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Miraculous Mandarin

The 1950s and early 1960s were a good time for David and Jimmy. They were young and in love; they had no economic worries; they lived in an odd but beautiful house in a picturesque village on the New England coast. When not at home they traveled together round the world and made friends everywhere.

She liked visiting them at their house in Stonington, Connecticut:

To go to 107 Water Street from a house cluttered with shabby, worn furniture and toys and dirty laundry and the cries of children was like being transported to another world: one not only more attractive, but more luxurious, calm, and voluptuous; more free and leisured—a world in which the highest goods were friendship, pleasure, and art.

As pleasant as their lives were, Lurie became sure of underlying tensions. Jackson, who was also independently well-off, was an unsuccessful fiction writer, the author of a few well-received short stories and five unpublished novels. By 1959, Merrill had already published a short novel, The Seraglio, and another book of poems, The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace. Throughout the 1950s, from time to time, they would take out the Ouija board to entertain themselves with lighthearted messages, but in September of 1965, they took it up again, this time with great seriousness. On one hand, there was Jackson with his frustrated creative energy and, on the other, Merrill intrigued by the possibility that he may actually have been making contact with the dead. “It is inside that I need to change,” he wrote in his own memoir, A Different Person. “To this end I hope very diffidently to get away from the kind of poetry I’ve been writing.”

They didn’t suspect,” Lurie remarks, “that what started as an evening’s amusement would consume so much of their lives over the years to come, how at times it would become so absorbing that reality itself would seem faded, flimsy, and ghostlike.” This is the puzzle her memoir tries to solve. It involves a furtive lovers’ quarrel between the two while they were ostensibly engaged in a spiritual adventure. In 1976, after over twenty years of intermittent sessions, Merrill decided to make use of the revelations, first in the form of a novel, and eventually in a poem, The Book of Ephraim, followed soon after by Mirabell’s Books of Number (1978) and Scripts for the Pageant (1980). All three, with Coda: The Higher Keys, were published in 1982 as The Changing Light at Sandover. The long poem, or so we believe in America, is supposed to be the test of any poet’s true powers. “The notion,” Merrill wrote in his memoirs, “struck me at twenty—at forty, too, for that matter—as a dangerous form of megalomania, and I wasn’t buying any of it. But at fifty? Longer than Dante, dottier than Pound, and full of spirits more talkative than Yeats himself might have wished….”

Lurie doesn’t think much of the trilogy as metaphysics. She admires the poems in it, but cannot accept its fundamental premise, and neither can I. The claim that a poet is a medium who merely transmits what he has received from some unknown source has been around since the Romantics. However, such inspired moments of automatic writing were thought to be rare. Merrill’s immortals in the hereafter, on the other hand, are garrulous. They are not just a poetic conceit, it turns out, but are to be taken seriously. What at first in The Book of Ephraim‘s twenty-six poems had a tongue in cheek quality becomes farfetched in later books, where transcriptions of messages in blocks of uppercase letters predominate and Plato, Buddha, Homer, Mohammed, Jesus, and scores of other illustrious names have their say. Merrill and Jackson occasionally hint that they suspect the whole thing is a delightful fabrication, a genie conjured up out of their unconscious selves, and then they seem to forget that.

The abstruse mystical doctrine that purports to explain God and his creation, including such perennial brain-twisters as Atlantis, Stonehenge, the Bermuda Triangle, black holes, and flying saucers—to name only a few—inevitably drowns out the poetry. Merrill’s enlightened voices from above are, of course, a familiar phenomenon in our culture, where, as Lurie points out,

apparently, celebrities from everywhere in the world and over three thousand years of history are eager to communicate with contemporary housewives and small businessmen, secretaries and schoolteachers, teenagers and senior citizens. Egyptian pharaohs and Greek philosophers, European kings and queens and world-renowned writers and artists and musicians crowd into small-town sitting rooms to discuss art, religion, philosophy, and current events.

Imparting wisdom from on high is never an advisable strategy in poetry. Merrill’s best poems let the readers’ imagination draw out their meanings for themselves. Not here. There are narrative and lyric interludes in the trilogy that rank among some of the liveliest poetry Merrill ever wrote, but they do not salvage the epic from being a largely didactic poem.

When two sophisticated, extremely intelligent people devote over twenty-five years to recording messages from imaginary beings, you have to ask, What was in it for them?” Lurie writes. As a novelist, she is less interested in angels than in the games her two friends were playing. Her memoir seeks to unearth what was psychologically at stake for the participants. For Merrill, the messages from the spirits were primarily raw material for what was hoped to be a major poem. For Jackson, who is the unacknowledged coauthor of the trilogy and whose experience as a novelist undoubtedly contributed to the creation of its cast of characters, it was a way of sustaining the increasingly complex and destructive relationship with his lover. One may not agree entirely with Lurie’s conclusions, but Familiar Spirits is an exquisitely written and powerful little book.

3.

Merrill is at the top of his form in his later books of poems, Late Settings (1985), The Inner Room (1988), and A Scattering of Salts (1995). The poems, with their accretion of detail, have a novelistic richness. One of Merrill’s great talents was always his ability to describe well. About his first visit to Rome as a young man, Merrill says: “A thousand details reached me, but like a primitive painter ignorant of perspective, I had no way to order them; the mosquito was the same size as the horse or the purple blossom of the artichoke.” Now he knows how to do it.

Merrill is a poet quivering with awareness, alert to every sight and new sensation in his surroundings as he is to every nuance of language. Again and again, he is the poet of a memorable occasion, of exhilaration and delight some chance event brought to him. Here’s one such poem:

GRAFFITO

Deep in weeds, on a smooth chunk of stone
Fallen from the cornice of the church
(Originally a temple to Fortuna),
Appears this forearm neatly drawn in black,
Wearing, lest we misunderstand,
Like a tattoo the cross-within-a-circle
Of the majority—Christian Democrat.
Arms and the man. This arm ends in a hand
Which grasps a neatly, elegantly drawn
Cock—erect and spurting tiny stars—
And balls. One sports…a swastika?
Yes, and its twin, if you please, a hammer-and-sickle!
The tiny stars, seen close, are stars of David.
Now what are we supposed to make of that?
Wink from Lorenzo, pout from Mrs. Pratt.
Hold on, I want to photograph this latest
Fountain of Rome, whose twinkling gist
Gusts my way from an age when isms were largely
Come-ons for the priapic satirist,
And any young guy with a pencil felt
He held the fate of nations in his fist.

It’s all here: paganism, Catholic religion, fascism, communism, Nazism, and even a hint of anti-Semitism. Long before Freud, the graffiti artists everywhere have known that sex and power go hand in hand. This lucky find is worth photographing like any other tourist attraction in Rome. The poem, too, is a snapshot, so clear one instantly intuits the larger implications of what one has just seen, down to the final jest about the young political visionary holding his pen and presumably also his cock in his fist.

The later poems inevitably have an elegiac and introspective mood. A number of Merrill’s close friends had died of AIDS and he himself was diagnosed as having the virus in 1986, although he kept it a secret. Against such grim reality, the issue in a number of poems, even more than before, is how to recover in small measure and prolong some intensely lived moment. Merrill is still a poet who keeps what at times sounds like a diary in verse, writing poems about his father’s Irish setters, scrapping his computer, a dry-out farm, Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Met, his mother’s pearls, and even his contact lenses. There are many fine poems, among which I particularly admire “Page from the Koran,” “The House Fly,” “Santo,” “Trees Listening to Bach,” “The Dresden Doll,” “A Room at the Heart of Things,” “Walks in Rome,” “Snow Jobs,” “164 East 72nd Street,” and “Self-portrait in Tyvek[TM] Windbreaker.”

Merrill’s poems do not change much over the years. Collected Poems ends up by being an autobiography of a very private man with a small circle of friends and lovers to whom he remained devoted. There are poets, like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery, who one feels get closer to our complex reality. Merrill is without equal in American poetry when it comes to formal mastery, but despite his considerable range of interests, his take on things may be a bit too mandarin for some tastes. Working within the tradition was his strength and his limitation. He’s clever and inventive, but he did not enlarge our idea of what poetry can be as much as these other poets, who took greater risks with the lyric by daring to be antipoetic both in how they wrote their poems and what they wrote about.

Art. It cures affliction,” Merrill says in a late poem. Poetry staves off the inevitable for him by transforming our sensual experience into an aesthetic one and the aesthetic into a spiritual one. These transmutations, however, cannot be willed. The problem with the Sandover trilogy is that it omitted one important step. It sought transcendence without a credible basis in experience. As Stevens cautioned, “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, the effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.”3 Merrill is a better poet and a wiser man when he allows the meaning in his poems to come unbidden out of the ingredients at hand, where it lay hidden in some idiom or metaphor. When that happens, as in “An Upward Look,” the closing poem in A Scattering of Salts, one not only believes in the vision, but one is also deeply moved:

O heart green acre sown with salt
by the departing occupier
lay down your gallant spears of wheat
Salt of the earth each stellar pinch
flung in blind defiance backwards
now takes its toll Up from this quieted
quarry the lover colder and wiser
hauling himself finds the world turning
toys triumphs toxins into
this vast facility the living come
dearest to die in How did it happen
In bright alternation minutely mirrored
within the thinking of each and every
mortal creature halves of a clue
approach the earthlights Morning star
evening star salt of the sky
First the grave dissolving into dawn
then the crucial recrystallizing
from inmost depths of clear dark blue

The ancient comic theater had it right,” he begins another late poem. He has in mind that “moment comedies beget/when escapade and hubbub die away,/Vows are renewed, masks dropped” and “Nature must do the rest.” There was always a conflict in Merrill between giving himself fully over to some all-consuming aesthetic emotion and his ironic detachment. Perhaps it is not surprising that these mixed feelings remained with him to the end of his life. In the previously uncollected poem “Days of 1994,” written months before his death, he describes waking in a friend’s room, watching the dawn light, an infant sun tottering on stilts of shade through misty greens, while close by a dragonfly shivers. However, it’s not only the magician but also the tough realist in Merrill who makes this farewell poem so heart-wrenching. The truth of his poetry turns out to be the stoic truth:

I shiver next, Light walking on my grave…
And sleep, and wake. This time, peer out
From just beneath the mirror of the lake
A gentle mile uphill.
Florets—the mountain laurel—float
Openmouthed, devout,
Set swaying by the wake of the flatboat:
Barcarole whose chords of gloom
Draw forth the youngest, purest, faithfullest,
Cool-crystal-casketed
Hands crossed on breast,
Pre-Raphaelite face radiant—and look,
Not dead, O never dead!
To wake, to wake
Among the flaming dowels of a tomb
Below the world, the thousand things
Here risen to if not above
Before day ends:
The spectacles, the book,
Forgetful lover and forgotten love,
Cobweb hung with trophy wings,
The fading trumpet of a car,
The knowing glance from star to star,
The laughter of old friends.

  1. 3

    Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel (Knopf, 1951), p. 6.

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