Quarantine. Self-imposed isolation. Today’s terms apply to yesterday’s poets. How to occupy oneself when stuck at home all day? Pull out the Ouija board, have a small party with non-corporeal and therefore non-infectious guests. While away the hours in conversation. Cardboard, Sharpie, teacup. Batteries not required, screens not involved. Pen and paper will do. Zoom meetings with the dead.
Self-isolation is a theme that runs throughout Sandover. In Ephraim JM and DJ find their regular removal from other living people mainly idyllic. Occasionally they feel the need for “a real, live guest,” but more often than not the board provides the necessary excuse for the two of them to spend the majority of their time alone together. And when they do have the occasional hunch that the practice of using the board may indeed be less innocent than they would like to believe, it’s easily dismissed, as in the episode when JM relates “the whole story” to his therapist, Tom. For Tom, it’s less a question of the extent to which the board provides JM and DJ with an excuse for not spending time with other people than of how it functions as a substitute for the specific way in which JM and DJ can’t bring a third person into their midst, via having a child together. All of this meddling with the board, orchestrating, with Ephraim, things on earth in such a way that the soon-to-be delivered children of JM’s niece, Betsy, and DJ’s friend’s wife, Gin, will be the representatives of Ephraim and Hans Lodeizen, respectively, well, what lies behind such “odd/Inseminations by psycho-roulette,” asks Tom, but the desire to have a child of their own, or at least the desire to say to a disapproving world that takes the shape of an intimidating “Father Figure,” see, we have had children! But the situation does not seem especially grave. Tom makes JM spell it out, and when JM asks like a diligent student, having done so, “good enough?” Tom himself says insouciantly, “I’ve heard worse,” allowing JM and DJ to continue their “folie à deux” with few qualms. Just another kind of indoor game. After the session, JM “walk[s] out into much/Guilt-obliterating sunlight,” and the same evening he’s back at the board with DJ, talking to Ephraim: “We’d think some other time/About the hour with Tom/—Nonchalance that would gradually extend//Over a widening area.” Who needs the curtailments of other people when you have all the host of the dead with whom to communicate?
For all of the qualms they have about the board, then, from sensing from time to time that they must indeed spend the occasional afternoon with other people, to wondering what deep psychological need their use of the board fulfills, JM and DJ, throughout the majority of the time period Ephraim chronicles, persist in maintaining their breezy attitude towards the way they’ve decided to “sound each other’s depths of spirit.” Actively channeling the spirits of the dead beats turning channels in a passive death-in-life. And if it means for the most part shutting themselves off from others, practicing voluntary self-isolation, maintaining a certain distance between themselves and the rest of the world, so be it. What does that do, after all, but make them like any number of new parents with their first child, closing the doors on their former lives and doting over their newborn? “Ephraim’s revelations—we had them/For comfort, thrills and chills, ‘material.’/He didn’t cavil.” A happy family of three then, or perhaps a ménage à trois, immune to the world outside.
By Mirabell, however, certain fears begin to become more than just passing in nature as the couple’s use of the board begins to consume more and more of the time they spend together: is this healthy? is this good for their relationship? shouldn’t they be spending more time outside, in the sunshine, and with others? Over the final two books of the trilogy DJ in particular logs several protests and complaints: they need to get out more, they need to see their friends, they can’t stay cooped up inside all day at the board, which has now ceased to be an occasion for fun and games and become instead a dangerous obsession. “Isn’t it like a door/Shutting us off from living?” he asks. “I’ve no zest/For anything else, can’t even watch TV./This town’s full of good friends we hardly see.” Not as invested in the project as JM is, perhaps in part because it isn’t resulting in work to which his name is being attached, DJ wonders anxiously, “Will that door readmit/Us to the world? Will we still care for it?” An easy return at a moment’s notice doesn’t seem guaranteed.
The complaint was made from the other side, too, in Merrill and Jackson’s lives, by their friends. Alison Lurie’s Familiar Spirits records her jealousy of and suspicion concerning her friends’ use of the board. She wanted them back but couldn’t have them. They were enthralled, enmeshed in other worlds, increasingly obsessed, and perhaps imperiled. This portion of Lurie’s memoir reads like the hurt reflections of a cast-off friend who’s turned her spite on the thing for which she’s been abandoned, but others raised their eyebrows, too, alarmed at how deep into the rabbit hole Jimmy and David were burrowing.
In Mirabell, in response to DJ’s qualms and fears, JM likens the pair to Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, in the midst of a great quest that their neighbors back home wouldn’t understand. It’s easy to see who’s who in JM’s mind here, to the disadvantage of DJ, relegated to the position of ever the faithful helper and attendant. JM’s point, though, is that embarking on such a quest often comes at the cost of anything resembling a normal social existence: Frodo and Sam in the end “come through/—It’s what, in any Quest, the heroes do—/But at the cost of being set apart,/Emptied, diminished.” The completion of the task, however, will be worth the price they pay. Besides, you’re not only emptied and diminished along the way, but also elevated, precisely to the status of mythic figures, and you get to take others along with you in the ascension, enfolding them in mythic splendor, too: Maria Mitsotàki, Robert Morse, and George Kotzias are by now people whom we know first and foremost through Merrill’s poetry. And anyone else who comes within the purview of the board has its mythic gilt rub off on them, even if only incidentally. Who wouldn’t trade in a banal, standard existence for this sense of exceptionalness and the gift of being able to bestow it upon others? It’s the decision Achilles made: instead of a normal family life, with children and longevity, he opts for glory and honor. Well, if you win the National Book Award for Poetry, perhaps it is a worthwhile trade-off, but what compensation for DJ aside from being JM’s faithful hand? Certainly, here, one can see the relationship between the two beginning to fracture as it becomes more hierarchical than egalitarian. The board paid more dividends to Merrill than it did to Jackson.
These fractures, though, did not occur until the latter half of the 1970s. In the latter half of the 1950s, the love between the two aspiring writers was still young and exciting, and its future still as yet unconverted into a past. They traveled everywhere together, and they took their homemade board with them.
Merrill’s poetry contains, among other things, an irregular record of the flights he took over the course of his life, frequently between Greece and New York, but to and from many other places, as well: England, Italy, the Middle East; the deep south, the desert southwest; Florida, California, Japan; and so on. It’s important that his 1966 update on Yeats is titled “Flying from Byzantium.” Merrill was a globe-trotter. He rarely stayed in one place for long, and his primary mode of transportation was the airplane. It’s a lifestyle that in the present moment seems both increasingly unconscionable and practically unthinkable, because of carbon emissions and a pandemic, respectively. The former have made too much travel, especially by plane, whether for purposes of leisure or business, unethical; and the latter has made it all but impossible, as much a risk to one’s personal health as it is a hazard to the environment. The lifestyle would not have been objectionable, however, on these kinds of grounds in the mid-1950s, when it was more or less nascent. It might have been envied and sneered at on a class basis, but it would hardly have been disapproved of from an environmental or epidemiological vantage point. That kind of opprobrium didn’t come until later, when Merrill himself was one of the poets who registered it, in poems like 1992’s “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker.”
When Merrill and Jackson circumnavigated the globe by plane over the course of 1956 and 1957, the Swedish word flygskam was 60 years away from being coined. Even Silent Spring was still five years from its publication date. Merrill was thirty. There was no sense, either collective or personal, that this was something he should not be doing. Such commercial air travel was a new luxury to be indulged, not an act where one had to weigh either the benefit to oneself against the detriment to the world or the benefit to oneself against a potential personal health hazard. If it was something you could do, you did it. Reading section “K” of Ephraim in 2020, though, induces both a sad nostalgia for a suddenly bygone era that didn’t last but three-quarters of a century and a somber ruefulness concerning the human shortsightedness that has since placed not only the species but the planet itself in peril—a shortsightedness, of course, that continues to persist. Even towards the end of his life, when Merrill began to see more clearly the problems inherent in his lifestyle, not so much from a personal standpoint as from an environmental one, he saw, too, that there was little he could do to avoid continued complicity in the forces he now understood were spelling the ruin of the world. Such awareness actually first appears in his work in the pages of Divine Comedies, only it’s not yet intimately connected with his own way of life and all of its day-to-day realities. The “new formulae of megadeath” that alarm JM in Ephraim still have more to do with “Plutonium waste/Eking out in steel rooms undersea” than with, say, the First World penchant for leisure-, business-, and recreation-based air travel. By A Scattering of Salts, though, if not as soon as Mirabell, this has changed, the poet mocking his own corporate syntheticness and lamenting the effect that industrialized consumerism has had, is still having, and will continue to have on the world. When he wrote “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker,” however, he had just reached the age of retirement, his relationship with Jackson was all but completely over, and his death, his trip to another plane, was only three years away.
Section “K” of Ephraim details a happier, more carefree time, when Merrill and Jackson’s relationship was young and the couple made their way—almost like honeymooners—around the world, starting from New York and heading west. The stops recorded in the poem are as follows: San Francisco, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Turkey, Switzerland, Holland, and England. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” hovers in the background of these pages of Ephraim. (Bishop herself found The Book of Ephraim “fascinating” and a refreshing departure from the usual new volumes of poetry filled “with 14 or so tiny, repetitive little poems in them, frantically trying for effect by using dirty words.”) Merrill and Jackson’s itinerary is as fascinating for what it omits as for what it includes. Though they bring the board with them, Capri, Ephraim’s own birthplace, is deliberately bypassed. There will be no “meddling” in the form of searching for buried treasures, buried manuscripts, buried books that spirits from the other world have pointed the way to; they are not on a wild goose chase. Nor must there be attempts, they are reminded, to make contact on earth with loved ones who have died and since been reincarnated and whose new life locations have been made known to both scribe and hand. Thus in England JM and DJ make no effort to seek out JM’s father, news of whose death the couple received in Japan and who has since been reborn in Kew. The trip is thus more of a jaunt than any kind of mission or pilgrimage, but the death of the father does cast some shadow over it from one of its first legs.
The profundity of the death of a parent is counterpoised against the more absurd aspect of the enterprise: “The Rover Boys at thirty” flying around the world with their Ouija board, not so much seeking the resolution of mysteries that have to do with matters of cosmic import—that will come later—as simply making News from the Afterlife their preferred source of both information and entertainment. It is an absurdity of which Merrill himself is perfectly aware, and it does not end there. The father’s death may indeed cast a shadow over the trip, but it doesn’t change its essential tenor from one of light-heartedness to one of somber sobriety. Hijinks remain the rule, pleasure the principle. There is even something voyeuristic about the whole escapade, not because JM and DJ, as they go, are indulging their fetishes, Flaubert-style, in the exotic Orient, but because they themselves are the objects of Ephraim’s own sensual pleasure throughout much of the journey. They might get their news from him, but it’s he who’s watching them.
Section “K” begins with JM and DJ being sighted by Ayako Watanabe, DJ’s patron, “through a pale bronze disc/Half mirror and half gong/Hanging at Kamakura, in the shrine”—the dead can see the living through reflective surfaces. And shortly thereafter, in Osaka, the couple take in a puppet show from which they learn “what to be moved means,” where a central question that lies at the heart of Ephraim is embedded in this expression: exactly who is moving whom in this poem? Are JM and DJ themselves the puppets, “characters . . . in some superplot/Of Ephraim’s,” or is it the other way around: is Ephraim the puppet whom JM and DJ are controlling, and whom they have created? And what does it mean “to be moved”? There is the literal meaning, itself apposite in a chronicle detailing a circumnavigation of the globe, but also the figurative meaning, having to do with being emotionally overcome. After having been moved by the puppets in Osaka, JM, shortly thereafter, in Koya-san, finds himself paralyzed, “Trapped by a phone booth,” when he learns of his father’s death. When the news reaches him, JM realizes that he will be unable “to fly back in time” for the funeral, where this expression also contains within it a matter-of-fact acknowledgement: nor can he turn back time in its flight and retrieve and make better use of lost opportunities. A “centuries-old” Zen priest in the hereafter tells Ephraim approvingly that at the news JM showed “16FOLD/LACK OF EMOTION,” proof, it would seem, of his freedom from attachment to worldly things. However, while that “might be the view/From where they sit” (a phrase that takes us back to the puppet show, where now JM is the puppet but Ephraim a mere spectator, along with the priest), JM feels otherwise, and knows what he feels, regardless of what his frozen demeanor would seem to indicate. His paralysis, in fact, is indicative of precisely the extent to which he has been moved. Appearances, it seems, can be deceiving.
But to be moved also means to be aroused, and to be aroused carries with it a strong erotic connotation. And from Hong Kong to Istanbul, immediately after the couple’s departure from Japan, it’s Ephraim who is moved again and again by the sight of JM and DJ, often either partially or entirely unclothed, in a variety of settings in which reflective surfaces enhance, multiply, distort, and recolor their figures in many ways. Having already contacted Charles Merrill in the next world to make sure he’s okay (he “Looks forward to his next life”), JM is free to let go of the loss more quickly than is customary, and so to resume his adventure with DJ relatively sorrow-free, an adventure on which Ephraim regularly, like a satellite, glimpses them from overhead. He espies them at a tailor’s in Kowloon: “MY DEARS I AM BEST SUITED WHEN YOU STRIP”; laid out on bamboo daises in Bangkok; reflected in “flawed white sapphires” in Kandy; multiplied in the ceiling mirrors of Fatehpur-Sikri; and turned blue, red, green, and amber in the colored panes of a steam room in Istanbul. “I DECK MYSELF IN GLIMPSES AS IN GEMS,” he purrs.
Here is where the camp and eroticism of Ephraim meet its epic splendor and gravity and become inseparable from them. On the one hand there is a hide-and-go-seek peep show taking place, where at each new stop in a different part of the world, many of the locations sacred to people who live there, JM and DJ are found anew by Ephraim and if not ogled as though by a lover, then at least doted upon appreciatively as if he were their parent. On the other hand, “a mapmaker (attendant since Jaipur)/Says that from San Francisco our path traces/The Arabic for GREAT WONDER.” That is, read from right to left, or east to west (or West to East), their journey spells out two words in an epic poem, or perhaps a sacred text, the subject of which is the transmigration of souls between worlds and, more narrowly, the fate of lost loved ones. The “short but sweet spells on Earth” JM and DJ experience at each stop along their way, between which they find themselves removed from earth, high above it and hurtling through space, reflect the short but sweet spells on earth of each incarnation that a soul undergoes, each one a station on a larger, longer journey, where in between these stations one finds oneself temporarily removed from the world, to consult with one’s patron in the afterlife before being reoutfitted for and readmitted to the trials of existence.
Thus does Merrill participate in that most quintessential of postmodern acts, the collapsing of the distinction between high art and low or vulgar or common or “pop”—or even pornographic—art. Imagine Odysseus looking over consumer goods on a new and strange island and trying to figure out if his budget can allow for one more unnecessary purchase, the epic hero converted into a tourist participating in the global market; or Dante with an erection for Beatrice. —In fact, only two sections later, in “M,” having just been informed of how The Divine Comedy was in fact written, JM wonders cheekily of Earth and Heaven, Reality and Projection, “Which came first? And would two never come/Together, sleep then in each other’s arms?” Thus we are reminded that Eros is nothing if not mythic, that sensual, corporeal acts and ethereal, bodiless contemplations need not be collapsed into each other. They are and always have been two sides of the same coin, or better yet—see section “T”—two wands that hash each other.
The fact that section “K” of Ephraim begins with the word “Kimono’d” (“Kimono’d in red gold”…) of course sends us back, if it’s Divine Comedies we’re holding and not The Changing Light at Sandover, to “The Kimono,” the short love lyric with which Merrill’s 1976 award-winning volume begins. The reader will then not be surprised to find imagery in that first poem that anticipates the concerns of Ephraim. In addition to the book referred to in “Chimes for Yahya” that “compares the soul to a skimmed stone/Touching the waters of the world at points/Along a curve—Atlantis, Rome, Versailles,” where the similarities here to what’s described in section “K” of Ephraim are especially strong, there is also, in “The Kimono,” the beloved’s reminder to the speaker of the poem that “Desires ungratified/Persist from one life to the next.” The meaning here, not surprisingly, is at least double. It’s not just that my desires in this life will manifest themselves in some way in my next life, but that they will carry over from the realm of the corporeal into the realm of the ethereal, from one world to the next, as Ephraim’s own lasciviousness makes clear. Desire, in other words, is not a mere earthly phenomenon having to do with human bodies, but is also, as the etymology of word makes perfectly clear, something cosmic, of the stars: de sidere, a state of awaiting what the stars will bring.
“The Kimono” is about the manner in which our often groveling lusts and prideful yearnings and sensual hankerings are in fact rooted in both the mythic and the cosmic. It’s well known that Merrill took the form of “The Kimono” from Bishop’s “The Shampoo,” but it’s more than the form he’s borrowing and honoring; it’s the content, too. In the midst of the similarities between the two poems there are, of course, differences, Merrill being less interested in rendering an imitation than in paying homage. Both poems, for instance, consist of three rhyming sestets, but Bishop’s sestets rhyme ABACBC, Merrill’s ABABAB. Both poems have titles that take the simple form of “The _________,” where what follows looks like a noun (shampoo, kimono), though in Bishop’s poem the word “shampoo” seems at least as much a verb as it is a noun, if not more so. And while both poems are love poems addressed by the speaker to the beloved in the middle of an intimate act (washing one’s lover’s hair, the taking off and putting on of clothes in front of one’s lover), the lovers in Bishop’s poem are both women, the lovers in Merrill’s both men. The similarities between the two lyrics override such differences, though. And most important of all, perhaps, is the fact that both poems link the simple act of intimacy between two human beings that they describe with larger, swirling forces, not just the shape of two entire lives, but, beyond even that, the relation that shape has to forces of nature that extend into space; in other words, the relationship between human/earthly and divine/heavenly bodies.
In Bishop’s poem, the lichens on the rocks in the outdoor setting where the washing is taking place have “arranged/to meet the rings around the moon”; the basin in which the beloved’s hair is washed is itself “battered and shiny like the moon”; and the lover contemplates and delights in “The shooting stars” in the beloved’s “black hair,” the sure signs of age usually lamented but here fondly lingered over as indicative of a merging, or meeting, between two entities—the natural world and the beloved are metamorphosing into one another, as in Ovidian myth. Merrill’s poem, meanwhile, begins with a speaker recounting how his own hair has newly become “white as snow” as a result of the trials endured and survived on “lovers’ lane” when younger; emotions have come and gone in his life “like seasons”; and when he resolves, before his beloved’s eyes, to “change into/The pattern of a stream/Bordered with rushes white on blue,” he’s not only talking about putting on a kimono thus patterned, but also about a more literal metamorphosis, a “change into” a phenomenon from the natural world—Ovid again.
Ephraim’s own delight when he witnesses JM and DJ sunbathing and swimming nude out on a sandbar off the Connecticut coast, or relaxing in a steam bath in Istanbul, or stretched out upon daises in Bangkok, is but the delight that JM and DJ take in each other thus positioned and arrayed, transposed onto a third, ethereal, and invisible plane, that they might know together and simultaneously what it is to be looked on and loved from a great distance.