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The Magician

COLLECTED POEMS; By James Merrill Edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser; Alfred A. Knopf: 888 pp., $40

March 04, 2001|CAROLINE FRASER | Caroline Fraser is the author of "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church."

Merrill--usually so fortunate in his friends--has been well-served by his executors and editors, McClatchy and poet and UCLA professor Stephen Yenser (author of "The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill"), who have collected the trade volumes and limited editions that appeared in the poet's lifetime (thankfully restoring the original order of "Braving the Elements" and other books, rearranged in earlier selected volumes), as well as his sterling translations of Montale, Cavafy and others and a rich section of previously uncollected work, including his last poems.

It will be up to other centuries to decide whether "Sandover" is the great American epic, but about Merrill's lyric work there is no doubt. Reading it can, nonetheless, be wrenching. As Vendler once wrote, "Merrill's lines, in their exquisite tones, are often painful to read." His last lines are especially piercing, in such poems as "Christmas Tree," a shaped poem in which the poet speaks as the withering, briefly beloved center of attention:

Yes, yes, what lay

ahead

Was clear: the stripping, the cold

street, my chemicals

Plowed back into the Earth for

lives to come--

No doubt a blessing, a harvest, but

one that doesn't bear,

Now or ever, dwelling upon. To

have grown so thin.

Needles and bone. The little boy's

hands meeting

About my spine. The mother's

voice: Holding up wonderfully!

No dread. No bitterness. The end

beginning.

No stranger to the uncanny evocation of pain, James Joyce would have recognized his compatriot in another late Merrill poem, "Rhapsody on Czech Themes," in which the poet calls for his clippers: "ghastly these long nails." A "small voice" then comes to him, warning, " 'James, don't leave out the humanity!' " He never did.

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Also mentioned in this review:

FAMILIAR SPIRITS

A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson

By Alison Lurie

Viking: 184 pp., $22.95

LOSS WITHIN LOSS

Artists in the Age of AIDS

Edited by Edmund White

University of Wisconsin Press: 310 pp., $29.95

THE EYES OF THE HEART

A Memoir of the Lost and Found

By Fredrick Buechner

HarperSanFrancisco: 176 pp., $13 paper

JAMES MERRILL'S APOCALYPSE

By Timothy Materer

Cornell University Press: 208 pp., $29.95

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