Katy Evans-Bush was born in New York and has been living in London since she was nineteen. Her poems have been published in journals and anthologies in the UK, the US and Europe. Her debut collection, Me and the Dead, is published by Salt. Katy's poetry reviews and critical essays are widely published in journals and e-journals, and she writes the literary blog Baroque in Hackney. In this post, she discusses James Merrill's Divine Comedies.
Katy Evans-Bush on Divine Comedies by James Merrill
There are so many books that have influenced me hugely over the years that which one to write about is, in the end, a completely random choice. Eschewing Harriet the Spy, anything I've ever reviewed, and the things I routinely mention on my blog (like Guy Davenport), I have decided to write about the poet James Merrill.
He was arguably - along with Anthony Hecht - one of the two most elegant formal (that is, rhyming and metrical) poets in 20th century American poetry, but this does not, for me, begin to describe his charm. He occupies an odd place in the canon: heir to the Merrill Lynch fortune, precocious poet and aesthete, he divided his time between New York, Connecticut and Europe with his partner, David Jackson. He was too camp and too frivolous to appeal fully to the orthodox mainstream of 'New Formalism', with its bland aura of political and social conservatism, but also far too rhymed and metrical to appeal to the hipper, more gay-friendly, New York School crowd.
You can't read him if you have prescriptive beliefs about class or money, because - frankly - he had both. But his upbringing was not happy, he had poor health, and he was very alive to what it feels like to be alive. I'd rather read his observations than many others. He was the scion of what I like to call the Dinner Party Poem. His exposés of the excesses of the table can be downright chilling even as the jokes go through you like warm brandy, but that, as I say, is scant lure for those who would only be open to a beer or marijuana comparison.
His 1975 collection Divine Comedies doesn't contain the first of his poems I ever read; that would be 'The Broken Home', whose stanzas turn out to be seven sonnets, featuring his financier father and socialite mother, a red setter and a setting son - I mean sun.
Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit - rings, cars, permanent waves.
We'd felt him warming up for a green bride.
He could afford it. He was "in his prime"
At three score ten. But money was not time.
When my parents were younger this was a popular act:
A veiled woman would leap from an electric, wine-dark car
To the steps of no matter what - the Senate or the Ritz Bar -
And bodily, at newsreel speed, attack...
'The Broken Home' broke open something important for me: something about pathos and regret; something about imagery; something about movies and poems, the ways in which poems can intersect with the larger cultural mythos. When I read it I felt the beginning of something wonderful. Merrill was dead by then; he had died of AIDS in 1996; but it felt to me as if this poem had been written just so it could wait for me to find it. And that was it, until I found my second-hand copy of Divine Comedies. (After that I bought his huge Collected off the internet; and then found The Changing Light at Sandover, of which more in a minute, in an Oxfam Bookshop. But Divine Comedies comes first.)
It opens with the 'The Kimono':
When I returned from lovers' lane
My hair was white as snow.
Joy, incomprehension, pain
I'd seen like seasons come and go.
How I got home again,
Frozen half dead, perhaps you know.
The sounds in this poem, and the Donne-like simplicity of the conceit (developed over the following two stanzas) make me read it over and over, or recite it to myself in the tube. But however often I do, I can never quite tell who 'you' is; why, if he is the lover, the speaker would have been in lovers' lane; the puzzle pieces lie there, shining, time out of mind, 'a bubble-gleam'.
The long, more important poem 'Lost in Translation' features the child Merrill's beloved 'Mademoiselle' helping him to fit together a jigsaw puzzle. There is an intense atmosphere of exoticism, the puzzle being some kind of Orientalist scene. Images float like red setter clouds: the 'thousand hand-sawn / sandal-scented pieces' laid out on 'the tense oasis of green felt': 'witch on broomstick, ostrich, hourglass, / even (surely not just in retrospect) / an inchling, innocently branching palm'.
As in so much of Merrill's work, the reader is left with the effort of assembly – [forming] 'a more sophisticated unit' – amid the hollows and void space left by hints and suggestions, leading to a rich depth of meaning. A further piece of the puzzle here is the appearance, many years afterwards, of a medium who 'sees' a hidden puzzle piece – '(surely not just in retrospect)'. The whole story is stories-within-stories, translations of translations, and the subjects are language, life, meaning. Just as you grasp it, it slips away, and even as it does so you grasp it.
There is an excellent (unsigned) discussion of this poem on Wikipedia, which goes into more detail about all the threads and boxes of the narrative and symbolism. I would say, if you are interested in how one discovers the hidden significances and layered meanings in things, you will find this poem very much worth reading and re-reading. But the main point about reading Merrill, for me, is how happy he makes me feel.
As exotic as it all is, Merrill undercuts his inbuilt exotica with humour and a wry humility. 'Whitebeard on Videotape' begins:
Indigo, magenta, colour of ghee,
An Indian summer boiling where he sat
Put ours to shame. Six decades in the vat
Had turned his fingers emerald. Ah me.
Fully half the book consists of 'The Book of Ephraim', the first part of The Changing Light at Sandover, his Ouija-board romance, written over 20 years of intense communion with the next world. I love to think of Merrill and Jackson intent over their table in a darkening room, fingers resting lightly on a milk glass. The poem is utterly of its own kind. The surface gloss, even archness, with which Merrill may offend 'serious' modern tastes are only exacerbated by the reputation he gave himself for out-and-out weirdness with this grand epic of the afterlife, but it contains passages of intense sadness, comedy, bathos and beauty. (He is hardly the only poet to indulge: Ted Hughes was fond of a Ouija board, as was Yeats.)
Much of it is made up of the words - which miraculously occur in rhymed pentameter - of a series of characters from beyond, including the ancient Greek Ephraim, and 'Wystan' – W.H. Auden. 'The Book of Ephraim' describes the beginning of the epic journey, which became in its wholeness a deep exploration of time, life and beauty:
Backdrop: The dining room at Stonington.
Walls of ready-mixed matte "flame" (a witty
Shade, now watermelon, now sunburn)...
Properties: A milk glass tabletop.
A blue-and-white cup from the five and ten.
Pencil, paper and a cardboard sheet
Over which the letters A to Z
Spread in an arc, our covenant
With whom it would concern; also
The Arabic numerals, and YES and NO.
What more could a familiar want?
This book comes back to me much as the spirit of Ephraim kept coming back to Merrill, with a guiding hand, gentle reminders of a good way to look at things. Merrill himself is a guide of such warmth, wit, seriousness and joy - 'the Mozart of American poetry', as Harold Bloom has suggested (with Hecht, his opposite number, as its Mahler, according to Ernest Hilbert) - that he seems more necessary than ever amid our rather humourless, socially prescribed, fearful, puritan, post-millennial angst.
Trust both Ephraim and Merrill when you read:
PATRONS OF SUCH SOULS ARE FREQUENTLY
MADE SQUEAMISH PAR EXAMPLE GBS
YOU MENTIONED HIM TONIGHT AT 6 WITH ME
VEGETARIAN ONCE HAD TO CLAIM
A FINE BROTH OF A BOY COOKED OVER FLAME
This was the tone we trusted not one bit.
Must everything be witty? AH MY DEARS
I AM NOT LAUGHING I WILL SIMPLY NOT SHED TEARS