James Merrill House and Its Disembodied Transmissons

By | 1 August 2014

Another contradiction inherent to this investigation into voice is that Merrill often displays himself as fiercely opposing the messages as they come through the board and onto the page. It’s as though he is involved in a wrestling match – not with the undercover angel, but with his own mind (which, granted, may well be the undercover angel). ‘Stop trying to have everything both ways,’ (122) Merrill quips in Mirabell, revealing angst at the bat-angels’ confusing lessons – and this is just one example among many of what he labels his ‘impatience’ (123) with the often difficult Ouija text. As can be seen from Collected Prose, and also the interview with Charles Buckley, Merrill was quite aware of the inherent difficulties residing in the process of sounding out the Ouija-dictated messages from what he did admit was ‘another world which could be imaginary’ (Buckley 417). It must have all been terribly confusing. Voice, for Merrill, whether the product of actual spirits or musings of a combined subconscious/unconscious mind, appears to be key to unravelling this mystery. The entire long-poem can be read as a presentation and exploration of expanded expression, with the many complex and layered voices representing what is disembodied and other to both Merrill and Jackson. The raw Ouija transcripts (the sections in capitals) then become examples of voice as something that can stand apart from the poem, and can be seen to be separate to Merrill’s body/mind or self. While it might be seen to be terribly clever, not to mention terribly convenient, to present a large body of work in such a disassociated manner, the trilogy is nonetheless also an exploration of the poet’s resistance to these voices: Merrill is reacting against the messages he receives. If the messages do arrive from various and sundry spirits, or even if they are from Merrill’s own subconscious/unconscious, throughout all three instalments Merrill does have moments of setting himself up in opposition to the bizarre prophecy he is uncovering and, thus, against his own poetry.

As the trilogy progresses, through Mirabell and into the final instalment, Scripts, Merrill not only includes far more passages of raw Ouija text (as displayed via the sustained use of capitals) but also presents himself as swimming increasingly against the tide of the divine dictates he is receiving. Throughout these last two books Merrill begins to position himself as increasingly resisting the long-poem’s thematic concerns. Devin Johnston explores this curious stance in his article ‘Resistance to the Message.’ According to Johnston, Merrill ‘frames the entire poem as a form of resistance against the message he has received’ (93). In Mirabell: Book 9, after being ‘told’ by the poet W. H Auden that the work of transcription is ‘THRILLING FOR U JM,’ Merrill quips:

And Maddening – it’s all by someone else!
In your voice, Wystan, or in Mirabell’s.
I want it mine, but cannot spare those twenty
Years in a cool dark place that Ephraim took
In order to be palatable wine (261).

No Accident

I will now return to James Merrill House, for it was the house that sparked this investigation and sent echoes of Merrill forward through time to my own poetry. If I hadn’t visited the Water Street apartment, I would have shelved Merrill’s long-poem, perhaps referred to it in passing in an exegesis that would have been concerned with poetry I wrote about the body and the stage, with some angels thrown in there somewhere for good measure. After careful consideration, however, I’m afraid I must accept the notion that ‘THERE IS NO ACCIDENT’ (Merrill, CLS 176) in this particular change of trajectory. Thus something akin to fate saw me meandering down the main street of Stonington in February 2011, attempting to avoid slipping into the deep snow-piles on the sidewalk, bemused by the curious angles of winter light. I was merely taking a long-overdue holiday, I thought, visiting a friend I had neglected in a country I had never thought to experience. Yet, wherever I go, those angels or Martians who write my poetry (or ignite my thoughts on poetry) never seem to be on holiday.

Getting to the house proved relatively straightforward. A PhD student I had flatted with in a cheap, falling-down share-house in a not-so-pleasant area of Belfast, NI – many moons ago – had grown up to be a moderately famous philosopher/theologian. He now lived in a sizeable house in the very beautiful (yet frightening in its oversizing) Greenwich, CT. While I had no real desire to visit what I (however stereotypically) considered a land of gigantic cars and plastic food, it seemed just as easy to head one way around the globe to visit my friend as the other. Living for a time in such a Stepford Wives-esque Connecticut town was something I had certainly never even imagined in my wildest dreams – except in a Stepford Wives kind of way (incidentally, the most recent screen adaptation was filmed in this very neighbourhood). Yet the offer to explore NYC while being safely ensconced in opulent Greenwich didn’t require too much deliberation.

When leaving for my US adventure, I knew that I would have to take my (at this time, mostly alleged) exegesis along for the ride. Working on my exegesis at this stage loosely involved researching the figure of the angel in poetry as I had lost momentum in my musings about the stage and the body. I was then only considering penning a short aside concerning Merrill and his epic, thinking it interesting that we had both written such curious portraits of otherworldly watchers, but I was not particularly interested in the work as a whole. My poetry collection Porch Light, the creative focus of my PhD, was almost complete at this stage, and glancing through its pages as it was gathered together, I discovered something odd. While I seemed to be writing a lot about performance and the body, I was also, perhaps more so, focused on a sincere quest into the ephemeral world and, curiously, somehow obsessed with some sort of apocalypse. While I had completed the manuscript thus far with no real idea that I was turning out to be a mystic poet – I certainly didn’t feel millenarian – parallels with Merrill’s work began to take shape, as evident in my poem ‘Porch Light’.

So it seems that I have chosen here to focus Merrill’s The Changing Light as a window into my own collection of poetry, while simultaneously making any allusions to my own work almost on the sly. My engagement with poetic influence is perhaps even more obscured than Merrill’s engagement with disembodied spirits, and so to claim Merrill as a direct influence on my practice would feel dishonest. It is rather through my reading of The Changing Light, for the most part after the fact of writing the majority Porch Light’s poems, that I have come to identify, more heuristically in method, a potential poetic lineage for my work. My visit to James Merrill House sparked an investigation into alternative methods of poetic transcription and composition, methods I felt I had (however subconsciously) employed in writing Porch Light. Prior to this, my drafted manuscript wasn’t sitting quite right with me – it felt as though there was too much otherworldly meandering in a collection that should have been about the theatre and the body on stage (with, admittedly, a smattering of popular science thrown in). I couldn’t seem to escape this meandering, nor could I bear to edit the more troubling poems out: poems such as ‘Porch Light’ contain a questing into the divine via science and ideas of apocalypse, and the same thread was reaching its way through quite a number of the more science-based poems in Porch Light as well, which had cleverly tried to disguise themselves as love poems or something else entirely. The apocalypse was also reaching its way into stage-based poems such as ‘Bed of Nails Routine’, which contains these lines:

i glance again. am answered by a glint. first fringe of supernovas. begin figure eights.
begin widdershins. you are contained. i am poised. the universe accelerates. there is always
one more level. you are the still point. axis mundi. i am spinning space expanding forever

steady rain morphs into a storm. (18¬–22)

My visit to James Merrill House was to begin a new fascination with the poet and his work, and into many poets with an interest in more occult methods of poetic transmission, which would, with time, provide a sounding board from which to contextualise my own poetics and practice.

Postscript: while I was inside I took a photo of myself through the ‘immense/ Victorian mirror’ (Merrill, CLS 98) that reflected me back to me and included within its arc (although I wouldn’t notice this until I was home, looking at the prints for the first time) James Merrill himself, in a curious portrait: propped on a chair, his chair, in the corner (see figure 5). He was hiding there, obscured, only to be revealed later, overseeing everything with a knowing smile on his face. If I didn’t know how I came to be there, or why, James Merrill certainly appeared to.

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