Clever Ghosts: James Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim”
By Richie HofmannDecember 6, 2018
The Book of Ephraim by James Merrill
First published in his Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Divine Comedies (1976), The Book of Ephraim intersperses the transcripts of Merrill’s communications with the spirit world, the voices of the dead rendered through small capital letters, with Merrill’s narrative. The poet comes to understand the meaning of all the years he spends at the “milk glass tabletop” in the dining room of his apartment in Stonington, Connecticut, with his partner, David Noyes Jackson, “playing” at a handmade Ouija board, using the willowware cup (the subject of one of Merrill’s finest short poems) to transcribe the messages of the dead.
The Book of Ephraim later comes to be the first section of the epic The Changing Light at Sandover (published in its entirety in 1982), in which James Merrill, the cosmopolitan poet, transcends the traversable world, like Dante Alighieri, in three canticles. The long poem is a gathering of haunted voices “from the Other World”; the Ouija board is the medium through which JM and DJ (as the poet and Jackson come to be known) can access what Merrill calls, in another poem, “the mute spellers-out,” the spirits of another realm who alternately philosophize and kvetch, chat and enlighten, hold court.
Anyone who visits the James Merrill House in Connecticut, lovingly maintained by the Stonington Village Improvement Association and now a residence for visiting poets and writers, will feel a sense of familiarity with the place, having already imagined the dining room’s
Walls of ready-mixed matte “flame” (a witty
Shade, now watermelon, now sunburn).
Overhead, a turn of the century dome
Expressing white tin wreathes and fleurs-de-lys
In palpable relief to candelight.
The mise-en-scène is a stage for the spirit world, proffering wisdom and gossip in the Ouija’s letters. Although the bizarre occult narrative holds our attention, the virtuosity of the poetry delights us. This is poetry of formal grace and clarity, precision of seeing and lightness of touch, good humor and serious play. Merrill’s beloved puns bring the world of the poem to life, as here the paint color of the walls anticipates the “witty / Shade,” who will be our guide. That “familiar spirit” is Ephraim, “[a] Greek Jew,” we are told, “[b]orn AD 8” in Xanthos — but he is far from the only ancestor summoned to the necromantic tea party. A weird, unforgettable poem follows in 26 sections, one for each letter of the alphabet (and the Ouija board) — an organizing principle that holds the wide-ranging, polyvocal piece together, even as locales, forms, and speakers change.
What The Book of Ephraim “is” is the subject of much of Stephen Yenser’s bright and inviting introduction to the new annotated edition of the text. The multiple answers to that central question concern the maker(s) of the poem, too. And it is precisely the genre-bending nature of the poem — a compendium of voices living and dead, yes, but also of poetic forms (sonnets, couplets, hendecasyllabics), attitudes and stances (skeptical, devout), registers high and low — that amplifies its force and originality. The poem’s first lines, drawing on the mock humility of epic tradition, address the problem of genre and form, in conveying the account anyway:
Admittedly I err by undertaking
This in its present form. The baldest prose
Reportage was called for, that would reach
The widest public in the shortest time.
Time, it had transpired, was of the essence.
Time, the very attar of the Rose,
Was running out. We, though, were ancient foes,
I and the deadline. Also my subject matter
Gave me pause — so intimate, so novel.
Best after all to do it as a novel?
The self-conscious artifice of the poem comes to be one of its most delightful features; Merrill’s voice is wry, ironic, sexy, learned, fun. His poetry is, after all, the only fitting form for the unbelievable journey, a munificent but steady counterpoint to the language of the clever ghosts.
As Merrill biographer Langdon Hammer has written, “The Ouija board was at times a parlor game, at times an obsession.” The arrival of an annotated edition of The Book of Ephraim comes as a great gift to the Merrill-obsessed. Merrill’s poetry does, I think, inspire obsession, not least of all for the richness and completeness and complexity of the new worlds his poems make.
It’s not an uncommon experience — it’s nearly a cliché in the world of Merrill’s readers — to find the power and mystical charm of The Book of Ephraim diminished somehow by The Changing Light at Sandover’s other two canticles, which become longer, stranger, and more alienating to readers. Yenser admits in this new introduction that the “subsequent parts are later in composition, as well as much longer and quite different in aim and means.” Even the poet himself did not imagine, at the time of writing, the ambition and scope of the complete Changing Light at Sandover. In a 1979 interview with Helen Vendler in The New York Review of Books, Merrill says, “I’d convinced myself that ‘The Book of Ephraim’ told everything I had to say about the ‘other world.’”
Stephen Yenser’s brilliantly annotated and introduced new edition recreates The Book of Ephraim, for the first time, as a stand-alone poem in its own right. The Book of Ephraim is, at last, a book.
The Ephraim volume, along with Langdon Hammer’s substantial and substantially eloquent biography James Merrill: Life and Art (Knopf, 2015), is part of an energetic reassessment of Merrill’s work and his influence on postwar American poetry. Among Merrill lovers, Yenser’s The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (Harvard, 1987) is already well known and well utilized. Merrill’s obsessive readers also have A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover (University of Michigan, 1994), Robert Polito’s immensely helpful companion volume to the long poem, which excerpts critical responses and reviews of the work and includes a marvelous cross-referenced glossary of the people, places, things, and themes of Merrill’s imaginative world. But Polito’s is much more of a reference work than Yenser’s annotated version of Ephraim, which, issued in an inexpensive paperback, seems like an ideal course text: light and portable; thorough without being exhaustive; suggestive rather than definitive; a beginning of new explorations, and not the final word.
Placing Ephraim at the center of Merrill’s artistic enterprise, Yenser argues that “his entire career preceding Ephraim was preparation for this master poem.” He also sees the necessity for a stand-alone volume, imagining about the “fabled ‘general reader’ and the college student” who will now have access to The Book of Ephraim as a single text.
That’s all very well, and I will be teaching this poem in its current form. But equally necessary are Yenser’s fine introduction and notes, which I, as a longtime, serious reader of Merrill’s work, loved to read, finding new reasons to adore the poem through Yenser’s convincing and provocative arguments. His writing style in the introduction is itself Merrillian in its playful erudition, as he offers up such gems as “fungible dyads,” and a couple of words — “eldritch,” “apricity” — that might send a reader eagerly to the dictionary.
The notes Yenser provides in the volume are of several kinds. First — and I found this quite useful — the editor will, where possible, describe the setting of the section of the poem. For a poem that leaps between places (Stonington, Venice, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Athens, et cetera) and between times (the 1970s of the poem’s composition and memories of Ouija board sessions and travels in the 1950s), this is an absolute benefit. Second, they offer short biographical glosses of such figures as Wassily Kandinsky and Germanicus; definitions of words like “acrolith” and “tokonoma”; and references for Merrill’s many allusions and nods, to William Shakespeare, Henry James, and to popular science and current events. Occasionally, Yenser will point to a significant modulation in the poem’s meter or rhyme scheme. Still more often, notes send readers to other related passages within The Book of Ephraim and elsewhere in Merrill’s oeuvre.
My only quibble with the volume, I must say, is the lack of an index, which would have been a useful aid to navigate both the text of the poem and Yenser’s notes.
As a critical interpreter of Merrill’s complex poem, Yenser generously allows for a multiplicity of meanings, rarely forcing a particular reading and at all times refusing to limit the complexity and capaciousness of Merrill’s linguistic imagination and the inventiveness of his wordplay. He unravels intricate etymologies and draws connections between themes and theories from section to section of the poem, opening up the possibilities of Merrill’s poem to readers rather than closing them down. Glossing “the thief” in the poem’s final section, “Z,” Yenser writes:
Mercury? Time? The thief in the night of Matthew 24:43 (“But know this, that if the good man of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up”)? Oblivion itself? All are implicated, along with Ephraim, whose purloining of the manuscript of the novel (see the Introduction and “The Will” in Divine Comedies) set in motion the wheels of this poem.
At times, a note has an eloquence and charm that seem to develop into a sort of literary response of its own: “The ironies in the phrase ‘on the surface nothing less / Than earthly life in all its mystery’ should not go unnoticed,” Yenser writes, “especially since Merrill’s work, so riddled with reflection, often stresses the importance of ‘surface,’ with its depths.”
In his generous and useful annotations, Yenser synthesizes and explains Merrill’s sources and motives. As an interpreter of the poem, he brings a light touch. As a scholar of Merrill’s life and art, he brings a rich context and wide range of further reading. As a friend of the poet’s (his personal correspondence with Merrill, now housed in Yale University’s Beinecke Library, is cited throughout the text), he brings what feels like private affection and public admiration. No other critic of James Merrill could have annotated this poem with such elegance and attentiveness, erudition and love.
James Merrill’s wit and formal virtuosity are nowhere more entrancing than in The Book of Ephraim. One of the greatest of Merrill’s literary achievements in his lifetime, it is also one of the great American long poems of the last century. Stephen Yenser’s new annotated edition of the poem preserves and extends that legacy to ours.
Richie Hofmann is the author of a collection of poems, Second Empire (2015) and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He is currently a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University.
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