back toJacket2

Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

David Roderick reviews

Brilliant Water by Christopher Merrill. White Pine Press, $14.

This piece is 800 words or about two printed pages long.

Christopher Merrill has always been a poet of the outdoors. Like the hikes of the Romantics, his vigorous jaunts into the pastoral landscape catalyze intense moments of poetic language, imagery, and metaphor. His favorite places are those where human activity is vestigial or swallowed up by the past. Rivers are what he seeks, and hills and forests, and old buildings eroded by the kinetic forces of wind and fire and rain. But comparisons with the Romantic project stop here, for Merrill’s poems suggest that his travels into the pastoral are more imagination than reality, or at least a hybrid of the two. For Merrill, the pastoral landscape is a scaffold upon which he can construct a more contemporary poetic experience, one that mimics the actions of the mind without lapsing into the personal. These poems put T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative to work; each poetic journey symbolizes, from a distance, a personal or collective frame of mind. Take these first two stanzas from ‘The Lake,’ a fourteen-page poem that launches Brilliant Water:

We won’t return. Like seeds, awkward as auks
With broken wings, we’ll float across the lake
Below the monastery, avoiding snags,
And snakes, and swamped canoes wedged in the reeds.

Our reign is over. Say we stopped one day
Outside the water mill to search for grain,
To study the footprints of our enemies
— The Gauls and ghosts whose language had tamed us.

While the first-person singular point of view propelled the poetry of Wordsworth, Keats, and their peers, Merrill employs the collective ‘we’ in order to distance his emotions from the physical and linguistic action of the poem. This collective voice (‘Our reign is over’) appears to signal the end of the Romantic epoch. It also marks the end of the Romantic struggle against the impetuous industrial defilement of modern empires. Merrill’s ‘we’ is the waving of the white flag; it suggests that the pastoral ideal is buried once and for all.

Despite the tone of resignation in Merrill’s collective voice, hope abounds because, if studied carefully, nature always crawls back into the light. Whether real or imagined, Merrill’s pastoral landscape resists the encroachment of civilization. Each poem is a theater of natural processes. Here is one of the most striking examples of Merrill’s elegant stretches of natural movement and action, another short notation from ‘The Lake’:

Thus in the monastery garden herds
Of horsetail trample bleeding hearts and bloodroot,
The morning glories in the laurel hedge
Trumpet the end of the bad gardener’s luck,

And foxglove blossoms shinny up their stalks,
The spikes at the top tearing open the veil
Of summer on the hill above the lake,
Revealing an old priest slumped in his chair.

Merrill renders the physicality of nature better than any other contemporary American poet. Take a look at the intense, precise verbs here (trample, trumpet, shinny, tearing, revealing) and one can see that he is very careful about distributing their energy over the course of a stanza, channeling volts from line to line until it is felt viscerally and electrically. All of the verbs in this excerpt are polysyllabic, strategically alliterative, and speak to various kinds of action that jolt the reader. These verbs are synapses firing between Merrill’s images and metaphors, and they nearly always catalyze a new (and significant) realization for the reader.

This excerpt also exhibits Merrill’s keen vision and ear for sound. His poems evoke Pound’s ‘clear, hard’ imagism (another strategy for masking the personal). Furthermore, Merrill’s dense alliteration (‘h,’ ‘t,’ ‘s,’ etc.), consonance (eight ‘d’ sounds in the first quatrain), and internal and slant rhyme (‘luck,’ ‘stalks,’ ‘spikes,’ ‘lake’) echo the musical prowess of Keats or Hopkins. His skillful braiding of image and language is evident in nearly every poem in Brilliant Water.

Quite often Merrill’s first few lines set a poem on fire. Merrill has a fetish for elemental forces, but images of flame spark a surprising number of poems, including ‘Fireweed’ (‘For towhees, mice, and mule deer, fireweed blazes / A trail into the underbrush. . .’), ‘Mercy’ (‘At twilight the horse thief torches the cross / Propped in the river. . .’), ‘Door’ (‘How the sun lights the fuses of the sky’), and ‘Ash Wednesday’ (‘A wire sparks in the live oak, scorching limbs / And leaves, igniting tufts of Spanish moss. . .’). By starting with a moment of heat and action, Merrill knows that he can quickly transport his reader somewhere. His language and imagery are so intense that his audience does not have time to linger upon the emotion sparking the action because its eyes are riveted to the flames.

Jacket 19 — October 2002  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © David Roderick and Jacket magazine 2002
The URL address of this page is