. Though they keep their beautiful poise on the brink of sense and feeling, and aim here at the autumnal, or the ironic, they keep echoes, undimmed, of the past: Merrill is not yet, and I think will never be, a poet free of sensuality, love, and youth, actual or remembered. Enshrined with Brünnhilde in the section (Q, of course) of Quotations in “The Book of Ephraim” is Spenser’s transcendent dream of the Garden of Adonis, where in “immortal blis…Franckly each paramour his leman knowes,” in an equable and unfallen counterpart of Wagner’s doomed couples.

The Book of Ephraim,” for the most part, refuses the postures thought appropriate to age—stoicism, resignation, disbelief, patience, or cynicism. The mild conviviality of Merrill’s unearthly symposium is boyish in its welcome to comedy, sympathy, and nostalgia at once; and the poet’s naïve enthusiasm for “learning” from Ephraim the ins and outs of behavior and fate in the otherworld is so different from Dante’s and Yeats’s gloomy reverence for their guides that we are moved to delight by the refraction of these “divine comedies” from their more religious predecessors.

On the other hand, “The Book of Ephraim” is not really a comic poem. When Merrill and Jackson protest Ephraim’s offhand tone about death, and say “Must everything be witty?” Ephraim answers, in a phrase that could be applied to the whole poem,

   AH MY DEARS
I AM NOT LAUGHING I WILL SIMPLY NOT SHED TEARS.

If life is “a death’s head to be faced,” it is also, in this poem, the repository of enormous treasures.

The claim of this long poem to moral significance rests in the way it balances two entirely opposite truths about middle age. One is the truth of perceived fate, as it declares itself in the simplest of sentences: This is who I am; This is where I live; This is the person I live with; My father is dead; I will not fall in love again. The other is the truth of received experience, as it glitters in a cloud of witnesses—all the things seen, the people met, the places traveled to, the books read, the faces loved, the lines written, the events lived through, the events imagined, the past absorbed—the past not only of personal life but of cultural history as well. The glowing dialectic of restriction of present life and expansion of experienced soul animates these pages into a visionary balancing of scales, now one pan up, now the other. Merrill’s imagination has always been mercurial, airy, and darting, but here the counterweight of death adds a constant pull toward grief.

The Book of Ephraim” might seem to risk the accusation of triviality, in its apparent refusal to take large issues seriously:

Life like the periodical not yet
Defunct kept hitting the stands. We seldom failed
To leaf through each new issue—war, election,
Starlet; write, scratch out; eat steak au poivre,
Chat with Ephraim.

But under this briskness lies a wasting ennui:

The whole house needs repairs. Neither can bring
Himself to say so. Hardly linger- ing,
We’ve reached the point, where the tired Sound just washes
Up to, then avoids our feet.

In this repetitive routine, Merrill is free to admit all the flotsam and jetsam floating in his mind, and to let us judge that mind as we will.

Because Merrill is a poet whose devotion goes to the Absolute under the form of the Beautiful, his range, like that of the Beautiful itself, is diverse: the Good and the True do not really participate in a spectrum of more and less in quite the same way. From bibelots to Beatrice, from embroidery to altarpiece, goes the scale, and Merrill’s tone modulates along with its object. Like Proust and Nabokov, two other sensibilities more attached to the Beautiful than to the Scientific, the Philosophical, the Ethical, or the Ideological, Merrill avoids being polemical or committed, in the ordinary sense of those words. By taking conversation—from lovers’ exchange of vows to friends’ sentences in intimacy—as the highest form of human expression (in contrast to the rhapsode’s hymns, the orator’s harangues, or the initiate’s hermetic colloquies with the divine) Merrill becomes susceptible to charges of frivolity, at least from readers with a taste only for the solemn. But this espousal of the conversational as the ultimate in linguistic achievement is a moral choice, one which locates value in the human and everyday rather than in the transcendent.

It is no accident that Merrill appropriates for himself Keats’s image of the chameleon poet, as delighted by an Iago as by an Imogen; he draws out a constantly changing veil of language like the endless scarves of silk from the illusionist’s hands, now one color, now another, scattering light in rainbow transparency over and under his subject. And yet the severity of death fixes a new, unwavering color on the apparently boundless earlier sympathy with the attractions of experience:

   Already I take up
Less emotional space than a snow- drop.
…Young chameleon, I used to
Ask how on earth one got suffi- ciently
Imbued with otherness. And now I see.

Though the other poems in this collection share the conversational immediacy of “The Book of Ephraim,” they also, in their persistent elegiac tone, seem to be fragments from a modern version of The Prelude. “Lost in Translation,” of which the putative subject is Merrill’s putting together, as a child, a complicated jigsaw puzzle with the aid of his governess, is really a gorgeous combination of Popean diversity of surface talk and Wordsworthian rumination on the past, and on the powers and lapses of memory. It is an easier poem than “Yannina,” an elegy for Merrill’s father set in the Turkish town of Yannina, once ruled by Ali Pasha, who becomes in the poem the surrogate for Charles Merrill. We see Ali flanked by “two loves, two versions of the Feminine”: one the “pious matron” Frossíni, drowned at Ali’s order for having refused compliance; the other Vassilikí, pictured with Ali sleeping in her lap. Byron (whose ottava rima Merrill here borrows and rings changes on) visited Ali, and found him “Very kind…indeed, a father.” Merrill continues,

Funny, that is how I think of Ali.
On the one hand, the power and the gory
Details, pigeon-blood rages and retali-
ations, gouts of fate that crust his story;
And on the other, charm, the whimsically
Meek brow, its motives all ab ulteriori,
The flower-blue gaze twining to choke proportion,
Having made one more pretty face’s fortune….

Ali, my father—both are dead.

Around this center vacillate feelings about the Oriental multiplicity of Yannina—its provincial promenade cluttered with seller’s booths, a magician’s tent, loudspeaker music—and feelings about the two women, the wronged matron and the complaisant concubine. The scene on the promenade resembles the London Fair in The Prelude, but the human jumble of sight and sound, so inimical to the recoiling Wordsworthian sensibility which required solitude and massive forms, is the food of life to Merrill, who needs movement, color, the vulgar and the passionate together. As for the two women, one, the wronged Frossíni, has become a secular saint:

And in the dark gray water sleeps
One who said no to Ali. Kiosks all over town
Sell that postcard, “Kyra Fros- síni’s Drown,”
Showing her, eyeballs white as mothballs, trussed
Beneath the bulging moon of Ali’s lust.
A devil (turban and moustache and sword)
Chucks the pious matron over- board.

Frossíni’s fate is half farce, half martyrdom; and “her story’s aftertaste / Varies according to the listener,” especially when her garish memorial postcard is placed against the skillful, still preserved, painting of Ali and Vassilikí—“almost a love-death, höchste lust!” In the end, though, both versions of the feminine—“one virginal and tense, brief as a bubble, / One flesh and bone”—go up in smoke, and the poem dips momentarily into ghoulish images of death:

Where giant spits revolving try their rusty treble,
Sheep’s eyes pop, and death-wish ravens croak…. …At the island monastery, eyes
Gouged long since to the gesso sockets will outstare
This or that old timer on his
knees.

The empty sockets would seem to betoken the end of Ali and his women, and of the blushing girls and radiant young men courting on the promenade as well:

   Where did it lead,
The race, the radiance? To obliv- ion
Dissembled by a sac of sparse black seed.

This is Merrill’s most complicated retelling of his family history. But since living, of itself, perpetuates nothing, he turns, almost reluctantly, to his pain and his pen at home, far from Yannina, and invites us to enter with him, in fantasy, the magician’s tent on the promenade where a woman can be sawed into two, then miraculously healed, a reassuring myth to set over against Frossíni’s fate:

   A glittering death
Is hefted, swung. The victim smiles consent.
To a sharp intake of breath she comes apart…
Then to a general exhalation heals

Like anybody’s life, bubble and smoke
In afterthought.

Afterthought may, in comparison to life, be only “bubble and smoke,” but afterthought is also the domain of art, where a dreamy eternity envelops Ali. In afterthought, the “elements converge”:

Glory of windless mornings that the barge
(Two barges, one reflected, a quick- silver joke)
Kept scissoring and mending as it steered
The old man outward and away,
Amber mouthpiece of a narghilé
Buried in his by then snow white beard.

In this universe, the poet’s reflective mind meets and internalizes all the Oriental opulence of Ali and his town, the prudishness and pathos of Frossíni, the luxuriousness of Vassilikí, and the recurrent chorus of the courting couples on the promenade: “What shall the heart learn, that already knows / Its place by water, and its time by sun?” It also accepts the ghastly permanence of the dead bodies visible in the monastery underground burial-place, and the dying animals turning on spits. But it believes that in writing it can make “some inmost face to shine / Maned with light, ember and anodyne, / Deep in a desktop burnished to its grain.” The lights have vanished along the lake in Yannina, but

Weeks later, in this study gone opaque,
They are relit. See through me. See me through.

The pun, like most of Merrill’s plays on words, is serious, and the elegy has gone as far as a poem can go in attempting to take into its stylized world of “bubble and smoke” the fleshly lusts of Ali and the theatrical immolation of Frossíni, the Vanity Fair of the world and the gruesome end of the sexual impulse. It is an odd, crowded, and baroque elegy, with a remarkable joining of filial and paternal spheres.

It remains to be seen how Merrill, whose inventiveness is to be trusted, will continue with such narrative poems and, perhaps, with more installments of “The Book of Ephraim.” Mozart, according to Ephraim, has been currently reincarnated as a black rock star: it makes one want more news from that source.

  • Email
  • Print