James Merill

James Merill (1926-1995):

"The Book of Ephraim" from
The Changing Light at Sandover (1992)

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

The Book of Ephraim (1992)

Venise, pavane, nirvana, vice, wrote Proust
Justly in his day. but in ours? The monumental
"I" of stone— on top, an adolescent
And his slain crocodile, both guano-white—
Each visit stands for less. And from the crest of
The Academia Bridge the (is that thunder?)
Palaces seem empty-lit display
Rooms for glass companies. Hold still,
Breathes the canal. But then it stirs,
Ruining another batch of images.
A Lido leaden. A whole heavenly city
Sinking, titanic ego mussel-blue
Abulge in gleaming nets of nerve, of pressures
Unregistered by the barometer
Stuck between Show and Showers. Whose once fabled
Denizens, Santofior and Guggenheim
(Historical garbage, in the Marxist phrase)
Invisibly— to all but their valets
Still through the dull red mazes caked with slime
Bearing some scented drivel of undying
Love and regret— are dying. and high time.
The wooden bridge, feeling their tread no longer,
Grumbles: per me va la gente nova.
Gente nova? A population explosion
Of the greatest magnitude and brilliance?
Who are these thousands entering the dark
Ark of the moment, two by two?
Hurriedly, as by hazard paired, some pausing
On the bridge for a last picture. Touching, strange,
If either is the word, this need of theirs
To be forever smiling, holding still
For the other, the companion focusing
Through tiny frames of anxiousness. There. Come.

Some have come from admiring, others are hurrying
To sit out the storm in the presence of Giorgione's
Tempesta— on the surface nothing less
Than earthly life in all its mystery:
Man, woman, child; a place; shatterproof glass
Inflicting on it a fleet blur of couples
Many of whom, by now, have reproduced.
Who is Giorgione really? who is Proust
Said Ephraim of the latter. One sees why.
Late in his Passion come its instruments
Thick and fast— bell, flagstone, napkin, fork—
Through superhuman counterpoint to work
The body's resurrection, sense by sense.
I've read Proust for the last time. Looked my fill
At the Tempesta, timeless in its fashion
As any grid-epitome of bipeds
Beeped by a computer into Space.
Now give me the alerted vacuum
Of that black gold-earringed baby all in white
(Maya, Maya, your Félicité?)
Her father focuses upon. There. Come.
One more prompt negative. I thanked my stars
When I lost the Leica at Longchamps. Never again
To overlook a subject for its image,
To labor images till they yield a subject—
Dram of essence from the flowering field.
No further need henceforth of this
Receipt (gloom coupleted with artifice)
For holding still, for being held still. No—
Besides, I fly tomorrow to New York—
Never again. Pictures in little pieces
Torn from me, where lightning strikes the set—

Gust of sustaining timbers' creosote
Pungency the abrupt drench releases—
Cold hissing white— the old man of the Sea
Who, clung to now, must truthfully reply—

Bellying shirt, sheer windbag wrung to high
Relief, to needle-keen transparency—
Air and water blown glass-hard— their blind
Man's buff with unsurrendering gooseflesh

Streamlined from conception— crack! boom! flash!—
Glaze soaking inward as it came to mind
How anybody's monster breathing flames
Vitrified in metamorphosis

To monstrance clouded then like a blown fuse
If not a reliquary for St. James'
Vision of life: how Venice, her least stone
Pure menace at the start, at length became

A window fiery-mild, whose walked-through frame
Everything else, at sunset, hinged upon—

— James Merrill (1926-1995),
     "The Book of Ephraim" from
     The Changing Light at Sandover (1992)
     Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1992, pp. 75-77


Editor's Note to The Changing Light at Sandover

The Changing Light at Sandover, James Merrill's grandest poetic project, had a long gestation. He and David Jackson, his companion for many years, began their sessions at the Ouija board in August 1955, not long after they had settled in Stonington, Connecticut. Fourteen years later, Merrill contemplated writing a novel (the "lost novel" that is the subject of his poem "The Will") and began to mention it and his and Jackson's otherworldly contact, Ephraim, in his correspondence. A year later, in his notebook, alongside further mention of the novel, he envisioned a poem organized according to the alphabet. Here is the entry: "I.iv.70. An alphabet. 26 poems (on any or all subjects), loosely written, odes, elegies, what you wish, each beginning with an ornate capital letter, A through z." But it was apparently not until 1974, following the death in January of his Athens friend Maria Mitsotáki, that Merrill began on "The Book of Ephraim" in earnest. At various points during the composition of "Ephraim", which he finished within a year, Merrill digressed to write other poems, but once he had finished "Ephraim", he worked obsessively to comple what he did not at the time realize would become a trilogy of long poems. Even before "The Book of Ephraim" was published in Divine Comedies (1976), Merrill and Jackson had resumed their sessions— or, by their account, had been summoned back to the board for the revelations detailed in Mirabell: Books of Number (1978). The summer of q976 was pre-occupied with "Mirabell's dictation". A year later, during what his notebook called "the Angels' summer", he and Jackson sat for the lessons that Merrill turned into Scripts for the Pageant (1980). Merrill added the trilogy's "Coda: The Higher Keys" when he merged the three major parts into one volume. This volume, his epic The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), is dramatic from its outset. At the beginning of "Ephraim", Merrill sketches the setting for many of the increasingly astonishingly dictées:

Backdrop: The dining room at Stonington.
Walls of ready-mixed matte "flame" (a witty
Shade, now watermelon, now sunburn).
Overhead, a turn of the century dome
Expressing white tin wreathes and fleur-de-lys
In palpable relief to candlelight.

The stage properties, he proceeds to tell us, include "a milk glass tabletop" and "a blue-and-white cup from the Five & Ten" that served as a planchette, along with a homemade Ouija board, a 'heavy cardboard sheet" (with the capital letters of the English alphabet arranged in an arc, the Arabic numerals, and "YES" and "NO"), and a pencil and paper for transcription. The backdrop will change and the board will be somewhat augmented, but the essentials are strikingly simple throughout the Ouija boarders' extravagant adventures, which include exchanges not only with recently deceased friends, but also with such luminaries among the dead as Wallace Stevens, W. B. Yeats, Maya Deren, and W. H. Auden— as well as the intimidating spirits of an inhuman race who "THINK IN FLASHING TRIGONOMETRIES" and have a firsthand acquaintance with nuclear destruction. JM and DJ, as our guides are known, also encounter the archangels; an eerie, lonely eminence known as God Biology; and Mother Nature herself.

— J. D. McClatchy & Stephen Yenser (Editors)
     James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover
     Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006, pp. v-vii


James Merrill Web Links

James Merrill (1926-1995)
    (Merrill's Life, Merrill's Language, Correspondence, Bibliography)
Wikipedia: James Merrill
    (Life, Awards, Style, Works, About Merrill, External Links)
Merrill Papers at Washington University, St. Louis
    (Collection Outline, Descriptive Summary, Biographical Note)
Academy of American Poets: James Merrill
    (Poems, Related Prose, Related Poets, External Links)
Poetry Foundation: James Merrill
    (Poems in Poetry, Career, Bibliography, Further Reading, Audio)
James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover
    (Book at Amazon.com, Book Description, Book Reviews)
"Replacing the Waste Land— James Merrill's Quest for Transcendent
    Authority" (Modern American Poetry: An Essay by Alan Nadel)

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