So, the bizarreries of Mirabell and Scripts, their sometimes beautiful poetry, their sometimes agonizing poetry, their sometimes not-even-poetry; the fact that Merrill succumbed to New Age thinking even in the act of trying to bypass or circumvent it, and that poetry didn’t, in the end, provide any kind of guaranteed immunity from it: a certain set of cultural associations concerning the board overtook, at least in part, the original use to which Merrill was attempting to put it. Ephraim is a masterpiece; Mirabell and Scripts are potpourris of everything from majestic epic and exquisite lyric to insufferable self-indulgence and proto-Ecofascism. At their worst they are nightmare daydreams, juvenile fantasies: apocalypse drenched in camp, revelation smothered in saccharine melodrama—smothered by saccharine melodrama. For every instance in which Merrill deliberately and wittingly undermines the pretentions and imperialisms of the epic tradition within the pages of Sandover, there is a corresponding instance, in the trilogy’s final two books, in which he more unwittingly undermines his own epic’s integrity. Perhaps this was a price that had to be paid—or rather, a kind of outlandish tax. Ephraim, when it was thought that it would stand alone and so not enter into the halls of poems whose page counts run into the hundreds, invoked and engaged and challenged the epic tradition but didn’t quite announce itself as a new gargantuan member of it. But once it became a question of writing “poems of science” in the form of a massive trilogy and creating a new mythology—even one that would undermine its own foundations—it was all but mandated from within that the result must be in many ways crackpot, carefree, absurd, self-mocking, and even just plain bad sometimes, and not in a clever way where it would be precisely these things that endowed the end result with formal integrity. It simply had to be ridiculous, at times almost too ridiculous for words.
“THE PLAGUE WAS PLANND FOR 2 EFFECTS: THIN POPULATION & / KEEP IT PREDOMINANTLY RURAL.” Lines like these in Mirabell, and the longer passages that often follow them, have always been hard for me to read, not because they confront a reader with difficult thoughts, but because they’re just bad. It strikes me as impossible that they could be the passages Frank Bidart had in mind when he told Elizabeth Bishop, in 1977, “that the next section of Ephraim [there was as yet no Sandover] is better than the first.” Merrill himself, more than once asked in interviews about such “revelations” as the one quoted above concerning the plague, always deflected, claiming that these weren’t his thoughts, his revelations, but the thoughts and revelations of Mirabell, or of Gabriel, say, in Scripts, and that he didn’t like them any more than anyone else would. Still, in Ephraim it’s made clear that whatever voices come through the board come from within JM and DJ no less than they come from outside of them, where it’s then definitely not a good look for one who’s inherited millions (no matter how modestly he lives) to write poems in which spirits from the other world advocate population thinning in order to bring about a new paradise, especially when it seems like the population thinning being advocated is less random than selective, implying the existence of a chosen demographic that’s to be saved. If the poetry here were better it would be easier to say, “If we’re going to criticize Merrill in this regard, then let’s go after Dante, too, and other epic poets, some of whose worlds and thoughts are no less brutal and ugly than what we regularly come across in Mirabell and Scripts.” But the poetry is only consistently that good in Ephraim. In Mirabell and Scripts it’s much more sporadic; coming across the occasional exquisite lyric moment in the midst of these two books sometimes feels like coming up for air.
It’s not very hard to see or say that the present pandemic is good for the earth. A lot of people are saying it, and there’s already plenty of evidence to back it up. In cities people can see the stars again at night. In India they can see the Himalayas. In Venice the water is clear. And so on. But it’s almost impossible to say that the pandemic is good for us, good for the human beings who are being ravaged by it, for implicitly contained within such a suggestion is the assumption that one isn’t oneself among the afflicted, where the insensitivity—and selfishness—of such an assumption should hardly require much commentary. There it is, though, within the pages of Sandover: the plague planned for humanity’s ultimate benefit. That within the poem it’s an extraterrestrial cosmic atomic bat, and not a human being, who makes the case seems rather beside the point.
It seems fitting that over the course of the past twelve months the two Merrill books I’ve picked up more than any others have certainly not been Mirabell and Scripts, but Braving the Elements (1972) and The Inner Room (1988), volumes that sit half a decade on either side of the entire Sandover project. Rather fittingly, given the present moment, the first title suggests a venturing forth into a dangerous world, while the second suggests a refuge shielded and set off from that world.
Merrill is best when he finds himself participating in the mythology of his own existence rather than directing it. The paradox is that he claims to be but a mere participant when he is in fact directing most, in Mirabell and Scripts, while the masterful lyrics in volumes from Water Street to A Scattering of Salts, lyrics over which Merrill would seem to have executive control (no spirits making of him the mere instrument of their own endeavors), are the occasions on which the smallness of his own role in shaping his destiny is made most clear.
JM becomes frustrated in Mirabell because it seems as though his own part in the composition process is quite small, almost incidental, bringing into question not only his authorial originality but also his personal freedom. He laments to the ghost of Auden, who’s just told him how thrilling he finds the whole escapade, “And maddening—it’s all by someone else!” Always preempting his critics within his poems themselves, Merrill knows that Mirabell is and will be no Ephraim; he “cannot spare those twenty/Years in a cool dark place that Ephraim took/In order to be palatable wine”—it’s a simple question of time. If Ephraim gestated from roughly 1955 to 1975, then Mirabell, worked on just as long, likely wouldn’t have been completed until Merrill’s death in 1995, to say nothing of Scripts. The last two books of the trilogy bear all too clearly the mark of being rushed, but there was little to nothing to do about it, a fact that Merrill himself laments before his critics can: “This book [Mirabell] by contrast [with Ephraim], [is] immature, supine,” full of the unwieldy voices of others that threaten to drown out Merrill’s own voice, or to claim control over it. JM even partially regrets not having been able to give up the Ouija Board after Ephraim, regretted finding himself a member “in this cosmic carpool,” forced to write “poems of science,” and wished that it was he himself who was tapping his word banks, and not Mirabell or, later, the angels. Auden’s reprimand to JM’s chafing under the yoke, a reprimand in which he admonishes JM to “THINK WHAT A MINOR/PART THE SELF PLAYS IN A WORK OF ART,” is a reminder that a desire to win great glory for a production in which one’s own role was but a small one, most of the work having been done by predecessors, parents, friends, lovers, and so on, is a mark of egotism. JM, chastised in this moment, sheepishly assures Auden that he understands and has learned his lesson, but his assurance here is rather unconvincing, seeing as Auden’s point had already been made almost 200 pages earlier in the trilogy, in section U of Ephraim, where the ghost of Wallace Stevens points out to JM that “A SCRIBE SITS BY YOU CONSTANTLY THESE DAYS/DOING WHAT HE MUST TO INTERWEAVE/YOUR LINES WITH MEANINGS YOU CANNOT CONCEIVE,” affronting JM in the process: “Parts of this, in other words—a rotten/Thing to insinuate—have been ghostwritten?” And here JM doesn’t quickly acquiesce to the notion but remains frazzled by it. Here is the paradox: in Ephraim, when JM kicks and fusses at the idea that he’s not at the center of his own poetry’s composition and insists on the fact that he is indeed in control of it himself, he comes across less as a director of than a participant in his own enterprise, while in Mirabell, having fussed over the same issue and then contritely accepted Auden’s take on the smallness of his own role in the composition process, he seems most directorial, even dictatorial, forcing things to gel and align and mesh in ways that suggest the very kinds of New Age “Popthink” he claims to be so horrified by and wary of at that poem’s outset.
Or consider once again JM’s likening of himself and DJ to Frodo and Sam (respectively) making their way across the Dead Marshes to Mount Doom in their endeavor to save the world. Obviously, it’s a common human practice to watch a film or read a book and put yourself in the position of the hero, or to think of your own life in terms of the hero’s quest; there’s no harm of necessity in this kind of natural transference. But if the act of identification is carried too far, it becomes an act of egotism and elitism, too, and it’s hard to say that this doesn’t happen in Mirabell and Scripts, in which JM and DJ are the chosen ones selected by a committee of the illustrious dead to spread the news concerning God B., the Greenhouse, V work, and so on, where no amount of self-doubt and humility on JM’s own part can downplay or occlude this fact. True, it’s nothing less than the egotism and elitism found in Dante, too, when he finds himself similarly selected for a divine purpose and, in Limbo, finds himself welcomed into the fold of great poets by Homer, Ovid, Virgil, and others. But Mirabell, alas, for all of its beautiful sections and strange charm and zaniness, is not equivalent to the Purgatorio as the second volume in a trilogy. It’s true, yes, that Merrill doesn’t want it to be, that his own epic’s project is to undermine past epics as much as it is to honor them, but the way in which he needs to honor them most is in the quality of the poetry itself, and the relentlessly upper case syllabics of Mirabell just don’t accomplish this on a regular enough basis, and this makes the selection of the poet as a kind of chosen one seem too much like mere self-indulgence.
“In Monument Valley” (from Braving the Elements) is one of several poems that Merrill wrote that are situated within the southwestern United States (including parts of Ephraim itself), where he spent a good deal of time over the last three decades of his life, first with his friend David McIntosh in New Mexico, then, towards the end of his life, with Peter Hooten in Arizona. Monument Valley itself is on the Arizona/Utah border. The poem Merrill wrote about it is anything but monumental, though, consisting as it does of a mere five quatrains the irregular rhyming of which gives the poem a casual feel. Nevertheless, from the outset the poem announces that the experience it is recording from the poet’s own life is moored in epic myth. It begins: “One spring twilight, during a lull in the war,/At Shoup’s farm south of Troy, I last rode horseback.” Two words, “war” and “Troy,” along with the image of horseriding, bring to mind Homeric epic, as Merrill very much wants them to. But the “I” speaking here is Merrill himself, the war he’s talking about is World War Two, and the Troy is Troy, New York, one of many cities and towns in upstate New York with classical names: Troy, Utica, Syracuse, Ithaca. The actual experience being recounted here is simply this: the last time Merrill rode a horse was about thirty years ago, when he was a teenager visiting the New York countryside. He accords the experience, the memory, an epic sheen, but there is little sense of self-importance that comes along with it.
The memory is then superseded by the present experience that has given rise to it, as the poem executes a volta, or turn, at the start of the third stanza, where in dressage a volte is a small, circular area used in the training of a horse, while in poetry a volta is the moment, usually in a sonnet, where the tone or focus or rhetorical strategy being employed in the poem shifts, often with a conjunction. Having recalled how, long ago, riding horseback through a country scene, “Meadows received us, heady with unseen lilac./Brief, polyphonic lives abounded everywhere./With one accord we circled the small lake,” the poet adjusts both his tone and his temporal focus with the observation, “Yet here I sit among the crazy shapes things take.” Fond, wistful recollection is supplanted by an acknowledgement that reality, in fact, clearly doesn’t unfold within the formal bounds of mythic pattern; it’s much more chaotic than that. Far removed from war and Troy and horseback riding, the aged poet now sits in a rental car in the middle of the southwestern desert wondering what’s become of his life. Has it fizzled out? Has it failed to conform to a pattern bequeathed to it by myth? Has its meaning proven unwilling to yield itself to the one whose life it is?
If, however, the poem’s first two lines look mythic at first before resolving themselves into rather plain autobiography, the ninth line, the volta (“Yet here I sit…”), seems at first matter-of-fact and grounded in reality only to then suddenly become mythic in its own turn. For the “crazy shapes things take” refers not only to the poet’s own life—its trajectory, its outcomes, its meanderings—but also to what he’s looking at from the seat of his rental car: the strange, natural carvings of rock made by erosion in Monument Valley, with their own mythic names, the “Three Sisters” and “Hell’s Gate” among them. Suddenly we’re in the underworld, a desert Inferno, among the fates or furies or even the witches from Macbeth. It’s not a question of one’s life being either mythic or chaotic, patterned or unpatterned, but of one’s life being mythic and chaotic, patterned and unpatterned, which makes life not only much more complicated and confusing, but also much more engrossing. The mythic is everywhere; the language we speak is steeped in revelations and meanings that we heed perhaps less often than we should. Ubiquitous signal is drowned out by a no less ubiquitous noise. A word like “polyphonic,” for instance, is Greek in origin. The line “Brief, polyphonic lives abounded everywhere” refers in a literal sense to the insects of the meadow that buzzed around the poet in his youthful ride, but read in isolation with the mythic in mind, itself perhaps evoked by that clearly Greek second word, the line acquires deeper resonance and almost seems to sum up the history of the world. Meanwhile, the name of the rental car agency that has provided the poet with his vehicle situates him at the heart of the natural life of things, in communion with the cosmos, despite its banally commercial connotation: Hertz.
“In Monument Valley” has religious overtones, too, of both an occidental and indigenous cast, for the poet sits in his parked car eating an apple, looking out over a landscape that is no less sacred to its native inhabitants than, say, the windswept plains of Troy were to the Trojans. The poet is neither such an inhabitant himself, though, nor a practicing Christian. He’s a secular foreigner here, passing through, on his way from one place to another, a tourist, in fact, simply stopping for a brief moment to take in the view and have a snack. Here is no Frodo or Odysseus, but a simple James, practicing poet. He isn’t making his way across the Dead Marshes on foot, nor across the Mediterranean on a self-built raft; neither elves nor goddesses have blessed his journey. He’s driving an air-conditioned rental car; the fruit he’s eating comes not from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but most likely from a market located nearby a hotel. And the shadow that falls over him at the poem’s end, as he sits and munches his apple, is not the looming shadow of Mount Doom or the colossal shadow cast by Polyphemus, but the shadow of an old, decrepit animal that has approached the poet’s open car window: “stunted, cinder-eyed,/Tottering still half in trust, half in fear of man—/Dear god, a horse.” Thus the memory with which the poem begins is triggered.
Certainly the difference between the poem’s two horses is suggestive. The “sorrel mare” the poet rode in his youth was “buoyant,” and there was an agreement between her and her rider, a communion: the horse “moved as if not displeased by the weight upon her.” The horse he’s confronted by now, meanwhile, is much older, slower, approaching the car as if it were Death’s Door—or perhaps Hell’s Gate. Instead of being buoyant, she is stunted. No doubt we’re meant to read a similar change as having taken place in the poet himself: gone are the days of his youth; he’s now in his mid-forties, boringly driving a rental car instead of thrillingly riding horseback. And there is perhaps a further lament here not only for the stuntedness and age and exhaustion of these two individual creatures, but for a civilization and a literary tradition, too, as though man-killing, horse-taming Hector of the glinting helmet had been succeeded by car-renting, apple-eating James of turquoise socks with open-toed Birkenstocks. The frequent, seemingly irrepressible self-ennoblement of Mirabell and Scripts doesn’t benefit by way of comparison to such humility.
When left to itself, the crazy shapes things take resolves itself into an exquisite pattern, whereas when attempts are made to coerce and cajole the course of events into meanings that justify the self and its actions, the result is more often artificial, contrived, despite even the best attempts at a playfulness meant to undermine such self-seriousness.
“In Monument Valley” is full of humility—humility, and humiliation. In a moment of profound pity for the senescent animal that has approached him as though in supplication, like a tired wanderer seeking succor, the poet offers what’s left of his apple core for the horse’s nourishment. Here is the possibility for a relationship, maybe not the ecstatic communion that takes place between horse and rider, but still, a meaningful relationship between two mammals, predicated upon the sharing of food. The fact that this horse, too, is female, suggests, however impossibly, that it is in fact the same horse, just as this is the same person. It’s like Odysseus returning home after being gone for almost twenty years to find that Argos, his dog, little more than a puppy when he left, is somehow still alive, having conserved all of his vital force in such a way as to keep breathing just long enough to see his master once more, where immediately after the returned Odysseus recognizes and pets him, he expires in ecstasy. But this is precisely the kind of moment of recognition that doesn’t take place in Merrill’s poem: the horse is “past hunger, she lets [the apple core] roll in the sand; the poet raises the car window and drives away.
Instead of the ancient Odysseus stealthily concealed within the vehicle of the Trojan Horse, with all his valiant comrades preparing to sack the citadel of Troy in glorious conquest, we see the modern poet, alone, driving away in his Hertz rental car to no likely conquest worth singing in epic form. Nor was there any connection between him and the horse. “About the ancient bond between her kind and mine,” he laments, thinking no doubt about the relationship that obtained between Hector and his horses, “Little more to speak of can be done.” The horse has been replaced by the automobile, and an ancient bond broken beyond repair as a result. In the middle of Monument Valley, relics and ruins of human and animal life do their best to just keep going. Pegasus is grounded: aged and decrepit and without appetite. The poet, meanwhile, is dying of AIDS. Perhaps on the other side of the mirror Uni the unicorn awaits a spry JM, but in Monument Valley all is eroded and crumbling—and automated. The would be Western cowboy has traded in his trusty steed for a Hertz rental. Even the era of American mythology is past.
The poem is Merrill’s own version of Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” or Elizabeth Bishop’s marvelous “Cirque d’Hiver.” At the heart of all three poems is a confrontation, a kind of staring contest, between a poet and a horse, where the myth of Pegasus hovers in the background. Wherever Pegasus strikes the earth with a hoof, a spring appears there instantaneously, and whenever poets drink the water from those springs, they are inspired and filled with creative fervor.