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.