James Merrill began his public career as a poet at twenty-five, four years after he graduated from Amherst, with the exquisitely crafted, tautly controlled lyrics in his First Poems (1951). His style gradually relaxed over the next twenty-five years, but he remained committed to his early elegance and virtuosity. Then, in 1976, he published Divine Comedies, a book that included a long poem, “The Book of Ephraim,” unlike anything he had written before. It was the product of twenty years of séances he had conducted together with David Jackson, once his lover, now his companion, in which, using a Ouija board, they seemed to receive messages from spirits of the dead, some of which Merrill transcribed into the poem. He followed this with two even longer poems based on spirit messages, and later gathered all three into a sprawling, otherworldly epic, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), which seemed to issue from a sensibility entirely different from that of the precise young man who wrote First Poems.
Langdon Hammer’s lucid, sympathetic biography, James Merrill: Life and Art, makes clear that from the start, long before he began taking dictation from the spirits, Merrill was writing poems in which imagined words were spoken by inhuman voices. In one poem, a mirror wishes it could answer those who look into it. The mirror contrasts its narrow symmetries—the product of reflection—with the random sufferings visible through the window at the far side of the room:
If ever I feel curious
As to what others endure,
Across the parlor you provide examples,
Wide open, sunny, of everything I am
“You,” the mirror tells the window, “embrace a whole world without once caring/To set it in order.” Merrill set another poem in a hall of mirrors where a real man and woman “creak about” while their “million likenesses” move nimbly, “masterfully aligned.”
In their early days with the Ouija board, Merrill and Jackson maneuvered large and small mirrors, hoping to see the spirit they encountered in their séances; they saw only each other, but the spirit later told them that he had been looking back, seeing but unseen. Uncanny exchanges occur between the otherwise separate realms of imagination and life. At the end of “Lost in Translation,” Merrill half-remembers himself at eleven, keeping one piece of a rented wooden jigsaw puzzle when the puzzle went back to the shop. In effect, the poem suggests, he refused wholeness to art; since then pieces have gone missing, in occult retribution, from the puzzles of real life: “a house torn down,” a lover’s “ruin.”
Merrill’s poems throughout are glittering products of adult sophistication, polyglot learning, and ironic self-consciousness. His style extended from mannerism (“blond hair/Flossing a comb”)…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.