In James Merrill’s poetry, words talk back. Eerily apt puns render individual words indelibly double; phrases gleam with multiple meanings like many-faceted gems. Merrill is formally graceful not just on the scale of entire poems but also microscopically: he treats individual letters and words as intricate miniature forms – as language’s atoms and molecules, respectively – and he finds a startling depth of meaning in their very shape. Even in his earliest work, he examines what human constructions’ powers of containment are, and what happens when they break: “The Broken Bowl,” from First Poems, imagines the “spectrums” which, “released, will speak/Of colder flowerings where cold crystal broke” (CP 4). In his later poems, Merrill less evasively and more subtly addresses the nature of his medium, written language, to test the limits of what it can hold and what happens when, as proves inevitable since it is a physical substance, it breaks down. Over the course of Merrill’s poetic career, what begins as a virtuoso poet’s game — what can language do? — deepens, as the poet grows increasingly aware of his own mortality, into a matter of utmost significance: what is language’s power of preservation? Is there meaning in language’s tendency, when properly listened-to, to make sense of its own accord — and, to extend that, is there sense in the way language is physically constructed, in the very shapes of letters and words? Are the visible forms of language themselves the cry of their occasion, a literal embodiment of their meanings? With ever-increasing urgency throughout the second half of his career, Merrill tests the edifice of language by tearing it apart: every so often, he razes a structure he’d just (so skillfully) erected, simply to see what remains, or what rises from the ashes. The desired end of Merrill’s experiments in disintegration is for language to respond to the pressure he puts on it, to seem to make its own sense in spite of the poet’s efforts, and thus to intimate the presence of a life, in his poems, beyond that of the poet’s conscious effort.
The mortal anxiety of a skilled artificer like Merrill centers on the question of what is preserved, in one’s poems, once the active, creative self dies. The poet’s medium, language, was and is composed and shaped by countless voices over thousands of years; the persistent presence of those voices in the substance of language itself is comforting both because it means that the seemingly-solitary art of writing poetry is fundamentally a group effort, and because it implies the possibility that this poet’s voice will join the accumulating choir, outlive his active self, and provide nourishment for future poets.
The mortal anxiety of a skilled artificer like Merrill centers on the question of what is preserved, in one’s poems, once the active, creative self dies. The poet’s medium, language, was and is composed and shaped by countless voices over thousands of years; the persistent presence of those voices in the substance of language itself is comforting both because it means that the seemingly-solitary art of writing poetry is fundamentally a group effort, and because it implies the possibility that this poet’s voice will join the accumulating choir, outlive his active self, and provide nourishment for future poets. As Peter Sacks puts it in his essay on elegiac aspects of Merrill’s epic work, poetry is “the enlarged space that the dead apparently create for the living” (Essays 160). How to display this, though? If language’s inherent significance, the meaningfulness of its very physical construction, is Merrill’s supreme fiction, its primary stipulation is “It must seem to make sense of its own accord.” Even in Merrill’s most intricately-wrought poems, the layers of meaning cannot seem to originate in the poet’s conscious effort; they must seem to arise from latent longings within language itself. This hard-won impression of effortlessness demands not just immaculate formal and metrical technique, which Merrill had from a very young age and which sometimes magnifies rather than erases the sense of the poet’s effort, but legitimate need for sustenance and preservation in language, which only fully emerges in Merrill’s later work.
It is, of course, a hallmark of lyric late style that the poet put his faith in his poems’ power to preserve something essential about him, whether it is Stevens’s slowly accumulated “Total grandeur of a total edifice,/Chosen by an inquisitor of structures/For himself” (CP 510) or Keats’s poetic progeria, his anxiety not to die before his pen has “glean’d [his] teeming brain” (CP 301). But Merrill’s anxiety features elements unique to a poet writing, and aging, in the late 20th century, an age in which the study of language often focused on its “instability” and “openness,” in which new evidence suggested that our earth, Nature itself, is in mortal danger from human hands, and in which the poet himself was struck down by the previously unimaginable plague of AIDS. With the “total edifices” of the body and the world facing unheard-of perils, Merrill looks closely at the letters that he hopes will compose him, and makes demands on them commensurate to these new threats. The primary question is not whether he will be able to accurately and beautifully express himself, by the usual standards –when was that ever a problem for Merrill? — but whether poetic self-preservation can be achieved at all in a “world that shifts like sand” in which even language’s “monument more lasting than bronze,” to quote Horace, seems endangered.
The results of Merrill’s tests are always ambivalent, but their underlying sense is consistently, paradoxically affirmative: written language, and languages, will disintegrate, just as our bodies will, but language is our best hope for immortality because its instability matches ours. We experience language as an unfolding in time, like a human life, and so it may trace the arc of how we live and die; it is life’s gramophone and replayable record. And if language, after being scrambled past coherence, shines with new, unintended meanings, so might the human spirit persist after death in a new, “unintended” form. Throughout these tests, Merrill is consistent in his ambivalent affirmations, but as he ages, the affirmations deepen along with the ambivalence: there is simply more at stake in the later, death-haunted poems. Most crucially, Merrill’s late poems enact a subtle reversal of his earlier figurations: language stands less for substances and occurrences in “the real world” than the world stands for the more permanent resting-place of language.
Merrill’s most explicit examination of what the self is, and of what persists of it after death, is the epic The Changing Light at Sandover, the entirety of which was published in 1985. Sandover consists largely of Merrill and his lover, David Jackson, interacting with hundreds of voices — some human, some not — through a Ouija board, an ideal physicalization (with its spread-out alphabet and the poet’s yielding of agency) of language’s disintegration and resurrection at supposedly-dead hands; Sacks, in the same essay previously cited, calls it “not only a redemptive field on which losses are recouped…but the great transporting vehicle of language itself” (Essays 165), language “the life raft,” in Merrill’s terms. But not all loss is recoverable. The answers concerning the self’s persistence, in Sandover, are often rather scary, if equivocally affirmative: the self does not survive forever; it is eventually “stripped,” its essential elements plowed back into the universe’s soil, but one’s voice persists, if it achieves sufficient authority to prove inescapable for future generations. The difference between self and voice is a matter of agency: the self, as an active being, does not survive, but the memorable voice persists, in the memory of those who heard it, as a manifested way of looking at the world, an inhabitable musical landscape whose sound is the clue to its sense. Sandover suggests that we, in our brief stint as active selves, are composed of a tapestry of the voices we know by heart, and we may persist by contributing an inescapable voice to future listeners and creators.
But if Sandover presents a dense conceptual framework with which to consider this issue, it is in Merrill’s lyric poems, his “chronicles of love and loss,” that the question of the self’s relationship to and dependence on language evolves and ultimately finds its most personal utterance. This essay will consider Sandover only in reference to its impact on Merrill’s lyrics; the epic marks a turning point in Merrill’s thinking whose ultimate fruits are the lyric poems of his final three collections, in which the issues raised in Sandover are made more concrete as they come to apply to the poet himself. Merrill’s dishevelments of language, generally speaking, have three phases: those written before (“The Friend of the Fourth Decade”), contemporary with (“Lost in Translation”) and after (“Losing the Marbles,” “b o d y”) his epic.
Merrill’s first exploration of the legitimate danger of the self’s obliteration, and one of his first overt explorations of the materiality of language, is “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” the second poem (the first is prefatory) of 1969’s The Fire Screen. Here, the figurative blueprint is fairly simple: the physical substance of a manuscript stands for the individual human spirit, the dissolution of the substance of language implies the dissolution of the self, and the persistence of the former gives hope for the persistence of the latter. The friend of the title is evidently a lifelong one — “You are my oldest friend, remember” (CP 228), he tells Merrill — who has arrived at a very different stance toward the possibility and desirability of the self’s persistence, especially through the art of writing. He seems once to have shared Merrill’s implied faith in writing’s nourishing power: referring specifically to old postcards, he says “I never used to throw out anything,” and speaks “Of having cared and having ceased to care.” Now, “tired of understanding,” he revels in the visible dissolution of human effort to construct meaning by soaking old postcards in water until the text dissolves and only the images remain: “…its ink/Turns to exactly the slow formal swirls/Through which a phoenix flies on Chinese silk.” The text, the proof of the effort at artifice, goes up in the smoke of the phoenix’s regenerative blaze. The friend seems oblivious to the phoenix’s eventual reemergence, as he announces cheerfully that the text is ultimately “unreadable.” Merrill, seemingly at a similar point of weariness in his life, is “envious” of his friend’s apparent liberation, and gives it a try with a postcard from his mother. His friend’s stance is a challenge to everything Merrill’s poetry stands for, and the very fact that Merrill attempts it reveals that this is a moment of searing self-doubt for him. And try as he does to let himself dissolve, Merrill survives his little trial by water. Naturally, some of the ink wears off immediately: “The stamp slid off, of course, and the ink woke./I watched my mother’s Dearest Son unfurl/In blue ornate brief plungings-up.” The ink, the very substance of meaning, “woke” when bathed in the waters of oblivion, and its Baroque swirls almost form a “wild iris.” Already, Merrill’s rage for order seems unstoppable: in the very image of dissolution, he beholds an ornate flower taking shape. And indeed, an hour later, “her message remained legible.” Why? The nonchalance of “Chances are it was/Some simple matter of what ink she used” is one of Merrill’s trademark winks: we may take the “ink” both as his father’s sperm (Merrill’s father was legendarily stubborn) and, more broadly, as his genetic makeup, his very blood. It seems, for now, that Merrill believes that he — the individual voice, the self that, even if it is constructed, has slowly and surely gained control of the construction site — is simply made to last. As he will do ever-more-intricately later on, Merrill here draws a parallel between the physical substance of written language and the essence of his physical being, and makes the survival of the latter dependent on the survival of the former.
“The Friend of the Fourth Decade” is a relatively early attempt to crack the edifice of language, and it’s hardly Merrill’s most effective. For all its grace and humor, his argument about the persistence of his individuality requires an improbable figurative scaffolding – that is, his mother’s having chanced to use a particularly durable ink. The whole situation is a literalized precursor of the “stripping process” from The Changing Light at Sandover and, like Sandover’s JM, the speaker of “The Friend…” manifests — or rather, briefly tries on — a Magic Flute-like and rather un-Merrillian naïveté. In other words, it fails the test of Merrill’s supreme fiction — this “proof” of the staying power of language and the individual is palpably a constructed thought experiment. Also, considering what language’s staying power came to mean for Merrill, “certain things die only with oneself” seems a nearsighted conclusion. He is ultimately less interested in what dies with oneself than in what of oneself persists after death, and his conception of this depends on his long meditation, in Sandover, on what exactly one’s self is and how it relates to linguistic representations of it. The conception of the self in “The Friend…” is, relatively, speaking, crude: as long as I live, I will persist as an individual because I’m made of strong stuff (the mother’s “ink”) — or perhaps because I make strong stuff myself, my poems. But what happens after death — does anything of oneself not die “with oneself”? Merrill does not address this deeper, touchier issue yet. As its title suggests, this is a mid-life poem, a deftly-averted crisis of faith in the idea of the individual; its scope does not extend to actual death, or beyond it. However, the speaker’s personal crisis is not the only potential threat to the individual self here. The very act of looking backwards dishevels the objects of its stare, makes the ink swirl into near-illegibility, and if here “the memories it stirred did not elude me,” such elusion does pose a real threat elsewhere.
“Lost in Translation,” from 1976’s Divine Comedies, is Merrill’s central examination of how language preserves us, and how both our nature and language’s nature reveal what “preservation” means and how it is possible. It poses a new kind of test: translation is a subtler form of dishevelment, a less literalized exploration of language’s power to retain meaning through transformation and apparent destruction. Can the spirit of a text stay remain intact once disjoined from its original “body,” the sonic and textural world of its original language? Contemporary with the publication of the first installment of Sandover, “Lost in Translation” is a turning-point poem which marks the incipient arrival of Merrill’s mature conception of the self’s relationship to language, both complicating and partially resolving the issues embryonically raised in “The Friend of the Fourth Decade” and first hinting at an extraordinary reversal in his point of view: the world is witnessed not just through language, but as language. Rather than treating the loss of a translated poem as a figurative jumping-off point for comparisons to “real-life” events (the divorce, his governess’s secret life), linguistic translation, made unforgettably physical, is this poem’s culminating image; everything else seems to stand for it.
Merrill’s conception of translation as simultaneous destruction and creation, by way of memory’s penetrating beam, has its roots in an earlier poem, “Scenes of Childhood,” from Water Street (1962), which opens with the poet and his mother watching a slideshow of family photos: “My mother’s lamp once out,/I press a different switch” (CP 141). The “mother’s lamp” is the quotidian light of the household in the present, and the “different switch” switches not just the light source — from a lamp to a film projector — but the kind of beam, present-day vision or memory. With the lamp of the present temporarily out, this beam examines the past, and this proves a tricky business; the projector, it is soon revealed, is not entirely reliable: “Our headstrong old projector/Glares at the scene which promptly/Catches fire.” Poetic creation is, in part, the alchemy of turning memory into language; what does it mean if memory’s squinting beam is so untrustworthy, so – aggressive? In “Scenes,” memory’s beam is bluntly destructive; as J.D. McClatchy writes in his essay on Water Street, “…the poem introduces…a series of dilemmas Merrill will confront in later books with persistent anxiety but with increasing confidence” (Essays 96). But in “Lost in Translation,” Merrill confidently integrates the distortions of memory into his work, recognizing that such distortions are integral to and perhaps synonymous with the process of creation, whether of a poem or a life. He achieves this integration by looking at life not just as writing but as overwriting — as translation.
An intricate puzzle of a poem, “Lost in Translation” is the story of the many losses and mysteries that follow one through life, of the slowly-solved puzzles which always seem to be missing a piece. These include but are not limited to Merrill’s parents’ divorce, the long-misrepresented early life of his beloved governess, a literal puzzle Merrill put together in childhood with that governess, and Rilke’s translation of Paul Valéry’s “Palme,” which Merrill hunts for in vain. After a dizzying series of temporal leaps — from childhood to the recent past to the present to the deep past again — and scenic dislocations — from Merrill’s childhood home to a mid-life séance to an ancient Middle Eastern scene depicted on the puzzle — we arrive once again in the present, in Athens, where Merrill is fruitlessly hunting “that translation of ‘Palme.’/Neither the Goethehaus nor the National Library/Seems able to unearth it” (CP 367). In a moment that marks a philosophical evolution from the need for physical preservation in “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” Merrill asserts that he has retained the essence of Rilke’s translation, even if the physical copy is lost: “Yet I can’t/Just be imagining. I’ve seen it. Know/How much of the sun-ripe original/Felicity Rilke made himself forgo…” Tellingly, the first thing Merrill recalls is the loss inherent in Rilke’s translation, the necessary destruction of the original’s warm, smooth French surface; Rilke behaved responsibly, even stoically, by resisting the urge to mimic Valéry’s sonic felicity in a language unfit for it. Merrill also remembers “[w]hat Pains, what monolithic Truths/Shadow stanza to stanza’s symmetrical/Rhyme-rutted pavement,” that is, not a word-for-word transcript, but the translation’s sound, its shape, Rilke’s voice mingling with Valéry’s “underlying sense.” The voice is what persists after the body — whether a human body or the translation’s physical copy — vanishes, and Merrill’s hard-earned understanding that “all is translation” allows him to accept the loss of this particular translation, along with all the other losses felt throughout the poem. He sees that not only has he “lost” Rilke’s translation, but Rilke lost Valéry’s poem in translating it, and Merrill beautifully loses Rilke for us as he strains to describe it. This is a subtle revision of Frost’s much-quoted “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”: “Or found,” Merrill would add. The untrustworthy beam of memory from “Scenes of Childhood” is reimagined here as a generative force: as one reaches for what one has lost, one creates something new out of the “waste.” The poem’s final image is the “self-effacing tree,” the ever-fertile but ever-shedding tree of life, which also recalls the “Palme” whose translation inspired this meditation. The self is what gets effaced, and what persists past the “waste” of the spirit’s expenditure is “shade and fiber, milk and memory.” Shade, fiber, and milk: these are forms of sustenance and relief. The tree of language is composed of these remembered voices, which nourish us even as they undergo perpetual transformation (that is, translation).
“Lost in Translation” is as negatively capable a poem as one could ask for, but in the twenty remaining years of his career, Merrill’s explorations grow even more poignantly ambivalent as they grow more urgent. The uniqueness of Merrill’s historical perspective — an openly gay poet, who never had children, cut down in late middle age by AIDS — only emerges in his last decade, and deepens his dependence on his medium. A conclusion like “…nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation/And every one of us is lost in it/(Or found…),” acute as it is, has a tone of leisurely musing for which Merrill’s late work has no time. The primary image of translation and dissolution, in “The Friend of the Fourth Decade” and “Lost in Translation,” is the poem and not the human body, though both poems reverberate with implications about the body’s impermanence. In Merrill’s post-Sandover output, the collections Late Settings, The Inner Room, and A Scattering of Salts, mortality is a more immediate presence: the poet, facing physical decline, continues to turn to language, but out of necessity rather than mere fascination. From this point on, images of dissolution and preservation center on the fragile human form. But, in the reversal referred to in my introduction, Merrill finds hope and comfort only when he thinks of bodily decline in linguistic, and specifically poetic, terms.
The sonnet sequence “Days of 1941 and ’44,” from 1985’s Late Settings, is, in relation to Merrill’s final poems, what “The Friend of the Fourth Decade” is in relation to “Lost in Translation.” Though Merrill’s voice is by now utterly mature, this is the first poem concerning this subject matter in which a human life is literally at stake. Merrill did not yet have AIDS when he wrote this poem, but Late Settings is a collection haunted by a growing awareness of approaching physical death — indeed, not just on the scale of the human body but, in poems like “Grass” and “Developers at Crystal River,” on the grander scale of the earth, of nature itself. That uniquely contemporary development is worth an essay of its own and too complex to discuss here, but the bearing it has on this project is that this new scale gives Merrill a new perspective on the human body, which is no longer merely the macroscopic view in relation to the microscopic world of language but a midpoint on a widening spectrum of decay.
In “Days of 1941 and ’44,” as in “The Friend…”, Merrill examines himself in contrast to another — a childhood enemy this time — who does not survive, this time literally: this friend dies on the battlefield in World War II. With deep ambivalence, Merrill ascribes his own survival, which has the double sense of physical survival and his predicted survival as a poet, at once to his lifelong immersion in language and to his wealthy background, without which he might well have died in the trenches like his nemesis. The poem’s primary test is an implicit one: is it worth founding one’s life on interaction with and immersion in language? What happens to someone who lets language shape him? The poem’s answers to these questions are resoundingly affirmative, but at the poem’s end, it becomes apparent for the first time that these tests, and these affirmations, are insufficient comfort for an aging poet.
In the first sonnet’s final tercet, addressing his childhood tormentor (who leered at Merrill in the school shower and stole his towel), Merrill strangely specifies that these poems are spoken “here at the end”: “Imagine meeting now, here at the end–/You sheep-eyed, stripped of your wolf’s clothing–/And seeing which came true, your life or mine” (CP 425). The nemesis died four decades earlier, but Merrill is alive and, as he articulates in the collection’s opening poem, “Grass,” hopes that he is “Ten more years–fifteen?–/From disappearing” (CP 405). Why does he speak of his own life as if it is completed? Over the course of the poem, it becomes apparent that Merrill regards his poetic maturity as a final stage of evolution, as final proof of a life which “came true.” Fittingly, then, Merrill’s brutal assessment of his fifteen-year-old self is in linguistic terms: he was “in those days less than nothing,/A shaky X on panic’s bottom line.” The next sonnet clarifies this: he was “less than nothing” because not only was he unable to express himself adequately, but his efforts to do so fell extravagantly flat, as in the “heavenly colors and swell fish” he noted in his journal. Language, even then, was his diet, the nourishment that composes him, and in those days it was unhealthy: “Mismarriage of maternal gush/To regular-guy. By evening: ‘Bellyache.’” His tormentor, by contrast, is a “four-letter man.” Still, four letters is more than Merrill’s one “shaky X,” and in this bizarrely competitive juxtaposition of two lives, Merrill’s nameless nemesis was (in adolescence) at a more advanced stage in the process we would today call self-actualization. It’s natural that Merrill’s analogy for this process – the “shaky X” versus the “four-letter man” – is linguistic, for it is in language that Merrill will be saved.
The poem’s opening tableau, torture in the shower, is thus a kind of primal scene. As Merrill once put it in an interview, “Shaped by ideas like everyone else, I nevertheless avert my eyes from them as from the sight of a nude grandparent, not presentable, indeed taboo, until robed in images” (McClatchy, “Braving the Elements”). The fifteen-year-old Merrill, full of ideas, is still “not presentable,” trembling and helplessly nude, lower on the evolutionary chain than his tormentor in the “wolf’s clothing” of four-letter words. His efforts at expression are too weak to help him: “The towel I reach for” is “held just out of reach.”
As in much of Sandover, the elegance and playfulness of Merrill’s presentation robe an idea that, taken nudely, might strike us as unspeakable, even offensive: Merrill’s life “came true,” became more than nothing, as his poetic powers developed; his nemesis never developed himself that way, and died in his “wolf’s clothing” on the battlefield, all but subhuman. This is close to Sandover’s assertion that there are rather few human souls good for more than serving as something like the universe’s coal miners. Merrill, here and in Sandover, asserts that poetry raised him into that exalted company, saving him from eternal, all-but-anonymous reincarnation. This sequence is, at first, a valediction of overreaching: the poet starts as “less than nothing” as his overambitious efforts fail, but it is only through such striving that he ultimately shapes an indelible voice.
The third sonnet documents Merrill’s awakening, his first authentic, almost religious experience with language. It is Baudelaire’s intricate artifice that Merrill first worships: “Faith rose dripping from the false.” The young Merrill, reveling in the musical possibilities of language, founds his life’s work on what he knows is, superficially at least, a human construction, and from “here at the end,” he asserts, however equivocally, that his faith was not misplaced. Merrill uses a vocabulary here that he will develop in his final collection, A Scattering of Salts: his immersion in poetry is imagined as “a lukewarm bath” brought “to/Fizzy life by those mauve salts.” The sugary diet of “maternal gush,” “fury and rapture, smudge and curlicue,” is replaced by a cleansing salt bath. Poetry’s preservative power is again physicalized:
one of the effects of salt baths is prevention of the usual aging effect, the wrinkling of the skin after long immersion in water.
In the fourth sonnet, we move from 1941 to 1944, where both Merrill and his nemesis are performing military service. The nemesis is at the front in France, while Merrill is at some cushy post on American soil, experiencing a very different France in Swann’s Way, what Merrill calls his own “basic training.” This juxtaposition recalls their childhood, when the nemesis triumphed in “Saturday night war games” while Merrill toiled away at his flamboyant juvenilia. The situation has changed, however, and Merrill’s is the privileged position now. But Merrill is acutely conscious that it is not merely his natural gifts but external circumstances — his father’s immense wealth, the decadent pampering of “A mother caught by flash in Red Cross chic” — that sustained him through wartime, and through life. He draws an unsettling equivalence between his immersion in language and his privileged birth, however, through the nemesis’s scorn for both: “Oh, you didn’t need/Cushions, posters, cotton for nosebleed…”, Merrill recalls, and then, referring to his nemesis’s appraisal of his poetic talent, “Mine was a harmless figment? If you like./Remember, though, how untrained eyes subtract/From the coin-glint of a summer glade/The adder coiled to strike.” The nemesis’s eyes are “untrained” both through his less glamorous upbringing and — not unrelatedly — his scorn for language; in the poem’s tonal turn, referring superficially to the lack of wealth and connections that forced the nemesis to go to the front, Merrill recalls “Three more years and you would die,/For lack of them perhaps.” Merrill has established a complex series of definitions of what life is, what death is, and what exists between the two. Yes, the nemesis dies because he went to war, but Merrill only really lives because he made himself a poet. Death, in this poem, is physical death, but true life is the life of the mind.
In the final sonnet, however, Merrill makes a kind of concession to the finality of physical death, in relation to the life of art, that signals the deepening of personal anxiety about mortality that is a hallmark of his late work: “The nothing you’d become took on a weight/No style I knew could lighten.” In “Lost in Translation,” life and death are both processes of translation; here, death is death. The sequence’s final image, of the fatal missiles bursting across the sky, recalls an earlier passage in which Merrill recounts writing his hatred for the nemesis in his adolescent journal: “You lounging, buried in my diary–/Each phrase a fuse. I wanted you to burst.” The young Merrill, while despising the nemesis, was also clearly attracted to him (as we know from the poem’s poignant opening, in which the nemesis “leers/In mock lust–surely?–at my crotch”), and the erotic overtones of “I wanted you to burst” are translated into all-too-real terms at the poem’s end. In his final minutes on the battlefield, the nemesis would “crawl…And peeking upward see the tracers scrawl/Their letter of atonement, then the flare/Quote its entire red minefield from midair–/Between whose lines it has been life to read.” A tracer is a projectile made visible in flight by the burning of chemicals in its base, and tracing is also writing. The nemesis, in his final moments, sees, as it were, an image of his own life flash before his eyes: the burning of the missile is the self-consumption that is human life, here imagined as a kind of writing of oneself across the sky. The “letter of atonement” at once imagines life as a process of purgation, of laying bare (as in writing), and, if we take “letter” alphabetically, it looks forward to the late poem “b o d y,” in which human life is physicalized as the passing cry of “o”, which is also the stressed vowel of “atonement.” The flare, as it flares itself away, “quote(s) its entire red minefield from midair,” and “minefield” has a double meaning. The self is a “minefield,” a field of me, which “quote(s)” itself across the sky.
For Merrill, it “has been life” to read between the lines of the nemesis’s self-destruction. The course of other human lives appears to us as streaks across the night sky, as lines rather than as fixed points — and we must read between them to plot out our own course. Usually, the lines that guide Merrill are poetic lines, but of course this nemesis led an anti-poetic life; indeed, the nemesis has, in every respect, provided a model of how not to live, and the poem concludes with an aura of muted gratitude. After all, the nemesis not only awakened Merrill’s latent homosexual urges, but provided a challenge to Merrill’s creative way of life, a challenge Merrill triumphantly met. At various moments petty, tender, self-abusive, self-aggrandizing, elegiac, snobbish, playful, arch, and anxious, this brief sequence is a pocket encyclopedia of Merrill’s tonal range. Still, this chameleonic quality does not mask a mortal anxiety whose urgency is new to Merrill; he had hardly depicted a violent death in a lyric poem before. As Helen Vendler puts it, “as the poet-to-be reads between the lines of the tracer bullets…lines of life and art begin to intertwine, as hatred…and atonement converge” (Critical Essays 67). He has still not found words to address his own mortality, though this firework-like finale, expressed in linguistic terms, comes unsettlingly close.
Merrill’s examinations take all-but-final shape in the crucial sequence “Losing the Marbles,” from 1987’s The Inner Room. The title has at least four distinct meanings — Athens’s loss of the Elgin marbles, the deterioration and ultimate destruction of marble sculptures and buildings, the process of losing control of one’s mind and body at the end of life, and the loss of the pure marble-white of the page as it is written on. The poem is a key link between Merrill’s middle and late explorations of these issues, at once extending the imagery of “Lost in Translation” — language as crumbling stone monuments — and foreshadowing the elegies of A Scattering of Salts, in which the body is itself seen as a word, briefly spoken, which lingers in the substance of writing. It opens with an overt comparison between the Elgin marbles’ loss and the aging poet’s growing absentmindedness: “And what were we talking about at lunch? Another/Marble gone. Those later years, Charmides,/Will see the mind eroded featureless” (CP 572). As in Plato’s “Charmides” dialogue, Merrill is concerned here with sophrosyne, in this case in the face of physical dissolution. With that in mind, Merrill raises an eyebrow at Dylan Thomas’s forceful injunction to “rage against the dying of the light”: “But really–rage?”. The light may be dying — it is at least changing — but Merrill will go on, in the rest of the poem, to display coping methods more effective, to his mind, than “rage.”
The poem’s second section, whose central image is the destruction of a manuscript in a rainstorm, is a direct descendant and implicit revision of “The Friend of the Fourth Decade.” Here, the poet is eighteen years older and less blithely optimistic: the manuscript’s messages do dissolve into “oblivion’s ink-blue rivulet,” which — together with “the warbling sirens of the flood,” from this poem’s fourth section — recalls “oblivion’s thin siren singing” from “The Friend…”. Though this section is primarily a scene of destruction, it is not entirely devoid of hope: as the rain smears the text, “exchanging the wrong words,” the poet trusts that “the right ones…will somehow/Return to the tongue’s tip…invigorated by their dip” in the Lethean waters. Merrill had tangibly experienced such loss in the years between “The Friend…” and this, having lost the novel which became The Book of Ephraim in a taxi in Macon, Georgia. In that case, “the right words” did emerge “invigorated,” translated from the prose which “never truly fit” (Divine Comedies 48) into verse. At the moment, though, the letters and words are physically deteriorating, “starved to macron, breve,/Those fleshless ribs, a beggar’s frame,” and it will be necessary to spend some time “feverishly restoring the papyrus.” The rest of this poem will be an examination of the necessity of such loss, and of the necessity to see the world as language, specifically poetry, in order to understand the nature both of loss and of life.
In one of Merrill’s most playful formal gestures, he performs a selective erasure of his own work; we have not yet seen the original, but it turns out to be section five of this very poem. Here, it seems, is what remains of the smeared manuscript of the second section: this is what of the “body” was “gleaned” of the storm’s “vital frenzy,” to quote Merrill’s mischievous selection. It goes without saying, since this is Merrill, that if we take these fragments as a poem in its own right, and read it in the usual linear way, meanings surface. The most resonant passages seem oblique meditations on the nature of decay: the conclusion, “palace, temple,/having of those blue foothills/no further clear/fancy,” calls up the deterioration of the monuments and temples discussed elsewhere in the poem, and “Unutter[able]/the beloved’s/slowly/stained in the deep fixed/summer nights” (assuming we take the neologistic option of omitting the bracketed “able,” to leave the verb “unutter”) refers to the process of loss that is, at once, living, dying, and writing. It is an “unuttering” of the deep “staining” of past experiences, the “deep fixed/summer nights” of youth.
For now, though, the fragmentary third section remains a piece of an unfinished puzzle. The fourth section expands on the second section’s scene of dissolution, but the victims in this case are statues rather than words, the “loyal adherents” of their creator’s ideas who are “brainwashed, so to speak,/By acid rain.” The ideas themselves, Merrill proposes, do survive in art’s “counterfeit heaven,” but in what form? As expected, the meditation circles back to language, which the statues stood for anyway: “Removed a further stage,” — from the obvious materiality of carved rock to the subtler substance of language — “viewed from this high wire/Between the elegiac and the haywire” — that is, the tonal tightrope Merrill miraculously walks; the naked wire is also an image for a line of verse — “They even so raise questions,” questions of where these “ideas escape the fate” of the forms they temporarily take. If no physical form, whether stone or letter, is permanent or stable, might the creative spirit itself be in danger? “Does the will-/To structural elaboration still/Flute up, from shifting dregs of would-be rock….?/ Do higher brows unknit within the block?” The “higher brows” of the spirit’s gaze might “unknit” when the block deteriorates.
But nothing’s lost, or else all is translation, if we look at these sculptures as written language. Merrill mistrusts visual art’s effort to depict life in one frozen moment; at one point in Sandover, the didactic chorus of Ouija board voices launches into an invective against painters, insisting that poetry and music are the highest of the arts. They seem to take offense primarily at painting’s atemporality, since in Merrill’s conception — which is consonant, in general terms, with certain discoveries in contemporary physics — the self is knowable only in its unfolding. As Helen Vendler writes in Last Looks, Last Books, “unlike a painter, a poet is not restricted in self-portraiture to depicting only the visible parts of the body, nor is he limited to one moment of expression” (117). Here, Merrill prefers to look at the temple’s lifespan as a kind of spoken sentence: “The foam-/Pale seaside temple, like a palindrome,/Had quietly laid its plans for stealing back.” The temple has its own inherent symmetry, but it is not the visual neatness of the finished temple in prime condition; rather, it is the symmetry of the lifespan of any physical creation, living or not: it emerges out of nothingness, briefly stands, and returns, “stealing back” to its original absence. Merrill gleefully calls its existence a “palindrome,” only at the center of which the structure takes the intended shape. As Guy Rotella writes in his essay on monumentality in this poem,
One implication of the word asks [in the line ‘All stone once dressed asks to be worn’] is that stone has a life of its own and participates in a natural cycle of building up and breaking down, as persons and cultures do…Palindromes…read the same from right to left as they from do left to right. They recover themselves as they unravel or return as they depart–and the reverse… (Rotella 85)
The message the temple conveys is not the one we intended, but rather the inescapable rise-and-fall cadence inherent in the nature of language: the temple itself “had quietly laid its plans for stealing back,” the way aging is built into our DNA and the way a palindrome’s end is present in its beginning. The universe moves and evolves the way language does, and in it we may be lost or found. That depends, largely, on how we see it. Rotella also argues, less convincingly, that
…[Merrill] fears that his more playful view of art — implying a high-wire act performed above the fray of quotidian choices and commitments — might in its own way distract us from the reality of life and process, the difficult acts of committed choosing that produce not only politics but works of art as well. He worries that a private, disengaged view of art…is escapist and risks alienation from the cyclical economy everything inhabits, including works of art. (87)
But the only view of art Merrill attacks here, or rather playfully mocks, is the public one, the view intended by the builders of the Parthenon who had the ongoing glory of Athens as their goal. It is true that this public attitude is rendered absurd by an even grander process, the decay that Merrill foresees, as Rotella rightly notes, by shifting to a “long-term geological view” (87), but even this wide scope must be translated into the microscopic scale of language to be understood. Merrill’s poetry, this poem more even than most, is incessantly multivalent and thus unfit for “public” consumption; Merrill refuses all platforms grander than the individual reader’s mind because making art for occasions more public than individual reading would demand a smoothing-over of his beloved ambiguity.
Readers familiar with Merrill’s last poems will recognize the treatment of human life as a palindrome which briefly floats into and out of existence as the central theme of “b o d y,” in which the visual symmetry of “b o d” stands for one revolution of the life cycle. Indeed, “Losing the Marbles” is a key precursor to “b o d y,” and in the fifth section, the body — hinted at in the fragmentary third section — takes center stage. In Merrill’s persistent reversal of what stands for what, “the body” is the “favorite trope of our youthful poets…/With it they gleaned, as at the sibyl’s tripod,/insight too prompt and vital for words.” At first, this appears a simple, literal statement — that the body is a favorite trope of young poets in their poetry. But he means instead that they use the body, which is itself a trope, to “glean…insight” — that is, to penetrate the beloved in intercourse — “too prompt and vital for words.” Words are neither prompt, that is, belonging to the present, nor vital, that is, alive. They are where our voices live after our death; poetry is an art of memory, of capturing shades of the past, and so is unfit for the young, who prefer the penis to the pen. But, as we know, life is an art of backward examination for Merrill, and youth’s hormone-fueled obsession with grasping the present ultimately seems only a crude metaphor for poetic sight: “Humbly our old poets knew to make/wanderings into/homecomings of a sort.” The backward-looking wandering of verse, as more experienced poets know, is the best home we have, though Merrill gently tempers this triumphalism with the equivocal “of a sort.” Merrill here assumes an ambivalence that recalls Horace’s description of physical monuments, as Rotella notes in relation to Horace’s “Exegi monumentum…”: “Horace’s expectation of future fame is hedged by timeful phrases: ‘So long as’; ‘Once.’ Those phrases support his hope for permanence in terms that also temper and subvert it” (3). Such questions demand double vision: written language is our home, but we cannot live there; only our voices can.
After section five’s reconstruction of the damaged fragment, in the sixth section we arrive “here in the afterglow” where “it almost seems/Death has forgotten us.” This is the same “afterglow” inhabited by the “leaf-carved capitals” of “Lost in Translation,” the glow after creation, when the work is cooling and finally legible. In that quiet preservation, one might have the illusion that we could survive, but Merrill reminds us that it is precisely us, our conscious selves, that death comes for, though our voices persist. The poem’s seventh and final section achieves the kind of peace longed for throughout the poem, and throughout Merrill’s career. Merrill receives a new pouch of marbles as a birthday gift, and as we might expect, the marbles and language stand for each other. The marbles, like poems, are gleaming shells which contain a vanished life which might yet be rekindled someday — the gift includes “clear ones with DNA-like wisps inside.” Like an insect fossilized in amber, the traces of life in poems may yet come alive for future generations, for whoever figures out how to relight it. These marbles’ “sparkle/Repeats the garden lights, or moon- or starlight,/Tinily underfoot,” the way poems contain the rekindlable light of life under their metrical feet. The poem ends with an image for one of those privileged moments when poetry, though we know its light is reflected, transcends its reiterative nature to forge a new present reality, “as though the very/Here and now were becoming a kind of heaven/To sit in, talking, largely mindless of/The risen, cloudy brilliances above.” The light of language outshines even the supposedly-present stars above, whose light, after all, reaches us only after a journey of millions of miles and thousands of years; the source of its light, too, is often dead, and the light has the earth’s cloudy atmosphere to contend with. If we look at actual light this way, the light of poetry hardly seems abstract or distant: composed though it may be of past voices, of accumulated loss, poetry seems our truest and most immediate present, our original birthday gift.
In “Days of 1941 and ’44,” it “has been life” not only to read between the tracer’s scrawled, fading lines but to avoid its fate; the poem is spoken by a living person who hopes and expects to go on living and reading. Similarly, in “Losing the Marbles,” even when the the parallel dissolution of the human body and language is a persistent “trope,” it is treated playfully and with careful distance: the subjects are “our youthful poets” and “our old poets.” And though the poem has an erasure at its center, and though it is largely about the deterioration of monuments and manuscripts, in the final scene, new marbles arrive to provide temporary material consolation. To quote “Grass,” Merrill is still hopefully a long way “from disappearing.” But in Merrill’s final collection, A Scattering of Salts, written while Merrill was dying of AIDS, the poems that break language down manifest a deep awareness, and deepening acceptance, that the poet himself is near the end of his life.
“b o d y,” a late poem whose explicit subject is the self-as-language, both deepens and radically simplifies Merrill’s testing apparatus. Merrill here examines the phenomenon of a word “looked at too long” (CP 646) — the uncanny sense that the meaning we ascribe to any given word flees from it after we have stared long enough, the way a word repeated aloud long enough becomes sound devoid of sense. For human communication, and especially for poetry, the transformation of a written word into mere physical matter is a kind of death. This disappearance of meaning from language’s containers — letters and words — is another form of dissolution, another threat to Merrill’s radiant system of double meanings and wordplays, since all of it depends on words’ power to unleash their multiple meanings on us. What good is any of it if meaning simply drains away, like life out of a body, once one has looked long enough? “b o d y” traces the resurrection of the word “body” from this apparent doom. Merrill’s voice in this poem, far from the naiveté of “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” is newly urgent and authoritative; indeed, he does not trust us to undergo the process of wearing “body” out, and guides us through it step by step: “Look closely at the letters. Can you see…”. Once that long question, which stretches into the second stanza, finally concludes, he tells us what we should have just noticed by following his directions: “Looked at too long, words fail,/phase out.” Here is the poem in its entirety:
Look closely at the letters. Can you see,
entering (stage right), then floating full,
then heading off—so soon—
how like a little kohl-rimmed moon
o plots her course from b to d
—as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door?
Looked at too long, words fail,
phase out. Ask, now that body shines
no longer, by what light you learn these lines
and what the b and d stood for.
This is a new kind of dissection: Merrill does not damage the page on which the word is written, erase some of its letters, or visualize its translation into another language. He simply asks us to consider its constituent parts. The process of phasing “body” out is the transformation of the letters “b,” “o,” “d,” and “y” into a kind of visual narrative scene, a pictographic rendering of the human life cycle. First, “entering (stage right),” floats the “little kohl-rimmed moon,” the “o” that is simultaneously an eye (“kohl-rimmed”), a hovering moon, and the poetic cry of “o,” the act of singing (which here stands for life, in its fullness). The vertical line of “b” serves as the pillar marking the stage-right boundary of the scene — birth, of course — and the vertical line of “d” is the stage’s opposite border, death. The multiple meanings of this “o” fit the word’s physicality with equal ease: the moon rises from the horizon of “b”’s vertical column, floats naked and unbound, and sets into the corresponding column of “d”; the actor, or singer, enters from one side of the stage, bares his soul in that passing cry (“o!”), and walks off. It is also a nifty physicalization of Merrill’s conception of the self as a dynamic, ever-changing entity, as the “o” that first appears as a constituent part of “b,” then alone, then as a constituent of “d.” The word “body,” like poetry itself, is an accurate transcription of the self because it mimics life’s falling, dissolving motion. Its first three letters form a self-sufficient life cycle, and yet the word ends with a questioning vowel that casts a new light on “b o d”’s consonant-bookended symmetry. The “y,” life’s “why,” hovers outside life’s “stage door”; this question persists from life to life and so is not contained within the word’s one visible revolution of the life cycle.
The test Merrill poses for us is to try to consider the word “body” not in its temporal unfolding but as a visual artifact, a frozen enactment of an endless scene. “Looked at too long, words fail,/phase out,” and Merrill is surely aware of the musical meaning of “phasing out,” of going out of phase, that is, out of time; staring too long at a word drags it out of its usual temporal movement. Considered this way, the “y” can be seen as both part of the scene (knocking at the stage door) and outside the visually-represented temporal process of it (not onstage). Merrill catches this in his syntax: the letters “b,” “o,” and “d” are described as passing in a procession (“entering…then floating full,/then heading off”), but “y” exists in a persistent present tense (“as y…knocks…”). This, Merrill implies, is always happening; birth, death, life’s cry, the ongoing “why.” The word’s underlying sense may not be what we intended — but it says what we meant to say more powerfully and simply than we consciously could.
The poem ends in a subtle assertion of faith: “Ask, now that body shines/no longer, by what light you learn these lines/and what the b and d stood for.” The primary meaning of “body” has faded, the daylight of denotative meaning has been extinguished. And yet — as Merrill has just demonstrated — there is another “light” present to “learn these lines” by. What is that light? Not the light of life, of the present, the light of a human gaze or of a word in the full bloom of its meaning. It is, rather, a variant on the “different switch” of “Scenes of Childhood” — the second meaning contained in the word itself, which surfaces like a memory and shines when the “lamp” of active, present-day vision goes out, once the word’s intended meaning is “dead.” Just as Merrill once said that Proust managed “through superhuman counterpoint to work/The body’s resurrection, sense by sense” (Divine Comedies 126), it is by forgoing the superficial and uncovering the underlying sense that Merrill resurrects this “body.” The equivocal “Nothing’s lost/Or else…” of “Lost in Translation” is more deeply affirmed here: everything is lost — and yet a new meaning surfaces in spite of us. “THINK WHAT A MINOR PART THE SELF PLAYS IN A WORK OF ART,” Auden lectured in Sandover (262); here, the self’s role as maker of intended meaning is merely prefatory. In “b o d y,” to paraphrase the crisis of “Days of 1941 and ’44,” Merrill has found a style to lighten the nothing we become, “lighten” both in the sense of easing a burden and of shedding light, the backwards-looking beam by which “you read these lines.”
But this career-long imagining of the self in terms of language has a poignant, ambivalent coda even after the hard-won valediction of “b o d y.” The very late “Christmas Tree,” written after A Scattering of Salts, ultimately reaffirms his sense of the rightness and inescapability of the translation of the body out of life, but Merrill does so now with the palpable pain of a man on his deathbed: “Yes, yes, what lay ahead/Was clear: the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals/Plowed back into the earth for lives to come–/No doubt a blessing, a harvest, but one that doesn’t bear,/Now or ever, dwelling upon” (CP 866). “No doubt” the translation of the self into nourishment for future lives is the natural course of things, and Merrill has found ever more meaning throughout his poetic career in that natural course, but it “doesn’t bear,/Now or ever, dwelling upon.” This phrase is at least trivalent: superficially, it means that such unavoidable pain is not worth brooding over. But the line break forces us to see “doesn’t bear” as a conclusion in its own right; this harvest doesn’t bear fruit for oneself, since the self is what is lost. The third meaning is perhaps the most unsettling — this harvest doesn’t bear dwelling upon; one cannot live in it, it is unfit for human habitation. The self no longer has a dwelling, as this poem’s shape — half of a skinny Christmas tree, around whose spine a little boy’s hands could meet — implies. And yet this final crisis does end in an effortful last affirmation: “Still to recall, to praise.” Merrill carefully preserves this multivalence in the apparent contradiction between this conclusion and the tone of the bulk of the poem, which is resigned rather than praiseful.
Merrill’s innate capacity to uncover multiple meanings on the microscopic level of language blooms, over the course of his long examination of his medium, into the ultimate sleight of the poet’s hand: the discovery of multiple meanings in death, the translation of death out of finality. Even “here at the end,” Merrill remains of two minds, and his tests, which began so playfully, have become life itself, the process of dissecting, breaking, dissolving, to find what will suffice. No one form suffices, of course, but the frightening intimation that life is nothing but a long dissolution of forms becomes an affirmation when extended into death: death is not the end of that dissolution but its prolongation, so death is as much living as life is dying. Merrill’s acceptance of the necessity of dissolution never becomes desire for it, and new, equally beautiful forms do emerge out of what is lost — a blue flower made of dissolving text; a magnificent poem made of the absence of another (itself a translation); or a lovely little cave painting, a quiet scene of moon worship, made of a contemporary English word. One can only hope, for the sake of future readers, that this body of work will persist.
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