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.

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