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Chronicles of Love and Loss

Merrill, in what may now seem a consciously valedictory poem, “An Upward Look,” closes A Scattering of Salts with the hope that, as he watches the evening star become the morning star, he may find the clue to the mixed sadness and joy of recurrence in the cosmos:

halves of a clue
approach the earthlights Morn- ing star

evening star salt of the sky
First the grave dissolving into dawn

then the crucial recrystallizing
from inmost depths of clear dark blue

Dissolving, the salt of life enters at death into the inorganic chemical solution that, in its recrystallized form, constitutes once again the physical basis of existence. As salt becomes star, the fear, resentment, disgust, and terror occasioned by death and the grave find a classically poised formula that is bearable to the imagination.


In sketching the range of Merrill’s imaginative responses to the inescapable process of looking back into the past, I have said little about his formal means, such as the recurrence of “re-” words—from “re-alight” in “The House Fly” to the final one, “recrystallizing.” We find in A Scattering of Salts countless other words of recurrence such as “once again” or “the seasons’ round” or “anew.” There are also the invokings of traditional images, from the Psyche myth to the Wordsworthian mountain ascent, from the Ring cycle to the morning star. And Merrill also alludes to prosodic forms of recurrence, from the ballade refrain of “Snow Jobs” to the repetition, in “Volcanic Holiday,” of identical rhyme in seven seven-lined stanzas—reminiscent of George Herbert’s “Sunday.” Such devices show that Merrill was always conscious of the support given to a theme by form.

Two poems about Wagner’s Ring cycle—“Matinees,” an eight-section sonnet sequence published in 1969, and “The Ring Cycle,” a six-section sequence of fifteen-line quasi sonnets in A Scattering of Salts—show how brilliantly Merrill used formal means. The earlier poem is a touching narrative of the long-term effects of the Ring cycle on a boy who saw it for the first time when he was twelve. It is not too much to say that the operas taught the precocious adolescent the range of profane emotion; they schooled him, too, in the artificiality of art. Countering Yeats’s religious sublime in “Sailing to Byzantium” (“Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress”), Merrill offered in “Matinees” an erotic sublime learned from La Bohème and La Traviata:

Soul will cough blood and sing, and softer sing,
Drink poison, breathe her joyous last, a waltz
Rubato from his arms who sobs and stays

Behind, death after death, who fairly melts
Watching her turn from him, re- stored, to fling
Kisses into the furnace roaring praise.

As “Matinees” ends, we read, in the last sonnet, the thank-you note sent by the young James to the friend of his mother who invited him to sit in her box. Prophetically, the note contains the sentence “I play my record of the Overture/Over and over.” The young opera-goer is already an addict of reprise. Eventually the poet will have the conventions down pat: “The love scene (often cut). The potion. The tableau.” Where, in the first instance, one interpreted one’s own emotions through those seen in art, one now begins, by way of imitation, to create emotions to order: “The point thereafter was to arrange for one’s/Own chills and fever, passions and betrayals,/Chiefly in order to make song of them.” By the penultimate sonnet of “Matinees,” set in 1969, reprise has become tatterdemalion. Addressing in double-entendre someone who is, perhaps, a former lover, Merrill says:

You and I, caro, seldom
Risk the real thing any more.
It’s all too silly or too solemn.
Enough to know the score

From records or transcription
For our four hands. Old beauties, some
In advanced stages of decomposi- tion,

Float up through the sustaining
Pedal’s black and fluid medium.
Days like today

Even recur (wind whistling themes
From Lulu, and sun shining
On the rough Sound) when it seems
Kinder to remember than to play.

Full of puns though this is, it remains elegiac, like “The House Fly”; and though the circular structure of “Matinees,” with its closing thank-you note returning us to 1939, is a comic one, the threat of too many repetitions annihilating the originals cannot be forgotten. Still, in spite of its elegiac moments, “Matinees” is focused on youth, with the development of emotional understanding through art. It is concerned more with the passionate authenticity of opera than with its artificiality. “We love the good, said Plato? He was wrong./We love as well the wicked and the weak.” It hails the thrill of the fictional as the curtain goes up on Das Rheingold, “No one believing, everybody thrilled.”

And now, in A Scattering of Salts, we find “The Ring Cycle,” a commentary on “Matinees.” It begins with an offhand and rapid survey of the fifty years from 1939 to 1989:

They’re doing a Ring cycle at the Met,
Four operas in one week, for the first time
Since 1939. I went to that one.
Then war broke out, Flagstad flew home, tastes veered
To tuneful deaths and dudgeons.

Verdi replaced Wagner, with things German proscribed during and after the war. But the poet remains devoted to the memory of how the Ring brought him to his senses, in the full and literal meaning of those words:

Wagner had been significance itself,
Great golden lengths of it, stitched with motifs,
A music in whose folds the mind, at twelve,
Came to its senses: Twin, Sword, Forest Bird,
Envy, Redemption through Love. …But left unheard
These fifty years? A fire of an- swered prayers
Burned round that little pitcher with big ears
Who now wakes.

It looks as if we are to be re-submerged in the twelve-year-old’s mind as he sits before what Milton Cross used to call “the great gold curtain” of the Met:

Night. E-flat denotes the Rhine,
Where everything began. The world’s life. Mine.

But a poetry of nostalgia is not now Merrill’s aim. The rhymes are looser here than in “Matinees,” and this section of “The Ring Cycle”—like its companions—has fifteen lines, not fourteen: perfection is out of reach. And the glimpses of the opera on stage keep getting interrupted by flashes of real life. In section two, what happens after Siegfried and Sieglinde have declared their love?

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….
We have long evenings to absorb together
Before the world ends

Superimposed, in section three, on this overlay of the Ring and its real audience is an overlay of the singers, their everyday life and their art: “Fricka looks pleased with her new hairdresser./Brünnhilde (Behrens) has abandoned hers.” And superimposed on this are the troubles of the planet caused by the petroleum-rich underwriters of the Met productions: “Erda, her cobwebs beaded/With years of seeping waste, subsides unheeded/—Right, Mr. President? Right, Texaco?—/Into a gas-blue cleft.” Section four, with equal matter-of-fact energy, looks at the long years required to train any Heldentenor or Wagnerian soprano: appended to the simple operatic moment “Brünnhilde confronts Siegfried” is Merrill’s note about the singers’ preparation for that moment:

Brünnhilde confronts Siegfried. That is to say,
Two singers have been patiently rehearsed
So that their tones and attitudes convey
Outrage and injured innocence. But first
Two youngsters became singers, strove to master
Every nuance of innocence and outrage
Even in the bosom of their stolid
Middleclass families who made it possible
To study voice, and languages, take lessons
In how the woman loves, the hero dies….

It is no more unseemly, Merrill now believes, to mention the repetitive labor of art—lesson after lesson to master scales and German—than to mention its artifice or its passion; and a second statement about the performance—“Tonight again…The dire oath…is sworn”—is followed by a sharp juxtaposition of social reality and aesthetic reality:

Two world-class egos, painted, overweight,
Who’ll joke at supper side by side, now hate
So plausibly that one old stagehand cries.

The poet himself is an old hand at the stage, with several plays to his credit. But knowing all he knows about rehearsals, about artifice, and about the commonplace lives of the singers, he still willingly reenters the sorrows of the Ring.

How does “The Ring Cycle”—this rerun of the Ring, of childhood classmates, of performance, of rehearsal, of acquaintance, of love, of “Matinees”—come to an end? With another recurrence, of course—this time in dream, as the poet finds himself occupying at the Met the very seat bearing his name that his contribution has made possible. He takes his place, and

as I sink back,
The youth behind me, daybreak in his eyes—
A son till now undreamed of
   makes to rise.

Who is this son, who has so far existed neither in life nor in dream? He is, one could say, the allegorical figure of Reprise itself. If our biological destiny as a species is self-reprise by child-bearing, surely art is childbearing on another plane. Which of us, created in our emotional lives by Wagner, is not the child of Wagner? Which of us, created in our emotional lives by Merrill, is not the child of Merrill? In A Scattering of Salts, reconciled to a repetition of the past for physical and spiritual generation and regeneration. Merrill sees his return to the Ring—even with his adult knowledge of opera’s pedestrian and everyday aspects, its artifice and emotional fickleness—as the very resurrection of the life spirit.

This conviction makes possible a far brisker poetry of reprise than we were permitted in “Matinees” or even in “The House Fly.” Words that could hardly have found a place there—“world-class egos,” “too weird,” “hitech,” “hairdresser,” “major funding,” “overweight,” “Walter J. and Ortrud Fogelsong”—sit easily and ironically next to the highest elegiac memory—“The world’s life. Mine.” The civilizing powers—of love over human nature, of music over time—still arouse Merrill’s veneration. Around them cluster the ordinary, the commercial, the repetitive, the threatening, the entropic, but none of these, the poem affirms, can undo the transfiguring powers, indubitable even in their late-life recurrence, of love and music. I would not want to give up “Matinees” or “The House Fly,” but I would grieve to have missed the mixed-diction wonders of “The Ring Cycle.”

I should add that the polar opposite of reprise, for Merrill, is the current, the new, the non-nostalgic, the demotic, the trivial. The more a poet stretches to take in the heterogeneous without losing emotional intensity, the more ambitious lyric becomes. Perhaps because of its intense focus on recollection and recurrence, no book of Merrill’s has been more defiantly interested in the new, however trivial, than A Scattering of Salts. In “Self-Portrait in Tyvek (TM) Windbreaker,” we can see how directly reciprocal to the threat of the stale was Merrill’s unregenerate delight in current fads. He visits “one of those vaguely imbecile/Emporia catering to the collective unconscious/Of our time and place”:

This one featured crystals,
Cassettes of whalesong and rain- forest whistles,
Barometers, herbal cosmetics, pil- lows like puffins,
Recycled notebooks, mechanized lucite coffins
For sapphire waves that crest, break, and recede,
As they presumably do in nature still.

Merrill’s “Self-Portrait” ends with a song of summation, an aria making metaphorical use of one toy seen in the shop, the “lucite coffin” for sapphire waves. The toy gives Merrill his version of Shakespeare’s metaphor describing art as a “liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.” The last aria envisaged by the living poet is, of course, incomplete:

Sing our final air:

Love, grief etc. for good reason.
Now only * STOP signs.
Meanwhile * if you or I’ve ex-
ceeded our [?] * more than time was needed
To fit a text airless and as Tyvek
With breathing spaces and be- tween the lines
Days brilliantly recurring, as once we did,
To keep the blue wave dancing in its prison.

No reader of Merrill will be surprised to find that the rhyme scheme of this penultimate “final air” of his last book is a new variation on ottava rima, in which the last line of each stanza, in its rhyme, is a phonetic echo of the first.

The loss of Merrill, for those of us who have been reading him for twenty or thirty years, is more than the loss of future poems. It is the loss of the voice “behind” the poems, the voice that had won our confidence over many decades of our own lives. It was a voice adequate to the confusions and elations of modern experience, as most voices in verse are not. And comic voices are especially rare in lyric poetry—voices that vote, one might say, for joy in spite of the emotional and physical worst that life has to offer. Highly intellectual voices are rare, too. In his youth, Merrill had feared that his intelligence might chocke his emotional life; in a poem written at twenty-one, he worried about a

voice almost of youth, yet never pure,
As though the river of the tongue were clogged
By an upheaval of the intellect.

He need not have worried; the balance he found between the senses and the mind became ever more finely attuned, and the quickness of his spirit and refinement of his emotion kept him from both the sentimental and the conventional.

There are said to be, roughly speaking, two kinds of artists—the kind that innovates from within tradition, and the kind that announces a break with tradition. Mozart and Beethoven are the models in music for this division, and Spenser and Shakespeare the models in our early literature. Merrill, in this crude division, stands with Mozart and Spenser; original though he was (by his instantly recognizable style), he remained visibly content to use the lyric forms he inherited from his predecessors, from Sappho onward. Yet no form that he took up remained unrevised in his hands; and in the long sifting that time will do of his work, poets, anthologists, and critics will be repeatedly struck by his technical mastery, as they will be touched by his tenderness and surprised by his wit.

Merrill once wrote of the Greek poet Cavafy words that were true of himself: “Born…into a world of forms and frivolities, [he] was to be anchored firmly beyond its shallows… by his vocation and his sexuality.” He will rightly be claimed for gay studies, but his great appeal to readers male and female, gay and straight, young and old, American and European, arises from the fact that, as he said of himself, “I was drawn to both sides of things: masculine and feminine, rational and fanciful, passionate and ironic.” The breadth of his sensibility, and the candor and brio of his writing about a life by no means easy, ensured that many of us have got from him what he said he got in adolescence from Rilke: help with suffering. One doesn’t forget the writers from whom such help has come.

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