Alison Lurie, FAMILIAR SPIRITS.

by waxbanks

This isn’t a book-review blog, for heaven’s sake, but it’s what I’ve been able to write lately, so lately it’s what I’ve written.

Lurie’s memoir of James Merrill (famous poet) and his husband in all but name, David Jackson, is equal parts elegy and score-settling. After a fond remembrance of the brilliant couple’s early life together, Lurie’s bitterness overcomes the book’s second half; late in life Merrill had pushed aside Jackson, the love of his life and Lurie’s clear favourite, in favour of a second-rate actor named Peter Hooten, and Lurie’s friendship with the two men had fallen apart somewhat. It is, in short, a downer.

But its value lies in its argument, or informed speculation at any rate, that Jackson, not Merrill, was the primary author of the ALL-CAPS TRANSMISSIONS / WHICH THEY CHANNELED THROUGH THEIR OUIJA BOARD over 25 years or so, and which Merrill turned into The Changing Light at Sandover, one of the great works of American poetry. Lurie doesn’t like the great majority of Sandover; like everyone else, she loved its first movement, The Book of Ephraim, but only skimmed the other three portions, which she thought too New Agey and full of too much unbroken Ouija-speak. Lurie mischaracterizes the channeled messages as prose — no surprise, as she claims not to’ve read most of Sandover until she started writing Familiar Spirits, at which point she was reading with, you might say, an Agenda.

Merrill’s literary executor finds Lurie’s claim of Jackson’s coauthorship ‘sentimental’ or ‘romantic,’ I can’t remember which. Well, literary executors are prone to idolatry and other sorts of silliness. The poem is Merrill’s work and testament to his extraordinary poetic gifts, but the visionary experiences1 which birthed it were at a minimum shared, the ‘voice’ of the spirits coming through Jackson or Merrill or the space between them, shifting from moment to moment — and those experiences involved the production of written prose, for heaven’s sake, and Jackson’s role in generating that prose is authorship (of a sort) if anything is. Whenever I recommend the poem I do so with the caveat that Jackson’s name should be on the title page, and not just in the title; Merrill himself happily said the same.

So I’m with Lurie as far as that goes. And I agree with her that there’s something a little sad about JM and DJ retreating from sociality to sit around the Ouija board — though on the other hand, if they’d been playing music or board games together I wonder whether we’d feel motivated to comment on their choice. Unfortunately, Lurie’s reading of the poem is both oddly literal (she complains about the angelic bylaws and ‘animal/vegetable spirits’ stuff as if they were policy proposals and not virtuosic improvisation) and even more oddly credulous — despite her gently sarcastic dismissals of ‘supernatural’ experiences, she expresses her unhappy and not exactly ironic sense, upon reading Mirabell and Scripts for the Pageant, of her friend being possessed by a ‘stupid and possibly evil alien intelligence.’ Lurking beneath Lurie’s hurt and betrayal (and prim disapproval of her friends’ sex lives) is, of all things, superstition about the Beyond. I confess, the oddly old-fashioned moralizing tone of Familiar Spirits confused me at first; it’s been a long time since I’ve thought of Ouija boards or any other divinatory/psychic practice in ‘supernatural’ terms, and I found Lurie’s disaste…distasteful. It’s not the primary current in the book but it colours everything else.

I consider Sandover a great work and don’t care at all about the implied morality of the ‘angels’ (come to think of it, are the scare quotes necessary? this is just literature, innit?), just as I don’t mind that a group of Free improvisers end up howling in Bb-minor instead of D-major. I do wish, with Lurie, that there were more Merrill and less EVERYONE ELSE in the didactic and sometimes tedious middle sections. But I’m disinclined to sneer at the Ouija text’s ‘New Age banality,’ partly because using ‘New Age’ as an unaccented derogation is childish, partly because the perfect climax of Sandover is ‘channeled’ text — the lonely broadcast of God Biology, which Merrill reprises to haunting effect at the end of Scripts. The ‘spirits’ are smart, funny, catty, urbane…I find myself longing for the company of ‘Auden’ and ‘Maria’ as I read, silly as that sounds. But it’s a good deal sillier to complain about the form that inspired writing takes — despite Merrill’s early reputation as a formalist, he gave himself to these voices as David Jackson did, directly investing them with imaginative energy and emotional power. The ‘meaning’ of the poem isn’t in Merrill’s responses to (or glosses on, or repurposing of) the voices, it’s in the mode of its transmission, the (in)direct access which the Ouija board afforded to JM and DJ. They are not simply themselves in that inspired cowriting — that’s what ‘inspired’ means, as far as I’m concerned.

And ultimately the story of the poem’s making doesn’t answer the questions the poem raises. The questions are the point. Openness and vulnerability are the point. Desperate longing for the comforting presence of dead friends is the point.

So ultimately I’m grateful for the context Lurie provides, and I admire both her writing and her love and admiration for her friends. But I came away from the book having learned a great deal about Merrill, Jackson, and Peter Hooten, and little or nothing about Sandover — a love poem and a dream of absent souls, greater in its imperfections than anything said about it.


  1. Can we all accept that two people seated at a Ouija board, making up a 25-year dialogue with the dead and the divine, can be a ‘visionary experience’ even if Ouija boards are, As Everyone Knows, a fat lot of superstitious nonsense? 
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