This fat collection, skinned of notes, variations, or intrusive commentary, shows Merrill to be the most astonishing American poet since Wallace Stevens. Many of the volumes presented here in their entirety have gone out of print, and Merrill’s Selected Poems (1982) was only a slim sample of his genius. At the center of Merrill’s poetry is his voice, acrobatic and inimitable: To love Merrill is to love a tone, at once aloof and intimate, a kind of colloquial raised to the second power. Although he is often described as a confessional poet, his autobiographies, full of winks and seemingly private detail, are not burdened by catharsis. This is in part because Merrill is a comic and erotic poet, and his revelations do not presume a looming fate but come of chance weavings, of an ability to tease significance and pattern from apparently ordinary events and objects (a prismatic paperweight, Roman graffito, ginger beef). In his best poems Merrill finds ways to surprise himself, to clinch a long metaphoric conceit or twist himself free from the same (in “The Black Mesa” he ventriloquizes the hill, and concludes plaintively, “Grain by grain / Dust of my dust, when will it all be plain?”). He was also a brilliant rhymist and experimental poet, and his typographical adventures (with cross-outs, caps, elisions, and asterisks) make his pages as lively as any Shandian romp. But with all the wit and breezy conversation there is a tight, formidably intelligent logic to all of the verse; the son et lumière is carefully orchestrated, each glint and dazzle in its proper place.
Merrill’s poems read like so many distillations of life. Placed end to end, as they are here, they form a veritable metropolis of the soul.