By Augustus Merrill
Leonardo Guerra Books, 2022
Review by Ken Autrey
Augustus Merrill’s first full-length collection is a series of what he calls “frame poems.” Each consists of a brief prose passage followed by a lined poem, most of them occupying a single page. In an introductory note, Merrill states, “The prose passages that precede the lined verse are intended as a logical or associational frame to give context to the poem and make the lined verse stronger.”
This approach is reminiscent of the haibun form, which originated in Japan among haiku poets (particularly Basho in the 17th century) and usually includes one or more prose paragraphs followed by a traditional haiku poem. Historically, other classical authors such as Petronius, Boethius, and Dante on occasion merged prose and poetry. But Merrill’s work is unusual, if not unique, among contemporary writers.
In some instances, such as “The Captain,” the prose opening provides background for a poem unfolding in the present. In “Poem for Joe Bell,” we get a vivid prose sketch of an individual followed by a more lyrical poem describing the general landscape in which he lives. “Cowling,” begins with a wrenching passage recounting the end of a troubled relationship, then shifts to a rhymed series of thirteen lines developing a mechanical metaphor for a troubled heart. Yet another strategy is used in “On the Boats.” Here, the prose opening describes a man who, as a stockbroker, spends his days confined with computer screens; then the lines of verse flash back to his summers spent working on boats, a life that he misses. Usually, the prose passages not only provide context but also give way to a change in tone or perspective in the lines following.
Many of Merrill’s poems are persona poems, providing sketches of apparently imagined individuals—sometimes children, sometimes men or women engaged in work, fighting illness, or struggling with a relationship. Although few of these poems seem to grow directly out of his personal experience, several of them in first-person, such as “Country Music Song” and “The Reader,” have an autobiographical feel. Only one of them, “Moe Berg in Japan,” concerns an actual historical figure.
Although a native of Andalusia, Alabama, Merrill spent his career as a professor at Northland College in Wisconsin. Now retired, he lives on the shores of Lake Superior, where he remains engaged with environmental issues. Many of his poems, including those in his earlier chapbook, Alibi for Two, relate to life on the water and evoke the climate and atmosphere of the upper Midwest.
While a number of Merrill’s poems concern illness and the ravages of aging or struggle in relationships, there is humor here too. “The Used Sin Shop” begins with the narrator’s mixed feelings about his son-in-law, stating, “My sins were all new. His were as old as the sea.” Then the poet describes a visit to “the used sin shop/To afford what my budget would allow.” In a self-deprecating conclusion, he appears to identify with the problematic son-in-law.
The interaction between prose and poetry in these creations seems to work best when the opening passage is more than just an introduction or contextual orientation. The strongest ones show a kind of tension, a dynamic connection between the two back-to-back genres. The title poem, for example, starts with a brief narrative sketch of Tolstoy’s character, Ivan Ilych, and then shifts to a lyrical poem building on the literary reference and concluding,
Let me come to you, love, like the wind
Or as an old house for sale “As is.”
When time and your love have polished me
And made me presentable
I will dissolve like an old house
Or depart like the wind
Going this way and that
In ashes into the sky.
These lines could read as a kind of coda for the book as a whole, modest and direct, asking for the reader’s forbearance and patience as the writer reveals himself in a series of poems employing an innovative and effective form.
Ken Autrey’s work has appeared in Chattahoochee Review, Cimarron Review, Poetry Northwest, Southern Poetry Review, Texas Review, and many other journals. His most recent collection, Penelope in Repose (Evening Street Press), won the 2021 Helen Kay Chapbook Contest. Emeritus Professor of English at Francis Marion University, Autrey lives in Auburn, Alabama, where he helps coordinate the Third Thursday Poetry Series.