A review of Flares by Christopher Merrill

Reviewed by Nina Murray

by Christopher Merrill
White Pine Press
May 2021, 100 pgs, ISBN: 9781945680465, Paperback

Tom Sleigh, one of the two people to whom Flares is dedicated, once told me about his first experience traveling with Chris Merrill. Tom, as I remember it, was feeling a bit apprehensive about what and how he was going to write about the particular unquiet destination where he was about to teach a writing workshop with Mr. Merrill. Chris’s response was, in so many words, write down everything you see. Capture the details. Use your senses. Sort it out later. 

Flares is a collection of short prose poems that capture and distill Mr. Merrill’s radical welcome to dislocation, practiced over cultural missions to over fifty countries. “Hellbent”, late in the book, delivers the ars poetica: 

One by one the words take on a luster forbidden to them in the old dispensation, and the earth shines. (83).

In many of these poems, what begins as a hyper-local calamity–in an alley, a travel lodge, a club–transmogrifies in Mr. Merrill’s hands into sentences where what comes next is determined to flush the subject straight out of its just-tamped-down bed in the tall grass. The reader is shocked into vigilance, which gradually becomes a kind of acute reciprocity, an attention that is not easily achieved in our daily lives. The acoustics induce an electric trance:

A boy hoists a plastic bag of frogs onto a wooden pallet, baby eels slither around a white pail, and sea snakes curl under and over one another, venomous phrases traded at the end of the day. 

— The Fish Market in Guangzou (48)

The short form serves as a super-conductor super-collider of the observed and the remembered, the told and the spied.  Humanity–whether Mr. Merrill finds it befuddled, warring or resigned to its slightly ridiculous fate–cannot help but become words and these, in the vision of this book, are particles of poetry whose bombardment of the earth is as natural and penetrating as the rain of muons from outer space. 

About the reviewer: Nina Murray is a Ukrainian-born American poet and translator. Her debut collection of poetry, Minimize Considered, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her newest collection is Alcestis in the Underworld, published by Circling Rivers press.