james Merrill (and David Jackson), THE CHANGING LIGHT AT SANDOVER.

by waxbanks

Brief remarks in lieu of a proper review:

It took me more than three years to read Sandover — I’d take in 20 or 50 pages over a few nights, then set it aside for weeks or months. That’s a long time to live with a single reading of a single poem, but then Sandover is a lot to read, not in terms of pagecount (though it is awfully long) but rather in scope. It is a vast poem, an old-fashioned epic of sorts, whose subject after all is the nature of man’s relationship to the cosmos.

It’s also, paradoxically, a claustrophobic one. By the end, Merrill and his love David Jackson have all but withdrawn from the world into their strange visionary game, their folie à deux. The Coda, ‘The Higher Keys,’ has Merrill setting up the Ouija board at Sandover in order to stage a reading of the poem itself for an audience of the dead — Proust, Jane Austen, Dante, Ephraim (revealed to be possessed by the archangel Michael). When a friend named Vasíli intrudes, Jackson and Merrill are embarrassed rather than eager to share (‘…lest anguish take its lover’s leap / Into the vortex of credulity,’ an astonishing verse considering what’s come before), but Vasíli has bad news (more death) and needs his mind taken off the real world. JM and DJ welcome him to the table (‘silver urn, / Cucumber sandwiches, rum punch, fudge laced / With hashish cater to whatever taste’) and Merrill begins to read. The final stanza is lovely and sad:

DJ brighteyed (but look how wrinkled) lends
His copy of the score to our poor friend’s
Somber regard—captive like Gulliver
Or like the mortal in an elfin court
Pining for wife and cottage on this shore
Beyond whose depthless dazzle he can’t see
For their ears I begin: “Admittedly…”

Merrill returns to the beginning of the poem, how (or where) he now lives, performing his sacred/profane work for a room full of imaginary corpses, or ‘familiar spirits.’ Having broken the mirror which they set up for the benefit of their dear departed friends Wystan, George, and Maria (who turns out also to be Plato, among other people), the poet now reads for his literary forefathers and -mothers — for posterity, you might say. If it weren’t so self-consciously melancholy (‘but look how wrinkled’) it’d be almost…arrogant, which Merrill surely was, though he seems to’ve been many other things besides.

Ultimately the poem is less about cosmic wisdom and angelic bureaucracy (though some of Sandover‘s comedy comes from what a goofy workplace heaven seems to be) than about the experience of loss and longing — and of lifelong love, though longing and loss seem to be essential elements of that strange compound as well. JM and DJ spend their time in the company of the dead, channeling remembered and imagined voices to create a world that’s fuller, larger, and stranger than their own: by poem’s end, bat creatures and unicorns and gods and angels and a chorus of witty historical literary types share the stage with two troubled middle-aged men and their shrinking circle of earthly friends. But all this heavenly lunacy crowds out real life a bit. It’s telling that Jackson’s health concerns and Merrill’s family (and the trips to Athens which introduced both men to the complex Greek practice of taking adolescent male lovers) seem to fall away as Sandover reaches its revelatory/expository climax — DJ and JM are very much alone, in physical terms, during these cosmic experiences, no matter how many voices they conjure.

If I’m emphasizing the sadness of the story, it’s partly because of my recent reading of Alison Lurie’s Familiar Spirits, which coloured my experience of ‘The Higher Keys.’ (I wish I’d held off.) But more than that, the poem itself has a twilight shade in the end. The mirror-breaking scene is harrowing and deeply sad; the cast of characters whom I’d come to love depart, then, for other lives, and DJ and JM have begun to let go of whatever it is they’d become through these Ouija experiences. Let go of each other, too: their relationship didn’t long outlast Sandover. Loneliness threads through the poem — its ecstatic-melancholic peak, God Biology’s deep space transmission, is one of the loneliest things I’ve ever read. Knowing that Merrill’s circle of friends shrank over the years, partly as a result of the tightening hold this work had on DJ and JM, deepens the sorrow of the last two volumes, but the poem is (in part) about losing friends and family twice over, first from the material world, then from the paracosm which exists through the board.

But it’s not only sad. It’s also funny, wise, sharp eyed, and (this is the least interesting aspect of the poem for normal readers, but an important part of the sales pitch) absolutely expert as verse. Merrill seems to’ve had an effortless mastery of verse forms as, say, Pynchon does of prose. The poem’s revelations aren’t Cosmically Significant to me, but I smiled and laughed at Merrill’s loving evocations of friends and his sly comedy a lot more often than I wept at the sheer beauty of the heavenly paracosm. I think of my Sandover reading experience as this waterfall of tears, which for a time it was, but along with stretches of boredom at the cosmological infodumping, I mostly felt happy to be in the company of the ‘spirits,’ whose beautiful humanity testifies to the imaginative energy and empathy with which Merrill and Jackson imbued them at the board.

I recently admitted to a friend that, while Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow and Little, Big and Douglas Adams’s books are essential parts of (the idea of) me, while the Big Books I read in my teens and 20s are pillars of this identity I’ve made, my ‘favourite novel’ is probably Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett; I come home to it and feel totally at peace. Sandover isn’t my favourite poem; I’m not sure what is. (Cummings? Neruda? Robert Penn Warren? Shel Silverstein?) But I’ve now lived inside it longer, at a stretch, than I’ve lived in any other book. It consumed me. It changed the way I think about literature. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and one of the strangest. It’s all questions. It’s a love poem (about a long marriage) and a metaphysical comedy and a record of two men’s experiences imagining their way into the world of the dead. I’m so grateful to have had this experience.

There’s more to say about Sandover but not here.