I am drinking a glass of wine in James Merrill’s séance room.
No, not figuratively.
It’s smaller than I had expected it to be, but otherwise it’s exactly the room I have always seen in my mind. The rounded contours, that supersaturated coral color on the walls, the milk-glass table, the deconsecrated church out the window past the inhaling and exhaling sheers. Even the ceiling medallion seems familiar.
Backdrop: the dining room at Stonington.
Walls of a 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 candlelight.
Familiar. That word is moving around in me, the way words with multiple meanings tend to, a sort of toggling from one definition to another until they overlap like waves. This sense of doubling, twinning, entwining, punning multiplicity in the meaning of a word always seemed to present a particular thrill to Merrill, who seldom refused an opportunity to pit different meanings and sub-meanings of words against each other, no matter how egregious the pun or how complicated the syntactical cartwheels required to achieve it.
Familiar, meaning, as an adjective, intimate, of family; common, generally known, personal. Nominally, an attendant ghost or demon or spirit. A supernatural presence, joined to you but not of you, one that will serve you, do your bidding. At this table, Merrill and his partner David Jackson took dictation from a “witty Shade” who called himself Ephraim, and ultimately, from a suspiciously remarkable cast of literary and intellectual luminaries. The Changing Light at Sandover, the 10,000 line epic slash cosmology slash unified field theory resulting from decades of these Ouija board encounters, remains, in the opinion of this acolyte (who is in what must be a rather small minority of people who have deliberately read it some half a dozen times), one of the most perplexing and fascinating poems of the 20th century.
Merrill used to joke that he only became friends with Auden after Auden's death, when the poet became one of the principle voices that spoke through that chipped teacup planchette. I have a not dissimilar relationship to Merrill -- minus the Ouija board. Having only met him in in person once, I feel and have always felt so familiar with him that I've never even known what to call him. It feels utterly presumptuous and absurd to refer to him as "JImmy," as his, ah, familiars did. Calling him anything else feels fake. I've been a passionate reader of his poetry and prose since I was fifteen. He has influenced my own writing probably more than any single writer (Eugene O'Neill is the one arguable exception but we'll get to him later). And now I am sleeping in his house, and writing in this flamboyantly hued room.
"Room," in Italian, of course, is "stanza." But stanza also connotes “station” or “stopping place.” It derives from the verb “stare,” which means “to stand,” but of course as it pops out of a sentence in English one can’t help also seeing the Germanic word “stare,” as in, to look at something in a fixed way. Fixed. Permanent. Fixed, mended. Fixed, unmoving. Fixed form. Merril was an unreconstructed formalist, thrived on forn, made it do his bidding. If a stanza is a room, the man built mansions, architecturally sublime and dazzlingly well-appointed. Halls of mirrors. Indeed, mirrors and doublings and reflections are one of his primary preoccupations, and students of his work will quickly notice his preference for ABBA quattrains -- a palindromic, mirroring rhyme scheme. In Sandover, the spirit Ephraim even suggests "We prop a mirror in the facing chair. / Erect and gleaming, silver-hearted guest, / We saw each other in it. He saw us. / (Any reflecting surface worked for him.)"
Fix: repair. Repair: not only to mend but also to return or repatriate, to come back to one's own country, which is, unaccountably, how it feels to be here. Images from his poems crop up in every corner. The whole place smells of books, like some great ancient library.
Fellow BAP blogger Leslie McGrath had tipped me off that the James Merrill House was offering short stint residencies to people like me, for instance; parents of school-age kids who couldn't very well uproot them or leave them to their own devices for a semester. I don't think she yet realized Merrill had been a personal deity of mine since I was a teenager -- she just knew how little writing time People Like Me tend to get. I asked for two weeks. They offered four. Extended family members, understanding that this was no mere retreat for me but something more like a Hajj, anted up and saw to it that my daughters got to school and back. I hopped a flight to Connecticut.
And now I am drinking a glass of wine in the man's dining room, notebook open, but too confounded to put a word on the page.
Now, let us momentarily consider the word “retreat.” In its noun sense, it means “place of solitude.” Okay. Around the 1790s it acquired the sub-meaning of a holding tank for the insane. OKAY. WE ARE WRITERS FOR A REASON, DUDE. As a verb, its overwhelming connotation is of giving up on a losing battle – running away in surrender. Knowing that you are, in the parlance of northern England, where I did my MFA, “stuffed.” Meaning screwed.
If it is the (re)treat of a lifetime to sit in this room, it must be said it is also overwhelming and not a little intimidating. Some pretty amazing stuff was written in this house. Station, stopping place, if you believe them, for a cast of millions, familiar spirits and stra
nge ones both, bent on using Merrill and Jackson as conduits for the concoction of a major creation myth rewrite. A place made mythic to me by more than half a lifetime poring over the work that was written in it and about it. I am certain all recipients of this fellowship count themselves lucky. I am not sure how many of us burst into tears upon noticing the ancient "While You Were Out" phone message slip wedged into one of the bookcases, that says only (in whose hand?) that Peter Hooten is awaiting James's return call.
Yes, really. I cried. Ask Leslie.
Retreat. Right. Try confrontation. Try intimate (familiar) encounter with the Mirror. Try showdown, you and the sense that you "will never, ever, not in ten million years or in any form," live up to this, this experience, this place, this room. That feeling comes and goes, of course, an ineffable thing intertwined with the giddy sense of infinite possibility and the surety that the room itself will endow one's own stanzas with some small inktrace of its own storied Divine Inspiration. Breathe. And just write. Right?
People keep asking me if spirits have offered to workshop my poems or given me any advice; if Keats or Frost or, hey, Merrill himself have offered up spare lines for me to cop. I say I don’t think so, but it takes two people to work the planchette on the Ouija board, and I am alone (Except for in the photo above, taken by gifted photographer and poet Doug Anderson, in which I and Friend-of-Fellow co-reader David Yezzi perform a "seance" for the lens. And I don't think anything could have gotten through to us if it had wanted to; we were laughing too hard.).
But there is a numinous.... something, in here. A sense of being watched. It’s possible I’ve made that up out of a combination of wishful thinking and overstimulation, but I don’t think so and I have spoken to other people who've all agreed with me, there is something weird in the apartment, an energy, something, yes, spectral. Powerful. Slightly impish, a merrilly (?!) winking, rib-nudging kind of presence. Something.
Somethng strangely familiar.