James Merrill House and Its Disembodied Transmissons

By | 1 August 2014

More alarming than all this authorial displacement is the fact that the reader is asked to accept, and by this I mean literally accept, that The Changing Light is an accurate account of spirit messages narrated to JM and DJ from the mid-1950s (though not transformed from scribble into poetry until the 1970s) up until the early 1980s. We are asked to acknowledge that DJ and JM acted as high-culture psychic mediums, and that spirits actually came into the room where the men were playing the game. Furthermore, we are invited to accept a sort of horror movie-style notion that sometimes these messages weren’t particularly wanted nor welcome, and that they were against what these men may have wanted to reveal or experience:

                                   	 David’s left hand 
Has grazed the board. He cannot lift it. And
Whoever the Powers are we’ve been avoiding
Take possession, speed us far downstream
Through gorges echoing at the pitch of dream. (Merrill 108)

and again:

David looks up in genuine alarm:
But these are devils, they’re the fallen angels! ...
Let’s stop right now. (Merrill 114)

Thirty years is a long time to be entrenched in discourses of devils and the dead. In his interview with Buckley, possibly the most candid interview Merrill undertook on the subject (in part due to the fact that he was reacting against his interviewer, placing himself in an oppositional stance), the poet asks the reader to simply believe that ‘this happened, wherever the messages came from’ (420). Of course this denial of voice – the act of giving one’s authority over to a supernatural other – allows Merrill, when harangued about the arguably privileged ideologies evident in The Changing Light (which exonerate cloning and wipe out: ‘run of the mill souls who / life by life, under doomed thickness, / Plod the slow road of Earth – billions of these’ [139]), to gracefully demur with his philanthropy intact. While such passages could be read as a critique of Middle America, they also seem to contain the suggestion of a certain intellectual-elitist view. According to the fallen angels then (and not Merrill), the boring plodders of this world are doomed to death, while educated, intelligent, and especially childless souls are exalted in life as hierophants: hovering above, transcending, in a sense, the natural world. As the Archangel Michael tells Merrill and Jackson in his initial speech at the end of Mirabell: Book 9:


while earlier, Mirabell him/itself had also identified with DJ & JM, stating:


not to mention the poet-exulting prophecy that:


I’ve often wondered if there was any ‘NO ACCIDENT’ (Merrill 176) cosmic thread connecting me to the fact that I began reading this epic just after I had miscarried in a dramatic, life-threatening way and had been declared potentially unable to bear further children. Perhaps Merrill, through some unknowable portal, was speaking through his already spoken-through work to console me with the notion that, while I may not be a progenitor, at least I could still be a high priestess of the new religion. Yet seriously, while these bold angelic statements may, at the very least, seek to exalt the educational status and life expressions of the author, we are asked to accept that ‘it’s not me saying those things, but by and large it is Mirabell, who isn’t a human character’ (Buckley 423). Sometimes, the Ouija dictation feels to me to be a form of ultimate giving-over – a saintly surrendering to what Merrill, in an interview with J. D. McClatchy, calls, ‘a time when everyone, not just a poet, wants to get beyond the self … To reach, if you like, the “god” within you’ (Prose 107). At other times it feels like an easy displacement, or a denial: Merrill is hiding behind anything available in order to escape revealing his own and/or Jackson’s millennial ideologies. Whatever the case, Helen Sword deftly sums up what could conceivably be the purpose of all this literary and spiritual displacement, by stating that it is: ‘to assure us of … Merrill’s visionary authority by reminding us of the even higher authority of [his] teachers’ (Ghostwriting Postmodernism 145).

Reading Collected Prose, Merrill’s collection of interviews, memoirs, lectures and reviews, it becomes clear that, being such an eclectic and mercurial poet, Merrill was loath to be caught inside any particular idea of the origins of his poetry. On examining the many interviews undertaken on The Changing Light, it seems Merrill’s motivation cannot reliably be defined by what he has said about his masterwork. In an interview with Jean Lunn ‘Conversations with James Merrill’, conducted in 1982 after the release of the trilogy as a whole, Merrill, however successfully, dissociates himself (his own voice, his essential voice) from the message of the long-poem, stating:

As for belief, I've spent too much time trying to be of two minds – because that
seemed to be the most fruitful way of writing the poem, and feeling about the material –
I've spent too much time doing that to settle permanently for one or the other, for
skepticism or credulity. I have been very skeptical, usually in the early stages; I've also
been extremely credulous at high exciting moments, simply because there was no room
left for doubt, there couldn't be the excitement, the thrill of the patterns you saw
consolidating was such that you did believe. But this is exactly what Yeats said: that in
the heat of the dictation you shape things instinctively, your experience gets stylized in
spite of yourself, kind of like the tulip that doesn't know it's growing ... I don't think
that just because it turns out to be a system that there's anything against it; it seems to
me that everybody's belief is a system of one sort or another. (4-5)

Again, much later, in 1991, in an interview videotaped with Helen Vendler, at the conclusion of Voices From Sandover, Merrill elaborates on the reason for his own state of belief/disbelief, claiming:

Well, as with Yeats, he said that there were times when it is extremely beautiful and
there was no choice but to believe; but then as the experience cooled and as he distanced
himself from it, he saw that, in a way, times, culture, and civilization – all these things
that the voices are given to – were stylizations like the cubes and so on in a Wyndham Lewis
drawing. In writing the poem I never wanted to be of less than two minds. It seemed to me
that if I gave in and swallowed the doctrine, the system, hook, line, and sinker, that there
would be no, no way of saving myself or saving the poem as a piece of literature.

Merrill is, of course, making an oblique reference here to Yeats’ introduction to A Vision, wherein Yeats proclaims: ‘If sometimes, overwhelmed by miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, I have soon recovered’ (25). Certainly Merrill’s constant clever quips, asides, and puns, coupled with the sometimes near-farcical – certainly theatrical – tone, allow the reader to think (perhaps paradoxically) that he isn’t taking it all too seriously. ‘Merrill never allows us to forget that the Ouija board is finally not a textbook but a parlour game,’ claims Helen Sword (145). There are quite a few subtle hints throughout the long-poem that Merrill does not believe his own hype and is indeed taking some responsibility for the messages. In the first book of the trilogy, The Book of Ephraim, he writes: ‘Jung says – or if he doesn’t, all but does – / That God and the Unconscious are one’ (Merrill, CLS 74). When explaining his practice, often in very contradictory fashions, it seems of paramount importance to Merrill to speak in terms of a simple breaking down of authorship: a deconstruction. The poem stands on its own – the validity of voice in regards to the poet; the narration; the dead; the fallen angel bats of the second book of the trilogy; and the archangels of the third is constantly in question and constantly being redefined.

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