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.
Merrill, James. Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 2015.
Merrill, James. The Book of Ephraim. New York, Knopf, 2018.