Stranger in the Village

Life keeps hitting the stands.  Having spent the weekend in Boston, I’m now in the small town of Stonington, CT, five miles east of Mystic and just west of the Rhode Island border, on a small peninsula that gestures towards the Block and Long Island Sounds, staying in an Airbnb just around the corner from the James Merrill House at 107 Water Street, which I’ll get a tour of tomorrow morning.  I’m surrounded by water on three sides: harbor, sound, harbor.  Something out there towards or beyond the breakwater keeps making a beeping noise; it sounds like a mechanical buoy that is regularly struck.  I don’t know what it is or what its purpose is.  It’s 12:45pm on Tuesday, May 28th, the day after Memorial Day.  The flag at the point, where I sat in the sun yesterday for some time just after getting into town, was at half-mast for the holiday.  Several people sat on the small beach and on benches and chairs and talked and looked at the sea as the holiday wound down.  I sat on a stone wall and rolled up the sleeves of my t-shirt and the hems of my shorts.  The flagpole rose above a memorial to a repelled British invasion of 1814, part of the War of 1812, a stretch of American history about which I know little.  It was sunny and hot yesterday, but today it is cloudy and rain is in the forecast.  There will be thunderstorms later tonight.  I’m rereading King Lear in advance of seeing a production of it on Broadway on Saturday.  It occurs to me that in all my years in and subsequent visits to Ashland, I have never seen this play staged before, and it’s been some time since I last read it.  With Merrill’s house in view from my window, and so with spirits in the air, I am keeping my senses attuned to my surroundings, keen to pick up on any signals that might come in via the bat radio.  Storm still.

Highlights from the train ride down from Boston yesterday:

  • Traveling south out of Boston, sitting on the left hand side of the train (facing the front) in a window seat, so as to be able to see the sea when it came into view, I was also treated, shortly after we left South Station, to the sight of a plane approaching Logan that seemed to hang in the air motionless, out above Boston Harbor, moving directly north as we moved directly south at a rate that seemed like it was many times faster than the rate at which the plane was moving, as it hardly even seemed to be moving at all, but instead seemed like a toy plane hung from a string in a diorama. 
  • Looking directly out the window at everything going by us quite quickly (trees, lots, wires, streets), I thought of the speed at which life seems to be going by or happening now, at 40, and only a week away from 41, where the approach of the latter age has found me much more thoughtful on the subject of age than the former did. 
  • The perfume of the woman sitting next to me led to it dawning on me that I rarely find myself in close proximity to women wearing perfume, or at least the kind of perfume one associates with upscale department stores and high end boutiques, where my strongest memory of this kind of perfume is from when, when I was about ten, my mom and dad went out one evening when my mom was supposed to attend a school function with me, so that I was upset at being home with my siblings and a babysitter, where when my parents came home I confronted my mom as soon as she came in the front door, though before I could even say anything she realized what had happened and embraced me, apologizing in her black evening wear, smelling strongly of the perfume she favored, Fendi. 
  • Then, overwhelmed by how quickly everything was going by before me, I looked up out the top of the window towards the sky and saw the small, scattered clouds moving across the window stage right to stage left at a much slower rate, so that they would remain in its frame for minutes instead of less than a second like the trees, though I never did actually track a cloud’s passage from edge to edge so as to gauge precisely the rate at which the heavens drift compared to the rate of terrestrial things.
  • Noticing, then, the clouds that were further off, out over the sea and so closer to the middle than to the top of the window, I observed how one could see them as it were through the leaves and branches of the quickly speeding by trees, as though these were themselves transparent, insubstantial as clouds, or rather more so, the rate at which they were passing being so quick as to create the impression of continuity in the breaks of sky between branches, leaves, entire trees, rendering those clouds which were behind the trees always visible, or at least always seeming so—noticing all this, I felt confounded.
  • So I listened to music, looking out the window, my iTunes library (I am old) on shuffle and making for strange and delightful transitions.  I noted the occasional sparkles from sunlight in the oversized train-track gravel that lines train tracks, a kind of quartz-looking rock that winks in the sun as do the waves in a body of water, as I’d note two hours later while sitting at the point in Stonington and trying to read the dancing sparks of sunlight on the harbor’s face. 
  • Passing by parking lot after parking lot, I was struck by the lights in them: long vertical poles that bifurcated at around fifteen feet or so to form distended “Ys,” one lamp at the end of each curious neck, each looking down at the vehicles beneath it. 
  • I read graffiti while listening to Amy Winehouse.
  • A billboard said “Injured? Call Rob” with a number. 
  • A street bridge with protective chain link grating, across which a solitary figure was walking in a hunched posture, seemed to jump over our crowded train that sped beneath it.

            The rain has just begun; it’s 3pm.  I’ve been writing intermittently, between stretching sessions, a bit of Lear, and a YouTube interview with Stephen Yenser conducted by Langdon Hammer on Merrill, the two of them sitting on the third floor of the Merrill House, the north windows of which I can see from my own window now.  The bell of a nearby church just tolled three times; it has the least resonant toll of any church bell I’ve ever heard.  It’s more of a brief clang with the faintest hint of a resonant toll; it seems impoverished and is very pleasing.  Last night I listened to it strike twelve times at midnight, counting each relatively quiet stone-like clamor.  Later today and this evening the old bell (for it sounds tired, though untiring) will contend with the patter of raindrops on my loft’s several slanted sun windows, and also with thunder.  The houses I can see from the window I’m looking out of are yellow, dark green, light green, and two shades of gray.

*

This past Saturday in Boston I woke up, had coffee, walked for a little while, sat and read, walked, browsed in a bookstore, walked some more, browsed another bookstore, got a small basket of fries and walked while eating them, and returned to the place where I’d sat and read earlier in order to sit and read again: the Boston Common.  It was about four o’clock and it was hot and sunny, though some clouds would come in later.  Earlier in the day I’d sat by the Frog Pond, but its water was foul and there was a sour smell to it, so now I sat on a bench along a path beneath the hill with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on it.  There were shady leaves above me and I had the bench to myself.  If I sat on its right side, I was in a dancing shade, if I sat on the left, I was in the sun, so I periodically shifted myself a foot to the left or back to the right again.  There were a lot of people about; it was the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend and the weather was, for now, perfect.  Part of the hill was covered in thousands of small, planted, upright American flags.  Their general import was clear but I did not know what their specific import was; I failed to read the placard.  People streamed by ceaselessly on the pathway in both directions.  My bench, like all of the benches that lined the pathway, was green; people sat on the other benches, too, in couples or in groups of three and even four.  I was reading The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax and occasionally checking in on the Yankees/Royals game on my phone.  I would read for a short while and then take in my surroundings; then I’d check the score of the game and then once again absorb all that was happening around me, or try to, and then read a little more.  This irregular cycle continued for over an hour.  I was in love with everything I saw and tried and tried to soak it all in.

            To my left and just barely in sight where the pathway I was sitting on intersected with another pathway, a man played an Erhu near a food stand that sold pretzels; I could smell the pretzels and hear the two-stringed tune of the instrument wind its way through every other sound that assailed me: conversations, footfalls; the roll of a skateboard; a stereo in the field behind me where several people were kicking about a soccer ball; and the hundred birds singing their songs in the branchways of the trees.  The Erhu never ceased.  I sat facing the hill, on which many people sat in shade and sun, some in groups, others in pairs.  Two young couples in particular caught my eye, one, midway up the hill at eleven o’clock from me, very much in love, the other a little ways down from them and to their right, closer to me but at ten o’clock, and clearly in the midst of a more tense moment.  They weren’t touching each other at all and sat on the hill with their feet pointed towards its base with a good six inches between them, whereas the two above them, regardless of how they changed positions over the hour, always made sure that their bodies were in some close physical proximity to one another, touching, in fact, as even when they sat similarly side by side with their legs extended down the hill, his right leg was aligned against her left (in both cases the man sat on the woman’s left). 

            Small, scattered clouds dotted the sky, but at this point the sun shone much more often than it hid.  Above the birds there would be an occasional plane.  In the stream of people going by there were individuals, couples, families, and groups of friends, and I heard many languages being spoken, all of them besides English being unintelligible to me.  The bits and pieces of conversation I heard in English covered a variety of subjects (—the clock has just struck six times here in Stonington; I’ve had another coffee, another shower, and written several postcards since I began writing—), from American history to the vagaries of love and from the frustrations of friendship to the logistics of getting through the day: where to go next and how to get there and what to do and who to see.  I couldn’t hear the couples on the hill.

            The smell of marijuana occasionally overpowered the smell of pretzels and gave me the very distinct sensation of being outside a concert venue before a show begins.  More rarely and more fleetingly I would smell cologne and/or perfume.  There were many children and many strollers, and no two strollers were alike, like credit card machines.  Encouragingly, much fewer people were on their phones today than on Wednesday evening just outside the Common on Boylston Street.  I saw a variety of handbags and purses when I occasionally looked up more briefly from my reading, only waist-high, not for a long break for the purpose of once more deliberately basking in my surroundings but just to as it were take a quick breath after one sentence or clause before continuing with the next.  I also saw, in this manner, the occasional flowing scarf- or shawl-like garment, trailing from a neck or torso like whatdoyoucallit gossamer.  There was a bicycle every now and then.  There were people dressed in attractive summer styles, some of them especially eye catching.  They were dressed and walked in such a way as to be looked upon and admired and then almost at the same time looked away from, intimidated.  I looked upon, I looked away from; I read, I looked again.

            The buildings on Boylston behind me looked over the scene.  From one of their rooftops one would have had a view of lawns crisscrossed by pathways, here and there obscured by the leaves of trees, the Common streaming with people moving in all four cardinal directions and all their variants, and others temporarily stationary, and then those permanently stationary in the gated cemetery in the southeast corner.  I thought of the task of the writer being to account for things as they are, to record and register them accurately and minutely.  Raising my eyes just off the page I saw sandals; painted toenails; matching running shoes (a couple); a little Japanese girl in a pink princess costume holding her mother’s hand; bare legs and covered legs.  I closed my eyes.  I opened them and looked up higher, before me, towards the hill.  Both couples were still there.

            It was definitely an argument at ten o’clock.  They hadn’t touched each other once, nor had either even tried to touch the other.  They were not siblings, or cousins, or friends, it was clear.  They spoke without looking at each other for the most part, she almost always continuing to look straight ahead, he looking either straight ahead or just a fraction of the distance towards her.  Dark sunglasses obscured her eyes so that it was hard to see what she was looking at, making it sometimes seem, disconcertingly, like she was looking at me.  She had long straight hair.  At present, her knees were raised and she had her left arm and hand around them while her right arm was bent at the elbow in such a way that her right hand was up by the right side of her head: it was a posture of indifference, bespeaking the unlikelihood of being persuaded.  She continued to look ahead and spoke less than he did; when she did speak her mouth hardly moved and it may have been difficult even for him to hear her.  His knees, too, were currently raised, and he had both arms wrapped around them and was talking with his head at that slight angle in her direction, but clearly unwilling or unable to look her in the eyes and entreat her to look at him.  Every now and then he would make a gesture with one arm, a gesture of incredulity and insistence and attempted reason. 

            A more comprehensive cloud mass was now beginning to encroach upon the Common, but the sun was still shining.  Higher up the hill the happier couple was arranged thus: the man lying on his back, the woman lying on her back perpendicular to him, her head resting against his rib cage.  She looked up at her phone, which she held in both hands while smiling.  I looked at them and smiled; I looked at the others and tried to discern what was happening.  The woman had now taken off her sunglasses and stretched her legs out along the hill; she placed the sunglasses in her lap and fidgeted with them as she stared downwards at what her hands were doing rather than to her left.  The sound of the Erhu continued to come from down the pathway. 

            These two people in a tense moment on a beautiful day now had my attention and were at the heart of all this movement.  I put my book away.  The Yankees had won.  Now he did look towards her but she still looked away, ahead, out towards where I was sitting.  I might have liked to have left by now, but I couldn’t; I had to see how they would leave: one before the other, or both together.  Another child in a stroller was pushed by.  Many people had shopping bags.  As the fraught young man on the hill continued talking he also continued to sometimes lift his left hand a few inches above his knee and gesture with it.  His main gesture I called The Philosopher’s Accompaniment, a gesture that means, “this follows from this.”  The possibility of a happy resolution seemed to be receding, not approaching.  I saw children with balloon hats; pairs of people occasionally stopping to take a selfie with the historic Common as a background; backpacks.  One of her legs was now crossed over the other at the ankle and its foot was moving back and forth in the manner of someone who is bored and waiting for something new to transpire.  She continued to look straight ahead with her sunglasses still in her lap, from time to time saying something in brief response to his more lengthy disquisitions.  He was now in a somewhat classic posture, both legs bent, but one along the ground, one above it, with one arm wrapped around the raised knee and the other propping him up in the manner of a kickstand.  Then he moved the arm wrapped around the knee (right arm, right knee) up and rested his right hand on his left shoulder.  He was silent now and continued to not look at her. 

            I saw a pair of Vans; a beret; a UConn t-shirt, a Nintendo t-shirt.  A guy with a Red Sox tattoo.  Many, many water bottles.  I looked down and listened to the Erhu sing; the sun was weakening.  Then, when I looked up again ten seconds later, they were gone.  Before me was the hill, with fewer people on it now as the cloud cover had begun to come in.  The happy couple had left several minutes ago; I had watched them walk up the hill.  Now my eyes, in a panic, quickly scanned the hill looking for the quarrelers.  There they were, off to my left, walking in the direction of the old man playing the instrument.  He had his hands in his pockets, her arms were folded across her chest.  Their backs were to me; there was a good foot between them as they walked towards Charles Street.  I had the impression that they were not speaking as they walked and that something inevitable between them had just been both firmly acknowledged and yet forestalled.  Perhaps, I thought, they’d see it through.

*

Now it’s Wednesday afternoon, I had my tour of the house this morning, and I’ve spent the afternoon walking around town, reading Lear, and editing and sending to friends photos I took in and of the house, where the décor is stunning, the colors wonderful, the hundreds upon hundreds of books and records mesmerizing, the rooms all small and cozy.

            I’ve been struck by many lines from the first three acts of Lear.  From Act I, Lear’s remonstrance to Goneril, “You are too much of late i’th’frown”; from Act II, Kent’s “Nothing almost sees miracles / But misery”; and from Act III, Lear’s “The tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else.”  I keep marking references to sight, to nothing, and to difference, which I now see form a kind of French braid that holds the entire play together. 

            Tonight I’ll go to the Mexican restaurant across the street and have chips and salsa, enchiladas, and a beer.  Tomorrow I’ll catch the 10:56 to Penn Station.  I hope to browse in a bookstore or two in Manhattan, and maybe buy a new pair of shoes before going dancing in the Village.  Birds are chirping outside, and someone is hammering something nearby.  Before I came back to my loft after the tour, I sat in the town square and drank a cup of coffee and read several of the short scenes of Act III, circling all of the instances of the question, “Who’s there?”  It’s both the question that famously opens Hamlet and the first thing asked by JM and DJ when they sit down for their first Ouija session in Ephraim: “Who was there?” . . . “‘Is someone there?’” . . . “Was anybody there?” 

            I felt no strange sensations in the house this morning, though, no hauntings or the presence of spirits lurking in any of the house’s nooks and crannies.  I was a tourist taking pictures.  Cynthia walked me through the several rooms, of which there are fewer than ten, all small (the largest being the rooftop studio that Merrill and David Jackson added on to the pre-existing structure of the building), and then she left me to stroll from room to room on my own at will for fifteen minutes, pointing my smart phone at walls and furniture and the spines of books and records, at pictures and mirrors and the many knickknacks placed throughout the apartment, items bought or found by Merrill and Jackson, or things given to them as gifts by friends.  According to the Fall 2018 newsletter for the house, Merrill was not so much concerned with any “decorative overall design” in terms of how all of these small objects were placed; instead, the “governing purpose” to which he adhered was attunement to “the force field of the invisible spirit world linking beings.  A tiny object given by a friend would be left just where it was placed when the gift was made and would not be subsequently rearranged for a prettified effect.”  There’s something plain about that that I like.  I would’ve liked to have spent the entire day in the house, to have been able to examine more thoroughly the books, records, furniture, pictures, artifacts, art, and the manner in which all was arranged.  I would’ve liked to have sat on the fainting couch in the sitting room and read for a little while.  I would’ve liked to have closed and then opened again the “secret” bookshelf door that leads from the small telephone room to Merrill’s study.  I would’ve liked to have talked to the air throughout the day, and to have seen if anything wayward, untoward, or strange might have transpired over the course of the hours rolling by.  When the sun briefly came out in the afternoon, I might have gone out onto the rooftop deck and sat in a chair and absorbed the sun’s rays.  It might have occurred to me to play a chord or two on the piano, but I would not have done so because I don’t actually know how to play the piano.  I might have enjoyed very much making a meal in the small, very ordinary kitchen, and I would have laughed quietly a little more at the monogrammed towels in the bathroom; “once a millionaire’s son, always a millionaire’s son,” I might have said.  No doubt I would have tipped several books off of the shelves and carefully flipped through them, attentive to any marginal notes Merrill might have made.  (I was delighted that in my actual, quite brief visit, I was at least able to spot, quickly and easily, in the floor-to-ceiling shelves of books that covered an entire wall in the study, Volume One of The Letters of Virginia Woolf.)  I might have even been inclined to leave a small trinket somewhere discreet, a gift, nothing even visible, hardly, perhaps just my prized, ornate paperclip that otherwise sits in my backpack with loose change and only very occasionally serves any practical purpose.  That would’ve been within the bounds of decorum, I think, as when I left on Wittgenstein’s gravestone in Cambridge, or on Proust’s in Paris, similar tokens of affection and thanks, a small silver rendering of Ganesha, the Hindu deity who removes obstacles, that Kevin gave me, and an earlier, similarly ornate paperclip, this one spiral (the one I have now being rectangular), respectively.  Instead I took my pictures and marveled in the touristic fashion of one who moves through a sacred space quickly.  Maybe tonight, or some other night, I’ll have a dream born of the experience that will leave me shaking my head in bewilderment in the morning, a dream, perhaps, in which the resuscitation of lost love is possible, or one in which things that confound us daily miraculously fall away.  I will wake up in the morning and try to remember Rob’s number.

Autogenesis

Killing time is more difficult than one might imagine, perhaps not because of the imagined final authority we have ordained it with, not because of its assumed position preexisting and outlasting humanity, and indeed all creation – on the contrary, perhaps it is that time is nothing but a fabric, sheer artifice woven of words, that makes it so difficult to dispose of. And yet, it is precisely this that James Merrill accomplishes with both flair and facility, time and again.

We see it for the first time in “The Black Swan,” with its “pure winter/That does not change but is/Always brilliant ice and air.” Like a frieze, the swan and boy alike are locked in a paradoxical state of perpetual motion that does more than confuse our understanding of time – it casts it out amongst the waves. Later, in “A Tenancy,” about half way through the poem is the striking standalone line “I did not even feel the time expire.” This line is in perfect iambic pentameter (thanks KG), inviting the illusion that time is very well-kept indeed. It’s isolation from the rest of the poem gives it an appearance not dissimilar from the hand of a clock, and if you read the line out-loud, it synchronizes almost perfectly with the seconds ticking away. The meaning of the sentence itself, at face-value, is of time escaping the poet – that prolific sensation we all inevitably experience of waking up to a decade, or many, passed-by like road-trip scenery. And yet, something troubles me about the line still… beneath its smooth, drinkable surface, something doesn’t go down so easy, curdled, “expired,” to use Merrill’s own turn of phrase. Like spoiled milk, time goes down the drain, inviting an initial sense of waste, and an ultimate removal of, and from, the thing itself – we become strangely out of time, in every possible meaning of the term. And of course there is Mademoiselle’s “watch that also waited” from “Lost in Translation” that “throws up its hands,” surrendering for reasons that seem unclear… that is, until the final segment of Sandover, titled ‘No,’ in which we finally see the poet’s time-senselessness, or perhaps his sense of timelessness, come into a fruition that would grind the tried-and-truest dials to a halt.

From the outset of ‘No,’ a scene called “The Last Lessons: 1,” time is presented to us as a destructive, all-consuming force, the “BLACK BEYOND BLACK… END TO DREAM,” chaotic magic of the dark angel Gabriel. Even JM and DJ treat time with a sort of west-wing mentality, calling it “The forbidden, the forgotten theme-” at once underscoring its menacing stature, and completely puzzling its place in this bizarre schema. Of course, the whole notion of forgetting what is forbidden also invites, at least for me, some quizzical laughter that is so characteristic of Merrill’s work. And yet, is forgetting what is forbidden so strange after all? It sounds hauntingly familiar to “human nature,” whatever that means – likely another piece of human artifice used to frame our lives, like time, but that’s beside the point. In any case, George Cotzias is one characterized by this forgetting of the forbidden, and has to be reminded of, and then recites, one of Gabriel’s teachings, proclaiming that “IMMORTALITY/WAS AFTER ALL A BANISHMENT OF TIME./ANY ALLIANCE WITH ITS STILLED BLACK FORCES/MADE (THE EXPERIMENT OF ATLANTIS PROVES)/FOR A STILLBORN CHILD.” The lesson here seems to be that if you claim immortality by the cessation of time itself, then it must be accompanied by the cessation of life as we know it.

Like the line in “A Tenancy,” I keep revisiting this line from “The Last Lessons: 1,” having a particular interest in the usage of the word “STILLBORN,” for reasons I will now attempt to unpack. This passage is like the inverse of time’s spoiled milk from “A Tenancy,” insofar as “STILLBORN” seems to be, at its surface: ugly, rotten, the antithesis of life. The genius duality of the phrasing doesn’t strike (or perhaps it does much earlier, upon a third or fourth reading) until a sequence in “The Last Lessons: 10” in which a child blinking triggers a sort of reverse conception: “All would now be free to shatter,/Change or die. Tight-wound exposures lay/Awaiting trial, whose development/Might set a mirror flowing in reverse/Forty years, fifty, past the flailing seed/To incoherence, blackout—the small witness/Having after all held nothing back?” “STILLBORN” can thus be read backwards, as “BORNSTILL,” as here the child’s eluding of time is precisely the cause of his birth, and rebirth, in the first place.

Which brings us back to Mademoiselle, and why I mentioned her previously. The dramatic revelation that the angel Michael has been Ephraim all along, the ridiculous unveiling of Maria Mitsotaki as Plato (who is, apparently, a man from India), the bodacious (in every sense of the word) companionship between Robert Morse and Uni the unicorn, and any number of other outlandish transformations and bizarre configurations of both setting and personage, are things sprung to life right out of a child’s imagination. Once you get to “The Ballroom at Sandover” from Coda: The Higher Keys, with its “High ceiling where a faun-Pythagoras/Loses his calipers to barefoot, faintly/Goitrous nymphs,” its “bison head” and “stony heraldry,” you start to realize that the whole wild adventure of Sandover is, perhaps, a ten year old James Merrill’s zany, juvenile creativity running free with Mademoiselle and the family’s not-so-coincedentally-named Irish Setter, Michael, “In the old ballroom of The Broken Home,” she “sketching/Costumes for a coming harem drama/To star the goosegirl,” (Mirabell in drag?) as in “Lost in Translation.” Meanwhile, young Merrill is taking in the stories that adorn the ballroom walls, the changing lights refracting from the chandelier, absorbing it all in and letting it create him, whilst reciting to Mademoiselle, with the gusto of youth, the crazy parts each character is to play. And so the child that eludes time is, in the end, JM, re-membering (in BL’s sense of the phrase) the pieces of his broken home into a cohesive childhood that he can not only reconcile, but relive.

And so, Sandover becomes a work of perplexing self-creation. In the “Finale” of “No,” the mirror JM and DJ had set-up so many years ago, so that the spirits from the Other World could see them, end up water-broken. That is to say, they break it by pouring water over it until it cannot bear the weight, but I cannot help but read it as a certain act of conception. As the mother’s water breaking produces offspring, so too does the water breaking the occult mirror engender the characters it once contained, “In splinters apt, from now on, to draw blood,/Each with its scimitar or bird-beak shape/Able, days hence, aglitter in the boughs.” Even Gabriel’s Time, the “BLACK BEYOND BLACK,” is there in the “face-down” shards of the broken mirror, lying “black on soil beneath.” Just like the boy’s puzzle from “Lost in Translation,” all of Sandover “hung together—and did not…”

Just when it seems that all is shattered, the story more than over, severed, we return to “The Ballroom at Sandover” one last time, to say our goodbyes (or so we think). This time, though, JM himself is the one “just inside the mirror-frame,” begging the questions: which world is the “Other World,” and has JM traded places with the dead, like the hero of some Greek tragedy gone down to Hades in search of a love lost, never to return himself? The fact that the poem ends the way Sandover begins, with “Admittedly,” of course, causes the whole poem to recycle, forming an auto-reproductive loop, or resounding transmission like the one God B shoots into the great expanse of space, just endless “O’s of mildest light” which “glance through the years,” like clocks with no hands, like faces, like mirrors. And then, of course, there’s Mimi, whose swift introduction to the ballroom, after Vasili announces her death to JM and DJ, reminds us that everyone is welcome in Sandover. Death, after all, is but a plunge through the mirror. All it takes to live again is for another (perhaps even your future self) to reflect upon its image, and see yourself in them, or perhaps themself in you. Perhaps the next time you look at your otherworldly double in the mirror, it’s James Merrill that will be gazing back.

Works Cited

Merrill, James. Selected Poems. Knopf. 2015.

Merril, James. The Changing Light at Sandover. Knopf. 1993.

Mirror, Mirror: Merrill’s Gnosticism

Jazz on too loud—A Love Supreme. The library is quiet in the edges of my vision—all is rolling cymbal, a haze of notes from Coltrane’s saxophone, and then an insistent, driving bass which is overtaken by piano; a rolling horn line like a snake. People move quietly about, but they are as distant as a painting. My intense listening shuts out the world.

Is that detail important? Or does it matter that I perhaps self-consciously chose this album for its poetic and apt title? Or do I think that because I came to that conclusion on my own? It’s entirely possible someone just told me I had to listen to this album, that it’s a classic (that most dangerous of terms for me), and that’s the reason I like the damn thing in the first place. What do I find in those wailing, lema-lema-sabachthani saxophone lines like sheets of rain? (And does it matter that I lifted that phrase from—who is it? Ginsberg? Pound?)

Too many questions, when you stop to think about it. But what I mean to say is that there’s something in that act of intent listening that is mirrored in the act of writing, too—a shutting out of the very things you think you are observing. By listening or looking too intently, we actually begin to…there’s no word for it, but saturate comes to mind. You are overwhelmed by the experience, and in some form or another your mind retreats to safety, whether that is rationality or aestheticism or religion or whatever. What was excruciatingly felt becomes stylized, and thus reduced in some form or another. I have felt this in my own writing, certainly. At times you feel as if something else were in control of you—why put that word there? And yet somehow you do, and you know it is the best word possible, at least for now.

On September 7, 1955 (—my father was toddling around Great Neck, NY; my mother just born in Palatine, IL—) James Merrill wrote in the margins of his copy of Yeats’ A Vision: “Is this what I must learn?” At this point in A Vision Yeats goes into a famous discourse on whether or not he “believed” in Leo Africanus, his otherworldly “daimon,” or spirit-contact:

To such a question I can but answer that if sometimes, overwhelmed by the miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.

What was Merrill trying to learn? That one’s reason soon recovers from the flushed initiation into the otherworld? Or that artistic distance, a certain aesthetic “listening” style is the key to holding reality and justice in a single thought?

Or might not those two ideas be, in some sense or another, the very same thing? Reality—the honest conveyance of an image—and justice, the connoted and desired perfection of that image, are after all interdependent. One can’t do justice to the nonexistent, because to do something justice is to create it, in some sense or another. Let’s say there’s an imaginary world, one that exists only in an artist’s head; they draw it. Now it’s in our world, can be pointed to and fondled, has value and affective powers, has weight and a representation, exists.

Similarly, poets create, but their creative style is in some sense more godlike than the visual artist’s, because the poets imitate God: they create by word. The Scribe, the cosmic role inhabited by Merrill and elucidated by Mirabell and co., is invested with a grave power. The Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word is precisely Merrill’s domain, and represents a movement out of imagined experience (justice) into the tangible and shared world of communication (reality). But words depend on hearers—so, importantly, it is God’s need to be heard that leads to creation. Dialogue is the hoped-for task of the lonely monotheistic being. He has Something to Say. As Auden wonders, “IN THE BEGINNING MIGHT THE WORD / (OR FORMULA) NOT HAVE REMAINED UNHEARD / UNTIL IT HAD ENGENDERED BOTH ITS OWN / ANTONYM & THE ODD HOMOPHONE?” (341).

In the beginning of the Yeats-Merrill article, Mark Bauer gives an inventory of Merrill’s bookshelf: “Freud, Proust, Cavafy, Auden, Rilke, Bishop, as well as, perhaps more surprisingly, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Hans Jonas, Krishnamurti, and P.D. Oupensky.” All fascinating (and I wish I could do justice to the philosophers in there)—but in my current state (A Love Supreme’s raw wails fading to Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan’s cool, balanced Two of a Mind; people decreasing in number now, this late; my books like a fan of tarot cards before me) I cannot help but notice the religious scholar Hans Jonas. Jonas, a student of Heidegger as well as the influential Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann, was for much of the 20th century the leading authority on an obscure splinter group of Jews and Christians called by the enigmatic umbrella term “Gnostics.”

I’ve taken awhile to wander here, and the Gnostics were meant to be the point. Briefly, then: the Gnostics were Jews and Christians in the centuries following the death of Christ. They didn’t last long—any real presence was successfully suppressed by the 500s—but they represented perhaps the most significant opposition to what would eventually become orthodox Christianity. The term “gnostic” is misleading, because it implies unity—and the Gnostics were never unified, by creed or geography or anything else. (Neither, for that matter, were their “opponents,” the groups retrospectively called “proto-orthodox.”)

In 66 CE, chafing under the foreign rule of Rome, angry Jews overthrew the Roman garrisons of Jerusalem and slaughtered the Sadducee leadership of the Temple. Rome’s response was swift and brutal. In 70 CE Jerusalem was efficiently and brutally razed by the Roman general (and future Emperor) Titus. The Temple was burnt to the ground, the Jews banished. Rome established a stranglehold. In light of such violence—not to mention, for the new splinter group called Christians, the recent and still-painful crucifixion of the Messiah—how does one construct a God that is (as he must be, according to the holy books) all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful? It is with this question, the question of evil, that early Christianity was defined. Why this? Why us?  

The proto-orthodox response to that nagging question is what makes up the modern Bible—which roughly consists of: a long-winded and bittersweet story of divine favor and repeated failure (Genesis thru Chronicles); a further elucidation of the details and specifics of those failings (the prophets); some advice on how to behave oneself so as to not be a failure story (Ecclesiastes, Job, Psalms, Proverbs); and then another story of how humanity failed to honor their God, and how God nonetheless took the moral high ground (the entire New Testament)

The Gnostics had another answer, a dangerously attractive one: What if God isn’t good? Their full response was to create a vision of the world in which Yahweh/Elohim, the God of Israel, was a misbegotten (though in some sense necessary and inevitable) portion of an undifferentiated One, which they called the Monad. The Monad encompassed all of creation, and thus comprised both the flawed Yahweh (whom the Gnostics transformed into a semi-demonic figure variously called Samael, Yaldabaoth, Sakla, etc.) and a world entirely beyond Yahweh’s ken. This demiurge, or lower creator, was unconsciously imitating a cosmic structure far above and beyond him, one that included “reflections” of everything in our world, but rendered in pure creation. Thus, in the Sethian Gnostic text The Secret Book of John, the first human, Adam, was modelled unconsciously on a fleeting glimpse of the Divine Human Geradamas.

The “God Biology” of Mirabell and Scripts is not dissimilar to the Gnostic God—according to Gabriel, he admits “THERE ARE GALAXIES, GODS AS POWERFUL / AS I. SON GABRIEL, WE ARE WARND. WE ARE HARD PREST” (330). God Biology exists, then, among a kind of pantheon—but, as the “progression” of Ephraim and Mirabell makes clear, even within his heaven there are many divine “levels.” Ephraim mistakes much, as does Mirabell, and even the archangels admit that God’s revelations are denied them. Most strangely, though, despite their seeming ignorance, Ephraim and Mirabell continue reappearing; and their teachings, despite being ignorant of the worlds beyond theirs, are nonetheless pertinent. As Merrill says after being praised for a question: “No, Ephraim raised these issues. But his point’s / More chilling made at such an altitude” (363). The two mortal listeners—Merrill and Jackson, the Scribe and the Hand—are thus given access to universes which are denied even to the heavenly host. But their origins are vital, and the progression necessary. The past lessons create the present revelation. This, too, mirrors Gnostic ideas. In The Secret Book of John, Yaldabaoth creates a host beneath him; each member of his host then contributes an attribute (traits both “physical” and “psychical”) to his greatest creation: Adam.  But when he creates Adam, something goes awry: “Adam’s ability to think was greater than that of all the creators” (177). Spooked, Yaldabaoth cuts Adam off from his divine genesis and seeks to remake him:

The rulers brought Adam into the shadow of death so that they might produce a figure again, from earth, water, fire, and the spirit that comes from matter, that is, from the ignorance of darkness, and desire, and their own false spirit. This is the cave for remodeling the body that these criminals put on the human, the fetter of forgetfulness. Adam became a mortal being, the first to descend and the first to become estranged. (177)

Repeated recreation and perfection (and the play of elements) brings to mind the enigmatic centaurs and nuclear bats of Mirabell—a creation set at odds with itself, fated to be created, wiped out, and reborn. The pieces of the whole—in this combined metaphor, both the literal and mental bodies of Adam and the agents of Heaven themselves—form a picture far beyond their individual imaginings. And yet, each part of that gestalt symphony are slightly out of tune with one another. The divine archangels of Scripts simply cannot fathom humanity. Gabriel wants to receive the souls of suicides “FOR FROM THAT FRIENDSHIP I / CATCH MY CLIMPSE OF MAN” (333). Creation, all of it, trudges along in ignorance. Paradoxically, too, the semi-divine humans with the equivalent of Heaven’s Press Pass are nonetheless woefully ignorant. Their access allows them to see, but their minds cannot comprehend the lessons. The “fetter of forgetfulness” sounds much like the reincarnation theories expounded in Ephraim, wherein the recreated being must necessarily forget its past in order to live again and thus gain heaven. A blank slate allows for a new experiment. A blank slate is also necessary to begin an artwork.

But is “descent and estrangement” necessary? No, said the Gnostics: it is God’s vanity and insistence on his vision that keeps us distant from our real home, the indivisible, eternal Oneness, or Monad. Because we conceive ourselves as separate and differentiated, we continue our cyclic lives on Earth—but all is in God’s hands, and thus it is he who keeps us living on and on. As Merrill suggested in Mirabell, Heaven depends on Earth—so of course it would be in God Biology’s interest to keep us around. It keeps him alive!

(Pitter-pat, pitter-pat go the bongos; we’re on to Sonny Rollins now, the energetic What’s New? (1962), an album of South American rhythms and Rollins’ hoarse, spare, pointillist tenor work. The saxophone dances, questions, explores, so unreserved after the cool detachment of Desmond, so playful after Coltrane’s pious roar.)

Sin, to the Gnostics, was in some ways a fundamental freedom. The ability of Adam to outthink his maker was his fundamental strength. The Secret Book of John calls that ability “enlightened afterthought,” a distant gift of the Monad, a kind of ever-diminishing spark given unintentionally by Yaldabaoth in the act of creation. In the garden of Paradise the rulers put two trees: “the tree of their life,” which is beautiful and enticing but deadly poisonous (“The dwelling place of those who taste of it is the underworld, and darkness is their resting place”); and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is the enlightened afterthought” (178). The rulers, fearing a further increase of Adam’s perception, try to conceal the latter tree, and entice Adam to the former—but, unlike in the Bible, he doesn’t fall for it, and enlightened afterthought, now personified, shelters herself in his body. Yaldabaoth removes her, but cannot alter or destroy her. So Adam wakes “from the drunkenness of darkness,” sees Eve, and recognizes her as part of himself. Love! Fullness, the Gnostics suggest time and time again, is the unification of one’s broken selves into one glorious understanding, which is itself personified as Sophia, “wisdom.”

In Scripts, too, humanity is made of broken halves. To return to Auden’s question about the Word engendering antonyms and homophones:

TWINS WE ARE TOLD COME FROM THE FEMALE GENE,

THERE4 THESE LADIES & THEIR ESCORTS WEAVE

A LINE BACK TO THE PRIMAL (M)ADAM/EVE:

NO SOONER SINGLE THAN NEF ONCE AGAIN

TOOK ON A DOUBLE NATURE (ALL THOSE ARMS

OF SHIVA NOT THE LEAST OF HIS/HER CHARMS)

WD THAT BE THE GENETICS, WOMAN? (341)

In typically campy fashion, Merrill presents us a Heaven presided over by “ladies” and their “escorts”—an idea that smacks more of Toulouse-Lautrec than Caravaggio. And his tongue-in-cheek rendering of “Adam” as “(M)Adam” leaves us wondering whether Adam’s “lost rib,” his feminine side, isn’t present in the manliest man after all. Like the Gnostics, though Merrill depends on the Book, he cannot take the scripture seriously. The world is simply too ridiculous. Rationality, even, must bend to the irrevocable facts of it all, which is that it’s a pageant! Of course Heaven is lunatic—if it comes from the same God who made us, it’d have to be.

(Enough of my saxophonists—I’m dwelling in my element too much. Elina Duni, an Albanian folk singer, goes on—and now it’s dim, driving piano jazz, classically-trained musicians shoving jazz into the gypsy hauntings of the Baltic states. My own form of music, America’s single greatest export, becomes strange in someone else’s hands, in this otherworldly language, words I listen intently to but do not understand. With the saxophone I can speak the language: embouchure   tonal shifts     growl    upper octaves. With Albanian lyrics, with Duni’s drifting voice I am displaced, made distant from myself. On the album’s cover (what does Baresha even mean?) an old nag draws an Eastern European carriage—a chopped-off car, one of those immortal and clunky Soviet designs turned into horse-drawn cart. The reins disappear beneath the windshield. The dirty white horse pins its ears and looks as if about to shake its head. Its duck-foot stance is something from a caricature.)

All of this complexity—what are we to think? What is serious? What tragic? Michael himself, the archangel of light, explores the human form of poetry, badly. This being the archangel who so awes Auden and Maman; he can’t escape misspellings and rhymed couplets? Next to such a divine foil, Merrill the Scribe looks more godlike than the gods. He, at least, writes in those gorgeously precise lines of his. (But then, of course the Scribe would make himself look good—it is his story, after all…)

The distance of artistic creation, though, again removes Merrill from the world. As Merrill himself admits, “Today the line / Drawn is esthetic. One allows divine / Discourse, if at all, in paraphrase” (348). We, the secondhand listeners, are removed one degree farther. So, in one sense, the camp is necessary. We couldn’t take Merrill seriously if he was as earnest, as elaborately concerned as some streetcorner prophet screaming about cosmic peacocks and God Biology. With humor we can swallow it. Yeats had to cloak his universal messages in the robes of esotericism, which is another kind of distance. It was necessary even for the Gnostics, who constructed ridiculously elaborate worlds to explain their very basic premise of God’s fallibility. (An actual scriptural sentence: “The authority Tupelon created Adam’s left shin”…) From our distance of rationality, our twice-darkened glimpse of the experience, we can see only a rather comic presentation of the universe: a Divine Comedy indeed.

All ideas, though, rendered in such bare lines are ridiculous—and, we begin to see, it’s the idea itself that is ridiculous. The sheer fact and magnificence of existence is enough to daunt any attempts at explanation. Words fail. Merrill:

Why should God speak? How humdrum what he says

Next to His word: out of a black sleeve, lo!

Sun, Earth and Stars in eloquent dumb show.

Our human words are weakest, I would urge,

When He resorts to them. (348)

The Immortal Five, after all, are the senses (350). It is our very act of perception that creates the world, that orders it in some intelligible fashion (whether that is Ephraim’s Bureaucracy, Mirabell’s formulas, or the hundreds of appendage-angels of the Gnostics). And if, as Michael says, the archangels “ARE THE SENSES OF [THEIR] FATHER” (350), then God’s perception is nearly as limited as ours. The act of sense perception diminishes some crucial portion of the universe, removes it from the fullness of itself and delineates its boundaries, gives it a set of causes and effects. The artist, then, is the greatest sinner alive—he not only removes the world from itself, he causes others to do the same. By doing justice to reality, he diminishes both. In imagining a world, he creates one; in others, by virtue of his shared art, he forces that world into existence. The Secret Book of John describes Yaldabaoth forcing himself on Eve, and from the union creating Cain and Abel, who are also known as Yahweh and Elohim, and who represent opposing forces in the world (180). In our division of perception, we are engaged in a similar act—we create good and evil solely by our own judgment and conception of reality. Our sense of justice, then, creates reality. We are good and evil, for they cannot exist independent of our perceptions.

(And I, cocooned in music, sit alone among this crowd. The writing has gone on too long—my haggard face peers back from the monitor’s impassive frame, halfway obscured now by the words I’ve typed. Reality is out there, distant from this half-imagined world I’ve created. And all this time, little Scribe, all that jazz, and I have no idea if it’s coherent. Does it do the Book justice? Do my little flocks of words peel back the surfaces of things? Does all of this have Something to Say? The answer comes, because I learned it somewhere before: YES & NO.)

And thus we are rendered godlike—but not in a flattering light. We, rather, are like the ignorant, flawed God of the Gnostics: capable of everything except real understanding. And it is the task of learning, of understanding, with which we must be truly concerned. Gnosis, the term that gives the Gnostics their name, is an intellectual apprehension of the inescapable truth: that we exist within something far greater than ourselves, a something greater even than our world itself.  Beyond the stars, beyond God, beyond sun and moon and the pageants of myth lies an undiscovered country of pure seeing, pure understanding. Like Merrill and Yeats we must imagine ourselves as capable of that knowledge before we can receive it. The test is personal, individual—can we bear to look deeply into the mirror? Can we admit our flawed divinity? Only then can real knowledge come into us. Only then can we begin to understand the fatal, beautiful message: that we are here, for good or ill; that we perceive; that we must necessarily structure our perceptions and ourselves in some fashion; and (terrifyingly) that we may after all be the sum total, the half-imagined hero of the myth, which may (the mirror tells us, as it greys another hair) be only a myth. In the mirror’s blank eye, we are removed from ourselves, made into an aesthetic object. We are both Reality (a reflected image) and Justice (all the meanings we attach to that image). A gnostic question, then: Is it not possible that God Biology, in making us, wanted only a kind of mirror?

Bauer, Mark. “Between Lives: James Merrill Reading Yeats’s Prose,” Contemporary Literature,  vol. 43 no. 1, 2002, pp. 85-119. University of Wisconsin Press. DOI: 10.2307/1209017

Merrill, James. The Changing Light at Sandover, ed. J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

The Secret Book of John, from The Gnostic Bible, ed. Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, Shambhala, 2009.

Peacock Dramas

Imagine with me, for one moment, a brilliant “SAPPHIRE BREAST[ED]” cosmic peacock with a “SPREAD TAIL” and “EYES BURN[ING] RED / IN [A] FEATHERED MASK.” Imagine now, a peacock of equal beauty and celestial mystique, but in white with charcoal ocelli. The white peacock, reminding me, rather obviously, of a D.H. Lawrence novel title, appeared to me in a dream over spring break, while I was substitute teaching at a high school near my hometown. The royal avian originally had its tail folded, and appeared to be silently investigating the ground near where I was standing in the dream. I reflected on Mirabell and unassumingly treated the white peacock with immense respect, suggesting to passersby to “keep down the volume,” since I wanted to avoid startling the bird. White as death and with hundreds of black eyes, the peacock was unavoidably startled, and spread its tail plumes before me. There was an alarming look impressed upon me by the bird’s visage, one that spoke to artistic depths that people sometimes never resurface from—then my alarm went off at six o’clock.

I never discarded the alarm clock I purchased in high school, an old-fashioned one with the two metal bells on either side of the top like round ears and a hammer that goes back and forth between them. The sound of it inspires a deep loathing and an assortment of unpleasant memories from my time in high school. The Changing Light at Sandover was resting on my chest from the previous night with the pages spread open to section 3.4 of Mirabell. Also at my side was an abridged copy of Thoreau’s Walden and a book of sayings by Confucius. It seemed I was always waking up next to Merrill’s face in some variety. Spring break was halfway over, and I had been substituting every day and reading Sandover every night. Merrill’s dramatic characters even seemed to invade my dreams from time-to-time. I found comfort, though, in the fact that “SOULS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT,” as Mirabell points out, “THEY WEAR A VEIL / OF HUMAN EXISTENCE & THIS I WILL NEVER LIFT” (157). My dreams were not safe, but perhaps my soul was at least, from the black, bat-like entities that I periodically scanned the room in search of before falling asleep. Mirabell’s usage of the word “VEIL” inspires a line of inquiry that begins with the etymology. Veil originates from the Latin “velare,” meaning “to cover, conceal, mask, or disguise.” The “FEATHERED MASK” on Mirabell further suggests a sense of the dramatic in the second installment of the Sandover trilogy, and no doubt throughout the trilogy as a whole. Mirabell’s transformation, in section 3.4, from 741 to a brilliant peacock, presents the idea that Merrill himself is undergoing a type of transformation, a type of “veiling” or “disguising,” a corresponding simultaneous revealing and revelation, like switching masks as the play performance continues. Perhaps it’s easier to think of section 3.4 as a character costume change, where the Ouija board is the “stage” and the actors, or spirits, reside behind the curtain until their role appears. Further, Mirabell, behind the stage, where people watching the performance cannot see characters, changes costumes or assumes a new “disguise” for the performative experience which JM and DJ are both observing and creating.

Also, in the beginning of section 9, when Mirabell says, “NO VEIL REMAINS (OR ONLY ONE) / TO SCREEN OUR SENSES FROM THE SUN” (259). The “veil,” in this sequence, seems to be a covering, the o-zone, which protects earth from the sun. Mirabell is explaining the damage to the o-zone, an ecological concern regarding the destruction of the natural world by mankind. The “veil” in the sense of a “disguise” is also at play here, since Michael, the archangel, is represented by the sun. This idea also brings to mind the myth of Zeus and Semele, who perished as a result of viewing a god in his/her true form. Mortals are not meant to view raw divinity in this capacity, much like the sun, which, in all its glory, could incinerate the face of Earth.

Here, some speculation might be made in regards to the word “play,” where the poem itself takes the form of a dramatic production in addition to the post-structuralist conception of “play.” In this regard the poem is centered on the spirits “playing” games with JM and DJ by misleading them in a farcical “performance” with props, costumes, and fantastical explanations of another realm. Thus I ruminated on the suspicious nature of Mirabell and the other spirits in Sandover while examining the contents of my breakfast plate that morning. My mother had graciously prepared a piece of toast with jelly on it, which I stared at lost in a state of mind. The toast was the sole occupant of the plate, and the scene was all too ironic as I felt the toast was “lonely,” as if toast could possibly desire company. Either way, I glanced to the side of the table after a few minutes and noticed my copy of The Merchant of Venice, which I had checked out in my father’s name at the high school library. I was on a desperate hunt for this reclusive quote about carrots in the play that made me look like a fool last semester. Deceptive appearances seemed to stand in my consciousness as a subject for debate and admiration. Mirabell. Changing appearances. Changing light. The caskets of gold, silver, and lead that Bassanio had to choose from for the hand of Portia. “That’s a bingo!” (Excuse or admire the Inglorious Bastards quote…) This decision, based on appearances, leads many suitors for Portia’s hand to failure, often picking the casket with the most impressive outward appearance. Bassanio only correctly picks the lead casket by arguing that what appears outwardly is trivial in relation to what lies inside of this outward appearance. He says, “So may the outward shows be least themselves: / The world is still deceived with ornament.” This then played into Mirabell’s appearance, and the “representations” of all the spirits, who essentially have no appearance besides how they appear in the other spirits, as Maman (Maria) explains, “HE APPEARS IN US   OUR MINDS (HEARTS) ARE HIS MIRROR” (157). I took this to mean, as I took a bite of the lonely toast, that Mirabell only has an appearance as a type of “imaginative,” abstract entity of the mind (heart), but does this not sound solipsistic? I reflected on Stephen Dedalus walking down Sandycove with his hand over his eyes in the “Proteus” episode of Joyce’s Ulysses. Solipsism, i.e. the idea that one’s mind might be the only thing that exists, and all other things are generated therein or in relation to it. If Mirabell and the other spirits only take shape within “the mirror” of other spirits’ minds (hearts), then how might that be thought of metaphysically? And how does this relate back to the “grand drama” of Sandover? Later, in section 3.6, Auden explains that Mirabell’s transformation was of the imagination, “MM & I / IMAGINE U, YOU US, & WHERE THE POWERS / CRISSCROSS WE ALL IMAGINE 741 / & THEN TRANSFORM HIM!” (159). As Holmes would say, “The plot thickens!” Is art not the offspring of imagination? Does this mean Mirabell is art?

Questions wracked my mind as I stepped into my sister’s Jeep. Her absence in the foreign land of France made for the perfect opportunity to utilize her vehicle for day-to-day trips to Harlem, Montana. My father drove, and I pondered quietly for all twenty of the miles we traveled, occasionally glancing out the front window at the blinding morning sunlight, not a “golden setter,” but a “golden riser,” I laughed to myself thinking of “The Broken Home,” and reflected on the opening lines of section 9.9: “Sun is rising.”

In the school, I cradled Merchant and Coyote Stories, a book of Salish mythology, as I waltzed down the hall between students of varying shapes and sizes. Oh, high school. What a nightmare of hormones and drama. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 20” was on repeat in my head when I unlocked the door to the “culture studies” classroom, where students learned both the language and culture of the Gros Ventre tribe. The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes occupy the Fort Belknap reservation just minutes from Harlem, and their culture is as beautiful as their language is complicated. Many of the students at this high school associate with these tribes and rightly take pride in their ancestry. The classroom was quiet and empty. The chairs were stacked in the back and the room smelled stale. I noticed there were few posters in the classroom and hesitantly ventured to the teacher’s desk. “And for a woman wert thou first created / Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting…,” I thought. This brought to mind section 3.6 of Mirabell, when the cosmic peacock says, “NOW BEGINS THE LIFE OF OUR MINDS 5 AS ONE,” and a “UNION OF THE ELEMENTS” takes place (159). Incidentally, or perhaps not, Maria represents water, Auden represents earth, Merrill represents air, Mirabell represents fire, and Jackson represents nature, the five elements. Jackson’s representation of “THE SHAPING HAND OF NATURE” marks an interesting “role” for him, following in the footsteps of Mozart, Auden explains, in section 3.9.

As I skimmed through the familiar tales of Coyote Stories, which I originally read a few years ago on a whim, I discovered that five was a sacred number in Salish mythology, in addition to a number of other paganistic religions. For example, when Coyote, the trickster, was killed by Chickadee’s arrow, his brother, Fox, had to step over him three times to bring him back to life. A footnote directed me to the notes in the back, where it was explained that three had only become that sacred number since the Salish were in Christian boarding schools. Originally, the number of times required to bring someone back to life by stepping over them was five. In section 2.1 of Mirabell, it’s explained that five individuals have achieved immortality: “LADUMAN  SORIVA  RACHEL   TORRO & VON.” These “DEATHLESS 5,” mentioned again in section 2.7, “PURSUE THEIR LEADERSHIP UNDER VARIOUS GUISES…,” which links back to the idea of the “veil” and costuming for the “grand drama” of Sandover. For the spirits, this drama is a reality in which they costume themselves, like the “DEATHLESS 5,” to complete their “V work” (142). On top of that, five is also acknowledged as being the number of sides on a pyramid.

As if in spite of my lack of preparation, the bell rang and students began mayhem in the hallway. I tossed the book aside and began a few jumping-jacks for motivational purposes. I thought about Mirabell’s “lessons” and the craft of pedagogy originally mentioned in section “C” of The Book of Ephraim, “Back / To school from the disastrously long vac…” (10), as it had been some time since I had last substituted. The day moved at lightning speed, and soon I was in my father’s office, on prep, (he’s the school counsellor, and one that certainly “gets the job done”) leaning back in the red, cotton chair across from his desk. I stared at the ceiling, “And by addition me of thee defeated / By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.” Shakespeare. Then I leapt up from the seat and took off down the hall to the “culture studies” classroom, where I seized an Expo marker and wrote on the whiteboard: “WATER + EARTH,” then dropped a line to write, “AIR + NATURE,” finally writing below that, “FIRE.” Now, how do these elements, assigned to “childless” Merrill and Jackson in relation to their “parental figures” Maria and Auden, congeal? And where the hell does Mirabell, as fire, fall into this? I sat on the floor facing the board and contemplated the possibilities. Water and fire don’t get along. Earth and nature? Aren’t they quite similar? What about air? “MIND & ABSTRACTION,” according to Auden (164). Don’t judge something by its appearance. The caskets in Merchant. I glared at the book across the room.

After a few moments of silence, and frustration, I reared up from the dusty floor and patted my hands against my black jeans. A sigh followed, and I slouched into the red chair once more after a dismal walk down the barren hallway. Oh, it is a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing, to have a broken heart and a temporarily broken confidence. Merrill has a tendency to do that at times, but it’s good. We’re good, Merrill and I, I mean. My dream resurfaced in my mind as I sipped some coffee with “pumpkin spice” flavored creamer, the only variety available in the teacher’s lounge. Some time passed, some laughs with my father, and then I felt distracted and confused by Mirabell. Another sigh, and the rest of the day passed at the same lightning speed. A student here, a student there, a documentary about witchcraft in King James’ Scotland, pretty soon I was stepping into the Jeep again, reflecting on how bright the sun had been earlier that day. A giant burning orb of crimson orange. Hm. And as we drove home, I thought of the sun a few more times, a “creator” and a “destroyer.” I heard Michael’s final words in section 9: “…THE SUN LOOKS THROUGH YOUR EYES TO THE LIFE BEHIND / YOU” (275), and reflected on the aria “Nè men con l’ombre d’infedelta” by a familiar Romilda. I wondered if things would ever feel right, and if I would ever feel that again. I wondered about that life behind me, the things I said and did.

JH: You look tired. MJH: I’m doing okay. JH: What do you want for dinner? MJH: Leftovers.

Practical Alchemy

Here and now I sit, and never truly can. My mind is awash with contemplations of where I have been, what I have been through, and the many trials of the future that I must yet wade in, unfurling before me like Hydra’s heads. It is not my story alone, but all of ours, and we are all time-travelers in this regard – never staying put in our moment, but always projecting into those moments far-passed and fast-forward. And yet, though we will not stand still, temporally-speaking, it is precisely these flashes into times not our own that can dazzle, becoming a paralytic force of anxieties and despair. Has my life up until this point been good enough? Will the life ahead of me be fulfilling? The only certainty is that, while caught up in this dangerous web of thought, I am not experiencing my life as it is this instant… and yet, these thoughts become my life this instant.

This confounding paradigm is one that Merrill is desperately trying to escape, while simultaneously recognizing that he cannot, and ultimately can only contribute to. “Such be the test of time that all things pass” as he remarks in the final sonnet of section ‘R’ of Ephraim – a stark reminder of what Yenser calls “a double-edged enigma: all things must pass the test of time, and to pass the test of time all things must die.” But death need not be the end, at least not in a Merrillian world. The whole section is rife with imagery of death-defiance. Ghede for instance, referred to in the second sonnet in the sequence, is the name used to refer to a multitude of Hatian deities of death and fertility. In a tongue-in-cheek line from the final sonnet sequence, Merrill writes “Leave to the sonneteer eternal youth,” at once satirizing the poet’s presumptions, and yet ironically accomplishing the very feat he seems to cast off with a sort of wistful disdain. That is to say, if eternal youth only belongs to the sonneteers, then Merrill makes it clear in section ‘R’ that it belongs to him. And then, of course, the section begins with a sort of poet’s note to himself: “Rewrite P. It was to be the section/Golden with end-of-summer light,” calling to mind the Philosopher’s Stone and its ability to transmute base minerals into gold and silver, and also fabled to be capable of bestowing immortality upon its wielder.

How fitting, then, that the term used to describe “the search for the Philosopher’s Stone” is “Magnum Opus, or “great work.” Merrill’s poetry as a cohesive unit – and Ephraim is no exception – is teeming with alchemical trasmutations. Ironically, section ‘R’s metamorphoses is from a desire to capture the golden “end-of-summer light,” into that golden light, “The failing sun… hellbent.” As ‘R’ becomes the very treasure it was seeking in ‘P,’ we discover that the immortality of the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t actually come from the stone itself, but from the quest to obtain it in the first place. ‘R,’ then, comes to mean not only “Rewrite” and “Remake,” but recall, remain, rejuvinate, and rebirth – if only for a time… and time again.

Merrill’s immortality (although potentially self-proclaimed – and whose isn’t?) is not his story alone, but all of ours. “Twenty thousand throats” are “one single throat.” Erzulie, and Mary, and even Kuan Yin – who herself is made up of many different selves – are all one, united self in a greater continuum of selves. We are all our fertility and death. Becoming immortals in our search for immortality, what we leave behind for our future selves is who we are, who we’ve been, and who we will be, again and again.

Nevertheless, Merrill seems to offset the comfort of the continual recycling of souls with an extreme anxiety that we can somehow sever the loop with human hands. “NO SOULS CAME FROM HIROSHIMA U KNOW,” Ephraim assures us in section ‘P.’ Even Heaven, he continues, could dissolve with the usage of nuclear weaponry. And so, the section of the poem that we learn in ‘R’ was meant to be gold from the Philosopher’s Stone turns out to be a recipe for disaster instead of eternal life. The rest of Ephraim is shot-through with these fears – “Next year there will be no waterfall, no stream,” “Heaven” is “fraught with tantrums,” the “sky in flames,” “It stops at nothing.” The final phrase intrigues me most, insinuating simultaneously that the end is devoid of all existence, and that the end itself doesn’t exist. The only reason the two don’t contradict one another is because, as we are informed back in ‘P,’ the hands of the doomsday clock are our own – it is our choice whether we cut the cord bonding us to “The ancient, ageless woman of the world,” or reconnect.

Either way, the test of time is one we must pass. Section ‘Z’ is for “Zero hour,” when the hands of the clock converge all of time into a straight line with a tangible ending in sight. The cycle seems broken at last. “These old love-letters from the other world./We’ve set them down at last beside the fire,” Merrill laments, “Are they for burning, now that the affair/Has ended?” The narrative of section ‘A’ that yearned so to be “limpid, unfragmented,” seems now to strive for anything but. All semblance of form has seemingly been abandoned in lieu of a solid block of stichic verse. And yet, section ‘Z’ seems to function like a reversal of the boy’s puzzle in “Lost in Translation.” It does not hold together, but it does. The seemingly formless nature of ‘Z’ gives way to a continuous thread of thought – quite literally unbroken. The hands of the clock (our hands) clapped together do not sound the crack of doom, but rather unite in a moment of reverence, recalling and reimagining the azimuth (an equation used to discern the distance between an object on earth and a heavenly body) from section ‘R,’ in which we are the center of the clock, the outer circle is the world, or perhaps the universe, and the direct line between the two is like an umbilical cord tethering us to the source of all creation. The manifold Hydra-headed problematic futures laid out before me suddenly turn in on themselves, giving way to the Ouroboros. The panic-inducing Zero is not the final moment of the doomsday countdown, but a reestablishment of the link between humanity and Omphalos. The cycle is limpid, unfragmented, as a drop from Merrill’s pen flows back into the fountain of life, his blood recirculating through our veins… but only if we allow.

The hands of the clock can still converge into a straight-edge aimed at the belly of the world, which is ultimately our belly, ready to pierce, cutting more than ties. The question is: what can we do to stop the fall of the knife? Although writing poetry hardly seems adequate, perhaps it provides us with a necessary mode of diffusing the “twinklings of/Insight” that “hurt or elude the naked eye,” as Merrill puts it in section ‘X.’ Section ‘P’ comes to stand for Perseus, and like Perseus, we too need our mirror-shield to reflect the wicked gaze of the gorgonic forces of our world. But ‘P’ also calls to mind poetry and, once again, the Philosopher’s stone. Can verse transmute the steel blade of the doomsday clock into gold before it’s too late? It seems unlikely, but it can produce a different transformation, by opening our minds to new ways of knowing the world around us. “The world’s poem” from ‘X’ recalls “Days of 1935,” in which Merrill writes that “I knew/That life was fiction in disguise” (104-105). Ghede and Kuan-Yin are real; they manifest their many forms through us.

Alchemy, then, is real too. Superfund site Lake Onondaga had so much industrial waste poured into its waters that the shoreline became a thick white paste. Since the cessation of its usage as a dumpsite, however, trees have returned to the area, leeching toxins from the lake, slowly turning the toxic cocktail back into water. Ants at the site are also doing their part, breaking up the detritus-lined shore with their mounds, and carrying fresh humus from deep beneath the earth up into the light of day. Likewise, new species of mushrooms have emerged that break down plastic and nuclear waste, transfiguring it into sustenance and clean soil. All of the members of the global ecosystem are working together in an act of communal alchemy to, as in “Lost in Translation,” transform “the waste/To shade and fiber, milk and memory.” All of the members except for the one doing the most harm – us.

Here and now I sit, pondering whether or not I ever truly can. The only thought that finds a firm grounding in me is that soon the time might come where there will be no time or place over which to ponder. The doomsday clock is currently set to two minutes until midnight; closer to the projected global annihilation than we’ve ever been. It’s up to us whether its ticking becomes a countdown to extinction, or the rhythm of our hearts beating, at last, in synchronicity.

Works Cited

Merrill, James. Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 2015.

Merrill, James. The Book of Ephraim. New York, Knopf, 2018.

Divining Shades

Ghosts in dim light—me and the cat. The heating is out, and my roommates are either abroad or ensconced in the warm houses and arms of their partners. The curtains on this northern side of the house are closed in a meager attempt to hold heat. I, in full thermals and boots, clomp restlessly from room to room, munching rye crackers. Ephraim has unsettled me. And it’s been a strange week anyway—romantic intrigues with a friend, begun, stopped, potentially re-begun. Hard to say. All week I’ve had the strange feeling of watching my life happen to someone else. (Or, as Merrill would describe it, a “periodical not yet defunct [that] kept hitting the stands.”)

The class I’m skipping is just beginning, now. I lay out tarot cards instead. In a fit of sentimentality, I’ve set a cheap mirror in a corner of the room, Merrill-style. Perhaps he can guide me. I fan the cards, hesitate—what do I want to know? Misha (the cat) comes into the room and miaows skeptically, then leaves. “What is love?” I finally speak into the empty room.

Merrill begins Section I by temporarily inserting some rationality into the seance-heady atmosphere. He goes to a shrink. (Or, rather, his ex-shrink.) It is not accidental, I think, that the section involving the “I” is framed by Western psychology’s pragmatic style of analysis. As Merrill says, “What we dream up must be lived down, I think” (29). Tom, the shrink (whose name recalls the apostle Doubting Thomas) describes their Ouija sessions as a folie à deux—a psychological term for shared hallucinations between delusional people. It’s harmless enough, he says, but ponders why masks are necessary for people to tell the truth. Merrill himself then takes the next step into psychoanalysis: “Somewhere a Father Figure shakes his rod / At sons who have not sired a child? / Through our own spirit we can both proclaim / And shuffle off the blame / For how we live—that good enough?” (30).

Jackson and Merrill had been planning to use their divinely inflected knowledge to affect “Real Life”—they’d been laying plans for representatives Ephraim had described to them. As a result, the idyll of their earlier spirit-explorations is broken. Ephraim reports: “the POWERS // ARE FURIOUS” (29). But it’s hard to say precisely why the powers are angry. Was it because Merrill and Jackson interfered? As Ephraim later would exhort them, did they fail to “LOOK LOOK LOOK YR FILL / BUT DO DO DO NOTHING”? Or was the “meddling” described by Ephraim simply and only Merrill’s decision to go to the shrink, to tame the unknowable via the overly personal? Did rationality itself damn the entire mode of seeing, the whole experiment? To put it in the words of another J.M., the Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie: “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”

In any case, though, Merrill’s own damning self-analysis doesn’t ruin the seances. JM and DJ regard the whole hour with “nonchalance”—and in a way, the knowledge of Ephraim as (potentially) a part of oneself does little to dissuade our sense of curiosity. After all, Merrill cheekily implies, the mirrored self is our greatest fascination of all. And it is distinctly possible—even probable—that we know more than we think we do. In a way, the mirrored self, so strangely alien in the circle of glass, knows far more than we do, because we can contemplate ourselves from a distance not normally possible. Ephraim thus becomes a reversed Christ composed of memories, not “the Word made flesh” of John 1.14 but “Flesh made word.” Ephraim also saves by revelations; but they are inward revelations, entirely lacking the apocalyptic fury of biblical prophecy: “Ephraim’s revelations—we had them / For comfort, thrills and chills, ‘material.’” (31). In J, Ephraim criticizes JM for the “Fire and brimstone version of his powers” found in the lost novel (33). Merrill describes Ephraim as a kind of “language,” and compares him to “bird-flight, / Hallucinogen, chorale and horoscope” (31). Two of those are omen readings; one is a class of drug famously associated with shamanic vision quests; the other is music, audible signals not unlike poetry. Ephraim, then, is a kind of pagan magic, a method of divination.

In this context, it’s important to remember that divination is centered on human actions and occurrences. The seer does not see cosmic truths—they see the birth of kings, the fall of empires, personal banes and boons. All such omen readings are predicated on a subject who moves within the world. Constructing Ephraim as a kind of omen, then, is exactly accurate; he is a “projection / Of what already burned, at some obscure / Level or another, in our skulls” (31). He is entirely related to and dependent on JM and DJ: “He was the revelation / (Or if we had created him, then we were).” The cosmology has flipped: Heaven, and its various gods and minor spirits, have been created by us. We, the most fleshy of all, are almost gods because we can imagine, create, write. We can give words agency, and those words in turn can move us to action, or even to just seeing things a certain way, remembering in a certain fashion—and that remembrance or slant can affect our future actions. We are created by our own imaginations.

The cards are ambiguous, as they invariably are. The ambiguity is precisely the appeal. Glance casually over them and nothing will occur to you—I see, what, some lady with some sticks? What the hell is this?

Observe them long enough, though, and with the proper interpretive (artistic?) eye, and you begin to see them differently. The woman next to the sticks—three of them; and they’re wands, actually—is nude, red-haired, and young. Flowers tangle in her hair, and flow like a river beneath her feet. She gazes straight out at you. She has a magnifying glass clasped in your left hand. The card is inverted, so she seems to stretch out away from you feetfirst, as if she lay in a grave, or Ophelia-like beneath still water.

The mirrored self has a strange kind of power, too. In section J, for instance, that self has the power of empathy, which Merrill likens to the act of creative writing. Importantly, the act of writing characters is itself an act of mirror-like recognition: “Joanna and Sergei / ‘Recognize’ each other, or I as author / Recognize in them the plus and minus / —Good and evil, let my reader say— / Vital to the psychic current’s flow. / Joanna worries me. (Sergei I know.)” (35). Later, Merrill compares Joanna to the Anima, a concept from psychologist Carl Jung. The Anima is a “contra sexuality,” a remnant in a man of choices untaken; choices which, if followed, would have led to the man identifying sexually as a woman. But, Jung said, the untaken choices don’t leave us—they lurk as shadow identities, hidden channels between the individual’s unconscious and the Collective Unconscious. Choices, like garments tried on in a mirror and discarded, are not forgotten, but form a sort of repertoire of self, a pattern of behavior that makes the self. Thus, Joanna lounging in the adulterous bed of old Matt Prentiss is Merrill’s own projection of self no less than Ephraim (and, for that matter, Matt Prentiss). And for that matter, the mirrored self is not only capable of assuming the form of characters: Merrill as creator has the power “Finally / To be, as she [Joanna] can never, this entire / Parched landscape my lost pages fly her toward, / Carrying a gift-wrapped Ouija board” (35). Merrill, by writing, can give his unconscious form, environment and agency. We can control how our imaginations shape us.

But there are dangers, too, to the act of creation: what Jung would call “psychological inflation,” an over-identification with a created persona. Attempts of various people to transform their physical bodies—like the infamous Eva Tiamat, a former transgender woman turned Dragon Lady, who, in an effort to transform herself into the monstrous mother goddess of Babylonian myth, underwent numerous surgeries and tattoo procedures—are one example. Another would be too-enthusiastic spiritual identification, such as with “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell’s obsession with grizzly bears. (He eventually was eaten.) The classical symbolic example of psychological inflation is the tale of Semele, who was subsumed into Zeus’ glory simply by gazing on it. There is the opposite danger, too—not psychological inflation, but psychological fragmentation. Contemplating his father’s rebirth in Kew, Merrill sees “Ten thousand baby carriages each maybe / Wheeling You Know Who” (39). Similarly, the mirrored reflections of JM and DJ are shattered and replicated by panes of glass, first in the reflective “ceiling at Fatehpur-Sikri…in which uncountable quicksilver / Convexities reduce and multiply / The visitor to swarms of the same fly,” and then in Istanbul in colored glass (37). Or, on the other hand, too much contemplation of the mirror itself can lead to a kind of waking dream or fugue state, as when JM, contemplating life as “a whole small globe” made of mirrors, begins meditating too deeply on the feelings of the mirror itself, and is thrust into the end of a past life (section L). Like the unchosen paths that form the Anima, and also like the many incarnations of each representative, multitudes are contained within each self. The dominant ego-driven self can be destroyed by too much light shed on certain mysteries—too much revelation.

Perhaps this is what Ephraim and the “powers that be” are afraid of. After all, as section P makes clear, Heaven depends entirely on Earth—“when the flood ebbed, or the fire burned low, / Heaven, the world no longer at its feet, / Itself would up and vanish” (56). Strangely, the powers of creation and destruction usually invested in the gods are given entirely, in the end, to humanity. More terrifyingly, humans have used powers the gods cannot even comprehend—nuclear weaponry. Ephraim says “THE AIR / ABOVE LOS ALAMOS IS LIKE A BREATH / SUCKED IN HORROR” (33). “NO SOULS CAME FROM HIROSHIMA U KNOW,” Ephraim claims. “EARTH WORE A STRANGE NEW ZONE OF ENERGY…SMASHED ATOMS OF THE DEAD MY DEARS” (55).

The tarot deck is composed of major and minor arcana. The major arcana are the famous ones: Death, The Tower, The Lovers, and so forth. You can think of them like the Olympian Twelve, the famous gods like Zeus or Apollo. You know what they’re all about.

The minor arcana are suits much like standard decks of playing cards (in much of the world they are standard playing cards)—four suits of Ace through Ten, plus a court of Page, Knight, Queen and King. The suits are Chalices, Wands, Pentacles, and Swords. Each rules a different sector of life, and these areas are where tarot decks differ most radically. Different decks assign different meanings to different cards, define the suits differently, etc. All of which is to say that the minor arcana, like minor gods, dictate their separate spheres and vary widely. Each river, each tree, each card might have a different god. And the gods themselves are ill-defined.

Behind the red-haired woman, the second card is the Two of Chalices, right side up. A man embraces a woman, another redhead, who bends into his lean arms, weeping. She is seated upon a block of geometric patterns and gold swirls; he stands. His tenderness, his empathy, is touching, but they seem somehow disconnected, as though she is alone in her grief, and he can only ineffectually try to assuage it. Above their heads hover two chalices of differing design. They seem somehow complementary. Are they lovers? Family? I can’t quite tell. But there is love in the embrace, of some kind anyway.

Perhaps the most profound aspect of the mirrored self—at least as Merrill constructs it—is what it does to notions of fate. The cycles of rebirth experienced by patrons and representatives are in some ways emblematic of attempts to see into or beyond fate; fate, in this case, meaning the ruts of behavior that both form and limit the self, the “desires ungratified” that “persist from this life to the next” in “The Kimono.” In Jungian psychology, the self is defined not only by the Anima or Animus but by the dominant tendencies, the chosen paths of self. But equally, those paths of self are not chosen but forced on us by…what? History? Fate? Ephraim and the meddling gods?

The alternation of present and past is one of the signs of the fluidity of fate. The sections switch easily from “Maya in the city has a dream”—in present tense—to visions of Strato in Greece in ’64. Past and present form a fluid boundary, precisely because the past has made the present possible and necessary. Sins and desires persist, and choices have very real-life consequences. Maisie the cat is destroyed slowly by Merrill’s indifference: “The side of me that deeply took her side / Was now a wall. Turning her face to it / She read the blankness there, and died” (51).

But paradoxically, choices are dictated, too. As Maisie deteriorated, Merrill describes “Voices repellently familiar / Undulating over clammy tile / Toward the half mad old virgin Henry James / Might have made of her, and this James had” (51). Merrill’s choices are inevitable not only within the context of his own life, but in literary fate-lines as well. (Recalling Merrill’s own maxim that “Life is fiction in disguise,” in “Days of 1935.”) In a way, the twin figures of Montezuma and Mallarmé represent the poles of fate. Montezuma, “The one we picture garlanded / With afterimages, fire-sheer / Solar plume on plume” (57), so regal he might be taken for a god, was defeated because he mistook Cortez for the god Quetzalcoatl. Mallarmé, the self-concerned artist, has no imperial majesty, but sees “The world was made to end…in a slim volume” (57). Creation has come round to its natural conclusion—the end of all is a created work, one that must needs have an end.

Humanity, even in its terrifying destructive power, is similarly bounded by the intermingled laws of creation. Ephraim comes across “SOULS FROM B4 THE FLOOD B4 THE LEGENDARY / & BY THE WAY NUCLEAR IN ORIGIN” (56)—winged, mysterious beings who may well be running the whole show from behind the curtains. Ephraim and the other spirits seem afraid of them. New types of souls “like phoenixes will fly / Up from our conflagration” (57), when all is said and done, and we may well rule the next world like restless, enigmatic shades. Our powers of creation, the powers to make flesh word, give us the terrible dictum that we must live with what we write. Nothing less than the fate of Heaven hangs on it.

The last card is the Queen of Chalices, inverted. She is impassive, pale and blue-grey-haired, thinly regal, with a cup clenched lightly in a fashionable hand. She looks societally hip, adroit and aloof. Color in a wave pours down behind her, like an iridescent, formless halo. Her hand rests akimbo on her hip.

What does the spread mean? Call it the past, present, and future of my question, What is love? The past: Ophelia with her looking-glass, observed of all observers. The present is a couple bent in love or grief or both. The future is the distant gaze of an otherworldly figure, aloof, cold. The reading seems uncanny. I can see the way my recent intrigue maps over it—a repeat of my old mistaken desires, the unwise embrace, the final cold aloofness. I can see the way Merrill’s relationship deepened, from the beautiful vision to intimacy to strange tense quiet. The ambiguity creates a thousand kaleidoscopic meanings, each one as valid as the last.

From down the hall Misha comes wandering out into the dim-lit room. The faucet, left on to prevent frozen pipes, sounds tap-dances in the sink. The dingy kitchen fills with moonlight, which catches in the blank O of the mirror, filling it with light. The ghosts move slowly in the house. I, for my part, lay finally down to sleep. The house itself moves with the ghosts, slowly, with sounds like a ship clacking her moorings, as if wants to cut the ties. I find myself drifting back and back to Auden’s quote in section Q. I murmur as I fall asleep:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

Playing the Great Works

Frederick Buechner, a prep-school classmate, gifted Merrill his first Ouija board in 1952, one year after First Poems was published. Timothy Materer, author of James Merrill’s Apocalypse, suggests that “Merrill’s friend found a backdoor way to encourage the poet’s spiritual interests” (81), but, reflecting on Merrill’s earlier work, it becomes apparent that this motif had been steadily growing and manifesting itself even in First Poems. The Sandover Trilogy takes the unambiguous form of an Ouija board through all three of its books. As the three-part epic poem progresses, JM and DJ transcend, by way of guidance, through the “stages” of the afterlife of which Ephraim is stationed in the sixth of nine. With the transition from book to book, readers observe an intensification in the “power” of the supernatural beings that JM and DJ interact with, from Ephraim to Michael and Gabriel, the angels. These “stages” are not only a play on the word as it relates to drama, but also perform an allusive function as they relate to Dante’s Divine Comedy with its tiered afterworlds. Merrill makes this reference rather explicit by citing the Paradiso in an epigraph before section “A.” The Book of Ephraim, the first installment of The Changing Light at Sandover, opens with section “A,” which serves as an author’s preface before section “B,” which provides the setting of the backdrop and stage for Ephraim, who appears in section “C.” Since The Book of Ephraim originated in Divine Comedies, the foundation in Dante’s three-part epic of not-quite-the-same title is not only obvious, but also necessary for reading Merrill’s epic, Ephraim himself serving as a type of Virgil-like guide who, among other qualities, is somewhat more witty, gossipy, and light-hearted when conversing with JM and JD.

For my study of The Book of Ephraim, I was in pursuit of classical music to concentrate. Now customarily, I settle for George Frideric Handel’s opera, Serse, an opera which blends comedy and tragedy about Persian King Serse, who falls in love with Romilda. On this particular occasion, Handel’s opera was beginning to generate a depressive response from me, and this prompted me to listen to Vivaldi’s string concertos. Often times the concertos elicit a strong emotional response from me, but the immediate effect, in accompaniment with The Book of Ephraim, was highly positive. The process of selecting classical music to listen to brings Ephraim, in section “G,” to mind. Hans Lodeizen, who died of leukemia in 1950, and to whom “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace” is dedicated, enters the red room in section “G,” and “He teaches Ephraim modern European / History, philosophy, and music.” JM notes, in the next line, that “E is most curious about the latter.” Ephraim, according to Merrill, is fascinated by H’s explanation of modern European music, and this invites H to suggest that Ephraim, or music itself for that matter, “Has reached the stage of… TRANSFERRED EXPERIENCE.” I mused quite some time on this line of section “G” and arrived at the conclusion that this inference is in direct response to the effect of music on both occupants of the living world and the spirit world. Ephraim is intrigued by modern music, and being “Born AD 8,” noted in section “C,” his understanding of music is “simpleminded.” Music imposes a “transferred experience” upon the listener, which is noted by Arthur Schopenhauer, whose metaphysics of music is founded in the supposition that “music is the embodiment of the will.” “The Will” is also, perhaps not so coincidently, the title of a poem in Divine Comedies that Merrill references with a “conferatur” (Cf.) in section “A.” Materer notes that “The Will” is “a sequence of thirteen sonnets [which] recounts the breakthrough of the spirit world into Merrill’s poetic consciousness” (74). Materer also suggests that “The ‘will’ referred to is a document but also the other world as will and idea, which drives Merrill to take on the deferring task of prophecy” (74-75). One must ask, in light of these connections, if Merrill aligns music with prophecy, from his awakening to spiritual poetic inspiration in “The Will,” to H’s recognition of Ephraim’s “stage” in “transferred experience” through music.

Shortly thereafter, Merrill writes, “we must play him great / Works—Das Lied von der Erde and Apollon Musagète—,” for the purpose of exposing Ephraim to “great” modern European classical music. Either of these pieces, I thought, might provide insight into Merrill; that is, you can tell a lot about a man by what classical music he prefers. Das Lied von der Erde, literally translated to “The Song of the Earth,” is a two-voice orchestral composition by Gustav Mahler, the Bohemian-born, German speaking Jew. Ephraim himself is noted as being a “Greek Jew” in section “C.” The two-voice nature of the composition, which is technically a symphony, struck me as interesting in light of the fact that there are two sets of voices in The Book of Ephraim, the living world and the spirit world. Even more interesting is the fact that, as Mahler composed this symphony, one singer is a tenor and one an alto, one lower and one higher. The real question becomes: is the living world the higher or the lower voice of the two? Seeing as JM and DJ “transcend” as the epic continues, it doesn’t seem entirely unrealistic to surmise that the living world is the lower of the two voices, constantly aspiring or listlessly wandering to a “higher” realm, that of the spirit world which Ephraim occupies.  On the other hand, though… Merrill establishes this binary with hopes that the interpretation can go either way, where the living world is, in fact, the higher of the two, the alto to the spirit world’s tenor.

The second of the two “great works” is Apollon Musagète, or “Apollo, Leader of the Muses,” a ballet by Igor Stravinsky from the late twenties. The word “muses,” for me, inspires thoughts of “A Tenancy,” from Water Street, or the “three friends” Merrill lets into the new house, each bearing a gift. “Muse” also brings to mind Maria Demertzí Mitsotáki, Merrill’s Greek muse and a surrogate mother figure, who reappears in section “D” on a list of “Dramatis Personae.” The striking use of the name Apollo, the Greek god of music, light, prophecy, poetry, and the sun, seems all too connected to what Merrill is attempting in Sandover, prophecy, i.e. “The Will,” light, and its “changing” effects that begin in his Water Street poems, light as healing, etc., and poetry, of course. Apollo is sometimes noted as being a god of healing as well, reminding us of “An Urban Convalescence,” “Out for a walk, after a week in bed…” Perhaps this also refers readers back to “Verses for Urania,” Urania being one of the nine muses.

I’m left wondering how meaningful these two selections for “great works” truly are, and, knowing Merrill, they require a close examination. You have to wonder if Ephraim’s understanding of modern European music inspires him to “just listen harder” like Merrill’s “The Victor Dog,” which he dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop. Ephraim’s “simpleminded” understanding of music could be likened to the Victor Dog, who sits before the gramophone with head cocked to the side in utter fascination, but with an absentminded understanding of what the music is to an uneducated sensory experience, just the type that someone/something like Ephraim might lack. Among other things, Merrill appears to be establishing a pattern with the comprehension of music in relation to “non-humans.” Both “non-humans,” the Victor Dog and Ephraim, appear to be interested in understanding the music, but they initially lack the ability to comprehend it in the same fashion as Merrill, an opera enthusiast, according to The Fire Screen’s “The Opera Company” and other music-themed poems.

Later, in the same stanza of section “G,” Ephraim tells JM and DJ “HL REMEMBERS YOU / STILL HEARS THRU U JM A VERNAL MUSIC / THIS WILL BE YR LAST LIFE THANKS TO HIM…” Ephraim refers to Lodeizen, and I’m left guessing about the meaning behind “vernal music.” Does this mean “spring-like” music? What does Ephraim mean by the “spring-like” music that HL remembers JM through? I’m tempted to examine the semantics of Ephraim’s quote in section “G.” He says, through the Ouija board, “THIS WILL BE YR LAST LIFE THANKS TO HIM…” I’m focusing on “THIS WILL,” and how it might suggest something about Merrill’s interest in prophecy, and the interwoven implication that the human will is given form through music. Is music then a type of prophecy in Merrill’s terms? And what does Ephraim’s lack of knowledge about modern European music suggest about the spirit world? It would seem to argue that the spirit world is disconnected from the living world, where the spirits would be able to “observe” the activities of the living, such as their music. I’m left wondering how connected or disconnected the living and spirit worlds are from one another. If a mirror is how Ephraim sees JM and DJ, also through reflected water when Ephraim sees them swimming naked in section “B” (perhaps, since Ephraim embodies the love between JM and DJ, naturally, he would be able to see them engaging in an intimate activity), what ability do spirits have to view the world of the living? And does this just mean they can see and not hear, smell, touch, or taste?

The alignment of music with foresight, prophecy through music, also appears in section “F.” Merrill describes Miranda (who, in the context of islands reminds me of Shakespeare’s The Tempest…) as having “…sudden / Spells of pure unheeding, like a Haydn / Finale marked giocoso but shot through / With silences—regret? foreknowledge?” In music, “giocoso” refers to a joyful or pleasantly merry piece. Merrill writes “giocoso,” and then follows it with “…but shot through.” Haydn finales are characteristically fast in pace and cut in time. By “shot through,” Merrill points out the speed of a Haydn finale in relation to the joyous and cheerful sound. This line could also be indicative of deception; as in, a Haydn finale is “marked giocoso,” but it’s “shot through / With silences,” i.e. it’s not cheerful and joyous, but filled with silences, suggesting sadness. In that regard, “giocoso” is deceptive because the finale is not “giocoso.” Merrill then, I believe, asks if these silences are “regret” or “foreknowledge,” further aligning music with prophecy and the human will.

Sections “A” through “H” develop several motifs in addition to the overwhelming importance of music for understanding the connection between the worlds of the living and the spirits. A repeated idea is that of education, where Ephraim serves as a type of teacher for JM and DJ while they’re exploring and interacting with the spirit world through the Ouija board. After all, their experiences with the board are experimental, and according to Ephraim, the world of the living knows little of the spirit world. JM and DJ are students of Ephraim, who, again, represents their love. The spirit that embodies the love shared between Merrill and Jackson also acts as a teacher to them. I would argue that, in some strange way, Merrill intended for love to be an educational means in relation to the spirit world. This may hold implications as we continue through The Book of Ephraim, but for now it’s merely a theory. The next experience, continuing with section “I,” will be their “brush with Divine Law.”

Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Cornell University, 2000.

Yenser, Stephen. Notes to “The Book of Ephraim”: Commentary on the Poem. Poetry Daily, 2018.

The Tangled Skein

Every reader of James Merrill’s poetry is a detective by another name. Frequently, accessing the meanings of Merrill’s poems requires the exercise of the science of deduction, or good close reading, the two being not dissimilar from one another. There will be regular “Eureka!” and “Aha!” moments for the patient reader, as a connection is made, a clue discovered, and all of a sudden a stanza, or an entire poem, makes sense where just a minute before it had presented an inscrutable mask. His poems thus read like puzzles to be worked out, riddles to be solved, cases to be taken up and followed from beginning to end, that upon putting the poem down one can be satisfied rather than frustrated, and not only satisfied, but enriched, too, for having successfully navigated the labyrinth.

At the local level, the poems present their own mazes and enigmas and difficult passages to the reader, and then themselves are parts of larger puzzles into which they’re folded, first the individual volume, then the arch-puzzle of Merrill’s entire oeuvre. Merrill’s poetry is architectonic; by the end of his career it was like the mansion in which he was raised, immense and intimidating but also secure and full of possibility. It started out small, but over the course of five decades he steadily added new wing after new wing, always taking into consideration the manner in which each new part fit in with, enhanced, and possibly even changed the character of the whole. Like both Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop before him, he was fascinated by houses and homes, both in his life and in his poetry, intrigued by the kinds of shape they give to our experience, what they protect us (or would presume to protect us) from, the ways in which we enter and exit them and leave them behind and acquire new ones. Poems were houses, too, stanzas were rooms; opening the cover of a book meant opening a door.

Merrill’s most famous poem, “Lost in Translation,” along with the first part of his magisterial and bizarre Sandover trilogy, “The Book of Ephraim,” are both to be found in 1976’s Divine Comedies, published at roughly the midway point of Merrill’s career as a poet if we bracket off an earlier apprentice period. The book is divided into two sections. The first section contains nine poems, of which “Lost in Translation” is the second. The second section, more than twice as long as the first, consists of the 26 parts of “Ephraim,” one part for each letter of the alphabet. Section “M” is to “Ephraim” as a whole, then, what Divine Comedies is to Merrill’s entire oeuvre. Glittering symmetries abound.

Divine Comedies is a masterful volume of poems. When one thinks of the great volumes of poetry written in English in the 20th century, one will likely start with the modernists: Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, Moore’s Observations, Stevens’s Harmonium, Hughes’s The Weary Blues, and many others: the usual suspects. At mid-century the names continue to come rather easily: Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, Lowell’s Life Studies, Plath’s Ariel, and so on. What are the great volumes of the last quarter of the century though? Here, the names begin to come a little less easily to most, yet just in the 1970s alone several candidates announce themselves: Larkin’s High Windows, Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Bishop’s Geography III, Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom, and there in their midst, Divine Comedies, which won its author a 1977 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to “Lost in Translation,” it features several other multi-page poems of equal magnificence, among them “Chimes for Yahya” and “Yannina,” as well as the exquisite opening lyric, “The Kimono,” and the seemingly occasional but really anything-but dramatic monologue, “Manos Karastefanís.” All nine of the opening poems help pave the way for “Ephraim’s” occult world-building, its simultaneous glimpses and manufacturings of the non-material realm; the stage is being set along the way. There are “The Kimono’s” “Desires ungratified [that] / Persist from one life to the next”; “Lost in Translation’s” medium performing in a London library; the mystical water-hidden grotto of “McKane’s Falls”; “Chimes for Yahya” with its paperback that “Compares the soul to a skimmed stone / Touching the waters of the world at points / Along a curve”; Manos Karastenfanís being taught “Heaven and hell” at the age of twelve; “Yánnina’s” “magician’s tent” in which “a woman will be sawed in two”; the child-baptism at the heart of “Verse for Urania”; the supernatural machinations of “The Will”; and “Whitebeard on Videotape” with its concern for “the real stuff, hand-woven, deep-dyed Soul” and its final line that leaves us on Ephraim’s doorstep, pronouncing that “Along with being holy, life was hell.”

The volume’s title sets the stage for all of this supernaturalism with its evocation of Dante. Gone are the definite article and the singular noun, but the adjective that Dante himself never chose is retained along with the now plural “Comedies.” Merrill is very much something of a postmodern Dante, replacing the mono-myth, the single narrative of the early 14th century Dante with late-20th century skepticism and insouciance. We now have competing comedies, and not just those within Merrill’s volume, but, and perhaps more importantly, those outside of it, too. Merrill’s own is set off against Dante’s, in addition to others: those of Milton, Blake, Yeats, Rilke. Yet Divine Comedies is less any kind of correction of Dante or challenge to his poetic authority than a form of homage thereto and a continuation of its tradition. After all, Dante, writing his epic in Italian instead of Latin in the early 1300s, was himself something of a postmodernist well avant la lettre; his absolutism isn’t, it turns out, that absolute. His poem regularly undermines the very tradition it is purportedly upholding over the course of its pilgrim’s progress, and can profitably be called at least as secular humanist as it is Christian, if not more. Merrill is to Dante, then, what Dante was to Virgil: the student who honors his teacher precisely in the act of overthrowing him. In “Ephraim,” too, we have a living poet and a long-dead guide who ushers him through the beyond, describing in detail, once again, a nine-tiered afterworld, but one that resembles Dante’s in number alone. Or perhaps not only in number, but also in its concern for number, where Merrill, his afterlife’s nine stages mirroring the nine opening poems of Divine Comedies, themselves then further reflected in the nine sections of “Chimes for Yahya,” one for each chime on the “graduated brass / Pendant” that hangs in Merrill’s house in Athens and that was brought back from Isfahan, in the heart of the Muslim world—where Merrill was no less attentive to matters of numerology and numerical symmetry than Dante before him.

Allusions to Dante are, not surprisingly, thus rife throughout Divine Comedies, but there are prominent references to other predecessors, too, further driving home the volume’s title’s plural noun. In fact, most of the poems in the volume can be said to have their own corresponding classic with which they’re engaging. “Ephraim’s” is The Divine Comedy, no doubt, as its epigraph from the Paradiso makes clear, though there are also other candidates even here, just within this poem, among them Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where Merrill’s “lost novel” that “Ephraim” itself replaces even as it partially recreates it mirrors the structure of Nabokov’s text: Merrill’s poem houses a novel from which it takes its cues just as Nabokov’s novel houses a poem that drives its plot. With respect to the other poems that make up Divine Comedies, it is not surprising that Balzac’s own multi-volume epic, The Human Comedy, should feature in one of them, “McKane’s Falls,” while Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with its own concern with the otherworldly and the afterlife, lies at the heart of “Chimes for Yahya.” Manos Karastefanís reads War and Peace (brought to him by Merrill) in the hospital; “Verse for Urania” invokes the nine muses of Greco-Roman mythology; and “Yanniná” recounts, in part, the historical legend of Ali Pasha (1740-1822). Merrill even invokes his contemporaries: Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo” provided the form for “The Kimono,” whose white-haired lover mirrors “Whitebeard” in Part I’s terminal bookend, and two of the volume’s poems are dedicated to Richard Howard and Stephen Yenser, poets in their own right and, like Bishop, friends of Merrill. And one must of course also point out that wherever Merrill is, Proust and Stevens are never far behind; they are both invoked in prominent ways in “Ephraim” in particular.

As for “Lost in Translation,” it would seem that its most prominent intertextual reference is Valéry’s “Palme” and the Rilke translation of it the poet’s search for which leads to the occasion for the poem itself. But “Palme” is not the poem’s only intertextual reference; there are others. At one point Merrill shifts to the AABA quatrains of the Rubaiyat that he favored so much throughout his career, and Alan Nadel has made a compelling case for “Lost in Translation” as Merrill’s version of or response to Eliot’s The Waste Land, though 1966’s Nights and Days’ “The Thousand and Second Night” would seem, I think, to be a better candidate for this distinction. But while these particular intertextual reference points are fairly obvious within the poem and/or have been made much of in Merrill scholarship, little has been made of another text, or series thereof, that is both directly alluded to in “Lost in Translation” and that might serve as a model no less than Dante or Proust for how we might approach and make sense of Merrill’s work as a whole. I refer, of course, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries; “The plot thickens / As all at once two pieces interlock.”

That well-known phrase, of course, belongs to Holmes and is first uttered in A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes mystery. As the case in that novel gets more and more convoluted and difficult, Holmes “mutters” to Watson, almost with delight: “the plot thickens.” Since then it’s taken its place in the constellation of phrases we utter regularly without perhaps knowing where they come from, but Merrill, in this case, no doubt knew, and knew a great deal more, as well, including at least the outline of Conan Doyle’s own absorption, later in his life, in forms of spiritualism that can best be described as occult rather than mainstream, not unlike the Ouija Board of the Sandover trilogy or the episode of the medium that occurs early in “Lost in Translation,” a medium who is as much Conan Doyle-as-spiritualist as he is Holmes-as-rationalist, deducing via ESP what lies within the “plain tole / Casket” without having seen it beforehand. He announces matter-of-factly, “Piece of a puzzle,” to astonishment and applause, not unlike Holmes’s seemingly impossible feats of deduction based on the scantest of evidence and the regular dropping of the jaw they induce in Watson.

But not so fast. From the very outset “Lost in Translation” has as much to do with Conan Doyle and his most famous creation as the poems that follow it, “McKane’s Falls” and “Chimes for Yahya,” have to do with Balzac and Dickens, respectively. Maybe even a good deal more, in fact. The poem presents a series of puzzles, or cases, that have to be solved by various figures within it, even as the manner in which all of these puzzles relate to one another is as it were the supreme puzzle set for the poem’s reader, and it is “a superior one” indeed, as any first time reader of the poem will be likely to inform you as, sooner or later, they throw up their hands like an exasperated Watson, trying to make sense of it all.

In the scene from childhood alone there are several mysteries awaiting their solution: the ordered puzzle has not yet shown up; the boy’s parents are as absent as the puzzle; once the puzzle does arrive, there’s the task of putting it together, making stories of its variously shaped pieces along the way, even as one fits them together; and the boy, snooping about like any respectable detective, peeks at his governess’s letters while she bathes, already an amateur sleuth. He’s no Holmes, though: reading her descriptions in French of an innocent mother and a poor child, he thinks she’s telling the curé to whom she’s writing about the figures in the puzzle she’s putting together with her charge. It’s an elementary mistake, confusing life with representations thereof, a mistake that Merrill would go on to make over and over as he got older, only more artfully than incuriously as he matured.

As the child in memory tries himself to piece things together, so the adult poet tries to piece together his own memories, among other things. He’s no less beset by strange cases than his ten-year-old counterpart. The mystery that provides the poem with its occasion and unlocks the memory in a Proustian fashion in the first place is, of course, the question of whether or not a translation by Rilke of Valéry’s “Palme” does in fact exist. The poet, reading Valéry in French one night, recalls the German translation, where the blend of French and German then evokes a memory of his “Mademoiselle,” who taught him both languages. But when he then wants to revisit the Rilke translation, it’s nowhere to be found: he spends days “Ransacking Athens” for it to no avail. The poem proper doesn’t provide us with any sort of answer as to whether or not he ever finds it, or whether or not it even exists, but the poem’s epigraph, four lines from the translation, settle the matter: eventually the ransacking paid off.

An American living in Athens looking for a German translation of a French poem. The mélange of nationalities in the poem’s local narrative reflects events from the poet’s past on both a personal and a world-historical level. First, there is “Mademoiselle” herself, born a French child of an English mother and Prussian father, a mystery solved only “Long afterwards” when the poet learns her backstory from her nephew. But there is also then the backdrop of the approach of World War Two as the boy and his governess put together their puzzle. As they assemble borders on the card table in the library (there’s something evocative of the board game Clue here), borders across the Atlantic, simultaneously, are shifting and dissolving and being disassembled. If Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—” is a Civil War poem in which the poet’s own psyche mirrors what’s taking place around her, so, too, is “Lost in Translation” a World War Two poem, where what’s happening world-historically is mirrored in the act of a young boy putting together a puzzle with his Mademoiselle, herself “a widow since Verdun.” Not long after they’ve finished, “All too soon the swift / Dismantling” comes, a dismantling about to be played out on a much larger scale: “Irresistibly a populace / Unstitched of its attachments rattled down.” The sky crumbles, cities fall, habitations are swept away, and all that’s left in the aftermath is the “green / On which the grown-ups gambled,” a green that itself, in the form of Mother Nature, will be threatened, too, as a result of such reckless betting. Not for nothing is it referred to earlier in the poem, when the puzzle is still being put together, its populace assembled, as a “shrinking green,” where this threat that humans pose to their own environment will be further developed in both “The Book of Ephraim” and, more broadly still, the Sandover trilogy as a whole.

To go back though, now, to the scene in the poem’s London library (there are three libraries in the poem, one in New York, one in London, one in Athens). It’s a 26-line section (one for each letter of the alphabet? “Ephraim” in miniature?) all of which, save for the first three words, “Mademoiselle does borders—,” is enfolded within parentheses, themselves something of a container not unlike the miniature casket the medium considers. Thus, a puzzle piece rests in a casket held by a medium who is himself nestled securely within parentheses. Or, the puzzle piece resides within the casket-shaped block of stichic verse, itself contained within the larger poem that makes up a ninth of what is but Part One of a larger book fitted squarely in the middle of a now seemingly universe-sized oeuvre . . .

The setting is Holmes-esque: “A London dusk, December last.” The poet has ventured to a library to watch, with others, a grey-clad man who possesses supernatural powers in the form of second sight. He is handed the “plain tole casket,” not having seen what has been placed in it, and thereafter goes into a sort of trance, eyes closed, tracing, somehow, the object he is expected to divine all the way from its distant origins, hearing, first, the shriek of a saw in a forest of towering trees, as another green begins to shrink. At first, though, before the picture begins to take shape for him, he intones, “Even as voices reach me vaguely,” a line that, in a sense, will get stretched out into 33 lines to close section B of “Ephraim,” when JM and DJ themselves first vaguely come into contact with voices from the other world. But the shriek of the saw then drowns out whatever these voices were or might have been, a mechanical tool forestalling access to the divine, perhaps. (Merrill appreciated the Ouija board for, more than anything else, its clumsiness.) The medium, however, persists, and eventually comes to the conclusion that what the casket he holds in his hand contains is but “a freak fragment / Of a pattern complex in appearance only.” If something very near to this was never uttered by Holmes, it ought to have been. The initial title of A Study in Scarlet was A Tangled Skein, a metaphor for the knots of crimes and clues and suppositions that Holmes has to unravel into something linear via the application of reason and deduction. It’s not the worst metaphor one could come up with for anyone who picks up a volume of Merrill’s poetry, each poem, each line, each word of which can be profitably described as a “freak fragment / Of a pattern complex in appearance only,” as once appearances are pierced and “Panel[s] slid back” and recesses made familiar, it all clicks nicely into place, the effect of the poet’s own “long-term lamination / Of hazard and craft.” Lamination, here, is “the technique or process of manufacturing a material in multiple layers, so that the composite material achieves improved strength.” Merrill’s, then, is a poetry of lamination indeed, his efforts and techniques, his hazard and craft resulting in works of artifice that ought to garner no less applause than the medium’s successful divination, “Plywood. Piece of a puzzle.” Or, no less applause than Watson sees fit to regularly bestow upon Holmes after each new act of miraculous deduction.

One begins to think that if the pages of Divine Comedies, instead of being made from the same trees that puzzle pieces come from, were transparencies, the result of their all being laid on top of one another would be not so much a tangled skein of black lines and blotches, but the revelation of a charm to be uttered, and uttered by way of that most common of things we all learn to sing at an early age: the alphabet.

Works Cited

Conan Doyle, Arthur. A Study in Scarlet. Penguin Classics, 2001.

Merrill, James. Divine Comedies. New York: Atheneum, 1976.

Daze of Days

“Beacon in a Dark Fog” by Adam Strauss

Deep haze and dreamscapes penetrate my waking-states, almost daily. It’s been about a year since I “quit” drinking; I would have expected more clarity. Then again, I still have a cocktail once every month or so. Still, I never would have expected (relative) sobriety to be a gateway into a greater separation from myself. I’ve become an outsider to my own flesh, a mere spectator to the Escherian nightmare, my life, unfurling before me. Can it be that a drunken decade, ten whole years spent in daze, is somehow more real than this moment? I pick up Braving the Elements, searching its lyrics, and my mind, for answers.

Of course, Merrill is never really a poet of the answer or the moment (the exception being the intimations between the present and the past). Nevertheless I find a sense of affirmation, almost camaraderie, in “Days of 1935,” which is, perhaps, what I was actually seeking in the first place. The first stanza’s “I’d steel myself at night/To see, or sleep to see” introduces us, not only to a witty and humorous display of the poet’s latent desires to be kidnapped, but also to a struggle between fantasy and reality that permeates the piece throughout. The very notion of sleeping “to see” suggests that there is a certain aspect of the dream, or daydream, that is more real than waking life (3-4).

The language of the poem carries the surrealism ever onward. Merrill employs words like “spell,” “swoon,” “masked,” and “imagination,” wrapping us in a sheet as mystical as it is feverish (10, 13, 17). The dirt road the poet is spirited away upon is “tenuous,” suggesting both a dubious construction, and also an uncertainty of its existence at all (21). The “unwrinkling chart” of the captor’s brow invokes imagery of an unfolding horoscope – the scene is as transcendental as it is scripted – it’s “written in the stars,” as it were (24). And then, of course, their destination is liminal, both in space and time, “Dawn” being between night and day, their physical position in the “middle of nowhere,” suspended in unreality behind a veil of “dust and glare,” these final factors heightening the obscurity of the sequence (24-28).

The quatrains and strict alternating rhyme scheme of “Days of 1935” transforms the poem’s otherwise dark subject-matter – the kidnapping (and sometimes murdering, if we’re to make inferences from the “Lindbergh baby” of line 9) of children, Stockholm syndrome, sexual abuse, capital punishment, and so on – into a jaunty ballad that gives us, as passengers, an easy ride. The form is also evocative of a children’s poem, and given that the poet awakens from his hallucination with no dream-fulfillment, it’s possible to read this, too, as a ballad of lamentation – another one of Merrill’s chronicles of love and loss. The result is that we, along with the poet, are caught like “Dew spangles” in “the web’s heart,” somewhere between memory and desire, somewhere between what we have been and what we want to become, neither of which allows for an independent identity of the here and now (18).

I can’t help but feel that the chord Merrill strikes in “Days of 1935” rings truer than life itself. Where are those bursts of creative spontaneity that would, in the days of my youth, steal me away from the mundanity of nine-to-five existence? Maybe I never should have quit drinking. Like the child in the poem, I have become bored and burnt out, no longer full of wonder, the boy and I are now “half-grown” instead of half-young (208). The “lady out of Silver Screen” from much earlier in the poem calls to mind the projection of a film, reminding me of the sensation of being a spectator to my own life and, retrospectively, informs us that the entirety of “Days of 1935” is a strange act of destiny in which we have no agency, nor place except as a bystander – a dizzying emotional state that I have to assume is much akin to that of having your child stolen from you, and know is akin to losing your own childhood (29).

My mind reels, playing out Merrill’s images back and forth, the “Silver Screen” as my focal point. The poem begins to chill me to the core. The poet’s parents are “Eerie, speaking likenesses,” the poet himself composed of “blanknesses and dots” (89, 94). Every surrounding object in the poet’s waking life, back at home, is a cheap imitation – the “board/Painted like board,” executives with “Heads of Cellophane or Tin,/With their animated wives,” his mother doing her make-up – all merely “Mimics the real” (275-276, 294, 278). I feel the hairs on my neck raise and tingle with the thought: “perhaps I’m not disillusioned… perhaps this is all illusion, a simulation, some sick play in which I have been assigned a role against my knowledge and my will, so that the invisible architects of reality can enjoy my every private pleasure and pain – all has been constructed for my, for our, exploitation.” I quickly discard the thought, fearing that I’m falling into an LSD flashback, or following the family trend towards schizophrenia.

I readjust my focus back to “Days of 1935,” looping it through my mind again. Suddenly a line jumps out at me – or rather, an association between lines – that I hadn’t noticed before. “Pluck,/Some deep nerve went. I knew/That life was fiction in disguise”… at once the poem is unlocked by this keystone line (104-15). The silver screen is no longer just so, but also the process by which cinema in general came to be defined, as a whole, as such. So too is all of life metonymous – the film screen takes on the name of the silver with which it was once associated, meanwhile we take on the many forms of everything preceding us. Our captivity, like the poet’s, is not a result of some Gorgonic force petrifying us in terror. Rather, the links binding us serve as a sort of conduit through which the true forms of all things flow – Leopold Bloom becomes Odysseus, life becomes art, we become ourselves. The existential dread of life as a replica breaks, dissipating back into the sea of the only thing that still remains – the deep haze. The surface of my daily dreamscape is still again, unbroken, save for the small ripple of something that has plunged just below the surface – the cold comfort that everything we do is everything we’ve done.

Works Cited

Merrill, James. Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 2015.

Fire from Heaven

Cold nights. Some storm’s come whirling down from Canada, and Bozeman’s streets are pale and clear—a skiff of snow over white ice. The wind is bitter, raw, and hollowly cold, fringed with humid frost. I’ve been stuck inside all day. Merrill’s Fire Screen is open next to me—mocking me, I suddenly think. His face peers from the cover with a mysterious half-smile.

I go outside and smoke. From my porch I can see lights in houses across the dark of our alleyway. People move inside the lit frames, silently, their windows firmly shut against the cold. I, in the dark, accompanied by my cigarette’s bobbing ember, can see into their lives as though I stood outside a two-way mirror. They, illuminated, cannot see me.

Cold and dark, warm and lit: those are the very images that Merrill is playing with in The Fire Screen. Dualities of both spiritual and material worlds create conflicts all across the poetry of this volume. Water and fire mix uneasily. These poems were written when Merrill was living in Greece, and the poems are shot through with “Greekness”—a sensibility which encompasses not only classical myth but the realities of 1960s Greece, a world in which Merrill saw echoes of classical motifs. In fact, one could read—if one were so inclined—the entirety of The Fire Screen as a kind of hero quest, Merrill’s personal revisiting of myth and legend within daily life.

The volume begins with “Lorelei”—a kind of siren-like figure out of mythology, a feminine water spirit that sang sailors to their deaths. Merrill pictures himself stepping out over “The stones of kin and friend / Stretch[ing] off into a trembling, sweatlike haze” (ll. 1-2). The stones, like stepping stones, lead vaguely across this dreamscape, until the narrator is stranded; whereupon the siren emerges:

Soft gleams lap the base of the one behind you
On which a black girl sings and combs her hair.

It’s she who some day (when your stone is in place)
Will see that much further into the golden vagueness

Forever about to clear. Love with his chisel
Deepens the lines begun upon your face. (7-12)

The siren song is thus made out as an alluring step backwards. The “black girl” (recalling, perhaps, the Greeks’ fascination with their African neighbors) is the one who finally sees, not the narrator: he is too busy clinging to the remnants of “kin and friend.” He can only see what is immediately in front of his eyes. He is dependent upon, but blind toward, the past and future.

It is not accidental, either, that the volume begins with a motif straight out of the classical hero myth: a mysterious figure calling the hero “into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood,” as Joseph Campbell puts it in his seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces (42). Like Dante, we join Merrill partway through his life. The straightforward path has been lost. He is provided with a terrifying, deathly, alluring Beatrice, the Lorelei. The descent must needs follow.

I don’t want to overemphasize the hero-myth aspects of the volume, though, because Merrill sees himself not as a capital-H Hero but merely the hero-of-the-story: that is, the protagonist. Heroes properly are reborn in a complete fashion. Castor and Pollux are cast into the stars; Achilles becomes invulnerable. In “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” Merrill too tries rebirth via postcard. His friend, “having cared and ceased to care” (l. 56), has been collecting the stamps off his old postcards by dissolving the cards in water. Incidentally, this also dissolves the ink, which “Turns to exactly the slow formal swirls / Through which a phoenix flies on Chinese silk. / These leave the water darker but still clear, / The text unreadable” (37-40). The phoenix imagery is not accidental. The friend is cutting ties, seeing scene upon scene “rinsed of the word” (45), going somewhere where he knows “Barely enough to ask for food and love” (28). Merrill tries it—the ink dissolves, “almost a wild iris taking shape” (62), and he “[hears] oblivion’s thin siren singing” (63) much like his Lorelei—but the experiment fails. His mother’s writing “remained legible, / The memories it stirred did not elude me. // I put my postcards back upon the shelf. / Certain things die only with oneself” (67-70).

Merrill is not the traditional hero; likewise, his “myths” are not populated with the usual figures of hero quests. Or, in any case, those archetypal figures are rendered in a new light. “Words for Maria” imagines the Muses as a petty, jaded, aging woman—but one who is nonetheless a riveting figure. Maria, this strange Muse, lives in Athens but escapes to nature by gardening in an almost-undecorated house on the coast (“A whitewahsed cube with tout confort / You’d built but would not furnish” (ll. 42-43)), save for a gigantic Empire mirror. She is a part of nature, yes, but she also loves her favorite coffeeshop too much to make gardening anything more than a pastime. This Muse is not the universal Grace that inspired the ancient Greeks—in fact, Maria is divisive. The not-so-coincidentally-named Sapphó refuses flatly to see her. But for Merrill, she is “the muse / Of my off-days” (68-9). Even the tangled rhyme scheme of the poem (ABCDCBDAA) reflects this kind of upturning of classical forms—this is not straighforward beauty or elegance that we are dealing with. The poem is, however, regularly metrical. The constraints of the world have, in a sense, produced the nonchalant elegance of Maria herself, as the poem’s form reflects. By contrast, the regular rhyming couplets of “Kostas Tympakianákis” present a topsy-turvy world, one in which a young man is only just becoming jaded at the world. He says to Merrill, “I’m twenty-two. It’s someone else’s turn to dream” (14). Familial quarrels, pride, histories of violence, a dead brother and father, lost opportunities, heartbreak—Kostas has already been reduced to a sad story and a wineglass. He tells Merrill, “write my story down for people. Use my name. / And may it bring you all the wealth and fame / It hasn’t brought its bearer” (45-47). Merrill takes up the mask and presents us with a dramatic monologue, disguised as the speaker.

Elsewhere, in “To My Greek,” Merrill explores the very fact of his being a poet—or, rather, the fact that his language fails him—or, rather rather, the fact that he fails his language. (It’s all very complicated.) (Or, one might say, “it’s all Greek to me.”) He personifies the language of Greek as a nut, a woman in bed, a “coastline of white printless coves // Already strewn with offbeat echolalia” (l. 9). The poem is also about/to his Greek lover, Strato Mouflouzelis; in a way, then, the poem is not only about broken language but about the failures of communication between people. Other humans—their motivations, desires, secret thoughts—are fundamentally and inescapably Other, inaccessible to us. Language, “talking it out,” only gets one so far in understanding. Like a foreign language, we inhabit such understandings uneasily, and never without our own frame of reference—our own “language”—as the interpreter. His mother tongue, English, is “the sibyl I turn to // When all else fails me, when you [Greek] do…Her automation and my mind are one” (21-25). But, as his friend comments in “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” that very automation is a serious problem:

I’m tired of understanding
The light in people’s eyes, the smells, the food.
……….
Tired of understanding what I hear,
The tones, the overtones; of knowing

Just what clammy twitchings thrive
Under such cold flat stones

As We-are-profoundly-honored-to-have-you-with-us
Or This-street-has-been-torn-up-for-your-convenience” (15-25).

Language, like the Lorelei, is both beautiful and lethal. It reveals and disguises. It is necessary—for poetry, to ask for food or love, to send postcards to a friend—but it is also seriously duplicitous. All through The Fire Screen there is a desire to pass beyond the confines of myth, or language, into a purer kind of life. Merrill is seeking renewal. As he says at the close of “To My Greek,” “The barest word be what I say in you.”

The result, perhaps, of this desire for rebirth is echoed in the kind of turn the book goes through. The myths shift—“The Envoys” explores death and retribution, as well as the myth of Phaedra, who tried to seduce her stepson Hippolytus while her husband, the hero Theseus, was in the underworld. (Of course, things don’t end happily.) ‘“Light of the Street, Darkness of Your Own House’” addresses the myths of Phaethon and Danaë, both of whom are connected negatively to light: the half-mortal Phaethon drove the chariot of the sun to his doom, and Danaë was seduced by Zeus in the form of golden rain. “Part of the Vigil” features Merrill shrinking so as to explore his lover’s heart; “Nike” turns the Greek goddess of victory into a kind of compulsive liar; “Remora” imagines the self as a parasitic fish; and, perhaps most poignantly, “Flying from Byzantium” subverts Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” into the death of an older poet, and his subsequent, inevitable rebirth in “a young scribe.” These poems smack little of transcendence, and a great deal of a corrupted world. Light is not good; the gods are vicious and changeable; heroes are shot through with doubt, fear, bad desires. Even the ornate verse of Yeats is rendered eventually worthless, simply another stepping-stone to cling to. This phase of the book seems to take place in what Campbell calls “the belly of the whale.” Having crossed the threshold into the underworld, the world of spirits, Merrill is in a dark new place: “The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died” (74). Merrill’s death is not so literal—but the poems do begin to feel falsifying. “Another August” admits that Merrill, to please a lover, “wore that fiction like a fine white shirt / And asked no favor but to act the part” (ll. 21-22). The clouds of his mind “now are dark pearl in [his] head” (6). The death is not a literal death, but a symbolic annihilation of the self, a realization of mortality and the strange happenstance of existence. In “A Fever” Merrill sees a blithe young girl through a lens of shifting, fever-dreamscapes: “her face / Freshly made up bends down to evening’s deep embrace. / I savor the thin paints upon my tongue” (68-70). This section of the book contains three poems about that most wonderfully melodramatic of art forms: the opera. Life, Merrill suggests, is nothing less and nothing more than insubstantial art. And that is precisely why it is valuable—because created, because beautifully falsified, our life has a subject, objects, desires, meaning. The Lorelei sings low and sweet.

And it is in this final section that we finally come round, to the fire screen. In the last volume, there were several poems about houses—“The Broken Home,” most famously. Now, in Greece, Merrill finds himself in a new home environment in “Mornings in a New House.” The house is lit by fire in the cold mornings—but the man, the maker and beneficiary of the fire, is sequestered from it by an heirloom, an embroidered fire screen. Family separates one from the eternal flame, which is both consumer and savior, life and death. Countless religions have envisioned life, and divinity, in fiery manifestations. The Elohist writers of the Old Testament saw God as towers of flame; Prometheus raised mankind from bestiality by his gift of fire; theologians have called God a “fire in the head.” The hero of “Mornings in a New House” stands watching the fire screen, which many years before had been embroidered by his mother as a child with “giant birds and flowery trees / To dwarf a house, her mother’s—see the chimney’s / Puff of dull yarn!” (ll. 14-16). Each glowing uprush of flame makes the scene more alive:

Infraradiance, wave on wave,
So enters each plume-petal’s crazy weave,
Each worsted brick of the homestead,

That once more, deep indoors, blood’s drawn,
The tiny needlewoman cries,
And to some faintest creaking shut of eyes
His pleasure and the doll’s are one. (26-32).

Paradoxically, the screen has not sequestered the fire at all; the screen’s little scene is animated and made living by the fire that it conceals. As Merrill puts it in the poem’s footnote: “Fire screen—screen of fire” (ll. 33-34). The poem’s hero stands and considers that his mother was once a little girl. His reflections, like the reflections of the fire itself at the poem’s outset, bring to life the inanimate objects of the past. He sees all his family’s history spread out like a doll would have perceived it—he becomes not a hero but the passive object of witnessed history. The hero would seem to have died. Or perhaps he was once again reborn. Campbell has this to say on the Return Threshold: “The two worlds, the divine and the human, can be pictured only as distinct from each other…[but] the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero. The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness” (188). Merrill returns from the underworld. He hasn’t moved from Greece.

Across the street, a woman appears suddenly. She’s blonde, fey-featured, lissome and gorgeous. She gazes out a moment into the dark—she hesitates—my cigarette gives me away. I raise a hand. She smiles and waves—in blessing? farewell?—and closes her curtains on the frigid black night. I go back in to my lit house, its windows pouring light across the fence, the raspberry bushes, the cars like sleeping animals, their eyes faintly catching, holding the light.

Citations

Merrill, James. The Fire Screen, from Collected Poems: James Merrill, ed. J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, third ed., New World Library, 2008.

A Morning Convalescence

Before sunrise on an unspecific day last week, I was asked by one of the three most important women in my life to give her a lift to work, seeing as her vehicle has been decommissioned for nearly three months now. The morning began at 4:15 a.m., when I opened my eyes and saw the half-face of James Merrill next to me, on the cover of his collected poems. This immediately brought to mind the poem, “The Thousand and Second Night,” in which Merrill writes, “I woke today / With an absurd complaint. The whole right half / Of my face refuses to move.” I also awoke with an “absurd” complaint (who wakes up at 4:15 a.m.??), and seeing his half-face on the heavy book next to me generated a chain reaction of thoughts related to the duality of man in my recent studies of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

At 4:55 a.m., I waited outside her apartment and read the first stanza of “An Urban Convalescence.” I shivered since the heat in my truck takes an average of sixteen minutes to kick in, which I checked with a timer function on my mobile. Only about ten minutes had passed since I first started it and cleaned snow off the hood. I read each line of the first stanza and ruminated on it, feeling a special “human” connection to the third line, which reads, “…chilled through, dazed and lonely…” I was indeed quite chilled, and definitely dazed in how tired I felt, an obvious side effect of watching British television shamefully late the night before. The loneliness aspect of the experience came from the singularly dull feeling of waiting in a cold truck in what seems to be the dead of night. It would be another two or three hours before the sun would even peek over the horizon. This carries an especially depressing weight; ask anyone who lives here.

The fifth line of the stanza evoked an image in my mind. Merrill describes the “huge crane,” which people are watching “Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.” Specifically, this idea of “the filth of years” brings to mind my past. It doesn’t seem at all a maddening speculation that everyone carries their pains and their regrets with them—forever. This garbage from the past, I feel, is often poorly navigated and rarely dealt with in an effective manner; rather, if we think of the “huge crane” as a type of catalyst for the destruction of an old, broken down way of thinking or living, or of memories that stay with us and bring about negativity and suffering, it makes sense that this catalyst would “Fumble luxuriously through the filth,” the negativity of our minds that comes from the past. Although, “fumble” suggests a type of imbalance, like an uncertainty of motion that, at least in football, represents an error. But now I want to think of how one might “fumble luxuriously,” an erroneous, clumsy act coupled with one that is comfortable and elegant. This is how Merrill describes the “huge crane” that is “tearing up part of [his] block,” and perhaps more interestingly, how I suspect he’s describing an act of mental deconstruction to disarm and move on from the past.

Just as I read the line that refers to Graves’s The White Goddess, I looked up and saw her hallway light flick on from the window. I put the book down and ran around the truck to open her door for her. She once commented on how much she appreciated it, so I labeled it a type of standard for our early-morning meetings. The roads were icy, prompting me to switch on my four-wheel drive while traveling, admittedly, much faster than the posted speed limit down 27th Street. After I dropped my companion off, I waved goodbye and proceeded to a coffee shop to continue my reading. I pulled out the dense Merrill book in the parking lot upon my arrival, looking once more at the first stanza. Merrill regards the “huge crane” as a feminine entity, labeling it “her” twice, perhaps linking it to Graves’ book about the feminine divine in mythology. I began toying with the idea that the crane represents something powerful enough to “deconstruct” the past, a feminine deity, of sorts, that rummages through “the filth of years,” and that’s why Merrill is reminded of The White Goddess. I was reminded of Merrill’s own “Lost in Translation” while reading the last line of the first stanza, due to the reminiscent quality of the sentiment, which is seen in the nostalgic recollections of his later poem. This line generates the sense that the poet is reveling, or musing on the past and material he’s encountered. Merrill utilizes associative memory strings, which build-off one another tangentially to create a form of organized daydream of his life. He also explores self-corrective interruption, which he learned from Elizabeth Bishop, according to an essay by Guy Rotella. A clearer example of this occurs in the third stanza, “–Or am I confusing it with another one / In another part of town, or of the world?–”

If I had to explain one major take-away from Water Street, published in 1966, I would have to bring up confessional poetry, reportedly started by Robert Lowell in 1959 with the publishing of his book, Life Studies. Timothy Materer, author of James Merrill’s Apocalypse, compares Lowell’s “For the Union of the Dead,” published in a poetry collection of the same name in 1964, with “An Urban Convalescence.” Confessional poetry seems to have had an influence on Merrill, as this poem, and poetry collection, seems to investigate the poet’s destructiveness as a necessity for creation. In the wake of destruction, creation of something new is given the chance to grow and develop. Can destruction, in and of itself, be a radical form of self-creation? “An Urban Convalescence” is the first poem in Water Street, and “A Tenancy” is the last. In “A Tenancy,” it appears that Merrill finally has found peace, inviting three muse-like figures into his home near the end, with consistent references to light “healing” and “changing” him, like the chair: “A changing light is deepening, is changing / To a gilt ballroom chair a chair / Bound to break under someone before long.” The next line continues, “I let the light change also me.” “A Tenancy” is about renewal, while “An Urban Convalescence” is about destroying the old to make way for the new, cleaning out the emotional pain from the past to build a brighter future. Of course, there are quite a few obvious implications embedded in this idea, since there is value in remembering the past, even its unpleasantries. Sites of destruction are recommissioned as opportunities to learn and grow. Merrill admits his own “moral waste,” his “filth of the years” in the last seven stanzas of “An Urban Convalescence,” where the form “tightens” as the poet enters indoors, a change from the structure presented before while “Out for a walk, after a week in bed…”

Works Cited

Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Cornell University Press, 2000, New York.

Merrill, James. Collected Poems. Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2001, New York.

Rotella, Guy. from “James Merrill’s poetry of convalescence”. Contemporary Literature 38.2, 1997, unspecified location.

Sorrow’s Lost Secret Center

A selfie of Merrill and Friar at Amherst, from Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art

A black and white photo snapped in 1945 at Amherst College depicts the face of a  man, dark hair receding, gaze appearing somewhat drowsy, the deep marks of time carried in crow’s feet parenthetically framing his mouth.  Next to him a boy, lighter of hair, wild-eyed, his face slightly blurred with motion, giving the vague impression of a second face. The man is Kimon Friar, an Amherst professor at the time.  The boy is his student, lover, and budding young poet, James Merrill. The picture has a strange, ghost-like quality about it, perhaps because the shot is of the reflection of the two in a mirror.

So much about this particular photograph seems too coincidental in its anticipation of Merrill’s future: his relationships with men, the many face-like masks he would don through his poetry, his art and life reflecting one another, and his interactions with the spirits of the “Other World.”  In the picture the right side of Merrill’s face appears to droop, predicting a Bell’s palsy attack many years later, which Merrill himself described as “the crack in the mirror of the soul” that would leave the same half of his face in temporary paralysis (Hammer 323). And, as phantasmal as Friar and Merrill appear, so too would the love they shared haunt Merrill like a specter for years to come.

But the forward-looking mirror also gazes back.  The obliquity of Merrill’s face echoes the broken home he came from, his parents having divorced when he was young.  Just as his face is motion-blurred, the “I” in his poetry is never static, never transparent, instead reflective like eye and mirror alike.  Curious (or in Merrill’s case, perhaps not so curious) how the word “reflection” can be taken to mean not only the duplication (and reversal) of an image, but also a careful consideration of things past.  Merrill’s work is so much about both, marrying past and present through memory. Consequently, it becomes impossible to determine which is the reflection: Merrill’s physical face, or his image in the mirror; his life, or his art?  The two collide, at once fracturing and infusing.

Likewise, his poetry is faceted, each poem a shard making up one singular, yet shattered, mirror.  It is important to remember that when mirror-glass cracks, the images it reflects are not perfectly broken.  In other words, a boy’s face will not become pieces that fit cleanly together. Instead, a multitude of similar but dissonant semblances of the boy’s face are assembled, many pieces overlaid or distorted in form.  One “I” becomes countless. One Merrill becomes myriad, overlapping in appearance and time. One shard crops out the wrinkles of his face, another shows the deep lines on his forehead, two reflections of his smile almost align, uniting for a single, flashing moment, youth and age; history looking forward, present looking back.

With this in mind, we hope you will join us in our efforts to puzzle together the pieces of some of this poet’s integral works, eventually leading into the prolific Sandover trilogy. This site will house not only our thoughts conjured forth in contemplation of Merrill’s work – in both blog and podcast formats – but also a slough of useful resources for our followers to embark on their own voyages into Merrill’s, and indeed all poetry’s, mercurial waters; “Sorrow’s lost secret center,” as he dubs it himself in “The Black Swan” (23).

This is no simple engagement. When I tell you that Merrill himself died still plumbing the depths of this hidden impetus, this cradle of artistic creation, you can begin to understand the gravity of our undertaking. Our journey will be one eldritch in nature – the occult investigation, required as a keystone to much of Merrill’s work, itself invites certain dangerous spirits into one’s life.

And yet, remembering that every shadow, by necessity, owes its existence to the presence of a light, however changing it may be, so too may this be a journey of metamorphoses – like the Black Swan itself “by the gentlest turning of its neck” transforms, “in time, time’s damage;/To less than a black plume, time’s grief” – a reversal in which decay and death are substituted with purity, with immortality, fabricating a strange paradise “Where every paradox means wonder” (19-21, 7).

Works Cited

Hammer, Langdon. James Merrill: Life and Art. New York, Knopf. 2015.

Merrill, James. Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 2015.