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
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.
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.