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Playing with Fire

Late Settings

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

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 a photograph
On board his submarine,

Aunt Concha went to cook
Downtown at the hotel,
The sick white dog got well
—And that was all it took!

The poem’s lucidity, with its suggestion of unlabored ease, works to conceal the tough, technical virtuosity that is its source and complement. Given the fluent dropping-into-place of each quatrain (the stanzaic form that remains Merrill’s primary building block), it’s only on a second reading, or a third, that the reader will likely see the number of characteristic strengths and tricks displayed here—how, for example, that insular A-B-B-A rhyming opens up in the poem’s center, as rhymes begin to cross stanzaic boundaries, only to close up tight once more in the final quatrain.

The critic who would discuss Merrill’s formal accomplishment labors under a sizable burden; the language of English prosody is so egregiously imprecise and unwieldy that it may simply seem wiser to ignore the technical side of things. And yet to scant Merrill’s prosody is to lose sight of what makes him such an original and prepossessing figure. Merrill is, it seems clear to me, the most interesting prosodist in America today. He combines mastery of intricate traditional forms (how many poets could have pulled off “Samos,” that canzone which crowns the final volume of the Sandover trilogy?) with a prodigious gift for nonce improvisations. He is certainly our most adept and inventive handler of rhyme. Unfortunately, rhyme may be, of all prosodic tools, the most difficult for the critic to discuss.

What, for example, do we make of “weeks” and “wax” in the first stanza of “Santo”? How to designate these rhymes that keep initial and terminal consonant sounds intact and alter only the internal vowel sound? Prosody handbooks often call this “consonance,” a term confusingly employed as well for words linked by only a final consonant, like “black” and “cloak” in the third stanza of “Santo.” (Standard dictionaries, as opposed to prosody handbooks, usually recognize only the latter sense.) Merrill himself would call “weeks” and “wax” a “slant rhyme”—a term too often used, like “off rhyme,” to signal any dim, undifferentiated echo between two words. Vastly preferable, because unambiguous, is “pararhyme,” a term that G.S. Fraser adopts in his fine little book Metre, Rhyme and Free Verse—but it’s an aliensounding label that hasn’t yet achieved resident status in our handbooks or dictionaries.

Given the range of cumbersome, obscure, and pompous language already wielded by literary critics, a strong presumption should exist against the introduction or resuscitation of unfamiliar terms. But in the case of rhyme, our lack of precise terminology ultimately alters what we hear; what we have no words for, we’re unlikely to notice. If a term like “pararhyme” had wider currency, Merrill’s methods and ambitions would come clearer. What we call this species of rhyme is unimportant, but Merrill’s readers ought to know that he has taken “consonance” or “slant rhyme” or “pararhyme” closer to the center of his work, and has probably done more with it, than any other poet in the history of English literature.

The place of rhyme in twentieth-century verse was rendered troublesome by the modernist revolution, which—at least so far as rhyme was concerned—may have come at a bad time. A number of the revolutionaries (including Pound and the Imagists, Williams, Stevens, and the later Eliot) jettisoned rhyme just when, arguably, it was getting interesting. Marvelous things had begun to happen to rhyme in the first few decades of the century. The posthumous emergence of Hopkins’s verse and the brief florescence of Wilfred Owen (dead at twenty-five, having fallen to a machine gun a week before the Armistice) pointed to new uses for rhyme—and hence new harmonies. In Owen, particularly—the first English poet to make systematic experiments with pararhyme—one hears a precursor to Merrill. Owen, though, liked to throw such rhymes into couplets, giving them a prominence which, in conjunction with the military world he often took as subject matter, gave his new harmonies a rough, unsettling dissonance. In Merrill’s work, the effect of pararhyming is often muted, as in this stanza about contact lenses:

—Out, out! Their little drum’s
Twin lids unscrew to let them soak.
And (look) here comes the Sandman with his sack
Of love and dreams…

or this one about a telescope, where the rhyming leaps linguistic lines:

Mark tonight’s variation Maggiore.
   Lento.
Clear. Cold. The heavens’ hushed, centrifugal evasion
Of the bungled hospitality we call vision.
Even should one of their company, entering the lean-to….

While not always heard consciously, such rhymes reverberate with a remote, thrilling oddness. At times one senses in Merrill, as in Owen, the potential for a new sort of music altogether, with its correspondent demand for newly turned ears in the listener, for a new set of aural allowances and expectations.

Helen Vendler has called Merrill’s rhymes “the cleverest the language has seen since Byron.” Hers is a perceptive observation and—in its bridging of golden past to cloudy present—a useful one, but I would attach an asterisk to it. W.H. Auden was a consummate master of rhyme, both of the headlong, preposterous sort that Byron specialized in (Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” at times one-ups his addressee) and of the dense clangor one finds in Hopkins and Owen. And as far as I know, Auden’s song “That night when joy began…” makes the most ingenious use of rhyme of any fully successful poem in the language. In his rhyming, Merrill should be regarded as part of a twentieth-century revolutionary vanguard for which Auden serves as scout and leader. Other confederates would include Marianne Moore, for her use of “light rhyme,” Elizabeth Bishop, particularly for her juxtapositions of unobtrusive and strident rhymes, and perhaps John Crowe Ransom, for the strange music he created through confrontations of exact masculine rhymes with imperfect feminine rhymes.

Alone of contemporary poets, Merrill strings together rhymes to display a unique signature. Suppose one were given the following list and told that it comprised the end-words from four continuous quatrains of a contemporary poem: Museum, lowers, bowers, no-seeum, solo, now, cow, silo, Ur-, further, mimesis, truer, begun, species, whizzes, 91. Would there be any doubt that the missing lines (to be found in Late Settings‘ “A Day on the Connecticut River”) were penned by our laureate of Connecticut and Key West (it seems, these days, the bards go south in winter), James Merrill himself? Indeed, much as a paleontologist might identify a dinosaur by a fragment of fossilized tooth, a single rhyme could prove sufficient for a positive author-identification. In what other contemporary poet could we possibly expect to find (as we do in Late Settings‘ “Developers at Crystal River”) “dirigible” rhymed with “unmarriageable”?

Merrill relishes the piling up of rhyme on rhyme in a kind of magician’s game of ostentation and invisibility. The first stanza of “The Pier: Under Pisces” provides an impressive example:

The shallows, brighter,
Wetter than water,
Tepidly glitter with the fingerprint-
Obliterating feel of kerosene.

The rereader comes away astonished to perceive just how snugly Merrill has packed together brighter, wetter, water, glitter, and the “liter” of obliterating, all further tightened by the assonant echoes of tepidly and fingerprint. Merrill favors marine subjects and settings, a natural and felicitous choice for someone of such special talents: he can move here and there with a preternatural lightness, like one of those water-striders whose legs pucker but do not puncture the flowing surface.

Merrill is both widely praised and occasionally criticized for his sumptuosity. A Persian carpet, tropical fish, jewelry, an opaline daybreak, the trappings of grand opera—these are some of the subjects that arouse his imagination. He escapes mere grandiosity chiefly by two means, I think. The first is a levity that often takes the form of a slang phrase or a workaday colloquialism. In “Clearing the Title,” for example, we come across this moment in Key West:

Turning the loose knob onto better-late-
Than-never light, we breast its deep- ening stream
Along with others who’ve a date
With sunset….

In “we breast its deepening stream,” the reader encounters a heavily “poetic” dusk, but the folksy admonition of that “better late than never,” as well as that loose doorknob and even “looser” contraction (has Merrill really written who’ve?), lightens this passing-of-the-light.

He avoids the emptily grandiose by a ferocious concision as well. Once the reader has adjusted to their lavishness, Merrill’s poems can begin to look remarkably terse. Exposition often proceeds through a kind of telegraphic shorthand, as in an earlier poem, “Between Us,” which portrays a poet and his lover in bed. The poet is unnerved when, by a nasty trick of the eye, a face seems to loom between himself and his lover—though it’s merely the poet’s hand, “seen queerly.” With all its shrewd and dismaying intimations that the “third person” in any love triangle may actually arise from within, here is a wonderful premise for a poem—so long as it isn’t forced to bear too much explicit weight. One can imagine how even a very competent poet might founder immediately through an elaborate scene-setting. And here is Merrill’s opening:

A…face? There
It lies on the pillow by
Your turned head’s tangled graying hair….

Surely this could not be pared further, and yet it delivers every needed nuance. That initial question seems absolutely perfect. Coming so soon in the line, the ellipsis before “face” throws the reader off—just as the poet’s eye has been thrown off. “Between Us” provides an example-in-miniature of how Merrill (like Elizabeth Bishop, the poet of our time he most admired) can make the most of what might be termed the “peripheral” elements of the typewriter or printing press—the punctuation, the typefaces, the spacings between words and lines, etc.

Another fine example of telegraphic sparsity, this one from Late Settings, occurs in the first section of “Peter,” which opens with an elaborate tattoo:

Right arm: a many-splendored
Korean dagger-and-heart
Wound in a scroll, or banner—
DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR.

(Between the H and O
One barely audible
Stammer of skin,
DISH ONOR—so.)

How lean this is, and yet it contains, in that synesthetic “stammer of skin,” all sorts of metaphorical richness. And how pleasing that little “so,” which picks up the rhyme while fixing for us what this tattoo is really like—how its brave bluster comes touchingly down to earth when the brittle “dish” in “dishonor” is revealed. The reader has already been prepared to find this Peter an endearing and somewhat pathetic figure, and sympathy effortlessly goes out, ten lines later, with the description of “your chest, a boy’s no longer, / Paler, leaner / From night shifts at the Mill…. ”

A reader may sometimes feel that in Merrill’s search for concision he trims too much. He is particularly merciless about excising a prepositional “that” or “which,” to the point where (as is true of Auden’s work in the Thirties, when he warred so fanatically against “the” and “a”) the reader may find himself, just a bit querulously, supplying a missing word for himself. But at his frequent best, Merrill knows how to make the work of his contemporaries look flabbily verbose.

Late Settings offers three longish narrative poems, “Clearing the Title,” “Bronze,” and “Santorini: Stopping the Leak.” The penultimate stanza in “Clearing the Title,” a lengthy parenthesis which combines a meditation on death with a glimpse—possible on Key West, where the houses often sit on stilts—of sunlit earth glowing through a crack in the floor, could hardly be better:

(Think of the dead here, sleeping above ground
—Simpler than to hack a tomb from coral—
In whitewashed hope chests under the palm fronds.
Or think of waking, whether to the quarrel
Of white cat and black crow, those unchanged friends,
Or to a dazzle from below:
Earth visible through floor-cracks, miles—or inches—down,
And spun by a gold key-chain round and round…)

To turn a funeral urn into a connubial hope chest (more telling still, a “whitewashed hope chest”) is to expose all the heartbreak in humankind’s ritualized gestures against death. The rhymes are gratifyingly varied (ground/round, coral/quarrel, fronds/friends), and varied, too, the tone, which modulates from the simplicity of “a dazzle from below” to, just two lines later, an almost Miltonic bifurcated vision which simultaneously enlarges and dwindles the world. Among the many glories of “Bronze” is a final section which, after enormous tumult and upheaval, turns quietly reflective as the poet contemplates a bronze bust of himself:

Slowly the patina
Coarsened, paled—no perch
For owl or nightingale.
The local braggart gull
Flaps off and up, its shriek
Leaving a forelock white.
Where the time’s flown I wonder.
A deeply-bored eye sees,
Or doesn’t, the high trees
Waving in vain for sundry
Old games like Hide and Seek
Or Statues to be played,
Come evening, in their shade.

Santorini: Stopping the Leak” somehow manages in its thirty stanzas harmoniously to blend Atlantis, the Fates, the debasement of modern Greece, a painful departure from a drunken bedmate, religious asceticism, Satie, and a plantar’s wart. It’s a poem whose ranging inclusiveness few poets of any age could match.

Yet I’m not altogether sure that any of these three longer poems echoes in the mind quite so ringingly as do other Merrill poems of similar length, like “The Broken Home,” or “The Thousand and Second Night,” or “Lost in Translation.” Each of these new poems contains troublingly opaque phrases and transitions which proved, at least to this reader, of the frustratingly, rather than the satisfyingly, impenetrable sort.

Late Settings collects a dazzling number of beautiful short lyrics—among them, “Developers at Crystal River,” “The Pier: Under Pisces,” “Casual Wear,” “Santo,” “A Day on the Connecticut River,” “The Blue Grotto” (a nifty bit of light verse of a sort that “isn’t done much any more”), “Radiometer,” and that minatory “Grass.” It’s a rare book of contemporary poetry that contains even one lyric as fine as any of these.

Most prolific poets—whether great, good, or less-than-good—are not precisionists. They tend to rely on great waves of feeling, impulses and images so powerful that an occasional lurch into bathos or solecism becomes excusable or, finally, insignificant. What is perhaps most astonishing about Merrill is how much he has written while retaining such exacting standards of grace and wit and invention. In poem after poem, the pleasure he takes in his work shines through. Even the darkest of lyrics cannot seem altogether bleak when fueled by a craftsman’s pure, proud joy—which of course burns with the cleanest of flames.

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