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NBCC Reads

In Retrospect: Afaa M. Weaver on Merrill’s “The Changing Light at Sandover”


The following essay by NBCC member Afaa M. Weaver on James Merrill’s “The Changing Light at Sandover,” winner of the 1982 NBCC Award in Poetry, is part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, in which critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years.

It was Merrill’s idea of the life of death that had held me captive when I first learned of “The Changing Light at Sandover.”  As a child I lived with the frightening image of the Book of Revelations, of all the unanswered questions dancing up from dust, the hierarchical choirs of heaven’s angels singing the vast army of Mephistopheles into submission. Like many children, I had a Ouija board, and I don’t remember whether my parents gave it to me, and, if so, whether they knew what they were giving me.  I am certain they knew nothing of channeling, although this was a generation of black southerners who often kept company with the dead.  It seemed death courted me at night when I touched my own heart, as one would a Ouija board, in an effort to slide into sleep, as on some nights I hovered above my bed, disembodied, touching the ceiling and finding it strangely absent, the house suddenly in an immeasurable space away and under me. 

So by the time I had my own copy of Merrill’s big book, I was living in New Hampshire, experiencing the strangeness of nights without sirens or helicopters.  One night was rather unusual, actually scary.  There was a strange light.  It was preceded by a crackle, a sharp crackle in the way of a flint being struck.  In an instant afterwards there was the flash of light in the trees and the scream of something caught in a space with no way of leaving except to go into the space, deeper.  I sensed that in the silence following the light, something died. Something had died and allowed the thing that killed it to live.  In that moment of change, the light must have been the energy of life being pulled out of life flashing in the trees, which I thought was an unlikely place to die. It must have been my fear of this sudden light in the mountain, a flash that seemed to be making a lie of the of boundaries I had constructed inside myself and between me and life’s tolling patches of darkness ringing with their power to hold this kind of sound, this discordant music captive.

Merrill’s contact steps forward from the prophesied accounting for all that we have done to announce that there is more than the one accounting. The book evidences the literacy of the dead, and the proof of their literacy is the wealth of allusions, the infrastructure of this dictation that dares to make canonical learning caprice, to replace the American trope of surprise with another American trope, the confidence man. The confidence or flimflam man is a human so caught in irony that he has seen the specter of the original truth and been overcome by its compassion, overcome in a way that inspires him to mimic the truth rather than embody it, and in his mimicking we are tricked into believing it is indeed embodied.

Call it Elmer Gantry. Call it Ephraim. Whatever, the dead masters are given eloquent voice in the changing of the lights.

When I was entranced by the very idea of an American classic given to us by the dead,I was between acts of faith, wondering about the mind’s creative limits.  I had begun the long process of trying to braid Daoist ideas onto a Baptist upbringing. I was between worlds, having left the proletariat to return to the quotidian of academia. 

“The Changing Light at Sandover” is the great frolic. It is the leaping away, peeping from the edges of the boundaries of this world into the possibilities of what lies beyond or within us.Ephraim speaks and Merrill becomes the metaphysician and magician.

What lingers for me as I read Merrill’s big book today is whether we actually do cling to these earthly identities once we are done, and to ask such a question one must presume there is another dimension where we have some kind of cognitive awareness. Is it that, or is it that consciousness itself is only a product of the Buddhist essential mind? If so, if we and all we know here in this life are just the emanation of thought from an infinite mind, Merrill’s world lives in the island sanctuary of The Tempest. 

Two years after Merrill’s big book appeared, Gary Zukav’s “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” was published. It compared quantum mechanics to eastern philosophy. For me the impression was poetic. Merrill is perhaps prophetic in bringing science to serve poetry.  His discarnate informants discuss the mitochondria.  As any good fan of Star Wars knows, the mitochondria are the gift of a true Jedi, his or her piece of the Force.  We can only hope Ephraim is not the mask of a Sith Lord.

In “Mirabell Book 1,” the otherworldly voices spoke thusly to Merrill, “THE ATOM   IT IS ADAM & LIFE & THE UNIVERSE/ LEAVE IT TO ITSELF AND LET IT BREATHE.”  This is either the redemption of poetry from the clutch of science or the power of associative thought rooted in alliterative verse, a poet’s own Force. Were Merrill still alive his otherworldly informants might suggest the answers to questions that are still teasing cognitive scientists. The Higher Keys would reveal the origin of the language to be the electromagnetic portal created in the mind by the body’s bioelectric energy that is both the magic of western mysticism and the Asian gateway to human consciousness, with a footnote from His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

It is the urge to wonder about “The Changing Light at Sandover,” to grow more skeptical some days and more accepting on others, that brings me back to the book.  It is also my admiration for yet another poet in that generation who did a big book or completed a set of master works in a time when that kind of vision seemed not only possible but necessary.  The world of our everyday lives was molecular then, experiences more like globular and orderly masses moving among our perceptions. In one microsecond, we left that globular reality and passed without understanding through the space where Einstein would have us understand that all that we know is not a matter of bodies or things positioned in space but bodies or things extended from one timeless point. As a result, what now lies before us, around us, and seemingly within us is more the world of subatomic particles governed by menace.

Chaos—not menace—is the master of the magic of the lights that change in the sky that lies within us. That night when I was startled by the flash and the sound, the image and the word as it were of that moment, I recovered and went back into the colonial farmhouse where I was staying. I made my way slowly up the old wooden stairs to my room where I slept as artist helper to my elderly patron and listened to the creaking of the joints in the house. I wondered if they were the shrill cries for help from the young woman who hanged herself there in the old days when the country was young and the stone walls still held the heat of farmers who wondered if the British might overtake the calm of the White Mountains.  Then I went off to sleep and let dreams do the work of letting the soul clap its hands and sing.—Afaa M. Weaver

Podcast of Merrill reading from “The Changing Light at Sandover” here.