This Collected Poems is not a 'Complete Poetry'. It omits Merrill's trilogy of book-length poems, The Changing Light at Sandover, as well as a number of uncollected or unpublished poems. The notes are minimal. Merrill died in 1995: the editors of this volume, who are also his literary executors, apparently decided to publish a reader's edition in short order. I hope it will be followed in time by a genuinely complete, multi-volume edition of the poems, with annotations. Meanwhile, this collection provides ample evidence of his power.
One of Merrill's mature lyrics, 'b o d y', reads in its entirety:
Look closely at the letters. Can you see,
entering (stage right), then floating full,
then heading off - so soon -
how like a little kohl-rimmed moon
o plots her course from b to d
as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door?
Looked at too long, words fail,
phase out. Ask, now that body shines
no longer, by what light you learn these lines and what the b and d stood for.
The poem looks closely at the letters in the word 'body', and sees in their configuration an emblem of that body's trajectory from b(irth) to d(eath), or rather the trajectory of the little o, the embodied subject or soul, which 'plots its course' towards extinction just because it is embodied. It crosses the night sky like the moon; or else, like an actor, it crosses the stage, moving in an irrevocable pattern from origin to end. And yet it does not experience itself as mechanical. The o is the 'I', as its likening to 'a little kohl-rimmed moon' (a mascara-lined eye) punningly suggests, and the way in which the 'I' experiences its course is always novel. It must remain bewildered, as the puzzle of why - y - it exists goes unsolved. At the end, the poem turns directly to the evocation of this bewilderment, instructing 'you' (who is first Merrill himself, and then the reader) to mark the baffling anomaly of your own subjectivity, a paradoxical o or zero, a mark of annihilation, which stands for a nothing that is something, and a something that is nothing.
LRB 4 April 2002 | PDF Download