(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Changing Light at Sandover is one of the more remarkable poetic works to have been published in the West since T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Its genesis is interesting enough: James Merrill and his lover, David Jackson, had been experimenting with a Ouija board with little result when, one day in 1955, a spirit named Ephraim answered the ritual question: “Who’s there?” After a long time conversing with Ephraim, Merrill decided to take the notes he took from their “conversations” and turn them into a poem. The resulting work, “The Book of Ephraim,” contains a series of twenty-six poems, each beginning with a separate letter of the alphabet, one for each of the twenty-six capital letters on the board.

Merrill solves the difficult problem of separating the words of the “spirits” from his own by putting the former in capital letters; words of people other than himself are in italics. Each of the poems uses a slightly different poetic form, so the longer poem can be viewed as a book of forms. Narrative sections fall into blank verse, and didactic commentary tends to slip into heroic couplets. There are meditative sections that use stanza forms reminiscent of Percy Bysshe Shelley or William Wordsworth, the great British romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and there is a section of 127 lines in terza rima, the length of a typical Dantean canto, that narrates a long discussion on life and art with his nephew.

The primary problem of the poem is that of what credence one should be expected to give to the garbled transmissions of a Ouija board. Merrill tackles the problem in various ways: He sees his psychiatrist, who calls the exercise a folie à deux, an attempt by him and his lover to communicate on some higher plane. He also expresses his own skepticism, pointing out that Ephraim knows no more about what he says than Merrill or Jackson does. Yet the tone of the poem in some way demands belief if it is not to break down into an elaborate folly.

“The Book of Ephraim” also contains large sections of a very murky novel concerning characters in the southwestern United States who are trying to settle on a remote piece of land. Ephraim at one time tells Merrill to forget it, but Ephraim is somehow in the novel himself, for the heroine of the book carries around a Ouija board. There are many other things in The Changing Light at Sandover, such as tributes to Merrill’s friends Auden, Maya Deren, and Maria Mitsotáki and to Merrill’s mother. There is a beautiful elegy for Venice, the dying city, and the discussion with his nephew on art. Ephraim himself is a springboard to many other things.

With book 2, Mirabell: Books of Number, all is quite different. The spirits “write” most of this book; moreover, they seem to demand belief much more than they did in...

(The entire section is 1174 words.)