Poetry News

Christopher Merrill's Poetic Memoir, Self-Portrait with Dogwood, Reviewed

By Harriet Staff
Christopher Merrill, Self-Portrait With Dogwood, cover

At Los Angeles Review of Books, Noah Blaustein reviews poet Christopher Merrill's latest title, a memoir, Self-Portrait with Dogwood. Blaustein navigates this pocket-size book, which takes the reader through a host of landmarks in Merrill's life, from Berkley where Merrill studied the work of Ezra Pound to the streets of Baghdad. But we'll start by taking a look at the difficulty Blaustein finds in Merrill's prose and the issue of attention in reading:

I attributed my difficulty in reading Merrill’s prose after The Grass of Another Country to ADHD — mine, not his. In a recent Q-and-A about his book Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder made the comment that the better a poem or a book is, the more you can space out while reading it. I wondered if that was my issue, or was Merrill’s prose simply too dense for me. I used to joke that, reading his work, I felt like the speaker in Gerald Stern’s poem “I Remember Galileo”: “I saw the mind was a squirrel caught crossing / route 80 between the wheels of a giant truck.”

On my drive home after the reading in Laguna, I was thinking about a passage in The Tree of the Doves, Merrill’s last book, in which he recounts his introduction to Ezra Pound. He discovered the Modernist master as a young man, after moving to Berkeley with two goals: “to keep my girlfriend’s wayward heart from straying and to become a poet.” Merrill enrolled in a class on modern American poetry that began with Pound’s Cathay and ended with The Cantos. While reading this account, I was deeply tuned in — in a way I hadn’t been while reading the earlier pages. I wondered where I tuned out so I retraced my steps. Four pages before he was climbing the “Staircase to Heaven” — a network of ladders, really — at the Dunes of the Singing Sands near Dunhuang, China, and I was gleefully sliding down the dunes with him. In the pages between the dunes and Pound, he goes into the history of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor and the creator of the “Ghosts Under the Land,” an underground terracotta life-sized army, replete with horses. He discusses Shi Huang’s tyrannical rule and his suppression of Confucian scholars, analyzes styles of leadership, and mentions Nixon, Borges, Mao, Genghis Khan, the Red Guard, his tour guide Mr. Nui, the Great Wall, the Cultural Revolution, Winston Churchill, and more. His choice of quotes — for example, “How can one be humane without knowledge” (Confucius) — are rich, and walking on the beach during this recent surge of Santa Anas I found myself chanting, “the courageous are not threatened by their inheritance.” It’s a feat to have pulled so many things together in a readable way. But it’s a lot to get through, with or without small children, even if you don’t have a “mind like a squirrel.”

Much more to take in with this review. Head to LARB for all of it.

Originally Published: December 6th, 2017