Playing the Great Works

Frederick Buechner, a prep-school classmate, gifted Merrill his first Ouija board in 1952, one year after First Poems was published. Timothy Materer, author of James Merrill’s Apocalypse, suggests that “Merrill’s friend found a backdoor way to encourage the poet’s spiritual interests” (81), but, reflecting on Merrill’s earlier work, it becomes apparent that this motif had been steadily growing and manifesting itself even in First Poems. The Sandover Trilogy takes the unambiguous form of an Ouija board through all three of its books. As the three-part epic poem progresses, JM and DJ transcend, by way of guidance, through the “stages” of the afterlife of which Ephraim is stationed in the sixth of nine. With the transition from book to book, readers observe an intensification in the “power” of the supernatural beings that JM and DJ interact with, from Ephraim to Michael and Gabriel, the angels. These “stages” are not only a play on the word as it relates to drama, but also perform an allusive function as they relate to Dante’s Divine Comedy with its tiered afterworlds. Merrill makes this reference rather explicit by citing the Paradiso in an epigraph before section “A.” The Book of Ephraim, the first installment of The Changing Light at Sandover, opens with section “A,” which serves as an author’s preface before section “B,” which provides the setting of the backdrop and stage for Ephraim, who appears in section “C.” Since The Book of Ephraim originated in Divine Comedies, the foundation in Dante’s three-part epic of not-quite-the-same title is not only obvious, but also necessary for reading Merrill’s epic, Ephraim himself serving as a type of Virgil-like guide who, among other qualities, is somewhat more witty, gossipy, and light-hearted when conversing with JM and JD.

For my study of The Book of Ephraim, I was in pursuit of classical music to concentrate. Now customarily, I settle for George Frideric Handel’s opera, Serse, an opera which blends comedy and tragedy about Persian King Serse, who falls in love with Romilda. On this particular occasion, Handel’s opera was beginning to generate a depressive response from me, and this prompted me to listen to Vivaldi’s string concertos. Often times the concertos elicit a strong emotional response from me, but the immediate effect, in accompaniment with The Book of Ephraim, was highly positive. The process of selecting classical music to listen to brings Ephraim, in section “G,” to mind. Hans Lodeizen, who died of leukemia in 1950, and to whom “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace” is dedicated, enters the red room in section “G,” and “He teaches Ephraim modern European / History, philosophy, and music.” JM notes, in the next line, that “E is most curious about the latter.” Ephraim, according to Merrill, is fascinated by H’s explanation of modern European music, and this invites H to suggest that Ephraim, or music itself for that matter, “Has reached the stage of… TRANSFERRED EXPERIENCE.” I mused quite some time on this line of section “G” and arrived at the conclusion that this inference is in direct response to the effect of music on both occupants of the living world and the spirit world. Ephraim is intrigued by modern music, and being “Born AD 8,” noted in section “C,” his understanding of music is “simpleminded.” Music imposes a “transferred experience” upon the listener, which is noted by Arthur Schopenhauer, whose metaphysics of music is founded in the supposition that “music is the embodiment of the will.” “The Will” is also, perhaps not so coincidently, the title of a poem in Divine Comedies that Merrill references with a “conferatur” (Cf.) in section “A.” Materer notes that “The Will” is “a sequence of thirteen sonnets [which] recounts the breakthrough of the spirit world into Merrill’s poetic consciousness” (74). Materer also suggests that “The ‘will’ referred to is a document but also the other world as will and idea, which drives Merrill to take on the deferring task of prophecy” (74-75). One must ask, in light of these connections, if Merrill aligns music with prophecy, from his awakening to spiritual poetic inspiration in “The Will,” to H’s recognition of Ephraim’s “stage” in “transferred experience” through music.

Shortly thereafter, Merrill writes, “we must play him great / Works—Das Lied von der Erde and Apollon Musagète—,” for the purpose of exposing Ephraim to “great” modern European classical music. Either of these pieces, I thought, might provide insight into Merrill; that is, you can tell a lot about a man by what classical music he prefers. Das Lied von der Erde, literally translated to “The Song of the Earth,” is a two-voice orchestral composition by Gustav Mahler, the Bohemian-born, German speaking Jew. Ephraim himself is noted as being a “Greek Jew” in section “C.” The two-voice nature of the composition, which is technically a symphony, struck me as interesting in light of the fact that there are two sets of voices in The Book of Ephraim, the living world and the spirit world. Even more interesting is the fact that, as Mahler composed this symphony, one singer is a tenor and one an alto, one lower and one higher. The real question becomes: is the living world the higher or the lower voice of the two? Seeing as JM and DJ “transcend” as the epic continues, it doesn’t seem entirely unrealistic to surmise that the living world is the lower of the two voices, constantly aspiring or listlessly wandering to a “higher” realm, that of the spirit world which Ephraim occupies.  On the other hand, though… Merrill establishes this binary with hopes that the interpretation can go either way, where the living world is, in fact, the higher of the two, the alto to the spirit world’s tenor.

The second of the two “great works” is Apollon Musagète, or “Apollo, Leader of the Muses,” a ballet by Igor Stravinsky from the late twenties. The word “muses,” for me, inspires thoughts of “A Tenancy,” from Water Street, or the “three friends” Merrill lets into the new house, each bearing a gift. “Muse” also brings to mind Maria Demertzí Mitsotáki, Merrill’s Greek muse and a surrogate mother figure, who reappears in section “D” on a list of “Dramatis Personae.” The striking use of the name Apollo, the Greek god of music, light, prophecy, poetry, and the sun, seems all too connected to what Merrill is attempting in Sandover, prophecy, i.e. “The Will,” light, and its “changing” effects that begin in his Water Street poems, light as healing, etc., and poetry, of course. Apollo is sometimes noted as being a god of healing as well, reminding us of “An Urban Convalescence,” “Out for a walk, after a week in bed…” Perhaps this also refers readers back to “Verses for Urania,” Urania being one of the nine muses.

I’m left wondering how meaningful these two selections for “great works” truly are, and, knowing Merrill, they require a close examination. You have to wonder if Ephraim’s understanding of modern European music inspires him to “just listen harder” like Merrill’s “The Victor Dog,” which he dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop. Ephraim’s “simpleminded” understanding of music could be likened to the Victor Dog, who sits before the gramophone with head cocked to the side in utter fascination, but with an absentminded understanding of what the music is to an uneducated sensory experience, just the type that someone/something like Ephraim might lack. Among other things, Merrill appears to be establishing a pattern with the comprehension of music in relation to “non-humans.” Both “non-humans,” the Victor Dog and Ephraim, appear to be interested in understanding the music, but they initially lack the ability to comprehend it in the same fashion as Merrill, an opera enthusiast, according to The Fire Screen’s “The Opera Company” and other music-themed poems.

Later, in the same stanza of section “G,” Ephraim tells JM and DJ “HL REMEMBERS YOU / STILL HEARS THRU U JM A VERNAL MUSIC / THIS WILL BE YR LAST LIFE THANKS TO HIM…” Ephraim refers to Lodeizen, and I’m left guessing about the meaning behind “vernal music.” Does this mean “spring-like” music? What does Ephraim mean by the “spring-like” music that HL remembers JM through? I’m tempted to examine the semantics of Ephraim’s quote in section “G.” He says, through the Ouija board, “THIS WILL BE YR LAST LIFE THANKS TO HIM…” I’m focusing on “THIS WILL,” and how it might suggest something about Merrill’s interest in prophecy, and the interwoven implication that the human will is given form through music. Is music then a type of prophecy in Merrill’s terms? And what does Ephraim’s lack of knowledge about modern European music suggest about the spirit world? It would seem to argue that the spirit world is disconnected from the living world, where the spirits would be able to “observe” the activities of the living, such as their music. I’m left wondering how connected or disconnected the living and spirit worlds are from one another. If a mirror is how Ephraim sees JM and DJ, also through reflected water when Ephraim sees them swimming naked in section “B” (perhaps, since Ephraim embodies the love between JM and DJ, naturally, he would be able to see them engaging in an intimate activity), what ability do spirits have to view the world of the living? And does this just mean they can see and not hear, smell, touch, or taste?

The alignment of music with foresight, prophecy through music, also appears in section “F.” Merrill describes Miranda (who, in the context of islands reminds me of Shakespeare’s The Tempest…) as having “…sudden / Spells of pure unheeding, like a Haydn / Finale marked giocoso but shot through / With silences—regret? foreknowledge?” In music, “giocoso” refers to a joyful or pleasantly merry piece. Merrill writes “giocoso,” and then follows it with “…but shot through.” Haydn finales are characteristically fast in pace and cut in time. By “shot through,” Merrill points out the speed of a Haydn finale in relation to the joyous and cheerful sound. This line could also be indicative of deception; as in, a Haydn finale is “marked giocoso,” but it’s “shot through / With silences,” i.e. it’s not cheerful and joyous, but filled with silences, suggesting sadness. In that regard, “giocoso” is deceptive because the finale is not “giocoso.” Merrill then, I believe, asks if these silences are “regret” or “foreknowledge,” further aligning music with prophecy and the human will.

Sections “A” through “H” develop several motifs in addition to the overwhelming importance of music for understanding the connection between the worlds of the living and the spirits. A repeated idea is that of education, where Ephraim serves as a type of teacher for JM and DJ while they’re exploring and interacting with the spirit world through the Ouija board. After all, their experiences with the board are experimental, and according to Ephraim, the world of the living knows little of the spirit world. JM and DJ are students of Ephraim, who, again, represents their love. The spirit that embodies the love shared between Merrill and Jackson also acts as a teacher to them. I would argue that, in some strange way, Merrill intended for love to be an educational means in relation to the spirit world. This may hold implications as we continue through The Book of Ephraim, but for now it’s merely a theory. The next experience, continuing with section “I,” will be their “brush with Divine Law.”

Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Cornell University, 2000.

Yenser, Stephen. Notes to “The Book of Ephraim”: Commentary on the Poem. Poetry Daily, 2018.

The Tangled Skein

Every reader of James Merrill’s poetry is a detective by another name. Frequently, accessing the meanings of Merrill’s poems requires the exercise of the science of deduction, or good close reading, the two being not dissimilar from one another. There will be regular “Eureka!” and “Aha!” moments for the patient reader, as a connection is made, a clue discovered, and all of a sudden a stanza, or an entire poem, makes sense where just a minute before it had presented an inscrutable mask. His poems thus read like puzzles to be worked out, riddles to be solved, cases to be taken up and followed from beginning to end, that upon putting the poem down one can be satisfied rather than frustrated, and not only satisfied, but enriched, too, for having successfully navigated the labyrinth.

At the local level, the poems present their own mazes and enigmas and difficult passages to the reader, and then themselves are parts of larger puzzles into which they’re folded, first the individual volume, then the arch-puzzle of Merrill’s entire oeuvre. Merrill’s poetry is architectonic; by the end of his career it was like the mansion in which he was raised, immense and intimidating but also secure and full of possibility. It started out small, but over the course of five decades he steadily added new wing after new wing, always taking into consideration the manner in which each new part fit in with, enhanced, and possibly even changed the character of the whole. Like both Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop before him, he was fascinated by houses and homes, both in his life and in his poetry, intrigued by the kinds of shape they give to our experience, what they protect us (or would presume to protect us) from, the ways in which we enter and exit them and leave them behind and acquire new ones. Poems were houses, too, stanzas were rooms; opening the cover of a book meant opening a door.

Merrill’s most famous poem, “Lost in Translation,” along with the first part of his magisterial and bizarre Sandover trilogy, “The Book of Ephraim,” are both to be found in 1976’s Divine Comedies, published at roughly the midway point of Merrill’s career as a poet if we bracket off an earlier apprentice period. The book is divided into two sections. The first section contains nine poems, of which “Lost in Translation” is the second. The second section, more than twice as long as the first, consists of the 26 parts of “Ephraim,” one part for each letter of the alphabet. Section “M” is to “Ephraim” as a whole, then, what Divine Comedies is to Merrill’s entire oeuvre. Glittering symmetries abound.

Divine Comedies is a masterful volume of poems. When one thinks of the great volumes of poetry written in English in the 20th century, one will likely start with the modernists: Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, Moore’s Observations, Stevens’s Harmonium, Hughes’s The Weary Blues, and many others: the usual suspects. At mid-century the names continue to come rather easily: Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, Lowell’s Life Studies, Plath’s Ariel, and so on. What are the great volumes of the last quarter of the century though? Here, the names begin to come a little less easily to most, yet just in the 1970s alone several candidates announce themselves: Larkin’s High Windows, Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Bishop’s Geography III, Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom, and there in their midst, Divine Comedies, which won its author a 1977 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to “Lost in Translation,” it features several other multi-page poems of equal magnificence, among them “Chimes for Yahya” and “Yannina,” as well as the exquisite opening lyric, “The Kimono,” and the seemingly occasional but really anything-but dramatic monologue, “Manos Karastefanís.” All nine of the opening poems help pave the way for “Ephraim’s” occult world-building, its simultaneous glimpses and manufacturings of the non-material realm; the stage is being set along the way. There are “The Kimono’s” “Desires ungratified [that] / Persist from one life to the next”; “Lost in Translation’s” medium performing in a London library; the mystical water-hidden grotto of “McKane’s Falls”; “Chimes for Yahya” with its paperback that “Compares the soul to a skimmed stone / Touching the waters of the world at points / Along a curve”; Manos Karastenfanís being taught “Heaven and hell” at the age of twelve; “Yánnina’s” “magician’s tent” in which “a woman will be sawed in two”; the child-baptism at the heart of “Verse for Urania”; the supernatural machinations of “The Will”; and “Whitebeard on Videotape” with its concern for “the real stuff, hand-woven, deep-dyed Soul” and its final line that leaves us on Ephraim’s doorstep, pronouncing that “Along with being holy, life was hell.”

The volume’s title sets the stage for all of this supernaturalism with its evocation of Dante. Gone are the definite article and the singular noun, but the adjective that Dante himself never chose is retained along with the now plural “Comedies.” Merrill is very much something of a postmodern Dante, replacing the mono-myth, the single narrative of the early 14th century Dante with late-20th century skepticism and insouciance. We now have competing comedies, and not just those within Merrill’s volume, but, and perhaps more importantly, those outside of it, too. Merrill’s own is set off against Dante’s, in addition to others: those of Milton, Blake, Yeats, Rilke. Yet Divine Comedies is less any kind of correction of Dante or challenge to his poetic authority than a form of homage thereto and a continuation of its tradition. After all, Dante, writing his epic in Italian instead of Latin in the early 1300s, was himself something of a postmodernist well avant la lettre; his absolutism isn’t, it turns out, that absolute. His poem regularly undermines the very tradition it is purportedly upholding over the course of its pilgrim’s progress, and can profitably be called at least as secular humanist as it is Christian, if not more. Merrill is to Dante, then, what Dante was to Virgil: the student who honors his teacher precisely in the act of overthrowing him. In “Ephraim,” too, we have a living poet and a long-dead guide who ushers him through the beyond, describing in detail, once again, a nine-tiered afterworld, but one that resembles Dante’s in number alone. Or perhaps not only in number, but also in its concern for number, where Merrill, his afterlife’s nine stages mirroring the nine opening poems of Divine Comedies, themselves then further reflected in the nine sections of “Chimes for Yahya,” one for each chime on the “graduated brass / Pendant” that hangs in Merrill’s house in Athens and that was brought back from Isfahan, in the heart of the Muslim world—where Merrill was no less attentive to matters of numerology and numerical symmetry than Dante before him.

Allusions to Dante are, not surprisingly, thus rife throughout Divine Comedies, but there are prominent references to other predecessors, too, further driving home the volume’s title’s plural noun. In fact, most of the poems in the volume can be said to have their own corresponding classic with which they’re engaging. “Ephraim’s” is The Divine Comedy, no doubt, as its epigraph from the Paradiso makes clear, though there are also other candidates even here, just within this poem, among them Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where Merrill’s “lost novel” that “Ephraim” itself replaces even as it partially recreates it mirrors the structure of Nabokov’s text: Merrill’s poem houses a novel from which it takes its cues just as Nabokov’s novel houses a poem that drives its plot. With respect to the other poems that make up Divine Comedies, it is not surprising that Balzac’s own multi-volume epic, The Human Comedy, should feature in one of them, “McKane’s Falls,” while Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with its own concern with the otherworldly and the afterlife, lies at the heart of “Chimes for Yahya.” Manos Karastefanís reads War and Peace (brought to him by Merrill) in the hospital; “Verse for Urania” invokes the nine muses of Greco-Roman mythology; and “Yanniná” recounts, in part, the historical legend of Ali Pasha (1740-1822). Merrill even invokes his contemporaries: Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo” provided the form for “The Kimono,” whose white-haired lover mirrors “Whitebeard” in Part I’s terminal bookend, and two of the volume’s poems are dedicated to Richard Howard and Stephen Yenser, poets in their own right and, like Bishop, friends of Merrill. And one must of course also point out that wherever Merrill is, Proust and Stevens are never far behind; they are both invoked in prominent ways in “Ephraim” in particular.

As for “Lost in Translation,” it would seem that its most prominent intertextual reference is Valéry’s “Palme” and the Rilke translation of it the poet’s search for which leads to the occasion for the poem itself. But “Palme” is not the poem’s only intertextual reference; there are others. At one point Merrill shifts to the AABA quatrains of the Rubaiyat that he favored so much throughout his career, and Alan Nadel has made a compelling case for “Lost in Translation” as Merrill’s version of or response to Eliot’s The Waste Land, though 1966’s Nights and Days’ “The Thousand and Second Night” would seem, I think, to be a better candidate for this distinction. But while these particular intertextual reference points are fairly obvious within the poem and/or have been made much of in Merrill scholarship, little has been made of another text, or series thereof, that is both directly alluded to in “Lost in Translation” and that might serve as a model no less than Dante or Proust for how we might approach and make sense of Merrill’s work as a whole. I refer, of course, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries; “The plot thickens / As all at once two pieces interlock.”

That well-known phrase, of course, belongs to Holmes and is first uttered in A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes mystery. As the case in that novel gets more and more convoluted and difficult, Holmes “mutters” to Watson, almost with delight: “the plot thickens.” Since then it’s taken its place in the constellation of phrases we utter regularly without perhaps knowing where they come from, but Merrill, in this case, no doubt knew, and knew a great deal more, as well, including at least the outline of Conan Doyle’s own absorption, later in his life, in forms of spiritualism that can best be described as occult rather than mainstream, not unlike the Ouija Board of the Sandover trilogy or the episode of the medium that occurs early in “Lost in Translation,” a medium who is as much Conan Doyle-as-spiritualist as he is Holmes-as-rationalist, deducing via ESP what lies within the “plain tole / Casket” without having seen it beforehand. He announces matter-of-factly, “Piece of a puzzle,” to astonishment and applause, not unlike Holmes’s seemingly impossible feats of deduction based on the scantest of evidence and the regular dropping of the jaw they induce in Watson.

But not so fast. From the very outset “Lost in Translation” has as much to do with Conan Doyle and his most famous creation as the poems that follow it, “McKane’s Falls” and “Chimes for Yahya,” have to do with Balzac and Dickens, respectively. Maybe even a good deal more, in fact. The poem presents a series of puzzles, or cases, that have to be solved by various figures within it, even as the manner in which all of these puzzles relate to one another is as it were the supreme puzzle set for the poem’s reader, and it is “a superior one” indeed, as any first time reader of the poem will be likely to inform you as, sooner or later, they throw up their hands like an exasperated Watson, trying to make sense of it all.

In the scene from childhood alone there are several mysteries awaiting their solution: the ordered puzzle has not yet shown up; the boy’s parents are as absent as the puzzle; once the puzzle does arrive, there’s the task of putting it together, making stories of its variously shaped pieces along the way, even as one fits them together; and the boy, snooping about like any respectable detective, peeks at his governess’s letters while she bathes, already an amateur sleuth. He’s no Holmes, though: reading her descriptions in French of an innocent mother and a poor child, he thinks she’s telling the curé to whom she’s writing about the figures in the puzzle she’s putting together with her charge. It’s an elementary mistake, confusing life with representations thereof, a mistake that Merrill would go on to make over and over as he got older, only more artfully than incuriously as he matured.

As the child in memory tries himself to piece things together, so the adult poet tries to piece together his own memories, among other things. He’s no less beset by strange cases than his ten-year-old counterpart. The mystery that provides the poem with its occasion and unlocks the memory in a Proustian fashion in the first place is, of course, the question of whether or not a translation by Rilke of Valéry’s “Palme” does in fact exist. The poet, reading Valéry in French one night, recalls the German translation, where the blend of French and German then evokes a memory of his “Mademoiselle,” who taught him both languages. But when he then wants to revisit the Rilke translation, it’s nowhere to be found: he spends days “Ransacking Athens” for it to no avail. The poem proper doesn’t provide us with any sort of answer as to whether or not he ever finds it, or whether or not it even exists, but the poem’s epigraph, four lines from the translation, settle the matter: eventually the ransacking paid off.

An American living in Athens looking for a German translation of a French poem. The mélange of nationalities in the poem’s local narrative reflects events from the poet’s past on both a personal and a world-historical level. First, there is “Mademoiselle” herself, born a French child of an English mother and Prussian father, a mystery solved only “Long afterwards” when the poet learns her backstory from her nephew. But there is also then the backdrop of the approach of World War Two as the boy and his governess put together their puzzle. As they assemble borders on the card table in the library (there’s something evocative of the board game Clue here), borders across the Atlantic, simultaneously, are shifting and dissolving and being disassembled. If Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—” is a Civil War poem in which the poet’s own psyche mirrors what’s taking place around her, so, too, is “Lost in Translation” a World War Two poem, where what’s happening world-historically is mirrored in the act of a young boy putting together a puzzle with his Mademoiselle, herself “a widow since Verdun.” Not long after they’ve finished, “All too soon the swift / Dismantling” comes, a dismantling about to be played out on a much larger scale: “Irresistibly a populace / Unstitched of its attachments rattled down.” The sky crumbles, cities fall, habitations are swept away, and all that’s left in the aftermath is the “green / On which the grown-ups gambled,” a green that itself, in the form of Mother Nature, will be threatened, too, as a result of such reckless betting. Not for nothing is it referred to earlier in the poem, when the puzzle is still being put together, its populace assembled, as a “shrinking green,” where this threat that humans pose to their own environment will be further developed in both “The Book of Ephraim” and, more broadly still, the Sandover trilogy as a whole.

To go back though, now, to the scene in the poem’s London library (there are three libraries in the poem, one in New York, one in London, one in Athens). It’s a 26-line section (one for each letter of the alphabet? “Ephraim” in miniature?) all of which, save for the first three words, “Mademoiselle does borders—,” is enfolded within parentheses, themselves something of a container not unlike the miniature casket the medium considers. Thus, a puzzle piece rests in a casket held by a medium who is himself nestled securely within parentheses. Or, the puzzle piece resides within the casket-shaped block of stichic verse, itself contained within the larger poem that makes up a ninth of what is but Part One of a larger book fitted squarely in the middle of a now seemingly universe-sized oeuvre . . .

The setting is Holmes-esque: “A London dusk, December last.” The poet has ventured to a library to watch, with others, a grey-clad man who possesses supernatural powers in the form of second sight. He is handed the “plain tole casket,” not having seen what has been placed in it, and thereafter goes into a sort of trance, eyes closed, tracing, somehow, the object he is expected to divine all the way from its distant origins, hearing, first, the shriek of a saw in a forest of towering trees, as another green begins to shrink. At first, though, before the picture begins to take shape for him, he intones, “Even as voices reach me vaguely,” a line that, in a sense, will get stretched out into 33 lines to close section B of “Ephraim,” when JM and DJ themselves first vaguely come into contact with voices from the other world. But the shriek of the saw then drowns out whatever these voices were or might have been, a mechanical tool forestalling access to the divine, perhaps. (Merrill appreciated the Ouija board for, more than anything else, its clumsiness.) The medium, however, persists, and eventually comes to the conclusion that what the casket he holds in his hand contains is but “a freak fragment / Of a pattern complex in appearance only.” If something very near to this was never uttered by Holmes, it ought to have been. The initial title of A Study in Scarlet was A Tangled Skein, a metaphor for the knots of crimes and clues and suppositions that Holmes has to unravel into something linear via the application of reason and deduction. It’s not the worst metaphor one could come up with for anyone who picks up a volume of Merrill’s poetry, each poem, each line, each word of which can be profitably described as a “freak fragment / Of a pattern complex in appearance only,” as once appearances are pierced and “Panel[s] slid back” and recesses made familiar, it all clicks nicely into place, the effect of the poet’s own “long-term lamination / Of hazard and craft.” Lamination, here, is “the technique or process of manufacturing a material in multiple layers, so that the composite material achieves improved strength.” Merrill’s, then, is a poetry of lamination indeed, his efforts and techniques, his hazard and craft resulting in works of artifice that ought to garner no less applause than the medium’s successful divination, “Plywood. Piece of a puzzle.” Or, no less applause than Watson sees fit to regularly bestow upon Holmes after each new act of miraculous deduction.

One begins to think that if the pages of Divine Comedies, instead of being made from the same trees that puzzle pieces come from, were transparencies, the result of their all being laid on top of one another would be not so much a tangled skein of black lines and blotches, but the revelation of a charm to be uttered, and uttered by way of that most common of things we all learn to sing at an early age: the alphabet.

Works Cited

Conan Doyle, Arthur. A Study in Scarlet. Penguin Classics, 2001.

Merrill, James. Divine Comedies. New York: Atheneum, 1976.

Daze of Days

“Beacon in a Dark Fog” by Adam Strauss

Deep haze and dreamscapes penetrate my waking-states, almost daily. It’s been about a year since I “quit” drinking; I would have expected more clarity. Then again, I still have a cocktail once every month or so. Still, I never would have expected (relative) sobriety to be a gateway into a greater separation from myself. I’ve become an outsider to my own flesh, a mere spectator to the Escherian nightmare, my life, unfurling before me. Can it be that a drunken decade, ten whole years spent in daze, is somehow more real than this moment? I pick up Braving the Elements, searching its lyrics, and my mind, for answers.

Of course, Merrill is never really a poet of the answer or the moment (the exception being the intimations between the present and the past). Nevertheless I find a sense of affirmation, almost camaraderie, in “Days of 1935,” which is, perhaps, what I was actually seeking in the first place. The first stanza’s “I’d steel myself at night/To see, or sleep to see” introduces us, not only to a witty and humorous display of the poet’s latent desires to be kidnapped, but also to a struggle between fantasy and reality that permeates the piece throughout. The very notion of sleeping “to see” suggests that there is a certain aspect of the dream, or daydream, that is more real than waking life (3-4).

The language of the poem carries the surrealism ever onward. Merrill employs words like “spell,” “swoon,” “masked,” and “imagination,” wrapping us in a sheet as mystical as it is feverish (10, 13, 17). The dirt road the poet is spirited away upon is “tenuous,” suggesting both a dubious construction, and also an uncertainty of its existence at all (21). The “unwrinkling chart” of the captor’s brow invokes imagery of an unfolding horoscope – the scene is as transcendental as it is scripted – it’s “written in the stars,” as it were (24). And then, of course, their destination is liminal, both in space and time, “Dawn” being between night and day, their physical position in the “middle of nowhere,” suspended in unreality behind a veil of “dust and glare,” these final factors heightening the obscurity of the sequence (24-28).

The quatrains and strict alternating rhyme scheme of “Days of 1935” transforms the poem’s otherwise dark subject-matter – the kidnapping (and sometimes murdering, if we’re to make inferences from the “Lindbergh baby” of line 9) of children, Stockholm syndrome, sexual abuse, capital punishment, and so on – into a jaunty ballad that gives us, as passengers, an easy ride. The form is also evocative of a children’s poem, and given that the poet awakens from his hallucination with no dream-fulfillment, it’s possible to read this, too, as a ballad of lamentation – another one of Merrill’s chronicles of love and loss. The result is that we, along with the poet, are caught like “Dew spangles” in “the web’s heart,” somewhere between memory and desire, somewhere between what we have been and what we want to become, neither of which allows for an independent identity of the here and now (18).

I can’t help but feel that the chord Merrill strikes in “Days of 1935” rings truer than life itself. Where are those bursts of creative spontaneity that would, in the days of my youth, steal me away from the mundanity of nine-to-five existence? Maybe I never should have quit drinking. Like the child in the poem, I have become bored and burnt out, no longer full of wonder, the boy and I are now “half-grown” instead of half-young (208). The “lady out of Silver Screen” from much earlier in the poem calls to mind the projection of a film, reminding me of the sensation of being a spectator to my own life and, retrospectively, informs us that the entirety of “Days of 1935” is a strange act of destiny in which we have no agency, nor place except as a bystander – a dizzying emotional state that I have to assume is much akin to that of having your child stolen from you, and know is akin to losing your own childhood (29).

My mind reels, playing out Merrill’s images back and forth, the “Silver Screen” as my focal point. The poem begins to chill me to the core. The poet’s parents are “Eerie, speaking likenesses,” the poet himself composed of “blanknesses and dots” (89, 94). Every surrounding object in the poet’s waking life, back at home, is a cheap imitation – the “board/Painted like board,” executives with “Heads of Cellophane or Tin,/With their animated wives,” his mother doing her make-up – all merely “Mimics the real” (275-276, 294, 278). I feel the hairs on my neck raise and tingle with the thought: “perhaps I’m not disillusioned… perhaps this is all illusion, a simulation, some sick play in which I have been assigned a role against my knowledge and my will, so that the invisible architects of reality can enjoy my every private pleasure and pain – all has been constructed for my, for our, exploitation.” I quickly discard the thought, fearing that I’m falling into an LSD flashback, or following the family trend towards schizophrenia.

I readjust my focus back to “Days of 1935,” looping it through my mind again. Suddenly a line jumps out at me – or rather, an association between lines – that I hadn’t noticed before. “Pluck,/Some deep nerve went. I knew/That life was fiction in disguise”… at once the poem is unlocked by this keystone line (104-15). The silver screen is no longer just so, but also the process by which cinema in general came to be defined, as a whole, as such. So too is all of life metonymous – the film screen takes on the name of the silver with which it was once associated, meanwhile we take on the many forms of everything preceding us. Our captivity, like the poet’s, is not a result of some Gorgonic force petrifying us in terror. Rather, the links binding us serve as a sort of conduit through which the true forms of all things flow – Leopold Bloom becomes Odysseus, life becomes art, we become ourselves. The existential dread of life as a replica breaks, dissipating back into the sea of the only thing that still remains – the deep haze. The surface of my daily dreamscape is still again, unbroken, save for the small ripple of something that has plunged just below the surface – the cold comfort that everything we do is everything we’ve done.

Works Cited

Merrill, James. Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 2015.

Fire from Heaven

Cold nights. Some storm’s come whirling down from Canada, and Bozeman’s streets are pale and clear—a skiff of snow over white ice. The wind is bitter, raw, and hollowly cold, fringed with humid frost. I’ve been stuck inside all day. Merrill’s Fire Screen is open next to me—mocking me, I suddenly think. His face peers from the cover with a mysterious half-smile.

I go outside and smoke. From my porch I can see lights in houses across the dark of our alleyway. People move inside the lit frames, silently, their windows firmly shut against the cold. I, in the dark, accompanied by my cigarette’s bobbing ember, can see into their lives as though I stood outside a two-way mirror. They, illuminated, cannot see me.

Cold and dark, warm and lit: those are the very images that Merrill is playing with in The Fire Screen. Dualities of both spiritual and material worlds create conflicts all across the poetry of this volume. Water and fire mix uneasily. These poems were written when Merrill was living in Greece, and the poems are shot through with “Greekness”—a sensibility which encompasses not only classical myth but the realities of 1960s Greece, a world in which Merrill saw echoes of classical motifs. In fact, one could read—if one were so inclined—the entirety of The Fire Screen as a kind of hero quest, Merrill’s personal revisiting of myth and legend within daily life.

The volume begins with “Lorelei”—a kind of siren-like figure out of mythology, a feminine water spirit that sang sailors to their deaths. Merrill pictures himself stepping out over “The stones of kin and friend / Stretch[ing] off into a trembling, sweatlike haze” (ll. 1-2). The stones, like stepping stones, lead vaguely across this dreamscape, until the narrator is stranded; whereupon the siren emerges:

Soft gleams lap the base of the one behind you
On which a black girl sings and combs her hair.

It’s she who some day (when your stone is in place)
Will see that much further into the golden vagueness

Forever about to clear. Love with his chisel
Deepens the lines begun upon your face. (7-12)

The siren song is thus made out as an alluring step backwards. The “black girl” (recalling, perhaps, the Greeks’ fascination with their African neighbors) is the one who finally sees, not the narrator: he is too busy clinging to the remnants of “kin and friend.” He can only see what is immediately in front of his eyes. He is dependent upon, but blind toward, the past and future.

It is not accidental, either, that the volume begins with a motif straight out of the classical hero myth: a mysterious figure calling the hero “into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood,” as Joseph Campbell puts it in his seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces (42). Like Dante, we join Merrill partway through his life. The straightforward path has been lost. He is provided with a terrifying, deathly, alluring Beatrice, the Lorelei. The descent must needs follow.

I don’t want to overemphasize the hero-myth aspects of the volume, though, because Merrill sees himself not as a capital-H Hero but merely the hero-of-the-story: that is, the protagonist. Heroes properly are reborn in a complete fashion. Castor and Pollux are cast into the stars; Achilles becomes invulnerable. In “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” Merrill too tries rebirth via postcard. His friend, “having cared and ceased to care” (l. 56), has been collecting the stamps off his old postcards by dissolving the cards in water. Incidentally, this also dissolves the ink, which “Turns to exactly the slow formal swirls / Through which a phoenix flies on Chinese silk. / These leave the water darker but still clear, / The text unreadable” (37-40). The phoenix imagery is not accidental. The friend is cutting ties, seeing scene upon scene “rinsed of the word” (45), going somewhere where he knows “Barely enough to ask for food and love” (28). Merrill tries it—the ink dissolves, “almost a wild iris taking shape” (62), and he “[hears] oblivion’s thin siren singing” (63) much like his Lorelei—but the experiment fails. His mother’s writing “remained legible, / The memories it stirred did not elude me. // I put my postcards back upon the shelf. / Certain things die only with oneself” (67-70).

Merrill is not the traditional hero; likewise, his “myths” are not populated with the usual figures of hero quests. Or, in any case, those archetypal figures are rendered in a new light. “Words for Maria” imagines the Muses as a petty, jaded, aging woman—but one who is nonetheless a riveting figure. Maria, this strange Muse, lives in Athens but escapes to nature by gardening in an almost-undecorated house on the coast (“A whitewahsed cube with tout confort / You’d built but would not furnish” (ll. 42-43)), save for a gigantic Empire mirror. She is a part of nature, yes, but she also loves her favorite coffeeshop too much to make gardening anything more than a pastime. This Muse is not the universal Grace that inspired the ancient Greeks—in fact, Maria is divisive. The not-so-coincidentally-named Sapphó refuses flatly to see her. But for Merrill, she is “the muse / Of my off-days” (68-9). Even the tangled rhyme scheme of the poem (ABCDCBDAA) reflects this kind of upturning of classical forms—this is not straighforward beauty or elegance that we are dealing with. The poem is, however, regularly metrical. The constraints of the world have, in a sense, produced the nonchalant elegance of Maria herself, as the poem’s form reflects. By contrast, the regular rhyming couplets of “Kostas Tympakianákis” present a topsy-turvy world, one in which a young man is only just becoming jaded at the world. He says to Merrill, “I’m twenty-two. It’s someone else’s turn to dream” (14). Familial quarrels, pride, histories of violence, a dead brother and father, lost opportunities, heartbreak—Kostas has already been reduced to a sad story and a wineglass. He tells Merrill, “write my story down for people. Use my name. / And may it bring you all the wealth and fame / It hasn’t brought its bearer” (45-47). Merrill takes up the mask and presents us with a dramatic monologue, disguised as the speaker.

Elsewhere, in “To My Greek,” Merrill explores the very fact of his being a poet—or, rather, the fact that his language fails him—or, rather rather, the fact that he fails his language. (It’s all very complicated.) (Or, one might say, “it’s all Greek to me.”) He personifies the language of Greek as a nut, a woman in bed, a “coastline of white printless coves // Already strewn with offbeat echolalia” (l. 9). The poem is also about/to his Greek lover, Strato Mouflouzelis; in a way, then, the poem is not only about broken language but about the failures of communication between people. Other humans—their motivations, desires, secret thoughts—are fundamentally and inescapably Other, inaccessible to us. Language, “talking it out,” only gets one so far in understanding. Like a foreign language, we inhabit such understandings uneasily, and never without our own frame of reference—our own “language”—as the interpreter. His mother tongue, English, is “the sibyl I turn to // When all else fails me, when you [Greek] do…Her automation and my mind are one” (21-25). But, as his friend comments in “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” that very automation is a serious problem:

I’m tired of understanding
The light in people’s eyes, the smells, the food.
……….
Tired of understanding what I hear,
The tones, the overtones; of knowing

Just what clammy twitchings thrive
Under such cold flat stones

As We-are-profoundly-honored-to-have-you-with-us
Or This-street-has-been-torn-up-for-your-convenience” (15-25).

Language, like the Lorelei, is both beautiful and lethal. It reveals and disguises. It is necessary—for poetry, to ask for food or love, to send postcards to a friend—but it is also seriously duplicitous. All through The Fire Screen there is a desire to pass beyond the confines of myth, or language, into a purer kind of life. Merrill is seeking renewal. As he says at the close of “To My Greek,” “The barest word be what I say in you.”

The result, perhaps, of this desire for rebirth is echoed in the kind of turn the book goes through. The myths shift—“The Envoys” explores death and retribution, as well as the myth of Phaedra, who tried to seduce her stepson Hippolytus while her husband, the hero Theseus, was in the underworld. (Of course, things don’t end happily.) ‘“Light of the Street, Darkness of Your Own House’” addresses the myths of Phaethon and Danaë, both of whom are connected negatively to light: the half-mortal Phaethon drove the chariot of the sun to his doom, and Danaë was seduced by Zeus in the form of golden rain. “Part of the Vigil” features Merrill shrinking so as to explore his lover’s heart; “Nike” turns the Greek goddess of victory into a kind of compulsive liar; “Remora” imagines the self as a parasitic fish; and, perhaps most poignantly, “Flying from Byzantium” subverts Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” into the death of an older poet, and his subsequent, inevitable rebirth in “a young scribe.” These poems smack little of transcendence, and a great deal of a corrupted world. Light is not good; the gods are vicious and changeable; heroes are shot through with doubt, fear, bad desires. Even the ornate verse of Yeats is rendered eventually worthless, simply another stepping-stone to cling to. This phase of the book seems to take place in what Campbell calls “the belly of the whale.” Having crossed the threshold into the underworld, the world of spirits, Merrill is in a dark new place: “The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died” (74). Merrill’s death is not so literal—but the poems do begin to feel falsifying. “Another August” admits that Merrill, to please a lover, “wore that fiction like a fine white shirt / And asked no favor but to act the part” (ll. 21-22). The clouds of his mind “now are dark pearl in [his] head” (6). The death is not a literal death, but a symbolic annihilation of the self, a realization of mortality and the strange happenstance of existence. In “A Fever” Merrill sees a blithe young girl through a lens of shifting, fever-dreamscapes: “her face / Freshly made up bends down to evening’s deep embrace. / I savor the thin paints upon my tongue” (68-70). This section of the book contains three poems about that most wonderfully melodramatic of art forms: the opera. Life, Merrill suggests, is nothing less and nothing more than insubstantial art. And that is precisely why it is valuable—because created, because beautifully falsified, our life has a subject, objects, desires, meaning. The Lorelei sings low and sweet.

And it is in this final section that we finally come round, to the fire screen. In the last volume, there were several poems about houses—“The Broken Home,” most famously. Now, in Greece, Merrill finds himself in a new home environment in “Mornings in a New House.” The house is lit by fire in the cold mornings—but the man, the maker and beneficiary of the fire, is sequestered from it by an heirloom, an embroidered fire screen. Family separates one from the eternal flame, which is both consumer and savior, life and death. Countless religions have envisioned life, and divinity, in fiery manifestations. The Elohist writers of the Old Testament saw God as towers of flame; Prometheus raised mankind from bestiality by his gift of fire; theologians have called God a “fire in the head.” The hero of “Mornings in a New House” stands watching the fire screen, which many years before had been embroidered by his mother as a child with “giant birds and flowery trees / To dwarf a house, her mother’s—see the chimney’s / Puff of dull yarn!” (ll. 14-16). Each glowing uprush of flame makes the scene more alive:

Infraradiance, wave on wave,
So enters each plume-petal’s crazy weave,
Each worsted brick of the homestead,

That once more, deep indoors, blood’s drawn,
The tiny needlewoman cries,
And to some faintest creaking shut of eyes
His pleasure and the doll’s are one. (26-32).

Paradoxically, the screen has not sequestered the fire at all; the screen’s little scene is animated and made living by the fire that it conceals. As Merrill puts it in the poem’s footnote: “Fire screen—screen of fire” (ll. 33-34). The poem’s hero stands and considers that his mother was once a little girl. His reflections, like the reflections of the fire itself at the poem’s outset, bring to life the inanimate objects of the past. He sees all his family’s history spread out like a doll would have perceived it—he becomes not a hero but the passive object of witnessed history. The hero would seem to have died. Or perhaps he was once again reborn. Campbell has this to say on the Return Threshold: “The two worlds, the divine and the human, can be pictured only as distinct from each other…[but] the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero. The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness” (188). Merrill returns from the underworld. He hasn’t moved from Greece.

Across the street, a woman appears suddenly. She’s blonde, fey-featured, lissome and gorgeous. She gazes out a moment into the dark—she hesitates—my cigarette gives me away. I raise a hand. She smiles and waves—in blessing? farewell?—and closes her curtains on the frigid black night. I go back in to my lit house, its windows pouring light across the fence, the raspberry bushes, the cars like sleeping animals, their eyes faintly catching, holding the light.

Citations

Merrill, James. The Fire Screen, from Collected Poems: James Merrill, ed. J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, third ed., New World Library, 2008.