“Voices from the Other World” – Art & Alchemy

James Merrill was heir to a vast fortune (think Merrill Lynch), the child of a broken home, intellectually gifted, modest, and generous with both money and mind. He is considered by many to be one of the finest poets of the 20th century – a master of metre and form whose work is often described as elegant.  He is also known as “The Ouija Poet.”

The Changing Light at Sandover , Merrill’s magnum opus, took  20 years to complete and was composed with the assitance of his companion David Jackson, a home-made Ouija board, and a host of spirit entities. The book ran to 500 plus pages and is still considered by many to be one of the great canonical mystic/poetic works – comparable to Milton’s Paradise Lost or Yeats A Vision.  It is also, amidst its murmuring shadows, a love story. The relationship between Merrill and Jackson is not only essential to the mechanics of the inspirational Ouija sessions (one would commune with entities while the other transcribed) it is the axis on which lyricism and tenderness turn.  For much of their 25 year relationship, Spiritualism was a part of the couple’s daily life – binding them together creatively.  It was also a factor in their parting.

Voices from the Other World is one of Merrill’s most anthologized poems. Although it predates the Book of Ephraim (the first volume of The Changing Light at Sandover) by several years, it eerily foreshadows the creative heights and heartbreak to come.

Presently at our touch the teacup stirred,
Then circled lazily about
From A to Z. The first voice heard
(If they are voices, these mute spellers-out)
Was that of an engineer
Originally from Cologne.
Dead in his 22nd year
Of cholera in Cairo, he had KNOWN
NO HAPPINESS. He once met Goethe, though.
Goethe had told him: PERSEVERE.
Our blind hound whined. With that, a horde
Of voices gathered above the Ouija board,
Some childish and, you might say, blurred
By sleep; one little boy
Named Will, reluctant possibly in a ruff
Like a large-lidded page out of El Greco, pulled
Back the arras for that next voice,
Cold and portentous: ALL IS LOST.
Frightened, we stopped; but tossed
Till sunrise striped the rumpled sheets with gold.
Each night since then, the moon waxes,
Small insects flit round a cold torch
We light, that sends them pattering to the porch . . .
But no real Sign. New voices come,
Dictate addresses, begging us to write;
Some warn of lives misspent, and all of doom
In way’s that so exhilarate
We are sleeping sound of late.
Last night the teacup shattered in a rage.
Indeed, we have grown nonchalant
Towards the other world. In the gloom here,
our elbows on the cleared
Table, we talk and smoke, pleased to be stirred
Rather by buzzings in the jasmine, by the drone
Of our own voices and poor blind Rover’s wheeze,
Than by those clamoring overhead,
Obsessed or piteous, for a commitment
We still have wit to postpone
Because, once looked at lit
By the cold reflections of the dead
Risen extinct but irresistible,
Our lives have never seemed more full, more real,
Nor the full moon more quick to chill.
The recording of Merrill reading this and other poems is well worth seeking out, and the Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002) is essential.

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