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Dave Wood's Book Report, Dec. 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

James Merrill (1926-95) grew up in the lap of luxury, the son of Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill, Lynch.

He went to all the right schools and taught at others, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

And he grew to become one of the most respected poets of the last half of the 20th century, complex, sometimes formalist, sometimes not, a seer and a realist.

He died of AIDS in 1995 and now Knopf is out with a hefty and handsome paperback edition of his greatest work.

"James Merrill: Selected Poems," edited by J.D. McClatchey and Stephen Yenser (Knopf, $16 paper) illustrates the infinite variety of Merrill's work, much of which is too long to quote in a newspaper. Here's a short, tight poem, however, that illustrates Merrill's artistry -- and his interest in music:


Bix to Buxtehud to Boulez

The little white dog on the Victor label

Listens long and hard as he is able.

It's all in a day's work, whatever plays.

From judgment, it wold seem, he has refrained.

He even listens earnestly to Bloch,

Then builds a church on our acid rock.

He's man's - no -- he's the Lierman's best friend.

Or would be if hearing and listening were the same.

Does he hear? I fancy he rather smells

Those lemon-gold arpeggios in Ravel's

"Les jets d'eau du palais deceux qui s'aiment."

He ponders the Schumann Concerto's tall willow hit

By lightning, and stays put. When he surmises

Through one of Bach's eternal boxwood mazes

The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat.

Or when the calypso decants its raw bay rum

Or the moon in Wozzeck reddens ripe for murder,

He doesn't sneeze or howl, just listens harder.

Adamant needles bear down on him from

Whirling of outer space, too black, too near--

But he was taught as a puppy not to flinch,

Much less to imitate is bete noire Blanche

Who barked, fat foolish creature, in King Lear.

Still others fought in the road's filth over Jezebel.

Slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons.

His forebears lacked, to say the least, forbearance.

Can nature change in him. Nothing's impossible.

The last chord fades. The night is cold and fine.

His master's voice rasps through the grooves' bare groves/

Obediently, in silence like the grave's

He sleeps there on the still-warm gramophone.

Only to dream he is at the premier of a Handel

Opera long thought lost -- Il Cane Minore.

Its allegorical subject in his story!

A little dog revolving round a spindle.

Gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,

A cast of stars -- is there in Victor's heart

No honey for the vanquished? Art is art.

The life it asks of us is a dog's life.

If there's someone on your list who is still star-struck (and who doesn't)?

"Fred Astaire," by Joseph Epstein (Yale $22) might be just the ticket.

It's a slender volume, slender like Fred Astaire and elegant, too.

The most interesting part of the book is Astaire's humble beginnings, the son of an Omaha, Neb., salesman.

Normally we think of Astaire as a very cool dude who hung around with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

In reality, he was just Fred Austerlitz of Omaha, whose mother took him out of school and with his sister Adele moved to the East Coast to get him on stage.

Fred turns out to be a hard working perfectionist, who knew he wasn't too cute and knew he had to dance better than the rest to make it.

Probably more interesting is his dancing partner, Adele, who left the team early in its career to marry a wealthy alcoholic. Adele turns out to be a really fun character, who liked to embroider cushions with Victorian sayings on one side -- and obscenities on the other.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Call him at 715.426.9554.