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
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
About my spine. The mother's
voice: Holding up wonderfully!
No dread. No bitterness. The end
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:
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