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.
Merrill, James. Selected Poems. Knopf. 2015.
Merril, James. The Changing Light at Sandover. Knopf. 1993.