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The Changing Light at Sandover by James…
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The Changing Light at Sandover

by James Merrill

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How does one describe a 560-page modern day epic poem, which goes beyond the bounds of nearly anything that is out there, perhaps even beyond the bounds of reality and mortality? This is the question I was left with after finishing Sandover earlier this week. Perhaps I should start with a description of what the poem is about. In Sandover, James Merrill, with the very considerable help of his partner David Jackson, created an epic of the same scale as Dante's Divine Comedy. Already, that seems like a big, bold claim to make. But the scope of Sandover demands big, bold claims. The poem consists of Merrill and Jackson's communications, by way of a Ouija board, with spirits, angels, demons and other powers and principalities. Whether one believes in these entities is, if not inconsequential, at least tangential to one's enjoyment of Merrill's aesthetic achievement. The fact is that neither Merrill nor Jackson always believed in the reality of their spiritual communicants. The fact also is, however, that sometimes they did.

The poem can be deeply disturbing - on many levels - deeply touching - on many levels - and deeply puzzling - on many levels. It is divided into three sections, mirroring the outlay of a Ouija board. The first section, The Book of Ephraim, is divided into 26 sections, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet. The second section, Mirabell's Books of Number, is divided into ten books, 0 to 9, each further divided into nine sections. The third book, Scripts for the Pageant, is divided into three sections, called (respectively) Yes, &, and No. Finally, the poem is rounded out with a coda, The Higher Keys.

So much for the shape of the poem, labyrinthine as it is. What about the substance? The Book of Ephraim contains comparatively little messages from the 'spirit' world (which Merrill represents by printing the words in small block letters, LIKE SO). It is 'about' Merrill and Jackson's communications with the spirit Ephraim, ostensibly a first century Greek, but the book is about so much more. Merrill is in many ways a classical verse artist - he usually writes in a fixed metre, and often employs rhyme - but this is to sell him short. As Harold Bloom says of him, he was a 'Mozartian verse artist', and this shows in his use of classical tropes to present a wholly new spin on epic poetry. In Ephraim, we are introduced to a varied dramatis personae of spirits, ranging from friends of JM and DJ (as Merrill and Jackson usually are called in the poem) to WH Auden and WB Yeats.

In Mirabell's Books of Number, Merrill and Jackson are introduced to a new occult system of knowledge, which Mirabell, a spirit from a primordial existence, teaches to them by way of several 'lessons', interspersed with more of Merrill's own poetry. Of course, one might argue that it is all his own poetry - or is it? As more and more of the poem is taken up by spirit communications, one begins to wonder how in control Merrill really is. What of Jackson's influence? I have more to say about this in the second review, but for now let us say that I personally think that Merrill was more in control than some writers have claimed. And what of the spirits? How real are they? I cannot really say. They probably are not real. Probably. As Merrill later explained. "If the spirits aren't external, how astonishing the mediums become! Victor Hugo said of his voices that they were like his own mental powers multiplied by five."

The last section of the poem, Scripts for the Pageant, again takes a different tack. In it, the communications are presented as if they are a script for a play. Even more astonishing is the range of new voices found in this section. After Mirabell's instruction, JM and DJ attain a higher level, and are now to be instructed by none other than the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Emmanuel and Raphael. They are joined in the 'schoolroom' by the spirits of Auden and Maria Mitsotaki, a deceased Greek friend of theirs. The lessons, as in Mirabell are strange, otherworldly, and, at times, disturbing. What the real Auden (if this isn't the real Auden) would have made of this spiritual instruction is anyone's guess, but I tend to think he would have been amused and a little angry. Yeats makes more appearances, and JM and DJ learn about the plans of 'God Biology', (or God B, for short).

The (relatively) brief coda presents the immediate aftermath of JM and DJ's communications and instructions, with appearances made by Jane Austen, TS Eliot, Nabokov, etc.

I found the poem by times brilliant, funny, even exasperating. As poetry, the spirit communications do not always work, but that is to be expected in any long poem. Most of the time, the otherworldliness of the poem captivated me. But I have always been interested in both poetry and the supernatural. Perhaps that allowed me to accept the more disturbing aspects of the poem. I certainly would not recommend the poem to fundamentalist believers of any faith - figures from all the main religions, including Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha make their appearance in the poem, and not always in the most flattering ways. The spirits can also be very elitist, judgmental, even racist. Whether this reflects something of JM and DJ's subconcious minds, or the actual spirits, seems to me pragmatically unimportant. It may have been subconcious promptings - it may even have been an ironic way of distancing themselves from the spirits. I do not know. What I do know is that this is in many ways an extraordinary achievement, eldritch and enchanting, puzzling and profound. ( )
10 vote dmsteyn | Jun 25, 2011 |
An amazing tour de force! Imagine: an Epic Poem for the Late 20th Century! Perfect, astonishing and unique. ( )
  Hoagy27 | Nov 7, 2007 |
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Epigraph
Tu credi 'l vero; che i minori e' grandi / di questa vita miran ne lo speglio / in che, prima che pensi, il pensier parli. (Paradiso XV)
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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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679747362, Paperback)

James Merrill’s audacious and dazzling epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, remains as startling today as when it first emerged in separate volumes over a period of several years. Individual parts won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and the entire poem, when it was collected into one volume in 1982, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is now an American classic, here in a definitive new hardcover edition that includes Voices from Sandover, Merrill’s recasting of the poem for the stage. The book carries us to the scene of Merrill’s Ouija board sessions with his partner, David Jackson—the candlelit Stonington dining room with its flame-colored walls and the famous Willowware cup they used as a pointer in their occult travels. In a shimmering interplay of verse forms, Merrill set down their extended conversations with their familiar and guide, Ephraim (a first-century Greek Jew), W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, Plato, a brilliant peacock named Mirabell, and other old friends who had passed to the other side. JM (whom the spirits call “scribe”) and DJ (“hand”) are also introduced to the lonely eminence God B (“God Biology”), his sister Mother Nature, and a host of angels and lesser residents of the empyrean who are variously involved in the ways of this world.
The laughter, the missteps, and the schoolroom frustrations of the earthly pair’s gradual enlightenment make this otherworldly journey, finally, and utterly human one. A unique exploration of the writer’s role in a postatomic, postreligious age, Sandover has been compared to the work of Yeats, Proust, Milton, and Blake. Merrill’s tale of the joys and tragedies of man’s powers, and his message about the importance of our endangered efforts to make a good life on earth, will stand as one of the most profound experiences available to readers of poetry.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:48:42 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"James Merrill's epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, remains as startling today as when it first emerged in separate volumes over a period of several years. Individual parts won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and the entire poem, when it was collected into one volume in 1982, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is now an American classic, here in a definitive new hardcover edition that includes Voices from Sandover, Merrill's recasting of the poem for the stage. The book carries us to the scene of Merrill's Ouija board sessions with his partner, David Jackson - the candlelit Stonington dining room with its flame-colored walls and the famous Willowware cup they used as a pointer in their occult travels. In a shimmering interplay of verse forms, Merrill set down their extended conversations with their familiar and guide, Ephraim (a first-century Greek Jew), W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, Plato, a brilliant peacock named Mirabell, and other old friends who had passed to the other side. JM (whom the spirits call "scribe") and DJ ("hand") are also introduced to the lonely eminence God B ("God Biology"), his sister Mother Nature, and a host of angels and lesser residents of the empyrean who are variously involved in the ways of this world." "The laughter, the missteps, and the schoolroom frustrations of the earthly pair's gradual enlightenment make this otherworldly journey, finally, and utterly human one. A unique exploration of the writer's role in a postatomic, postreligious age, Sandover has been compared to the work of Yeats, Proust, Milton, and Blake. Merrill's tale of the joys and tragedies of man's powers, and his message about the importance of our endangered efforts to make a good life on earth, will stand as one of the most profound experiences available to readers of poetry."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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