Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Apparatus. New York: Tanam Press, 1980.
Kim, Elaine H., and Norma Alarcon. Writing Self Writing
Nation. Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 1994. Shih, Shu-Mei. "Nationalism and Korean American Women's Writing: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée." In Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, edited by Jeanne Cambell Reesman. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
THE CHANGING LIGHT AT SANDOVER JAMES MERRILL (1982) The Changing Light at Sandover is an elaborate, engrossing, difficult, and controversial epic trilogy produced by a poet who had been best known before its publication as the author of exquisite lyric poems of "love and loss" written for occasions (see lyric poetry). The poem is variously regarded as either a contemporary poetic triumph or as an extravagant aberration by an otherwise estimable lyric master. Whatever ranking one may give it within Merrills work as a whole, the trilogy must be regarded as an indispensable addition to that relatively small set of ambitious, book-length, narrative epic poems produced by the major poetic figures of the century, such as the cantos of Ezra pound and William Carlos
WILLIAMS s paterson (see NARRATIVE POETRY and LONG AND
serial poetry). The chief modern poetic influence on the poem, however, was the late group of symbolist poems created by W B. Yeats (1865-1939) in response to the occult material collected in A Vision, the series of meditational sequences, such as "notes toward a supreme fiction," that punctuate the poetry of Wallace STEVENS, and the forms and mannerisms practiced and perfected by W. H. auden throughout his long and varied career. Reaching further back, Merrills trilogy claims as influence the visionary prophecies of William Blake (1757-1827) and Dante's (1265-1321) Divine Comedy.
The Changing Light at Sandover was written with the aid of a Ouija board, at which Merrill and his companion, David Jackson, conversed with ghosts of the dead and various other spirits introduced as the poem evolves. The poem contains a complex cosmological system of death and rebirth, historical evolution, and cultural calamity. By poem's end, however, it becomes clear to the discerning reader that Merrill has produced in this enormous (nearly 600-page) epic yet another tale of love and loss, in which, like Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and Dante, his most evident precursors, he has tried to save time from passing into oblivion and humankind from going astray.
In the trilogy's first book, "The Book of Ephraim," Merrill tells the story of how the spirit Ephraim, whom he and Jackson (referred to in the poem as JM and DJ) first met when taking up the Ouija board as an afterdinner parlor game in the mid-1950s, gradually evolved over a 20-year period into the "household heavyweight" who urges them to bring the inspired "WORD" to humankind in order to save the world from annihilation. The annihilation prophesied in "The Book of Ephraim" is largely a matter of personal psychic self-destruction. Merrill, or JM, is in danger of losing his life, in an aesthetic Proustian sense, by refusing to devote himself fully to the task of writing it down, of translating experience to art, history to myth. The trials that JM must undergo in order to become worthy of the elaborate prophecies he is to receive in the trilogy are figured in terms of the Jungian quest-romance, or the search for psychic wholeness. The poet's chief task is to reign in his inhibiting temperamental skepticism, thereby allowing himself access to the voice of the Jungian unconscious, which is equated in "Ephraim" with God.
First Merrill must integrate the various intransigent elements of his particular psychic makeup into the individual whole of a reinvigorated poet-queste; once that is accomplished, he is prepared in book 2 of the trilogy to begin the daunting task, appointed to him by the spirits, of creating "POEMS OF SCIENCE" (the Ouija board spirits' dialogue is presented throughout the poem, aptly enough, in capital letters). In "Mirabell," Merrill interweaves his extensive knowledge of contemporary science with the Ouija board spirits' ominous tales of past civilizations' downfalls, resulting in an overall admonishment to modern people to direct their awesome scientific achievements to positive humanist ends. In particular this poem warns against the hubris of nuclear power, which is viewed as a collective failure of belief in the value of life itself.
In the trilogy's third poem, "Scripts for the Pagent," and in the "Coda," the poet abandons the trials and warnings of books 1 and 2 in order to offer himself, and his reader, the consolation of a happy ending, in art, if not in life. Although the arguments concerning good and evil, matter and spirit, raised by the earlier books continue in "Scripts," the poet is no longer content in this volume with the theme of the potential for individual and collective destruction. Rather, through his conversations with the spirits (which become "legion" in "Scripts," including archangels, poet precursors, and the ghosts of dead friends), Merrill allows his naturally playful, contrary, and extravagant temperament full sway, responding to all weighty argument with three equivocal sections, "YES," "&," and "NO." This poem is more mannered than the previous two, and represents this poet's embodiment of a highly unusual paradise that is both high camp and low farce. Read in relation to the earnest psychological self-improvement of "The Book of Ephraim" and the far-ramifying historical-cultural prophecies of "Mirabell," "Scripts" and its "Coda" may be seen to offer the consolation of artifice to a poet destined to have traversed the imaginative heights and depths revealed in the trilogy's complex narrative. In this concluding volume, he finds himself growing weary of the draining task of revelation and is increasingly eager to return to the more mundane pleasures of living. He leaves behind him, as proof of one modern master's unlikely journey into realms seldom visited by contemporary literature, an uncanny poem that will serve as a cultural signpost and a daunting intellectual challenge for generations of readers to come.
Was this article helpful?