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

More On Merrill

After the last post about Merrill, I set about to read Merrill’s Collected Poems more systematically, or at least as systematically as I can get when talking about an 850 page volume, by a notoriously involute poet.  I’d previously only read here and there, as I have with most Collecteds, though I am now beginning to sit down and fight the feeling of being overwhelmed by choosing individual books to get through.

With Merrill, I’m reading the books from the sixties, before the supernatural begins to intrude, in the 70s (publicly, that is; he began using the ouija board in the 50s), and when his mature style of playing with form more freely begins to develop.  Rather tWater Streethan the strict rhyme or blank verse of his earlier books, you have his well-known modulation in and out of strict form within the same poem: “An Urban Convalescence,” for example, one of Merrill’s most famous, has eight stanzas of differing lengths, with occasional slant rhymes, and then eight quatrains of rhymed iambic pentameter.  The two poems that I have been spending a lot of time with, to tease out the imagery and its interplay throughout each, are “After Greece” and “Prism,” from his 1962 collection, Water Street, and they are also, interestingly, two where Merrill drops formalism entirely and lets the complexity of imagery, instead of the felicities and coincidences of rhyme, carry the poem.  It’s interesting also because you see Merrill begin to learn how his own chains of logic and imagery work; his early poems typically pick apart a single image very methodically until it becomes either the apotheosis of an idea, or its antithesis, narrowing its focus so tightly because rhyme seems to restrict his ability to move laterally to another idea.  When he drops the rhyme, he is allowed to develop some complex relationships, even if they are left slightly muddy through their lack of the scalpel-like precision that form usually forces—for better or worse—on his poems.

The first instances of the deep anxiety I mentioned in that last post on Merrill are beginning to creep in, with the escalation of the Cold War (Feel free to correct my dating. I have no mind for the subtlety of history, sadly, but Water Street was published a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis.).  In “After Greece,” some Greek minor deities “seem anxious to know/ What holds up heaven nowadays” and the poet halfheartedly responds, “well, Art, Public Spirit,/ Ignorance, Economics, Love of Self,/ Hatred of Self, a hundred more,/… each dedicated/ To sparing us the worst; how I distrust them…”  But here, it is interesting to see how the cause of that anxiety oscillates between impending doom and that ever present dis-ease I brought up last time.  Here he begins to explore how the common Modernist theme of dissatisfaction and loss can be yolked to the more personal and emotional reactions one has to one’s era, as well as the ultimate (and ultimately dominating) fear that the annihilation we face is physical, and spiritual, and intellectual.

“After Greece” reflects on both the poet’s return from the country which he made his frequent home, as well as the different relationships with the world that someone from ancient Greece and someone from mid-20th Century America would have.  Within the poem there is a constant marvel over how profoundly different those two conceptions of the world are, and which examines, without a futile attempt to revive it, how the older one supported man in ways that our modern ways don’t:

Of the gods’ houses only
A minor premise here and there
Would be balancing the heaven of fixed stars
Upon a Doric capital.  The rest
Lay spilled, their fluted drums half sunk in cyclamen
Or deep in water’s biting clarity
Which just barely upheld me
The next week, when I sailed for home.

The pun here on ‘premise’ is indicative of Merrill’s ambivalence.  At the end of the second line above, the premise is the boundaries of the gods’ houses, albeit shrunken and insubstantial: if the idea of gods has any influence anymore, it is over minor, scattered realms.  The next line reveals another definition of premise which supersedes the first, that of logical support, and then calls into question even this now attenuated ‘premise’ by linking it to the perhaps interesting but untenable idea of the fixed heavens.  Though some of the old ideas are attractive for new reasons, and some are interesting for old ones, and some are ridiculous, they are nevertheless forceful.  It is this old world’s light which, in the first lines, seems to make the olive produce oil, its rain makes the pale stones shine from within— and it’s hemlock, still effective today, is a tempting alternative to the poet who returns to his room in the new world to find that his metaphorical liquor has been drunk by the spirits of the age, and replaced with another outdated idea, but one not quite so foreign:

It is autumn.  I did not invite
Those guests, windy and brittle, who drink my liquor.
Returning from a walk I find
The bottles filled with spleen, my room itself
Smeared by reflection onto the far hemlocks.

But Merrill always hedges his bets, deflating his own metaphors with new ones while he embraces how insufficient the old ones are in the present.  The very ideas from the old world which he tries to name as essential (“salt, wine, olive, the light, the scream—”) become, as he names them and tries to bring them forward in time, like the ones that are already in ruins, “Dressed like your sister caryatids.”

What makes Merrill a great poet, in my mind, is his ability to discover in the process of the poem some metaphor which seems immediately helpful or illuminating, which appears to offer some clarity to the speaker, only for it to be stripped of its power by the end of the poem, where the poet resigns himself to functionality.  It’s epitomized in “To a Butterfly,” where the speaker breaks character mid-poem: “—Enough.// Goodness, how tired one grows/ Just looking through a prism:/ Allegory, symbolism./ I’ve tried, Lord knows,// To keep from seeing double…”  What first seems a luminous, powerful idea is stripped until only its barest structure is used, almost begrudgingly, to move forward (this process goes into overdrive in the long, occult poems— avatars evolve into new avatars, and it is late revealed that some of the spirit guides disguised themselves as simpler, more palatable characters in earlier books).  It’s a trick you can see he learned from Yeats, who, even in his first book, likes to take one image and cast it in multiple moods: his shepherds’ seashell alternately holds voices of comfort and a terrifying moan.

Rather than contrast the differing inadequacies of the old and the new, as in the previous poem, ‘Prism’ explores the processes of synthesis and disintegration that go into thinking about one’s world in any age— how that seashell can be comforting one moment and terrifying the next.  About halfway through, the poem makes a curious assertion:

Look: (Heretofore
One could have said where one was looking,
In or out. But it almost—) Look:

And when you reread, it is clear that, indeed, the addressee of the poem could be either living inside or outside the prism:

Having lately taken up residence
In a suite of chambers
Windless, compact and sunny, ideal
Lodging for the pituitary gland of Euclid
If not for a “single gentleman (references),”… 1

This is either a literalized description of light’s ‘residence’ in a prism, with a play on the idea of white light’s singularity, or the speaker looking in and describing it as a metaphor for the situation of his subject, the viewer of the prism.  Interestingly, the line that follows this passage begins with “You…”, and therefore reveals who has ‘taken up residence’ in the first line; but until that point, the verb could have taken the first, second, or third person: the subject of the poem is already splitting and integrating.  This is what the poem eventually comes to discuss: the integration and disintegration that occurs as a result of that peculiar relationship between mind, body, and object perceived.  After the previous, reiterated command to look, the speaker says: “You dream of this:/ To fuse in borrowed fires, to drown/ In depths that were not there.”  The word look, commanded twice, functions as a prism, both refracting the white light of perception into its various colors, and then recombining those various colors into white light: to fuse into a single subject or to reveal hidden dimensions.  Merrill gives a nod to the metaphor of writing (“…that pounce/ Of wild color from corner to page,/ Straightaway consuming the latter/ Down to your very signature…”), but does so in order to suggest that writing’s participation in this is metonymic at best.  A signature is something slightly more than just writing, and this prismatic effect goes much deeper than the written word.

But whether or not this heightened perception is a blessing or a curse is questionable, and as the poem continues to investigate this, it is revealed that we are not—anymore, at least—looking in or out: the body is the prism.  The “you” addressed here is specifically the body, distinct from mind and object.

…You meant
To rest your bones in a maroon plush box,
Doze the old vaudeville out, of mind and object,
Little foreseeing their effect on you,
Those dagger-eyed insatiate performers
Who from the first false insight
To the most recent betrayal of outlook,
Crystal, hypnotic atom,
Have held you rapt, the proof, the child
Wanted by neither.

One of the things I’ve noticed in reading these two books more closely, and as complete books, is that one of Merrill’s tactics for unsettling an otherwise sensible poem is to leave whom he is addressing—who the “you” of the poem is—unclear, whether by simply not telling us, or by shifting its designation.  The “you” in this poem begins as a normal poetic subject, and becomes the body, the mind, or the whole at various points, but it also seems as if it could be the speaker’s body itself—which makes keeping the distinction between mind and body difficult, especially when the distinction of perceiver, medium, and perceived is exactly what is in question.  Trying to examine perception, and then focusing one’s perception on oneself, makes it very difficult to draw lines; that ‘white light’ breaks into many colors.

The last few lines are a little underwhelming, with the rhythm falling a bit into simplicity, and the last line’s new-built sense of a prismatic break, as explored by the poem, doesn’t quite dominate the pathetic, traditional sense of “breaking someone’s heart.”  But the diminishing of the idea is characteristic.  That “[y]ou and the stars/ Seem both endangered, each/ At the other’s utter mercy” is an excellent summation of how difficult the relationship between mind, body, and object is to describe, because, as I said, it hedges its bets: the difficulty is only seeming, and the mind and object seem reliant on each other’s spoken mercy.  This is “dozing out the old vaudeville,” to a certain extent.  It refrains from making any sincere or serious statement of the situation, even if the poem has been proving how serious the evaluation of such a complex relationship must be taken.

After a meaningful and revealing, but ultimately faulty exploration, we’re returned to a limited authority, not unlike the end of “After Greece.”   That poem, built on various senses of the physical and spiritual, on a feeling of being questioned by the physical ruins of the “old world” about what today’s spiritual support is like— the poem having asked what is missing from our age, or what could have been missing from theirs, rests in the question rather than answers it.  But it is an uneasy rest, and rather than lazily sum up the relationship between old and new as another instance of a prohibitive “that which cannot be named,” Merrill tries again to name it, but with less force, less directness, finally covering over the possibility that we, in our era, may need something as irrational and outdated as spirits:

Perhaps the system
Calls for spirits. This first glass I down
To the last time
I ate and drank in that old world.  May I
Also survive its meanings, and my own.

The “also” is key: What has survived the old world’s meanings? Humanity? The earth? What does it mean to survive one’s own meanings?  Survival is the limited purview that the poet and the poem eventually return to.  Even though the star and the observer seemed reliant on each other at the end of Prism, “Yet the gem/ revolves in space, the vision shuttles off.”  Ultimately, both continue existing independently, and that is part of the terror, and part of the comfort, of annihilation.

1. I’ve almost convinced myself that Merrill meant pineal gland, which was famously held by Descartes to be the seat of the soul—thus putting the father of geometry in juxtaposition with something as amorphous as the soul— but that pituitary gland just sounds better, so Merrill fudged it.  The juxtaposition would be apt for the poem, and maintaining homeostasis, which the pituitary gland does, just doesn’t seem to be all that interestingly related to the subject matter.  If anyone knows what the commonsense of the mid-1960s believed the function of the pituitary gland to be, I’d be obliged.

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Filed under: Merill, Poetry

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