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:








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.