James Merrill, who died on February 6 of this year, gave his last volume the title A Scattering of Salts. In such a phrase there are overtones of tears, savors, and fragrances, yet with a clear implication, too, that these astringent crystals are scattered at intervals in the diffuse and oceanic medium of life. Merrill, for all the poignancy of his work, was a comic poet in the line of Pope and Byron and Auden; and from the very beginning of his long career, the poems he published combined, in sparkling ways, suffering and joy.
The son of the financier Charles E. Merrill of Merrill, Lynch, he spent his life after Lawrenceville and Amherst largely on his writing, teaching briefly now and then. Though he experimented with short plays and with novels—The Seraglio (1957) and The (Diblos) Notebook (1965)—and wrote essays (collected in Recitative, 1986) and a memoir (A Different Person, 1993), his reputation rests chiefly on his poetry. In succession he published First Poems (1951), The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959), Water Street (1962), Nights and Days (1966), The Fire Screen (1969), Braving the Elements (1972), Divine Comedies (1976), Mirabell: Books of Number (1978), and Scripts for the Pageant (1980). The last three, with a coda added, were collected as a trilogy called The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). Subsequently there appeared Late Settings (1985) and The Inner Room (1988). Now, with A Scattering of Salts, twentieth-century American poetry marks the loss of a radiant and moving voice.
Merrill’s poems—his “chronicles of love and loss,” as he called them—are often autobiographical; they tell the story of a child of divorced parents who grew up to discover himself intelligent, talented, and homosexual. “When it came to sex,” he remarked in an interview, “I had to face it that the worst iniquity my parents (and many of my friends) could imagine was for me a blessed source of pleasure and security—as well as suffering, to be sure.” His readers followed his life in Greece, Stonington, Connecticut, and Key West; they encountered, with some disbelief, the Ouija-board experiments with his companion, David Jackson, that gave rise to an epic trilogy; they read elegies for one dead friend after another: Hans Lodeizen, Maria Mitsotáki, David Kalstone, Howard Moss. As Merrill scattered references to family, lovers, friends, and fellow poets through the poetry—to his mother and father, David Jackson, Peter Hooten, W. H. Auden, Robert Morse, Donald Keene—it was easy for readers to assume that they knew about his life as well as his art. In fact, the apparent candor of the poems was their most disarming quality. Knowing how much of any poet’s experience is altered, how much is unused, in his work, we can be sure that biography will eventually alter our perception of Merrill’s life. What biography cannot alter is the poetry, which takes on an independent existence as the poet’s life ends.
In the new volume, Merrill gives on almost every page the impression of looking back over the past, both as he lived it and as he wrote about it. A Scattering of Salts is an elegiac book, but one written in an ultimately comic spirit, with a Mozartian resolution into hope: Merrill’s reprise of his life prompts a sense of renewal. In the moment of musical or literary reprise, one is conscious that some act or episode is returning, in life or in memory, defeating the putative uniqueness of original experience. Or, at least, one fears that with repetition the original experience may become decreasingly vivid. “After the first death,” says Dylan Thomas, “there is no other.” For the comic poet, however, the second and third and fourth loves or disappointments, or even deaths are not merely the recurrences of the first; they also offer pieces of dry instruction.
What does love seem like when one takes it up (as has been said about second marriages) in the triumph of hope over experience? Or, to use another example from Merrill, what is it to see the entire Ring again at the Met late in life after having been transfigured by it, at twelve, in 1939? These are some of the questions that preoccupy A Scattering of Salts.
The lyric tradition is full of the poetry of reprise, from the most joyous (the reunion of lovers and the repetition of their basia mille) to the most tragic, when exhausted memory edges toward meaninglessness. Between the joyous and the tragic lay Merrill’s own sense of suffused regret, of wry irony, of mortal awareness of mistake, of reluctantly acknowledged gains, and of comically presented new adventures. As he reached an age of increasingly frequent retrospection, Merrill found himself caught, one might say, in the poetry of recall; and with his compulsion toward perfecting forms to express different nuances of feeling, he looked to tradition but also struck out on his own, writing poems of a tonal variety unmatched by almost all of his predecessors except Byron and Auden. This command of tonality takes, in A Scattering of Salts, the full measure of the oblique sadness of comic recollection.
For contrast’s sake, I recall an earlier, simpler, reprise, an incomparably touching poem called “The House Fly,” published in Late Settings. Merrill’s Greek lover, hitherto known in his poems only by his first name, Strato, is in “The House Fly” given his inescapably absurd (in English lyric) full name, Strato Mouflouzélis. And yet (says the poem) how one cherished love, how one cherishes even the increasingly memorial quality of its anniversary; and how one rises, although wearily, to reconstruct that memory.
THE HOUSE FLY
Come October, if I close my eyes,
A self till then subliminal takes flight
Buzzing round me, settling upon the knuckle,
The lip to be explored not as in June
But with a sense verging on micro- mania
Of wrong, of tiny, hazy, crying wrongs
Which quite undo her—look at that zigzag totter,
Proboscis blindly tapping like a cane.
Gone? If so, only to re-alight
Or else in a stray beam resume the grand toilette
(Eggs of next year’s mischief long since laid):
Unwearying strigils taken to the frayed,
Still glinting wings; the dull-red lacquer head
Lifted from its socket, turned mechanically
This way and that, like a wrist- watch being wound,
As if there would always be time…
Downstairs in this same house one summer night,
Founding the cult, her ancestress alit
On the bare chest of Strato Mou- flouzélis
Who stirred in the lamp-glow but did not wake.
To say so brings it back on every autumn
Feebler wings, and further from that Sun,
That mist-white wafer she and I partake of
Alone this afternoon, making a rite
Distinct from both the blessing and the blight.
In this remarkable variation of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, the sleeping love god is the boy with the ridiculous name, and the cultic goddess is reduced from a butterfly to a house fly. One could say, thinking only of the transformed myth, that the poem is ironic—and so it is. Its reduction of the psychic Muse to a tottering, wronged, blind creature is hardly less than tragic; yet she is still capable of her grand toilette, and therefore no less possessed than formerly of élan vital.
The second myth informing the poem is that of the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the rite of partaking in the body of Christ, signifying the impotence of death and the reality of transcendence. The “rite” of art—another recovery of a real presence—is, like the rite of Communion, distinct from both the “blessing” of incarnation and the “blight” of death, the blessing of love and its blighting by time. Placing his own rite somewhere between comedy and tragedy, Merrill preserves for it, in this beautiful poem, its own space, which, while painfully inflected by “real” house flies and proper names, keeps its memory impregnable.
The formal daring of the poem—evoking the memory of an affair with Strato through the Keatsian image of Psyche on the one hand, and the Christian sacrament of real presence on the other—betokens a confidence not only that the great myths, classical and Christian, apply to homosexual lovers, but also a confidence that love, as it is remembered, retains erotic and even religious grandeur in spite of its inexorable decline, as it returns “on every autumn/Feebler wings, and further from [the] Sun.”
Much more could be said about “The House Fly,” Merrill’s ode to autumn, its house fly a direct descendant of Keats’s gnats. But taking it as a model of one sort of reprise poem, I want to look at the different attitudes toward the past in A Scattering of Salts (a book dedicated to Merrill’s most inspired commentator, the poet and critic Stephen Yenser). The conventional lyric image for a return welcomed without ambivalence is sunrise. Shakespeare: “For as the sun is daily new and old,/So is my love, still telling what is told”; and Stevens: “The oldest newest day is the newest alone.” In the first poem of A Scattering of Salts, the poet, recollecting the love that moves the sun and the other stars, and imagining himself in a cosmic bath looked down on by that love, says,
On high, the love
That drew the bath and scattered it with salts
Still radiates new projects old as day.
The sun is the only creator without ambivalence about the daily recurrence of his daily project. The human author, addressing his reader, has considerably more mixed feelings about literary recurrence, since his new book depends on so many old themes. Never has the daily cosmological reprise—life itself—been more wryly described by an author:
TO THE READER
Each day, hot off the press from Moon & Son,
“Knowing of your continued in- terest,”
Here’s a new book—well, actually the updated
Edition of their one all-time best seller—
To find last night’s place in, and forge ahead.
If certain scenes and situations (“work,”
As the jacket has it, “of a blazingly
Original voice”) make you look up from your page
—But this is life, is truth, is
Smack of self-plagiarism. Terror and tryst,
Vow and verbena, done before, to death,
In earlier chapters, under differ- ent names…
You’d like to think a structure will emerge,
If only a kind of Joycean squirrel run
Returning us all neatly to page I,
But the inconsistencies of plot and style
Lead you to fear that, for this au- thor, fiction
Aims at the cheap effect, “stranger than fiction,”
As people once thought life—no,
truth was. Strange…
Anyhow, your final thought tonight,
Before you kiss my picture and turn the light out,
Is of a more exemplary life begun
Tomorrow, truer, harder to get right.
The sweetness of the past, still evident in “The House Fly” has, at the beginning of “To the Reader,” been almost totally erased. Recurrence is now merely an “updated” edition of God’s favorite fiction, life, continually erased in one set of characters and reissued in another. Or reprise, considered as a tradition, is merely a set of literary conventions (“Terror and tryst,/ Vow and verbena”) done to death. Or, as self-repetition, it simply has become “self-plagiarism.” At best, it may participate in the “squirrel run” of the Viconian and Joycean recursions of Finnegans Wake.
If truth and life are not “stranger than fiction,” if they are not capable of invention, then indeed “turn the light out.” But in a surprising ending, Merrill’s aesthetic revulsion turns into an ethical command. What is demanded of the reader, and by implication of the author, too, is not reprise but purposeful advance—toward a more exemplary life “begun tomorrow.” Countering the honeyed, if weary, appeal of elegiac repetition in “The House Fly,” “To the Reader” veers sharply from its initial cynicism to a more energetic demand, prompted by the imagined presence of the reader, for the new and the true. (The envisaged relation between reader and writer, one of affection, will strike readers of this posthumous volume with a pang, now that the light of Merrill’s verse has been extinguished.)
In itself, the “once again” of late-life recall is harmless, but it is valued differently depending on its effect. When it threatens the loss of all newness, it can be dully horrifying. Yet when it evokes an episode of youth, it can be revivifying: as Merrill returns to rent the house in Athens he once lived in, he comments, “Thrilling to find oneself again on stage,/In character, at this untender age”; and he suggests, by calling his Athens poem “Nine Lives,” that he, like the kitten in the poem, may be less fragile than he seems.
Still, his dearest hope in the poem—to see in reincarnated form his dead friend Maria Mitsotáki—is frustrated. Though he returns, encouraged by his Ouija-board spirit Ephraim, to a familiar café (“the Bon Goût, where we always met Maria”), the poet not only finds everything in the café itself changed, but is also deprived of the longed-for encounter. The “always” of memory becomes “never again.” And Strato the once-beloved is now a fearful sight: “Old troupers reemerge:/ … from oblivion’s verge/Strato himself, whose bloodshot eyes (once green)/And immense bulk confound the dramaturge.” This distanced way of describing the recent encounter with Strato is later corrected: Merrill, attempting to catch a kitten, loses it, and comments, seeing the grief of the mother cat,
From being human we grow inhu- mane.
We have, it seems, methodically wrecked
Her world. Analogies are rife and various
To worlds like Strato’s, now disas- ter areas
We helped create.
By and large, the return to Greece is bleak. Merrill concedes (in a passage alluding to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations”) that he had hoped for renewal but has been disappointed:
Like Wise Men we’d been primed to kneel in awe
At journey’s end before that child whose nature
Proved Earth at one with Heaven, and past with future.
Instead, the perfect fools we still are saw
A manger full of emptiness, dust, straw…
It seems that perfect renewals—a reincarnation of Maria Mitsotáki or the incarnation of the new Adam in Jesus—are impossible. Yet the desire for reincarnation always persists; even the shades in Hades, says Merrill in “Volcanic Holiday,”
On one idea—returning.
Generation after generation
The spirit grapples, tattered butterfly,
A flower in sexual costume,
Hardon or sheath dew-fired. Our feet
At noon seek paths the evening rain degrades.
In yet another poem, “Alabaster,” inspection of a semi-transparent slice of skin under a microscope becomes, under the magnification of pitiless memory, only a “pious autopsy,” the visual recall of painful past experiences:
And if a tissue-thin
Section of self lay on a lighted slide,
And a voice breathed in your ear,
“Yes, ah yes. That red oxide
Stain is where your iron, Lady Hera,
And in this corner, boldly intricate
As agate, zigzagging
Bays and salients—plans of a fortress?—date
From his twentieth spring,
When we had set the dials at First
Up here’s the opalescent fossil of—
Dream on. Dodo and roc
Did without your pious autopsies.
Nor will the self resist,
Broken on terror like a rack,
When waves of nightmare heat decrystallize
Her lucid molecules to chalk.
When the alabaster of Merrill’s title decomposes under heat, its chemical composition degenerates: it loses its crystalline form, and turns to chalk. We are expected, I think, to recall this instance of deathly decrystallizing when we meet, in the last poem of A Scattering of Salts, the intense and satisfying “recrystallizing” of the evening star into the morning star.
In the most allusive of his reprise poems, “Snow Jobs,” Merrill writes a Ballade des Hommes du Temps Jadis. Though he is in one way glad that the snows—and snow jobs—of yesteryear are gone for good, he still has affection for his memories, even for his recollections of corrupt politics and politicians, collected in a comic list:
Where’s Teapot Dome? Where’s the Iran
Contra Affair? Where’s Watergate—
Their shoes squeaked down the Halls of State,
Whole networks groaned beneath their weight,
Till spinster Clotho darted near
To shroud in white a running mate.
Ah, where’s the slush of yesteryear?
Even crimes have in refrain a charm they lacked in actuality.
When memories come closer to home, Merrill finds himself living in a Chirico landscape of what Hopkins called “the ruins of wrecked past purpose”: “Here’s a window onto a world of moonlit/Cubes and arches in ruins, populated by cats.” In some moods, however, worse than recall is the incapacity for it, the forgetting of the past; in a dream retold in the poem “Novelettes,” Merrill and two friends experience an episode of time travel in which the one souvenir and proof of the event—a fan kept by his companion—“falls from her sash, through cloud-shreds, past retrieval.” It is art that brings us, as Whitman said, “retrievements out of the night”; without it the past is past retrieval.
And yet the image of “retrieving,” Merrill thinks, is not really accurate; much of the time, the past seems rather to retrieve us. In an instant, writing can enable the leaping into the present of the irrepressible vitality of the past. In a consciously Yeatsian trimeter poem called “My Father’s Irish Setters,” Merrill asks, calling the dogs by name,
Dead lo! these forty winters?
Not so. Tonight in perfect
Lamplit stillness begin
With updraft from the worksheet,
Leapings and tongues, far-shining
Hearths of our hinterland:…
Dear clan of Ginger and Finn,
As I go through your motions
(As they go through me, rather)
Love follows, pen in hand.
In such a moment, the difference between present and past is almost erased, and the resuscitated images arrive with a force that seems external to the poet’s mind.
Later in the volume, the poet issues a “Press Release,” which tells us, in the third person, that he has been horrified by a glance at his awakened self in the mirror:
Buzzed awake, he turns
The light on—ah, how old! Who could have envisioned
Twenty years’ loneliness, ill health, wrong turnings?
Yet in a book on evolution he finds encouragement to hope for a more positive reprise of the moral life on a deeper or higher level:
He opens a book, squinting to clear his vision:
“Against such dark views, Na- ture’s best provision
Remains the tendency of certain organisms
Long on the verge of extinction to return
At depths or altitudes they had once been unfitted
The next day, Carnival arrives to plunge him once more into disgust at repetition:
Flats and floats trundled out over the years had come
To seem less touching.
Nonetheless, taking Nature’s advice, the poet decides to try a new beginning in altitudes he had once been “unfitted to endure”:
So let us not
Act like children. These are the Alps. High time
For the next deep breath. My hand. Hold. Concentrate.
This is the heroic hope always arising to counter the staleness of life—that if there is no child in the manager, no returned Maria, there remain, in Wordsworth’s Alpine words, “Effort, and expectation, and desire,/And something evermore about to be.” This romantic ascent—the assent to romance—is here assumed to be conceivable till death, as when, in the poem “Pledge,” Merrill toasts a divorcing couple, assuring them that their future experience may contain, like his own, a lucky finding of renewed love:
“You who have drained dry
Your golden goblet are about to learn—
As in my turn
How life, unsweetened, fizzing up again
Fills the heart.
I drink to you dpart
In that champagne.”
Such hope of “fizzing up again” still avoids the moment of death, in which two impersonal forces meet—one of dread at life’s stopping and the other of joy at evolutionary renewal. This moment finds it epigram in Merrill in a poem entitled, after Stevens, by a serial name (“Vol. XLIV, No. 3”), suggesting a magazine that has perhaps gone on too long. To represent perfection at the moment of its extinction, Merrill juxtaposes a Christian Christmas crèche to a pagan Christmas tree:
Dread? It crows for joy in the manger.
Joy? The tree sparkles on which it will die.
In “164 East 72nd Street,” Merrill recounts replacing the old windows with new ones in the New York City apartment which he inherited from his grandmother. The apartment is full of the poet’s memories of “things as they were.” Yet “what remains/Exactly as it was except those panes?” (The play on “pains” can’t be ignored.) And now the window panes are to be changed, along with the kind of life Merrill has been leading. A new monogamous regimen—one amounting to a second childhood, “once more good as gold”—is to blot out the purple past:
Our life is turning into a whole new story:
Juices, blue cornbread, afternoons at the gym—
Imagine who remembers how to swim!
Evenings of study, or intensive care
For one another. Early to bed….
Things done in purple light before we met,
Uncultured things that twitched as on a slide
If thought about, fade like dreams. Two Upper East Side
Boys again! Rereading Sir Walter Scott
Or Through the Looking Glass,
it’s impossible not
To feel how adult life, with its storms and follies,
Is letting up, leaving me ten years old,
Trustful, inventive, once more good as gold…
The distance between the Words-worthian Alpine ascent in “Press Release” and this willed obliteration of the troubled past in the service of a regressive innocence is the most convincing proof that the poetry of reprise gave an intense impetus to Merrill’s powers of imagination. And to his literary memory as well: the last image of reprise in A Scattering of Salts is the one most conspicuously traditional—Sappho’s evening star which is the morning star, Tennyson’s “sweet Hesper-Phosphor” of In Memoriam. Wallace Stevens, from whom Merrill drew so much, internalized the star as the oldest poetic symbol of renewal:
to say of the evening star,
The most ancient light in the most ancient sky,
That it is wholly an inner light, that it shines
From the sleepy bosom of the real, re-creates,
Searches a possible for its possi- bleness.
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.
May 11, 1995