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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

On Merrill

Andrew Seal posted a bit about James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover recently, which I’m always glad to see be written about.  Merrill’s work, Sandover included, has been a big influence on me, and Sandover is an unduly neglected book; no one’s quite sure what to do with it.  Except Harold Bloom, and that should tell you something (but don’t let it scare you away).  Masterpiece I’m hesitant to say—I would much rather see Merrill’s collected poems receive their due than Sandover, because Merrill seems to have fallen out of poetic favor—but I do indeed think Sandover should be read by many more people.  Andrew’s idea to reposition the book in the class of fantasiac world-building, rather than modernist masterpiece, is an interesting one. The overwhelming sense the book provides, of a fundamental unease in the world as it is (well was, then, but it’s hardly dissipated, though the sources have changed), does indeed open up a nice way to read the book as a sort of desperate gamble at world-building and could certainly find some fellow-travelers, at the very least among dystopian novels.

I think that could be a valuable way to read the book, and, though I think the poems themselves are not as amenable to the idea of building another world (however much one could say Merrill did this, in the process?) as they are to the quest aspect Andrew looks at, he makes the valid point that, in order to consider the poem in any way other than along the axis of belief and disblief that it usually is, the work has to be dislodged, in a sense, from the question of whether or not Merrill believed in the mythology of it.  Indeed, rather than belief, what Andrew notices is the emphasis on a “process or a practice” is certainly more key to my reading of it.

The simple way of trying to dislodge the work from this question is by pointing out that, with one always skeptical eye on its inherent absurdity, Merrill’s other eye is investigating faithfully that idealistic, irrational impetus at the root of all religion and, I think for Merrill and many writers, Yeats and Stevens included, all their creativity.  That dis-ease Merrill feels about the state of the world, which can be relayed into a fantasiac or dystopian reading, has its twin or reflection in Merrill’s dis-ease in the logical, rigorous, Western mindset that has absolutely no questions about the validity of a long poem dictated via Ouija board. 

The more interesting way is to look at how that dis-ease surfaces in other places, in other ways.  Sandover more than any other work I’ve seen, in any medium, conveys what it is like to be dis-eased with one’s world, and Merrill’s shorter poems convey how this dis-ease alters us and our reactions.  I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that dis-ease is Merrill’s constant topic, with his lyrics about childhood innocence, the vicissitudes of family and friends, living in foreign cultures and and living in cultures that feel foreign to one’s instincts, however “native” one is.  In “Charles on Fire,” a group of friends is discussing the fact that beauty takes one perhaps unjustly and perhaps dangerously far in life.  That “No one but squared/ the shoulders of their own unlovliness” at this injustice indicates resentment of this status quo, status quo in its own way, as well as a sense that this opinion is justified by one’s own self-appraisal, and it subtly points out in doing so that nearly everyone feels awkward in their own skin.  But this skin, at the climax of the poem, will be almost supernaturally aflame, and, “As who should step down from a crystal coach,” entrancingly, unexpectedly beautiful— and eerie.

Another evening we sprawled about discussing
Appearances.  And it was the consensus
That while uncommon physical good looks
Continued to launch one, as before, in life
(Among its vaporous eddies and false claims),
Still, as one of us said into his beard,
“Without your intellectual and spiritual
Values, man, you are sunk.”  No one but squared
The shoulders of their own unloveliness.
Long-suffering Charles, having cooked and served the meal,
Now brought out little tumblers finely etched
He filled with amber liquor and then passed.
“Say,” said the same young man, “in Paris, France,
They do it this way”—bounding to his feet
And touching a lit match to our host’s full glass.
A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went
Above the surface.  In a hush that fell
We heard the vessel crack.  The contents drained
As who should step down from a crystal coach.
Stewart of spirits, Charles’s glistening hand
All at once glowed itself in eeriness…

In Merrill’s poems, there is hardly ever a sense of being completely foreign, either of the speaker or the setting; it is always an uncanniness, and his poems are half an attempt to “square” this strange incongruity and half an attempt to document the dissonant feeling of being at home in it, because we have little choice otherwise.

Mirror” is, as almost all Merrill’s poems, a deceptively complex meditation on appearances, time, change, reflection and transparency, among other things, and ends with this, the mirror reflecting (pun intended) on the end of its long life and the nature of its constitution [“you” throughout the poem is the window across the room, which the mirror faces]:

I suspect
Looks from behind, where nothing is, cool gazes
Through the blind flaws of my mind. As days,
As decades lengthen, this vision
Spreads and blackens. I do not know whose it is,
But I think it watches for my last silver
To blister, flake, float leaf by life, each milling-
Downward dumb conceit, to a standstill
From which not even you strike any brilliant
Chord in me, and to a faceless will,
Echo of mine, I am amenable.

This passage shows, in a roundabout way, the different conception of “belief” that Merrill pursues (and its symbolism echoes the lines which Andrew quotes: “The stripping process, sort of.  What to say?/ Our lives led to this.  It’s the price we pay.”).  We tend to treat “belief” as a set of ideas, rational or not, which an individual psyche has cultivated to anneal the incongruities that feel inherent in its world.  But belief, in that sense, is always a kind of secondary or tertiary question for Merrill, and especially for JM, the voice of Sandover. The process and practice come first, and one’s practice is in fact a coming to terms with the practice and process of living, the movement of one’s dumb conceits from reflection to blankness.  The “faceless will” is first read (and emphasized by the rhyme) as a parallel construction listing another, slightly nonsensical thing which the silvering reflects in its new, fallen position, and then as something to which the speaker submits— that it echoes the mirror/speaker’s own will is almost irrelevant, and yet, if this faceless will is an echo, the speaker’s will is the originating sound.  For all we talk about our belief, the interplay between our conscious and unconscious will is infinitely more complex than any notion of belief could ever answer for.  The more interesting question to ask, than whether or not Merrill believed what he wrote in Sandover, is whether or not his belief changes how you react to the work.  Merrill’s belief or disbelief is akin to the question of Proust’s intent when his narrator names himself after the author: interesting for its affects on your relationship with the work, not really for what it says about the work itself, because it cannot really be made logical sense of.  The major ideas raised by the work, the issues with its logical coherence, the thoughts its apocalyptic visions and chorus of angels and dead humans prompt— yes, Merrill believed in them; no, Merrill didn’t believe in them— these isues do not strike me as “solved” by either answer.  Indeed, to take the metaphor of “Mirror” much too far, and to place it in conjunction with the lines quoted by Andrew, the artistic remnants in poem form may be seen as the very “blister[ing], flak[ing], float[ing] leaf by life” of belief, come to reflect a faceless will that is merely the echo of the original.  The work of literary art is, perhaps, the death and supplanting through awareness of a belief.

This type of almost irrelevance, in “Mirror,” is a precursor to the full-blown sense of unease I mentioned in relation to Sandover, which is specifically rooted in the fears of nuclear war, and which, though appearing occasionally before it, did not become the obsessive fear it did until the Sandover works.  The theme of imminent world-wide destruction is prevalent, in its prehistorical instances, which the spirit guides of the poem reveal, and in JM and DJ’s never-ending anxiety about whether or not it is something they will see in their own lifetime.  It feels, somehow, that if we know Merrill’s stance, we know more surely how to react; we can mimic it, at least for the sake of reading the poem.  But, like the terrifying knowledge that the world may or may not end, in the not very distant future, which is no knowledge at all, and which therefore cannot be entirely soothed, no assurance can erase the tenuous nature of one’s real interaction with the world, which is wholly governed by neither belief or knowledge, and from which imagination is an insufficient escape.  The ambiguities of statement, belief, action, and reaction are perfectly summed in the final five lines of “Charles on Fire”:

The moment passed.  He made two quick sweeps and
Was flesh again. “It couldn’t matter less,”
He said, but with a shocked, unconscious glance
Into the mirror.  Finding nothing changed,
He filled a fresh glass and sank down among us.

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