A Scattering of Salts

A Scattering of Salts

by James Merrill

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In this, his first new book of poems in seven years, Merrill is at the top of his form. His unrivalled poetic use of the private life is brilliantly evident. The stuff of autobiography is transfigured becoming a medium for the profoundest truth, couched in a language that draws on both rueful wit and elegant slang. From "Nine Lives," an Athenian fable, through…  See more details below


In this, his first new book of poems in seven years, Merrill is at the top of his form. His unrivalled poetic use of the private life is brilliantly evident. The stuff of autobiography is transfigured becoming a medium for the profoundest truth, couched in a language that draws on both rueful wit and elegant slang. From "Nine Lives," an Athenian fable, through "Volcanic Holiday," with its euphoric helicopter ride, to "Family Week at Oracle Ranch," set in a New Age rehab center, his vivid glimpses of the real world widen into surprising and meditative visions that touch us all.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his first volume of new poetry in seven years, the recently deceased Merrill (winner of Pulitzer and Bollingen prizes as well as two National Book Awards) returned to the short lyric and dramatic narrative forms that were overshadowed by his 1982 epic trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover. This is a moving final collection, framed by the opening ``A Downward Look,'' which begins, ``Seen from above, the sky/ Is deep...'' and the last, ``An Upward Look,'' in which a ``departing occupier'' has left a ``heart green acre.'' Complicated forms and rhyme schemes hold a rein on emotion, even as the poet delights in playing with language. Merrill's ability to relate everything to the life of the Poet leads him to find-and demonstrate-significance on all fronts, whether grand, e.g., the diurnal rhythms in ``An Upward Look,'' or trivial: an insurance investigator's insistence that a chimney be fixed before a fire is lit moves Merrill to consider his need to take risks in his work, and, later, to hazard merging into ``the hearth of a lover's eyes'' (``Take Risks''). Here as everywhere, Merrill transforms the everyday into almost supernatural elegance. The poet's own words, more poignant with his death, confirm what critics have long contended: ``Eyes shut in all but visionary/ Consent, he lets the words reorganize/ Everything he lives for, until it all fits/ Or until he forgets them.'' (Mar.)
Library Journal
Multiple award-winning poet Merrill's trademark eloquence, mastery of the apt but unforseeable rhyme, chiding self-consciousness, and nearly offhand placement of sudden insight could gild virtually any subject, as they do in this last volume to be composed before his recent death. Here one finds meditations on fire, travel, opera, dogs, group therapy-all equal, mysterious parts of a life seemingly discovered only as it is articulated. In "Nine Lives," for example, Merrill knits the plight of a lost kitten, the arrival of a youthful avatar, T.S. Eliot's imagery, a holiday in Greece, and the famous Ouija board of the Sandhover poems into a scintillating fugue on salvation and the compromises accepted in its stead ("We've dropped our masks, renewed our vows/To letters, to the lives that letters house/Houses they shutter, streets they shade"). Though more vital performances came earlier in his career, Merrill's last still elevates the world into something wished for, hoping to fill the reader with aspirations toward "a more exemplary life begun/Tomorrow, truer, harder to get right." For all poetry collections.-Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, N.Y.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.81(w) x 9.26(h) x 0.41(d)

Read an Excerpt


for Peter Hooten

Our helicopter shaking like a fist
Hovers above the churning
Cauldron of red lead in what a passion!
None but the junior cherubim ask why.
We bank and bolt. Shores draped in gloom
Upglint to future shocks of wheat.
Your lips, unheard, move through the din of blades.

A Mormon merman, God's least lobbyist,
Prowls the hotel. All morning
Sun tries to reason with the mad old ocean
We deep down feel the pull of. And in high
Valleys remote from salt and spume
Waterfalls jubilantly fleet
Spirit that thunder into glancing braids.

Thunder or bamboos drumming in the mist?
Tumbril or tribal warning?
Pacific Warfare reads the explanation
For a display we'd normally pass by:
Molars of men who snarled at doom
Studding a lava bowl. What meat
Mollifies the howl of famished shades?

Crested like palms, like waves, they too subsist
On one idea—returning.
Generation after generation
The spirit grapples, tattered butterfly,
A flower in sexual costume,
Hardon or sheath dew-fired. Our feet
At noon seek paths the evening rain degrades.

Adolescence, glowering unkissed:
The obstacle course yearning
Grew strong in. Check to cliff face, sheer devotion. . . .
To be loved back, then, would have been to die.
Then, not now. Show me the tomb
Whose motto and stone lyre complete
With this life-giving fever. As it fades

From the Zen chapel comes that song by Liszt.
Is love a dream? A burning,
Then a tempering? Beyond slopes gone ashen,
Rifts that breathe gas, rivers thatvitrify,
Look! a bough falters into bloom.
Twin rainbows come and go, discreet,
As when together we haunt virgin glades.

Moments or years hence, having reminisced,
May somebody discerning
Arrive at tranquil words for . . . mere emotion?
Meanwhile let green-to-midnight shifts of sky
Fill sliding mirrors in our room
—No more eruptions, they entreat—
With Earth's repose and Heaven's masquerades.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Meet the Author

James Merrill was born in New York City on March 3, 1926, and lived in Stonington, Connecticut. He was the author of twelve books of poems, which won him two National Book Awards (for  and Mirabell), the Bollingen Prize in Poetry (for Divine Comedies) and the first Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry awarded by the Library of Congress (for The Inner Room, 1988). The Changing Light at Sandover appeared in 1982 and included the long narrative poem begun with "The Book of Ephraim" (from Divine Comedies), plus Mirabell: Books of Number and Scripts for the Pagaent in their entirety; it received the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry in 1985. In addition to the one-volume edition of his narrative poem The Changing Light at Sandover, he also issued two selected volumes: From the First Nine, Poems 1946-1976 (1982) and Selected Poems 1946-1985 (1992). He was the author of two novels, The (Diblos) Notebook (1965, reissued in 1994) and The Seraglio (1957, reissued in 1987), and two plays, The Immortal Husband (first produced in 1955 and published in Playbook the following year) and, in one act, The Bait, published in Artist's Theater (1960). A book of essays, Recitative, appeared in 1986, and in 1993 a memoir, A Different Person. His last book of poems, A Scattering of Salts, was published in 1995, following his untimely death on February 6 of that year.

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