UNLIKELY FRIENDS by Judith Moffett
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James Merrill and Judith Moffett: A Memoir
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Poet and science-fiction writer Moffett (The Bear’s Baby and Other Stories, 2017, etc.) recalls decades of friendship and correspondence with the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet James Merrill.

As a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1967, Moffett took Merrill’s poetry class and found him to be exotic and unique. It led to a nearly three-decade friendship, here preserved in letters and extensive journaling. Moffett went to Sweden to translate poetry, returned to America, and spent years in frenzied activity—writing, teaching, and moving from place to place—all the while sending her poems to Merrill for review. Their friendship was warm, if somewhat anxious on her part, and full of Merrill’s self-styled mystery (“the person who puzzles + fascinates us needn’t be a puzzle at all, so much as a key...to the unsolved puzzle of ourselves,” he wrote to Moffett in 1970. The closeted, gay Merrill didn’t let Moffett get too close when it came to discussions of sexuality, but she addressed it through literary criticism. A who’s who of the poetry world appeared at various conferences and readings, including Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Bly, and Moffett provides color commentary. Her Merrill scholarship is exhaustive, as she spent years writing a book about his work while finding success with her own poetry. She and Merrill were rarely in the same place, but she lovingly describes a 1973 trip to Greece and moments at his New York City apartment. Both eventually struggled with serious health problems, but they remained close due to their obvious reliance on each other’s intellect and their lifelong dedication to their crafts. Moffett’s painstaking memoir is epic in length but remains consistently engrossing. Particularly noteworthy is her desire to get to the root of her own fascination with Merrill, and she reaches some surprising conclusions about herself. She tells her own life story of struggle and success with undying fervor, and Merrill’s letters show him to be urbane, witty, a bit fussy, and generous when it mattered. The two were different in many ways, but Moffett’s account of what they shared is authentic and impressive.

An absorbing, indispensable portrait of poets.

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-79298-040-4
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Self
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2019