James Merrill in Athens, 1971. Photo by Tom Victor.
Then when the flame forked like a sudden path
I gasped and stumbled, and was less.
Density pulsing upward, gauze of ash,
Dear light along the way to nothingness,
What could be made of you but light, and this?
-- James Merrill (1972)
from James Merrill, Selected Poems, ed. J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser (Knopf, 2008)
from the Introduction by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser:
“When James Merrill’s first book of poems appeared in 1951, it seemed unlikely that he would emerge as one of the era’s crucial poets. He was not political, enterprising, dogmatic, addicted, or suicidal. At first his poems seemed cautious except in their implications. Later – the Sphinx always smiled – they seemed enigmatic but dazzling. His originality was a part of his respect for tradition. His wisdom came from his shrugging off any pretense to it. He was, he said, just ‘a man choosing the words he lives by.’ From those words he made some of the most ravishing, surprising, intimate, and memorable poems written in English.”
“In Merrill’s poem, the inevitable splitting of the self, the forking of the vital flame, diminishes the speaker thus reminded of his mortality. but the very bifurcation produces sudden illumination and even gaiety. (The poet can make light of the dilemma after all, and as soon as ‘upward’ suggests ‘up word,’ the word “Log” itself in retrospect breaks into two meanings, a journal entry and a piece of fuel. So it is that dark is made light – and ‘light’ becomes heavy, dense with implication.)”