Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

A Scattering of Salts: Merrill's Temporal Innocence

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

A Scattering of Salts: Merrill's Temporal Innocence

Article excerpt

In A Scattering of Salts the return of innocence "with a difference" (Poems 651) (1) is Merrill's aim and his subject. This volume's poems seek ways to combine innocence and experience, to achieve a renewal of innocence that does not deny knowledge, experience, or time. Merrill desires innocence as an openness to the possibilities of each new moment, a way to approach the present and future with potential for wonder and hope. But his is not an Adamic stance that erases the past, motivated by a will to what Emerson calls an "original relation to the universe" (3). (2) Neither is it an elegiac yearning for an idealized childhood or Milton's "native innocence" (373) prior to knowledge and guilt. (3) Rather, like Blake's, Merrill's innocence "dwells with Wisdom" (697). (4) Like Stevens in "The Auroras of Autumn," Merrill pursues innocence through confrontations with change and death. But Stevens struggles to find or imagine an innocence outside of time, "innocence/As pure principle" (361), not subject to mutability. (5) Merrill relinquishes desire for purity or transcendence and invents a contingent innocence that arises in time and is subject to change. (6) It is a shifting, dynamic balance of contraries, an ongoing poetic creation that does not reconcile opposites into harmonious simplicity. (7) Its aspects of youth and age, hope and dread, imagination and knowledge "dissolve/And meet in astounding images of order" (Merrill, Poems 11), the balance between opposing terms constantly changing. A Scattering of Salts invents a new figure for this complex innocence: a gem or crystal seen in its temporal, material process of becoming, a "bright alternation" (674) of crystallized form and contingent flux.

This volume's gems are very different from the static, decorative ones that encrust First Poems, those "emeralds ... sapphires ... pearls" that Richard Howard sees as the defining feature of that work (33). Howard reserves his praise for later poems that get "into the stream of occurrence" (13) and the unusual early poem that dismisses "jewels and emblems in favor of happenings" (12). (8) In A Scattering of Salts "Gemlike projects keep forming" (Poems 638), but they are products of "the stream of occurrence," "happenings" in motion and in time. Salts crystallize and dissolve; layers of calcium carbonate accrete to form a pearl, which in time is dropped back into the sea; "molecules" under heat and pressure are rearranged to form gemstones, and the same forces "de-crystallize" marble to "chalk" (606). The gem formation and chemical synthesis in "Press Release," the salts that dissolve and recrystallize in "A Downward Look" and "An Upward Look," the materials that undergo melting, cooling, and metamorphic or synthetic rearrangement in "A Look Askance," "Volcanic Holiday," "Alabaster," and "The Pyroxenes" all model an ongoing alternation between the achieved gem and the temporal dissolution out of which it arises and to which it returns. With its dynamic interaction of random fragments and ordered mirrors that create the appearance of symmetrical patterns--gemlike arrangements realized only momentarily--the kaleidoscope that appears in "Press Release" (638) offers one version of this process and a striking image of how the volume balances the aleatory and the constructed. (9)

Haunted by AIDS, Merrill in A Scattering of Salts is more aware than ever of the contingency of innocence, and more resolved to continue to build it anew. AIDS is a quiet but pervasive presence in the volume. It is there when a "computer virus" strikes the poet's laptop (635) and when "patrician cells await/Invasion by barbaric viruses" (641), when "The Monster" speaks from a Scottish loch--"They have diagnosed my presence, never found me. A shape-shifter, I mutate, I metastasize" (630)--and when "unheard ambulances" threaten to "wake the gray sleeper" (662). It is both an internal threat and a "Great Plague" (643) affecting a broader community. …

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