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.

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.

Fire from Heaven

Cold nights. Some storm’s come whirling down from Canada, and Bozeman’s streets are pale and clear—a skiff of snow over white ice. The wind is bitter, raw, and hollowly cold, fringed with humid frost. I’ve been stuck inside all day. Merrill’s Fire Screen is open next to me—mocking me, I suddenly think. His face peers from the cover with a mysterious half-smile.

I go outside and smoke. From my porch I can see lights in houses across the dark of our alleyway. People move inside the lit frames, silently, their windows firmly shut against the cold. I, in the dark, accompanied by my cigarette’s bobbing ember, can see into their lives as though I stood outside a two-way mirror. They, illuminated, cannot see me.

Cold and dark, warm and lit: those are the very images that Merrill is playing with in The Fire Screen. Dualities of both spiritual and material worlds create conflicts all across the poetry of this volume. Water and fire mix uneasily. These poems were written when Merrill was living in Greece, and the poems are shot through with “Greekness”—a sensibility which encompasses not only classical myth but the realities of 1960s Greece, a world in which Merrill saw echoes of classical motifs. In fact, one could read—if one were so inclined—the entirety of The Fire Screen as a kind of hero quest, Merrill’s personal revisiting of myth and legend within daily life.

The volume begins with “Lorelei”—a kind of siren-like figure out of mythology, a feminine water spirit that sang sailors to their deaths. Merrill pictures himself stepping out over “The stones of kin and friend / Stretch[ing] off into a trembling, sweatlike haze” (ll. 1-2). The stones, like stepping stones, lead vaguely across this dreamscape, until the narrator is stranded; whereupon the siren emerges:

Soft gleams lap the base of the one behind you
On which a black girl sings and combs her hair.

It’s she who some day (when your stone is in place)
Will see that much further into the golden vagueness

Forever about to clear. Love with his chisel
Deepens the lines begun upon your face. (7-12)

The siren song is thus made out as an alluring step backwards. The “black girl” (recalling, perhaps, the Greeks’ fascination with their African neighbors) is the one who finally sees, not the narrator: he is too busy clinging to the remnants of “kin and friend.” He can only see what is immediately in front of his eyes. He is dependent upon, but blind toward, the past and future.

It is not accidental, either, that the volume begins with a motif straight out of the classical hero myth: a mysterious figure calling the hero “into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood,” as Joseph Campbell puts it in his seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces (42). Like Dante, we join Merrill partway through his life. The straightforward path has been lost. He is provided with a terrifying, deathly, alluring Beatrice, the Lorelei. The descent must needs follow.

I don’t want to overemphasize the hero-myth aspects of the volume, though, because Merrill sees himself not as a capital-H Hero but merely the hero-of-the-story: that is, the protagonist. Heroes properly are reborn in a complete fashion. Castor and Pollux are cast into the stars; Achilles becomes invulnerable. In “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” Merrill too tries rebirth via postcard. His friend, “having cared and ceased to care” (l. 56), has been collecting the stamps off his old postcards by dissolving the cards in water. Incidentally, this also dissolves the ink, which “Turns to exactly the slow formal swirls / Through which a phoenix flies on Chinese silk. / These leave the water darker but still clear, / The text unreadable” (37-40). The phoenix imagery is not accidental. The friend is cutting ties, seeing scene upon scene “rinsed of the word” (45), going somewhere where he knows “Barely enough to ask for food and love” (28). Merrill tries it—the ink dissolves, “almost a wild iris taking shape” (62), and he “[hears] oblivion’s thin siren singing” (63) much like his Lorelei—but the experiment fails. His mother’s writing “remained legible, / The memories it stirred did not elude me. // I put my postcards back upon the shelf. / Certain things die only with oneself” (67-70).

Merrill is not the traditional hero; likewise, his “myths” are not populated with the usual figures of hero quests. Or, in any case, those archetypal figures are rendered in a new light. “Words for Maria” imagines the Muses as a petty, jaded, aging woman—but one who is nonetheless a riveting figure. Maria, this strange Muse, lives in Athens but escapes to nature by gardening in an almost-undecorated house on the coast (“A whitewahsed cube with tout confort / You’d built but would not furnish” (ll. 42-43)), save for a gigantic Empire mirror. She is a part of nature, yes, but she also loves her favorite coffeeshop too much to make gardening anything more than a pastime. This Muse is not the universal Grace that inspired the ancient Greeks—in fact, Maria is divisive. The not-so-coincidentally-named Sapphó refuses flatly to see her. But for Merrill, she is “the muse / Of my off-days” (68-9). Even the tangled rhyme scheme of the poem (ABCDCBDAA) reflects this kind of upturning of classical forms—this is not straighforward beauty or elegance that we are dealing with. The poem is, however, regularly metrical. The constraints of the world have, in a sense, produced the nonchalant elegance of Maria herself, as the poem’s form reflects. By contrast, the regular rhyming couplets of “Kostas Tympakianákis” present a topsy-turvy world, one in which a young man is only just becoming jaded at the world. He says to Merrill, “I’m twenty-two. It’s someone else’s turn to dream” (14). Familial quarrels, pride, histories of violence, a dead brother and father, lost opportunities, heartbreak—Kostas has already been reduced to a sad story and a wineglass. He tells Merrill, “write my story down for people. Use my name. / And may it bring you all the wealth and fame / It hasn’t brought its bearer” (45-47). Merrill takes up the mask and presents us with a dramatic monologue, disguised as the speaker.

Elsewhere, in “To My Greek,” Merrill explores the very fact of his being a poet—or, rather, the fact that his language fails him—or, rather rather, the fact that he fails his language. (It’s all very complicated.) (Or, one might say, “it’s all Greek to me.”) He personifies the language of Greek as a nut, a woman in bed, a “coastline of white printless coves // Already strewn with offbeat echolalia” (l. 9). The poem is also about/to his Greek lover, Strato Mouflouzelis; in a way, then, the poem is not only about broken language but about the failures of communication between people. Other humans—their motivations, desires, secret thoughts—are fundamentally and inescapably Other, inaccessible to us. Language, “talking it out,” only gets one so far in understanding. Like a foreign language, we inhabit such understandings uneasily, and never without our own frame of reference—our own “language”—as the interpreter. His mother tongue, English, is “the sibyl I turn to // When all else fails me, when you [Greek] do…Her automation and my mind are one” (21-25). But, as his friend comments in “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” that very automation is a serious problem:

I’m tired of understanding
The light in people’s eyes, the smells, the food.
Tired of understanding what I hear,
The tones, the overtones; of knowing

Just what clammy twitchings thrive
Under such cold flat stones

As We-are-profoundly-honored-to-have-you-with-us
Or This-street-has-been-torn-up-for-your-convenience” (15-25).

Language, like the Lorelei, is both beautiful and lethal. It reveals and disguises. It is necessary—for poetry, to ask for food or love, to send postcards to a friend—but it is also seriously duplicitous. All through The Fire Screen there is a desire to pass beyond the confines of myth, or language, into a purer kind of life. Merrill is seeking renewal. As he says at the close of “To My Greek,” “The barest word be what I say in you.”

The result, perhaps, of this desire for rebirth is echoed in the kind of turn the book goes through. The myths shift—“The Envoys” explores death and retribution, as well as the myth of Phaedra, who tried to seduce her stepson Hippolytus while her husband, the hero Theseus, was in the underworld. (Of course, things don’t end happily.) ‘“Light of the Street, Darkness of Your Own House’” addresses the myths of Phaethon and Danaë, both of whom are connected negatively to light: the half-mortal Phaethon drove the chariot of the sun to his doom, and Danaë was seduced by Zeus in the form of golden rain. “Part of the Vigil” features Merrill shrinking so as to explore his lover’s heart; “Nike” turns the Greek goddess of victory into a kind of compulsive liar; “Remora” imagines the self as a parasitic fish; and, perhaps most poignantly, “Flying from Byzantium” subverts Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” into the death of an older poet, and his subsequent, inevitable rebirth in “a young scribe.” These poems smack little of transcendence, and a great deal of a corrupted world. Light is not good; the gods are vicious and changeable; heroes are shot through with doubt, fear, bad desires. Even the ornate verse of Yeats is rendered eventually worthless, simply another stepping-stone to cling to. This phase of the book seems to take place in what Campbell calls “the belly of the whale.” Having crossed the threshold into the underworld, the world of spirits, Merrill is in a dark new place: “The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died” (74). Merrill’s death is not so literal—but the poems do begin to feel falsifying. “Another August” admits that Merrill, to please a lover, “wore that fiction like a fine white shirt / And asked no favor but to act the part” (ll. 21-22). The clouds of his mind “now are dark pearl in [his] head” (6). The death is not a literal death, but a symbolic annihilation of the self, a realization of mortality and the strange happenstance of existence. In “A Fever” Merrill sees a blithe young girl through a lens of shifting, fever-dreamscapes: “her face / Freshly made up bends down to evening’s deep embrace. / I savor the thin paints upon my tongue” (68-70). This section of the book contains three poems about that most wonderfully melodramatic of art forms: the opera. Life, Merrill suggests, is nothing less and nothing more than insubstantial art. And that is precisely why it is valuable—because created, because beautifully falsified, our life has a subject, objects, desires, meaning. The Lorelei sings low and sweet.

And it is in this final section that we finally come round, to the fire screen. In the last volume, there were several poems about houses—“The Broken Home,” most famously. Now, in Greece, Merrill finds himself in a new home environment in “Mornings in a New House.” The house is lit by fire in the cold mornings—but the man, the maker and beneficiary of the fire, is sequestered from it by an heirloom, an embroidered fire screen. Family separates one from the eternal flame, which is both consumer and savior, life and death. Countless religions have envisioned life, and divinity, in fiery manifestations. The Elohist writers of the Old Testament saw God as towers of flame; Prometheus raised mankind from bestiality by his gift of fire; theologians have called God a “fire in the head.” The hero of “Mornings in a New House” stands watching the fire screen, which many years before had been embroidered by his mother as a child with “giant birds and flowery trees / To dwarf a house, her mother’s—see the chimney’s / Puff of dull yarn!” (ll. 14-16). Each glowing uprush of flame makes the scene more alive:

Infraradiance, wave on wave,
So enters each plume-petal’s crazy weave,
Each worsted brick of the homestead,

That once more, deep indoors, blood’s drawn,
The tiny needlewoman cries,
And to some faintest creaking shut of eyes
His pleasure and the doll’s are one. (26-32).

Paradoxically, the screen has not sequestered the fire at all; the screen’s little scene is animated and made living by the fire that it conceals. As Merrill puts it in the poem’s footnote: “Fire screen—screen of fire” (ll. 33-34). The poem’s hero stands and considers that his mother was once a little girl. His reflections, like the reflections of the fire itself at the poem’s outset, bring to life the inanimate objects of the past. He sees all his family’s history spread out like a doll would have perceived it—he becomes not a hero but the passive object of witnessed history. The hero would seem to have died. Or perhaps he was once again reborn. Campbell has this to say on the Return Threshold: “The two worlds, the divine and the human, can be pictured only as distinct from each other…[but] the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero. The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness” (188). Merrill returns from the underworld. He hasn’t moved from Greece.

Across the street, a woman appears suddenly. She’s blonde, fey-featured, lissome and gorgeous. She gazes out a moment into the dark—she hesitates—my cigarette gives me away. I raise a hand. She smiles and waves—in blessing? farewell?—and closes her curtains on the frigid black night. I go back in to my lit house, its windows pouring light across the fence, the raspberry bushes, the cars like sleeping animals, their eyes faintly catching, holding the light.


Merrill, James. The Fire Screen, from Collected Poems: James Merrill, ed. J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, third ed., New World Library, 2008.