LATE SETTINGS. By James Merrill. Atheneum. 87 pp. $12.95; paperback, $6.95.
FACING NATURE. By John Updike. Knopf. 110 pp. $13.95.
WHAT THE LIGHT WAS LIKE. By Amy Clampitt. Knopf. 110 pp. $14.95; paperback, $8.95.
JAMES MERRILL is the Vladimir Horowitz of American poetry. A virtuoso of the typewriter keyboard, he casually performs feats nobody else would even attempt. Perhaps he is demonically possessed. Or perhaps his power derives from the famous Ouija board that plays such a crucial part in The Changing Light at Sandover, his much-honored epic sequence. More likely, his inspiration comes not from some extraterrestrial source but from his own sensibility. Whatever the case, he is an extravagantly gifted artist whose standing is now further enhanced by a new collection of short lyrics and personal narratives.
Let me say, and get it over with, that Late Settings is not for everybody. Merrill's verse, like John Updike's prose, occasionally evokes the complaint that its surface brilliance is at odds with its substance, that manner outdistances matter. His material can indeed seem precious at times, as when a speaker asks "And am I all that fond of needlepoint?" But then James Merrill is not James Dickey, nor was he meant to be. Moreover, he knows exactly what effects he wants to achieve. In a reminiscence called "Days of 1941 and '44" he quotes from an early diary a reference to "'heavenly colors and swell fish,'" then winces at this "Mismarriage of maternal gush/ To regular-guy slang." He has long since shed both gush and slang, developing in their place a diction both imaginative and precise, as in this description of a house fly:
. . . the dull-red lacquer head
Lifted from its socket, turned mechanically
This way and that, like a wristwatch being wound,
As if there would always be time . . .
The double entendre in the final line is vintage Merrill -- irrepressibly playful, he likes, in Robert Frost's phrase, to make words jump to the whack of his quip. A wrinkled sea-cow, for example, is "Unmarriageable/ (Unless to the Prince of Whales)" and ocean predators are "great sharkskin-suited criminals." He sees sunset as "Day's flush of pleasure, knowing its poem done," and a man who sires illegitimate children is -- what else? -- a "Genetic litterbug."
Merrill's magic is especially evident in his control of rhythm and rhyme. He is able to do virtually anything with the English language, whether documenting Channel 13 in lines of 13 syllables, exploiting conventional structures and inventing new ones (as in 28 lines composed around three rhymes), or shaping a stanza visually to underscore its subject. Like his mentor W.H. Auden he has mastered the art that conceals art, making complex constructions seem stylistically inevitable when in fact every syllable has been painstakingly patted into place. The results of this legerdemain are lines that invite repeated scrutiny and that are, to put it simply, fun to read, whether silently or aloud. Such works as "Clearing the Title," "Domino," "Developers at Crystal River" and "Lenses," to select a few for their charm and technical virtuosity, are by themselves worth the price of admission to this literate book by America's leading poet.
AND HOW DOES does the verse of a major novelist hold up in such fast company? John Updike, America's most complete man of letters, has received numerous laurel wreaths for his fiction and critical prose. Now, as if to prove just how many strings are in his bow, he has produced one of the year's more appealing books of poetry. Since this is his fifth such collection his gift hardly comes as a surprise, but the consistently high quality of these verses provides cause for celebration.
It has been said that a limousine is not an acquired taste -- one gets used to it right away. Updike's poetry is like that. Facing Nature, in fact, will likely engage anyone who picks it up, both those who usually avoid poetry as well as the happy few who are addicted. Why? It is accessible, witty, wise, and, like a limousine, stylish and comfortable. Moreover, it has the rare capacity to evoke laughter one moment and tears the next. (I am not sentimental, but "Another Dog's Death" does me in.)
As in his novels, Updike demonstrates a rage for order, precision and plenitude. Apparently existing in smiling harmony with all that is, he persuades us that since life spins miracles we should die rejoicing. Moved by patterns and cycles, he exhibits a childlike wonder at nature's mysterious beauty -- "And shadows on water!" he exclaims, astonished, echoing the delight of Hopkins's "Look, look at the stars!" He also echoes Stevens' belief that death is the mother of beauty, that our transience lends intensity to our apprehension of the physical universe. And he plays witty variations on the ancient idea that art is long, life short:
Those photographs Victorian travellers
produced of tombs and temples still intact
contain, sometimes, a camel driver, or beggar: a
man in a gallabiyah who moved his head, his life
a blur, a dark smear on the unchanging stone.
The most winning segment of this book, interestingly enough, is not the selection of light verse, a genre in which Updike has few peers, but a sequence called "Seven Odes to Natural Process." These lyrics document not only his obsession with the mysteries of physical phenomena but also his dependence on the revelations produced by knowledge. He is a scrupulous scholar of natural change. The processes he annotates include rot ("The banana peel tossed from the Volvo/ blackens and rises as roadside chicory"), entropy ("There is still enough energy in one overlooked star/ to power all the heavens madmen have ever proposed"), and healing:
is a beautiful thing -- a coin
the body has minted, with an invisible motto:
In God We Trust.
Our body loves us,
and even while the spirit drifts dreaming,
works at mending the damage that we do.
In the course of this therapeutic ode the poet refers to "the mute brute body." That he himself is neither mute nor brute but reckless, productive and cheerful (like nature itself) helps account for the delights of this companionable book.
UNLIKE THE prolific Updike, Amy Clampitt, a late starter, has given us not a choir of books but a duet. Writing in these pages about her first collection, The Kingfisher (1983), I observed that her singing masters are Keats, Hopkins, Yeats and Stevens. What the Light Was Like reconfirms this impression, but to these names I now add Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. Like Whitman she is attracted to proliferating lists as well as to "the old thought of likenesses," the unexpected ways in which disparate objects reveal similarities to the imaginative observer. And as in Crane her compressed images create multiple resonances of sound and sense.
Keats, however, and not her American models, is still the central presence. At the heart of the book is an ambitious eight-poem sequence called "Voyages: A Homage to John Keats." These poems are dedicated to Helen Vendler, a Keats expert who, as the first critic to recognize Clampitt's qualities, publically certified this previously unknown singer. (Credit, of course, should also be given to Alice Quinn, Knopf's prescient poetry editor.)
Unlike most poets (T.S. Eliot excepted) Clampitt likes to provide elucidating footnotes, and thus we learn that a source for her sequence is Keats's experience in the seaside resort of Margate, on the English Channel. She connects his delight in the sea with ocean images in Whitman and Crane. Her own imagery throughout is sensuous (even lush) and specific -- in short, Keatsian.
He saw it: saw the candle in the icy draft
gone out, the little smoke, the moonlight,
the diamond panes, the stained-glass colors
of her as she knelt to say her silly prayers.
Saw her, smelled her, felt the warmth of the
unfastened necklace, the brooch, the earrings,
heard the rustle as the dress slid down;
back off, became the voyeur of a mermaid.
In this commentary on "The Eve of St. Agnes" and in similar passages on other odes Clampitt attempts to get inside Keats' skin, to show how his experience and reading were transmuted into the myriad details that make up his work. Her scholarship is of a highly imaginative sort, marred only by distracting allusions to other writers that show, a bit too insistently, that like her subject she has traveled much in realms of gold. This is, though, a minor weakness in a sequence of empathic power that eloquently illuminates Keats' place in a tradition that includes Milton, Shakespeare, Stevens and even Osip Mandelstam.
Clampitt's tendency to play variations -- sometimes witty, sometimes coy -- on familiar lines is evident elsewhere in the book. Thus, Frost's "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" becomes "Something there is that doesn't/ love a Third Avenue tenement," and Stevens's "ordinary evening in New Haven" undergoes a seachange to "an ordinary evening in Wisconsin." These borrowings, however playful, are less memorable than her unaided flashes of rhetorical dazzle. Here are two such passages:
the geese that winter in the bottomland
have been the one thing always on the move,
in swags of streaming fronds, chiaroscuro
sea blooms, their wavering V-signs
following the turnings of one body.
Mirrored among jungle blooms' curled crimson
and chartreuse, above the mantel, diva-throated
tuberoses, opening all the stops, deliver
Wagnerian arias of perfume.
Unlike Updike's less thickly textured lines, language of this sort is probably an acquired taste. I for one have acquired it, and I am impressed that this book, coming so soon after the stunning debut, maintains the level of that collection. Those who do not like The Kingfisher -- and there was a backlash generated by the ecstatic reviews -- probably will not like this book either, since Clampitt is very much of a piece. "It's all embroidery," a poet friend called to complain, roundly condemning my review. "Well, yes," I responded, unwilling to be faithless to a collection that had given me pleasure, "but what embroidery!" Perhaps my friend will chastise me again after seeing this column. Maybe, though, she too has by now been seduced by Amy Clampitt's music. I hope so.