With the nearly concurrent publication of his hefty Collected Poems and Alison Lurie’s slim, gimlet-eyed memoir, James Merrill is very much back in the public consciousness. Readers of the poetry will be reminded again of the rare combination of gifts he displayed with such prodigious ease in sixteen volumes of verse over nearly fifty years: the wit, fluency, and lightness of touch, the unerring mastery of form and cadence, the signature blend of the formal and the casual—autobiographical without being confessional, as critic Helen Vendler once put it. He was from the start a linguistic virtuoso with an extraordinary ear, capable of exquisite small effects as well as dramatic grand gestures. Certainly he must be regarded as one of the premiere love poets of the twentieth century, his “chronicles of love and loss,” as he called them, being among the most intense and sensuous, the most sheerly intelligent expressions of passion’s many faces. His was, in the best sense of the word, an utterly civilized voice, brilliant yet unassuming, communicating a sense of being gracefully at home in many different worlds, but the surface urbanity never precluded a penetrating vision of more disturbing, unruly depths.
Readers of Familiar Spirits will be ushered into these depths, guided by Lurie, who writes from the perspective of a forty-three-year friendship with Merrill and his longtime companion, David Jackson. She has produced the closest thing yet published to a biography of the poet who died in 1995 of AIDS-related illness (it is an index of her book’s revelatory impact that the poet’s HIV status is made public for the first time here), although it becomes immediately apparent that she does not attempt to sustain a biographer’s disinterested stance on the two lives she presents. Her flinty tone and occasionally caustic judgments make it clear just what disagreements she had with their poetic practices or erotic choices. Still, the very prickliness in the writing, combined with the obvious affection that underlies any incidental carping, makes her account of these partners and their life together more credible and touching than a more objective approach might allow for.
Lurie first met Merrill in Salzburg during the summer of 1950 and found the young poet decidedly off-putting: smug, intellectually brittle, an aesthete more inclined to connect with words than with people. Four years later, in Amherst, they met again when Merrill was briefly teaching in the same department as Lurie’s husband. She now found the poet, and his gay partner, eminently companionable. Merrill was still an unabashed dandy and brilliant wordsmith, but he had happily developed a generosity and sensitivity to go along with his remorseless intellect; in Jackson she found an even more attractive personality, witty and warm, a good friend and shrewd observer of character. Each man was independently wealthy (Merrill being the scion of Merrill Lynch cofounder, Charles Merrill) but neither lived as if they were. In their nonchalance, their easy charm and playfulness, they provided this faculty wife and struggling novelist an attractive alternative to the fiercely competitive patriarchal world of 1950’s academia. They lived, as she says, “sideways to life, observant, detached,” and she was drawn to the aura of difference they generated. They were both writers—Merrill then a little-known but accomplished poet, Jackson an author of published short stories and unpublished novels—and their careers were not yet as wildly asymmetrical as they would be when Merrill became a successful, prize-winning poet and Jackson a failed writer and prize-winning drunk. They were, Lurie remembers thinking at the time, the happiest married couple she knew. Such happiness would not last.
Lurie examines their increasingly complicated relationship from several points of view and at several points in time, but at the center of the memoir, at the heart of everything she has to say about her friends, are her feelings about their involvement with the ouija board. Begun innocently and for amusement in 1955, their ouija board conversations intensified over the years until, in Lurie’s view, these excursions into the spirit world took over...
(The entire section is 1728 words.)