Autogenesis

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.

Practical Alchemy

Here and now I sit, and never truly can. My mind is awash with contemplations of where I have been, what I have been through, and the many trials of the future that I must yet wade in, unfurling before me like Hydra’s heads. It is not my story alone, but all of ours, and we are all time-travelers in this regard – never staying put in our moment, but always projecting into those moments far-passed and fast-forward. And yet, though we will not stand still, temporally-speaking, it is precisely these flashes into times not our own that can dazzle, becoming a paralytic force of anxieties and despair. Has my life up until this point been good enough? Will the life ahead of me be fulfilling? The only certainty is that, while caught up in this dangerous web of thought, I am not experiencing my life as it is this instant… and yet, these thoughts become my life this instant.

This confounding paradigm is one that Merrill is desperately trying to escape, while simultaneously recognizing that he cannot, and ultimately can only contribute to. “Such be the test of time that all things pass” as he remarks in the final sonnet of section ‘R’ of Ephraim – a stark reminder of what Yenser calls “a double-edged enigma: all things must pass the test of time, and to pass the test of time all things must die.” But death need not be the end, at least not in a Merrillian world. The whole section is rife with imagery of death-defiance. Ghede for instance, referred to in the second sonnet in the sequence, is the name used to refer to a multitude of Hatian deities of death and fertility. In a tongue-in-cheek line from the final sonnet sequence, Merrill writes “Leave to the sonneteer eternal youth,” at once satirizing the poet’s presumptions, and yet ironically accomplishing the very feat he seems to cast off with a sort of wistful disdain. That is to say, if eternal youth only belongs to the sonneteers, then Merrill makes it clear in section ‘R’ that it belongs to him. And then, of course, the section begins with a sort of poet’s note to himself: “Rewrite P. It was to be the section/Golden with end-of-summer light,” calling to mind the Philosopher’s Stone and its ability to transmute base minerals into gold and silver, and also fabled to be capable of bestowing immortality upon its wielder.

How fitting, then, that the term used to describe “the search for the Philosopher’s Stone” is “Magnum Opus, or “great work.” Merrill’s poetry as a cohesive unit – and Ephraim is no exception – is teeming with alchemical trasmutations. Ironically, section ‘R’s metamorphoses is from a desire to capture the golden “end-of-summer light,” into that golden light, “The failing sun… hellbent.” As ‘R’ becomes the very treasure it was seeking in ‘P,’ we discover that the immortality of the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t actually come from the stone itself, but from the quest to obtain it in the first place. ‘R,’ then, comes to mean not only “Rewrite” and “Remake,” but recall, remain, rejuvinate, and rebirth – if only for a time… and time again.

Merrill’s immortality (although potentially self-proclaimed – and whose isn’t?) is not his story alone, but all of ours. “Twenty thousand throats” are “one single throat.” Erzulie, and Mary, and even Kuan Yin – who herself is made up of many different selves – are all one, united self in a greater continuum of selves. We are all our fertility and death. Becoming immortals in our search for immortality, what we leave behind for our future selves is who we are, who we’ve been, and who we will be, again and again.

Nevertheless, Merrill seems to offset the comfort of the continual recycling of souls with an extreme anxiety that we can somehow sever the loop with human hands. “NO SOULS CAME FROM HIROSHIMA U KNOW,” Ephraim assures us in section ‘P.’ Even Heaven, he continues, could dissolve with the usage of nuclear weaponry. And so, the section of the poem that we learn in ‘R’ was meant to be gold from the Philosopher’s Stone turns out to be a recipe for disaster instead of eternal life. The rest of Ephraim is shot-through with these fears – “Next year there will be no waterfall, no stream,” “Heaven” is “fraught with tantrums,” the “sky in flames,” “It stops at nothing.” The final phrase intrigues me most, insinuating simultaneously that the end is devoid of all existence, and that the end itself doesn’t exist. The only reason the two don’t contradict one another is because, as we are informed back in ‘P,’ the hands of the doomsday clock are our own – it is our choice whether we cut the cord bonding us to “The ancient, ageless woman of the world,” or reconnect.

Either way, the test of time is one we must pass. Section ‘Z’ is for “Zero hour,” when the hands of the clock converge all of time into a straight line with a tangible ending in sight. The cycle seems broken at last. “These old love-letters from the other world./We’ve set them down at last beside the fire,” Merrill laments, “Are they for burning, now that the affair/Has ended?” The narrative of section ‘A’ that yearned so to be “limpid, unfragmented,” seems now to strive for anything but. All semblance of form has seemingly been abandoned in lieu of a solid block of stichic verse. And yet, section ‘Z’ seems to function like a reversal of the boy’s puzzle in “Lost in Translation.” It does not hold together, but it does. The seemingly formless nature of ‘Z’ gives way to a continuous thread of thought – quite literally unbroken. The hands of the clock (our hands) clapped together do not sound the crack of doom, but rather unite in a moment of reverence, recalling and reimagining the azimuth (an equation used to discern the distance between an object on earth and a heavenly body) from section ‘R,’ in which we are the center of the clock, the outer circle is the world, or perhaps the universe, and the direct line between the two is like an umbilical cord tethering us to the source of all creation. The manifold Hydra-headed problematic futures laid out before me suddenly turn in on themselves, giving way to the Ouroboros. The panic-inducing Zero is not the final moment of the doomsday countdown, but a reestablishment of the link between humanity and Omphalos. The cycle is limpid, unfragmented, as a drop from Merrill’s pen flows back into the fountain of life, his blood recirculating through our veins… but only if we allow.

The hands of the clock can still converge into a straight-edge aimed at the belly of the world, which is ultimately our belly, ready to pierce, cutting more than ties. The question is: what can we do to stop the fall of the knife? Although writing poetry hardly seems adequate, perhaps it provides us with a necessary mode of diffusing the “twinklings of/Insight” that “hurt or elude the naked eye,” as Merrill puts it in section ‘X.’ Section ‘P’ comes to stand for Perseus, and like Perseus, we too need our mirror-shield to reflect the wicked gaze of the gorgonic forces of our world. But ‘P’ also calls to mind poetry and, once again, the Philosopher’s stone. Can verse transmute the steel blade of the doomsday clock into gold before it’s too late? It seems unlikely, but it can produce a different transformation, by opening our minds to new ways of knowing the world around us. “The world’s poem” from ‘X’ recalls “Days of 1935,” in which Merrill writes that “I knew/That life was fiction in disguise” (104-105). Ghede and Kuan-Yin are real; they manifest their many forms through us.

Alchemy, then, is real too. Superfund site Lake Onondaga had so much industrial waste poured into its waters that the shoreline became a thick white paste. Since the cessation of its usage as a dumpsite, however, trees have returned to the area, leeching toxins from the lake, slowly turning the toxic cocktail back into water. Ants at the site are also doing their part, breaking up the detritus-lined shore with their mounds, and carrying fresh humus from deep beneath the earth up into the light of day. Likewise, new species of mushrooms have emerged that break down plastic and nuclear waste, transfiguring it into sustenance and clean soil. All of the members of the global ecosystem are working together in an act of communal alchemy to, as in “Lost in Translation,” transform “the waste/To shade and fiber, milk and memory.” All of the members except for the one doing the most harm – us.

Here and now I sit, pondering whether or not I ever truly can. The only thought that finds a firm grounding in me is that soon the time might come where there will be no time or place over which to ponder. The doomsday clock is currently set to two minutes until midnight; closer to the projected global annihilation than we’ve ever been. It’s up to us whether its ticking becomes a countdown to extinction, or the rhythm of our hearts beating, at last, in synchronicity.

Works Cited

Merrill, James. Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 2015.

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

Daze of Days

“Beacon in a Dark Fog” by Adam Strauss

Deep haze and dreamscapes penetrate my waking-states, almost daily. It’s been about a year since I “quit” drinking; I would have expected more clarity. Then again, I still have a cocktail once every month or so. Still, I never would have expected (relative) sobriety to be a gateway into a greater separation from myself. I’ve become an outsider to my own flesh, a mere spectator to the Escherian nightmare, my life, unfurling before me. Can it be that a drunken decade, ten whole years spent in daze, is somehow more real than this moment? I pick up Braving the Elements, searching its lyrics, and my mind, for answers.

Of course, Merrill is never really a poet of the answer or the moment (the exception being the intimations between the present and the past). Nevertheless I find a sense of affirmation, almost camaraderie, in “Days of 1935,” which is, perhaps, what I was actually seeking in the first place. The first stanza’s “I’d steel myself at night/To see, or sleep to see” introduces us, not only to a witty and humorous display of the poet’s latent desires to be kidnapped, but also to a struggle between fantasy and reality that permeates the piece throughout. The very notion of sleeping “to see” suggests that there is a certain aspect of the dream, or daydream, that is more real than waking life (3-4).

The language of the poem carries the surrealism ever onward. Merrill employs words like “spell,” “swoon,” “masked,” and “imagination,” wrapping us in a sheet as mystical as it is feverish (10, 13, 17). The dirt road the poet is spirited away upon is “tenuous,” suggesting both a dubious construction, and also an uncertainty of its existence at all (21). The “unwrinkling chart” of the captor’s brow invokes imagery of an unfolding horoscope – the scene is as transcendental as it is scripted – it’s “written in the stars,” as it were (24). And then, of course, their destination is liminal, both in space and time, “Dawn” being between night and day, their physical position in the “middle of nowhere,” suspended in unreality behind a veil of “dust and glare,” these final factors heightening the obscurity of the sequence (24-28).

The quatrains and strict alternating rhyme scheme of “Days of 1935” transforms the poem’s otherwise dark subject-matter – the kidnapping (and sometimes murdering, if we’re to make inferences from the “Lindbergh baby” of line 9) of children, Stockholm syndrome, sexual abuse, capital punishment, and so on – into a jaunty ballad that gives us, as passengers, an easy ride. The form is also evocative of a children’s poem, and given that the poet awakens from his hallucination with no dream-fulfillment, it’s possible to read this, too, as a ballad of lamentation – another one of Merrill’s chronicles of love and loss. The result is that we, along with the poet, are caught like “Dew spangles” in “the web’s heart,” somewhere between memory and desire, somewhere between what we have been and what we want to become, neither of which allows for an independent identity of the here and now (18).

I can’t help but feel that the chord Merrill strikes in “Days of 1935” rings truer than life itself. Where are those bursts of creative spontaneity that would, in the days of my youth, steal me away from the mundanity of nine-to-five existence? Maybe I never should have quit drinking. Like the child in the poem, I have become bored and burnt out, no longer full of wonder, the boy and I are now “half-grown” instead of half-young (208). The “lady out of Silver Screen” from much earlier in the poem calls to mind the projection of a film, reminding me of the sensation of being a spectator to my own life and, retrospectively, informs us that the entirety of “Days of 1935” is a strange act of destiny in which we have no agency, nor place except as a bystander – a dizzying emotional state that I have to assume is much akin to that of having your child stolen from you, and know is akin to losing your own childhood (29).

My mind reels, playing out Merrill’s images back and forth, the “Silver Screen” as my focal point. The poem begins to chill me to the core. The poet’s parents are “Eerie, speaking likenesses,” the poet himself composed of “blanknesses and dots” (89, 94). Every surrounding object in the poet’s waking life, back at home, is a cheap imitation – the “board/Painted like board,” executives with “Heads of Cellophane or Tin,/With their animated wives,” his mother doing her make-up – all merely “Mimics the real” (275-276, 294, 278). I feel the hairs on my neck raise and tingle with the thought: “perhaps I’m not disillusioned… perhaps this is all illusion, a simulation, some sick play in which I have been assigned a role against my knowledge and my will, so that the invisible architects of reality can enjoy my every private pleasure and pain – all has been constructed for my, for our, exploitation.” I quickly discard the thought, fearing that I’m falling into an LSD flashback, or following the family trend towards schizophrenia.

I readjust my focus back to “Days of 1935,” looping it through my mind again. Suddenly a line jumps out at me – or rather, an association between lines – that I hadn’t noticed before. “Pluck,/Some deep nerve went. I knew/That life was fiction in disguise”… at once the poem is unlocked by this keystone line (104-15). The silver screen is no longer just so, but also the process by which cinema in general came to be defined, as a whole, as such. So too is all of life metonymous – the film screen takes on the name of the silver with which it was once associated, meanwhile we take on the many forms of everything preceding us. Our captivity, like the poet’s, is not a result of some Gorgonic force petrifying us in terror. Rather, the links binding us serve as a sort of conduit through which the true forms of all things flow – Leopold Bloom becomes Odysseus, life becomes art, we become ourselves. The existential dread of life as a replica breaks, dissipating back into the sea of the only thing that still remains – the deep haze. The surface of my daily dreamscape is still again, unbroken, save for the small ripple of something that has plunged just below the surface – the cold comfort that everything we do is everything we’ve done.

Works Cited

Merrill, James. Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 2015.

Sorrow’s Lost Secret Center

A selfie of Merrill and Friar at Amherst, from Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art

A black and white photo snapped in 1945 at Amherst College depicts the face of a  man, dark hair receding, gaze appearing somewhat drowsy, the deep marks of time carried in crow’s feet parenthetically framing his mouth.  Next to him a boy, lighter of hair, wild-eyed, his face slightly blurred with motion, giving the vague impression of a second face. The man is Kimon Friar, an Amherst professor at the time.  The boy is his student, lover, and budding young poet, James Merrill. The picture has a strange, ghost-like quality about it, perhaps because the shot is of the reflection of the two in a mirror.

So much about this particular photograph seems too coincidental in its anticipation of Merrill’s future: his relationships with men, the many face-like masks he would don through his poetry, his art and life reflecting one another, and his interactions with the spirits of the “Other World.”  In the picture the right side of Merrill’s face appears to droop, predicting a Bell’s palsy attack many years later, which Merrill himself described as “the crack in the mirror of the soul” that would leave the same half of his face in temporary paralysis (Hammer 323). And, as phantasmal as Friar and Merrill appear, so too would the love they shared haunt Merrill like a specter for years to come.

But the forward-looking mirror also gazes back.  The obliquity of Merrill’s face echoes the broken home he came from, his parents having divorced when he was young.  Just as his face is motion-blurred, the “I” in his poetry is never static, never transparent, instead reflective like eye and mirror alike.  Curious (or in Merrill’s case, perhaps not so curious) how the word “reflection” can be taken to mean not only the duplication (and reversal) of an image, but also a careful consideration of things past.  Merrill’s work is so much about both, marrying past and present through memory. Consequently, it becomes impossible to determine which is the reflection: Merrill’s physical face, or his image in the mirror; his life, or his art?  The two collide, at once fracturing and infusing.

Likewise, his poetry is faceted, each poem a shard making up one singular, yet shattered, mirror.  It is important to remember that when mirror-glass cracks, the images it reflects are not perfectly broken.  In other words, a boy’s face will not become pieces that fit cleanly together. Instead, a multitude of similar but dissonant semblances of the boy’s face are assembled, many pieces overlaid or distorted in form.  One “I” becomes countless. One Merrill becomes myriad, overlapping in appearance and time. One shard crops out the wrinkles of his face, another shows the deep lines on his forehead, two reflections of his smile almost align, uniting for a single, flashing moment, youth and age; history looking forward, present looking back.

With this in mind, we hope you will join us in our efforts to puzzle together the pieces of some of this poet’s integral works, eventually leading into the prolific Sandover trilogy. This site will house not only our thoughts conjured forth in contemplation of Merrill’s work – in both blog and podcast formats – but also a slough of useful resources for our followers to embark on their own voyages into Merrill’s, and indeed all poetry’s, mercurial waters; “Sorrow’s lost secret center,” as he dubs it himself in “The Black Swan” (23).

This is no simple engagement. When I tell you that Merrill himself died still plumbing the depths of this hidden impetus, this cradle of artistic creation, you can begin to understand the gravity of our undertaking. Our journey will be one eldritch in nature – the occult investigation, required as a keystone to much of Merrill’s work, itself invites certain dangerous spirits into one’s life.

And yet, remembering that every shadow, by necessity, owes its existence to the presence of a light, however changing it may be, so too may this be a journey of metamorphoses – like the Black Swan itself “by the gentlest turning of its neck” transforms, “in time, time’s damage;/To less than a black plume, time’s grief” – a reversal in which decay and death are substituted with purity, with immortality, fabricating a strange paradise “Where every paradox means wonder” (19-21, 7).

Works Cited

Hammer, Langdon. James Merrill: Life and Art. New York, Knopf. 2015.

Merrill, James. Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 2015.