restricted access James Merrill's Apocalypse (review)
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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 515-517



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Book Review

James Merrill's Apocalypse


James Merrill's Apocalypse. Timothy Materer.Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. xii + 172. $29.95.

When his massive Collected Poems 1 appeared this year, five years after his death, reviewers celebrated James Merrill as one of the great lyric poets of the twentieth century. At the same time, the image of the poet presented in the press was colored by the eerie glow cast by a book not under discussion--Merrill's 560-page verse trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), the tale of his and his lover David Jackson's communications with the spirit world via the Ouija board. Reviewers called him "Jimmy of the Spirits," "The Magician," "A Visitor from Some Other Planet." 2 In effect, they described him as the figure of power and strangeness, the occult medium, that he became in The Changing Light. Yet they stopped short of praising the long poem itself, allowing that it may come to be seen as a curiosity at best, and making the claim for his stature on the strength of his lyrics. This is the view of Alison Lurie in Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson (2001), which appeared at the same time as Collected Poems and was in some cases reviewed alongside it.

The renewed attention to Merrill raises several questions. What is his real achievement, Collected Poems or The Changing Light at Sandover? Is it necessary--or possible--to choose one work over the other? How can we understand the relation between Merrill's lyric poems, with their skeptical wit and formal control, and his long poem, a Blakean venture into occult vision and myth? Timothy Materer's James Merrill's Apocalypse, a compact scholarly study, suggests a promising approach to these questions. Materer sees The Changing Light not as a diversion from the main line of Merrill's career, but as the center of it, that point at which Merrill's work in drama, fiction, and poetry converges, clarifying the nature and aims of his writing as a whole. "The way his poetry, fictions, plays, letters, and essays all contribute to an intricate and coherent imaginative world is the mark of a major writer," he explains. "In my case, reading Merrill backwards from The Changing Light, and the late poems from the perspective it gives us, revealed this coherence" (ix). The Changing Light reveals, in short, a career-long preoccupation with revelation. [End Page 515]

This is a somewhat surprising claim. In Merrill's early poem, "Mirror," we overhear one child say to another: "How superficial / Appearances are!" (Collected Poems, 83). From the point of view of the young Merrill's Wildean pose, this is the most superficial of remarks, a failure to recognize the superiority of surface over depth, manner over meaning, form over content (or ideas). In this light, the otherworld of the Ouija board, with its hierarchy of unseen powers and pages of doctrine set forth in capital letters, seems to represent a wholly new commitment for Merrill, arrived at relatively late in his career. Through an attentive reading of Merrill's early poetry and fiction, however, Materer shows that his investment in appearances always entailed a curiosity--and foreboding--about what lay beyond them. Despite his reputation as a poet of the highest formal polish in the era of the well-wrought urn, Merrill was fascinated by images of breaking, shattering, and castration. And what lay beyond appearances, once they had been shattered or passed beyond, was death.

In his early work, Merrill glimpses mortality in experiences of erotic pain and loss. He felt these threats to his private world, moreover, in close conjunction with the threat that the whole world was under from nuclear destruction, as Materer shows using unpublished documents in the Merrill Papers at Washington University (3). This emphasis on the Cold War context shaping Merrill's work is one of Materer's valuable contributions. The link Merrill makes between personal and global catastrophe couldn't be argued or explained, but it...


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