The Book of Ephraim (excerpt)

James Merrill

Backdrop: The dining room at Stonington.Walls of ready-mixed matte “flame” (a wittyShade, now watermelon, now sunburn).Overhead, a turn of the century domeExpressing white tin wreathes and fleurs-de-lysIn palpable relief to candlelight.Wallace Stevens, with that dislocatedPerspective of the newly dead, would take itFor an alcove in the Baptist church next doorWhose moonlit tower saw eye to eye with us.The room breathed sheer white curtains out. In blewElm- and chimney-blotted shimmerings, soSlight the tongue of land, so high the point of view.1955 this would have been,Second summer of our tenancy.Another year we’d buy the old eyesoreHalf of whose top story we now rented;Build, above that, a glass room off a woodenStardeck; put a fireplace in; make friends.Now, strangers to the village, did we evenHave a telephone? Who needed one!We had each other for communicationAnd all the rest. The stage was set for Ephraim.Properties: A milk glass tabletop.A blue-and-white cup from the Five & Ten.Pencil, paper. Heavy cardboard sheetOver which the letters A to ZSpread in an arc, our covenantWith whom it would concern; alsoThe Arabic numerals, and YES and NO.What more could a familiar spirit want?Well, when he knew us better, he’d suggestWe 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.Noons, D and I might row to a sandbarFar enough from town for swimming nakedThen pacing the glass treadmill hardly wetThat healed itself perpetually of us—Unobserved, unheard we thought, untilThe night he praised our bodies and our wit,Our blushes in a twinkling overcome.)Or we could please him by swirling a drop of rumInside the cup that, overturned and seemingSlightly to lurch at such times in mid-glide,Took heart from us, dictation from our guide.But he had not yet found us. Who was there?The cup twitched in its sleep. “Is someone there?”We whispered, fingers light on Willowware,When the thing moved. Our breathing stopped. The cup,Glazed zombie of itself, was on the prowlMoving, but dully, incoherently,Possessed, as we should soon enough be told,By one or another of the myriadsWho hardly understand, through the compulsiveReliving of their deaths, that they have died—By fire in this case, when a warehouse burned.HELLP O SAV ME scrawled the cupAs on the very wall flame rippled up,Hypnotic wave on wave, a lullabyOf awfulness. I slumped. D: One more try.Was anybody there? As when a pikeStrikes, and the line singing writes in lakefleshHighstrung runes, and reel spins and mind reelsYES a new and urgent power YESSeized the cup. It swerved, clung, hesitated,Darted off, a devil’s darning needleGyroscope our fingers rode bareback(But stopping dead the instant one lost touch)Here, there, swift handle pointing, letter uponLetter taken down blind by my free hand—At best so clumsily, those early sessionsBreak off into guesswork, paraphrase.Too much went whizzing past. We were too niceTo pause, divide the alphabeticalGibberish into words and sentences.Yet even the most fragmentary message—Twice as entertaining, twice as wiseAs either of its mediums—enthralled them.Correct but cautious, that first night, we askedOur visitor’s name, era, habitat.EPHRAIM came the answer. A Greek JewBorn AD 8 at XANTHOS  Where was that?In Greece WHEN WOLVES & RAVENS WERE IN ROME(Next day the classical dictionary yieldedA Xanthos on the Asia Minor Coast.)NOW WHO ARE U   We told him. ARE U XTIANSWe guessed so. WHAT A COZY CATACOMBChrist had WROUGHT HAVOC in his family,ENTICED MY FATHER FROM MY MOTHERS BED(I too had issued from a broken home—The first of several facts to coincide.)Later a favorite of TIBERIUS   DiedAD 36 on CAPRI   throttledBy the imperial guard for having LOVEDTHE MONSTERS NEPHEW (sic) CALIGULARapidly he went on—changing the subject?A long incriminating manuscriptBoxed in bronze lay UNDER PORPHYRYBeneath the deepest excavations. HeWould help us find it, but we must please make hasteBecause Tiberius wanted it destroyed.Oh? And where, we wondered of the void,Was Tiberius these days? STAGE THREEWhy was he telling us? He’d overheard usTalking to SIMPSON   Simpson? His LINK WITH EARTHHis REPRESENTATIVE   A feeble natureAll but bestial, given to violentShort lives—one ending lately among flamesIn an Army warehouse. Slated for rebirthBut not in time, said Ephraim, to preventThe brat from wasting, just now at our cup,Precious long distance minutes—don’t hang up!So much facetiousness—well, we were youngAnd these were matters of life and death—dismayed us.Was he a devil? His reply MY POORINNOCENTS left the issue hanging fire.As it flowed on, his stream-of-consciousnessDeepened. There was a buried room, a BEDWROUGHT IN SILVER   I CAN LEAD U THEREIF   If?  U GIVE ME   What? HA HA YR SOULS(Another time he’ll say that he misreadOur innocence for insolence that night,And meant to scare us.) Our eyes met. What if . . .The blood’s least vessel hoisted jet-black sails.Five whole minutes we were frightened stiff—But after all, we weren’t that innocent.The Rover Boys at thirty, still red-bloodedEnough not to pass up an armchair revelAnd pure enough at heart to beat the devil,Entered into the spirit, so to speak,And said they’d leave for Capri that same week.Pause. Then, as though we’d passed a test,Ephraim’s whole manner changed. He brushed asideTiberius and settled to the taskOf answering, like an experienced guide,Those questions we had lacked the wit to ask.Here on Earth—huge tracts of informationHave gone into these capsules flavorlessAnd rhymed for easy swallowing—on EarthWe’re each the REPRESENTATIVE of a PATRON—Are there that many patrons? YES O YESThese secular guardian angels fume and fussFor what must seem eternity over us.It is forbidden them to INTERVENESave, as it were, in the entr’acte betweenOne incarnation and another. BackTo school from the disastrously long vacGoes the soul its patron crams yet onceAgain with savoir vivre. Will the dunceNever—by rote, the hundredth time round—learnWhat ropes make fast that point of no return,A footing on the lowest of NINE STAGESAmong the curates and the minor mages?Patrons at last ourselves, an upward notchOur old ones move THEYVE BORNE IT ALL FOR THISAnd take delivery from the AbyssOf brand-new little savage souls to watch.One difference: with every rise in stationComes a degree of PEACE FROM REPRESENTATION—Odd phrase, more like a motto for abstractArt—or for Autocracy—In factOur heads are spinning—From the East a light—BUT U ARE TIRED MES CHERS   SWEET DREAMS   TOMORROW NIGHT 

Commentary on the Poem

Stephen Yenser

B

Setting: Summer 1955, Stonington

ready-mixed matte “flame” (a witty / Shade … ): another early example of Merrill’s inveterate multivalence. “Flame” is the commercial name for the hue that he and Jackson chose when they repainted, but the spirit who will speak to them is a “flame” in the romantic sense of the word—an object of their love—as well as an old figure for genius and for a red-haired person (cf. the comments on Rufus Farmetton in section D and section L). If the hue is a “witty” one because of its changeable appearance, so Ephraim himself is a clever “shade” or ghost. A bonus link: the first spirit to speak, later in section A before Ephraim takes over in section C, screams out of the fire that caused his death.

now watermelon, now sunburn: Fire, like its seeming contrary water, is often linked to time in this poem, as it is in the Christian symbol of the rainbow. See the note below to “an arc, our covenant.”

the Baptist church next door: The former church is around the corner on Union Street.

the old eyesore: The James Merrill House at 107 Water Street is now a National Historical Landmark in the custody of the Stonington Village Improvement Association, which oversees the selection each year of several writers-in-residence.

an arc, our covenant: The biblical Ark, the salvation of Noah and company, and God’s covenant with humanity after the Flood not to destroy the world again by water (fire is another matter), signaled by the arc of the rainbow, are both relevant, because Ephraim hopes to impart information that will help to rescue humanity from self-destruction.

We prop a mirror in the facing chair: Merrill had used his experiences with the Ouija board in his novel The Seraglio (1957), and there too the figure in the au-delà(one Meno) required a reflecting surface in order to see the board’s operators, so both Francis (the novel’s narrator) and Marcello (his lover) hold mirrors in their lap as they communicate with him. Merrill’s first poetic version of the séances and their effect on him psychologically provide the subject of “Voices from the Other World” in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959; rev. ed. 1970).

We saw each other in it. He saw us: The statement contains the seed of Merrill’s own skepticism about the origin of Ephraim’s messages. Compare the last three lines of section B. Among the notes in the loose pages of a folder in the Beinecke Library (JMP, YCAL, MSS 580, box 12) is the poet’s comment to himself: “The speaking mirror in ‘Mirror’ is precursor of Ephraim.” He refers to his poem of that name in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959; rev. ed. 1970). Another comment reads “Cf. Browning’s ‘Sludge the Medium.”’ Robert Browning’s long dramatic monologue takes the point of view of a sham spiritualist. In the same folder Merrill notes the advisability of maintaining a revised version of Keats’s desideratum, an “unwilling suspension of disbelief.” Again, he seems to have in mind his reluctance to commit to the spiritual experience when he observes rather cryptically in the same pages “JM’s resistance—like Alcibiades fleeing Socrates.” In fact, according to his own story in Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades wooed Socrates, who did not succumb to the determined advances of this most handsome of men.

a drop of rum … lurch: The hint dropped here that the encounter with the other world could be intoxicating leads to the punning phrase “reel spins and mind reels” later in this passage and later in the sequence flowers into (for example) the experience under the “nightclub ultraviolet” near the end of section M.

Willowware: a kind of dinnerware, usually blue on white, which features a scene involving a willow tree, a bridge over a river, and some human figures. Cf. “Willowware Cup” in The Fire Screen (1969). Merrill and Jackson used the cup rather than the customary planchette as a pointer on the Ouija board.

As when a pike / Strikes: The pike is an especially aggressive fish with needle-like teeth and an elongated, serpentine body. Noticing the “line” connecting the Ouija boarders and the spirits, and recalling JM’s fascination with marionettes (evident in both “Lost in Translation” and “Yannina”), the reader might well wonder who is pulling whom at this point, made memorable by the exemplary enjambment. The issue of agency is a major theme in Mirabell’s Books of Number, the second volume in the trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover, and it will never be resolved. What does it mean “to be moved”? The phrase could be a title for a book about Merrill’s art. “We were the puppets!” the eleven-year-old poet-to-be realized when looking at the opera’s audience, “row upon row of us, blank-faced in stagelight, inert, waiting to be moved” (A Different Person in Collected Prose, p. 551). In his “Prose of Departure” (The Inner Room, 1988), a sequence of “travel sketches” in the manner of Basho, where haiku poems punctuate haibun prose, Merrill comments on the relationship of the Japanese bunraku puppets to the audience: “Seldom do we the living, for that matter, feel more ‘ourselves’ than when spoken through, or motivated, by ‘invisible’ forces such as the puppeteers. It is especially true if, like a puppet overcome by woe, we also appear to be struggling free of them.” Merrill was an ardent supporter of the libretti of Bernard de Zogheb that were set to popular tunes and performed for small audiences by the Little Players’ puppet theater in New York. Merrill wrote forewords to Zogheb’s Phaedra and Le Sorelle Bronte (both included in Merrill’s Collected Prose). (See also JM’s allusion to Oscar Wilde’s “epigram” in section I.)

devil’s darning needle: a folk name for a dragonfly, and thus the first hint of the dragon motif in Ephraim. Pike fishermen, especially aficionados, often use lures known as “flies,” though some sportsmen prefer rods heavier than fly rods because the fish are so strong.

Twice as entertaining, twice as wise / As either of its mediums: Precisely, some would say.

C

Setting: Summer 1955, Stonington

that first night: i.e., the night of the initial connection with Ephraim. The contact recorded in section B (seemingly echoed here in C in the reference to Simpson’s life “ending lately among flames / In an army warehouse”) preceded that with Ephraim.

A Greek Jew: Ephraim would be heir, then, to both of the “rival” cultural forces that Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869) viewed as the fonts of Western civilization.

Xanthos: Xanthos (or Xanthus) was a thriving city in Lycia, on the south side of Asia Minor. Lycia was colonized early by the Greeks.

I too had issued from a broken home: a recurrent theme in Merrill’s work. See especially “Lost in Translation,” earlier in Divine Comedies, and the sonnet sequence “The Broken Home” in Nights and Days (1966), as well as his first novel, The Seraglio (1957).

TIBERIUS: Roman emperor from 14 to 37 CE, he secluded himself for the last ten years of his life and reign on Capri, an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, at the northeastern tip of which he built the Villa Jovis, rumored to have been a site of great debauchery. In a note in the James Merrill Papers at the Beinecke Merrill records with delight the discovery that “Yeats finished A Vision on Capri!”

CALIGULA: In fact, Caligula (emperor from 37 to 41 CE) was the great-nephew of Tiberius and, by virtue of the latter’s adoption of Germanicus, a legal grandson. He joined Tiberius on Capri in 32.

STAGE THREE: The level in the other world’s hierarchy that Tiberius has reached. Ephraim is at stage six (see note on “Lodeizen” in section D), and he knows about the first nine stages. In Mirabell’s Books of Number and Scripts for the Pageant, we learn about matters well beyond the ken of Ephraim—qua Ephraim, anyway …

SIMPSON … REPRESENTATIVE: explained in JM’s fifth verse paragraph of this section C

The Rover Boys: three brothers, Tom, Sam, and Dick, students at a military boarding school and heroes of the Rover Boys Series for Younger Americans, a set of thirty books published between 1899 and 1926 (the year of Merrill’s birth) and in print long after. In the course of the series the three brothers were succeeded by their equally adventurous and mischievous sons.

an experienced guide: as Virgil to Dante in the Inferno, so Ephraim to DJ and JM, mutatis mutandis, Ephraim’s bawdiness and wicked sense of humor being the biggest differences

Back / To school: Education is a primary theme in The Changing Light at Sandover. The Latin ducere means “to lead” or “to guide.” See preceding gloss.

From the East a light: Like Scheherazade’s tales in The Thousand and One Nights, this story is interrupted by dawn.

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James Merrill (1926-1995), one of the foremost American poets of the later twentieth century, was the winner of numerous awards for his work, including two National Book Awards, the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the first Bobbit Prize from the Library of Congress. From The Black Swan (1946) through A Scattering of Salts (1995) he published eleven volumes of poems, in addition to the trilogy comprising The Changing Light at Sandover. He also published two plays, two novels, a collection of essays and interviews, and a memoir. He was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Introduced and annotated by Stephen Yenser

“The Book of Ephraim,” which first appeared as the final poem in James Merrill’s Pulitzer-winning volume Divine Comedies (1976), tells the story of how he and his partner David Jackson embarked on their experiments with the Ouija board and how they conversed after a fashion with great writers and thinkers of the past, especially in regard to the state of the increasingly imperiled planet Earth. One of the most ambitious long poems in English in the twentieth century, originally conceived as complete in itself, it was to become the first part of Merrill’s epic The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). Merrill’s “supreme tribute to the web of the world and the convergence of means and meanings everywhere within it” is introduced and annotated by Stephen Yenser, in a volume that will gratify veteran readers and entice new ones.

“Extracting ‘Ephraim’ from The Changing Light at Sandover—the big, attention-grabbing trilogy that swallowed it—Yenser shows us what ‘Ephraim’ is: Merrill’s finest poem, a major work of postwar American poetry, and a fractal network of myth, metaphor, and inspired wordplay that speaks to our fearful present moment.”
—Langdon Hammer

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