SCRIPTS FOR THE PAGEANT completes what may well be the most astonishing poem ever written by an American. There is no other word to describe James Merrill's trilogy -- The Book of Ephraim, Mirabell: Books of Number, Scripts -- the record of his experiences in communicating with the "other" world through the medium of the Ouija board. When Divine Comedies appeared in 1976, including the book-length Ephraim, readers could still praise Merrill's superb artistry while evading the content of his vision. This is no longer possible. For Mirabell and Scripts raise so many profound questions about sacred poetry and the relation of the individual to the cosmos, that evading their doctrines would also entail ignoring the wisdom literature of Merrill's greatest predecessors -- poets such as Dante, Homer, Milton, Blake.
But this makes Scripts for the Pageant sound much grimmer than it is. Actually, the poem reads as a swirl of voices, a choral symposium that sounds at times like heroic opera. It also has the look of the heroic, since the speech of the dead is marked by upper-case lettering. Merrill and his companion, David Jackson, are the mediums who summon the Speakers to the board and mirror. (Scripts is divided into three sections: YES, &, NO, the top portion of the Quija board.)
The prime Speakers in Scripts are God B (short for Biology) and his four angelic sons: Michael, Emmanuel, Raphael and Gabriel, each representing one of the four elements. But we also hear from the souls of five primary geniuses who have passed through a series of transformations since their deaths: Akhnaton, Homer, Montezuma, Nefertiti, Plato. Closest to Merrill among the dead -- true alter egos -- are W. H. Auden and another friend, Maria Mitsotaki. Along with Merrill and Jackson these two comprise a chorus, greeting the revelations dealt out by the angelic hierarchy with awe and occasional scepticism.
No brief review can do justice to the diverse plenitude of Scripts for the Pageant. The scope of Merrill's wit is breathtaking; it has become an intellectual force fusing together the unlikeliest of myths and concepts. As for his lyric genius, a few lines from "Samos," a canzone opening the second movement of the poem, ought to explain why Merrill was chosen to inscribe the music of the spheres: And still, at sea all night, we had a sense Of sunrise, golden oil poured upon water, Soothing its heave, letting the sleeper sense What inborn, amniotic homing sense Was ferrying him -- now through the dream-fire.
Mortal Acts, Mortal Words is Galway Kinnell's first collection of new poems since The Book of Nightmares (1971). Gone is the harsh, disjunctive mode that marked so many of the apocalyptic miscellanies from 10 years ago, Kinnell's especially. He is using the lyric for different purposes now: to heal, not to wound, to soothe rather than disrupt. It is as if Kinnell were now situating his poetry on the far side of loss, beyond nightmare.
Many of the figures who populate this volume are ghostly products of memory and myth. Kinnell, indeed, has become a bard of memory, as in "Memory of Wilmington":
Thirty-some years ago, hitchhiking north of Route 1, I stopped for the night at Wilmington, Delaware, one of those American cities that start falling apart before they ever get finished.
I met, I remember, an ancient hobo . . . As this particular memory takes hold, the poet manages to forget himself and to reimagine the hobo for the reader's sake as well as his own. The result is a splendid poem. Equally fine is the detailed family portrait that emerges in "The Sadness of Brothers." Elsewhere, the sharp edges of people and things are sacrificed in an effort to bind the world together.
The shape and rhythm of Kinnell's poems are in perfect -- perhaps too perfect -- accord with this desire for connections. The weight of the book falls on poems of middle length, works which begin with a delineated subject that Kinnell then skillfully subsumes beneath a widening arc of related themes. "The Rainbow" announces, "The rainbow appears above us," then turns away from the sky to "things and creatures . . . the pelvic bones of a woman," eventually soars above the rainbow itself to "other, unfulfilled galaxies." "On the Tennis Court at Night" starts there but ends in the snows of "all the winters to come." The technique grows a little predictable and the beginnings of those poems are generally stronger than their codas.
Kinnell's language seldom calls attention to itself; there is none of Merrill's verbal swordplay at work in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words. Kinnell builds poems out of key monosyllabic words and phrases, prolonged by the swelling rhythms of litany and chant. But simplicity is put in the service of a large ambition: Kinnell wants to cure his countrymen of their spiritual ills and to chastise artier poets who ignore the essentials. To reach a wider audience Kinnell is willing to risk sentimentality. But at his best, he holds on to the difficult integrity of words while making his private experiences authentically public.
When Kinnell comforts, Frederick Seidel abrades. Sunrise won the Lamont Poetry Prize for 1979, an award given for a poet's second book. His first, Final Solutions, was published in 1963; over the intervening years, Seidel seems to have been testing the premises and the ordinary language of poetry. He has also been attending to our various national crazes. The result is an extremely savvy book of poems, reminiscent of Lowell as social prophet, but without the latter's deep moral affiliations. Mailer and Didion also come to mind, for Seidel is something of an Aquarian reporter letting us know how it is with the beautiful and the damned.
Seidel prefers the camera's cool gaze to verbal rhapsody -- Bernardo Bertolucci is one of the book's dedicatees. The series of California poems which open Sunrise have an iciness and detachment perfectly rendered in the image of flight of "The Room and the Cloud": "The tan table of the desert is an empty Sunlit plaza by de Chirico That has no meaning, that is like the desert Rising in the windows of an Astrojet As it coldly dips to right itself. A rich man in Arizona drives a tan Mercedes . . . Seidel says "de Chirico" but it might as well have been Halston. In fact, his less successful pieces verge on a kind of "designer" poetry with the names of jet-set friends sewn on for status. Not that American poetry at present couldn't use a little glamor.
What makes Seidel deeply intriguing, though, is that he combines the novelist's flair for incident with a surrealist's distrust of whatever meets the eye. Sometimes the surrealism gets out of hand as in the case of the title poem, a 40-stanza collage that makes John Ashbery read like Tennyson. Seidel's full range is apparent in 'Men and Women," a poem about motorcycle racing that Hemingway would have been proud to call his own, since it is all about the beauty of danger: "To see Giacomo Agostini lay the MV over/ Smoothly as a swan curves its neck down to feed,/ At ninety miles an hour." Seidel's poetry takes equivalent risks.
One of Ezra Pound's favorite bits of advice was that "poetry should be at least as well-written as prose." Kingsley Amis, writer that he is, needs no such reminders; but there are a lot of Americans writing today who might do well to read Amis' Collected Poems 1944-1979. There's not a fuzzy passage in the entire book. Amis writes with precision and with commitment to "traditional" formats: most of his poems follow a regular rhyme-scheme, although his speech-rhythms are rugged. Settling the problem of form frees him to create narratives in verse, tough-minded little ballads or novels-in-brief.
Amis is gifted with a spare, classical style that brings abstractions into clear view. In his best poems, such as "Wasted," potent images survive the mind's restless questioning, illustrating the true mystery of the uncontrived relation between mind and world: That cold winter evening The fire would not draw, And the whole family hung Over the dismal grate Where rain-soaked logs Bubbled, hissed and steamed. Then, when the others had gone Up to their chilly beds, And I was ready to go, The wood began to flame In clear rose and violet, Heating the small hearth. Why should that memory cling Now the children are all grown up, And the house -- a different house -- Is warm at any season?